Thank You, Dr. Charles French

I posted on my blog yesterday, “A Gift of Charlotte’s Web.”  As I scrolled down to print a hard copy (yes, I have a hard copy of every blog post- it’s wonderful), I looked at the three suggested readings of similar posts.  One was titled, “Death and Dying and Chapter Reading.”  What? I could not remember the post, as it was quite old.  Well, I read it again, and it was terrific.

Then, I looked at the bottom of the post.  There was only one ‘like’.  One!  That ‘like’ was Charles French.  He has been a follower and supporter of my blog since way-back-when.

I learned everything I needed and wanted to know by following his blog.  I learned how to thank people, how to follow people, and how to reblog.  I learned, and Charles French kept reading and liking my blog posts.  His blog has become a favorite and a gold standard for those who are passionate about books, literature, and education.  If you like Shakespeare, the classics, quotes, education, great books, and even dining with authors, please visit his blog at

Charles French, thank you!  My only wish is that I could be a student in your class one day.  Here is the post that you liked:


Death and Dying, and Chapter Reading

I finished reading our first chapter book of the school year, Charlotte’s Web.  Children were engrossed in this book because it is a story about the heart, and my most important job is educating the heart.  As such, they began to understand the depth of true feelings.  Charlotte the spider died.  That opened the door for questions, and some of those questions were in the form of silence.  That’s when I put down the book and talked with the children, and listened.

Death isn’t an easy topic with children.  Addressing death and dying with young children, and with their families, is typically not part of a teacher’s curriculum, or even part of the books and stories they read.  When Charlotte died this week, here is what I wrote home to the children’s families:

Yesterday we finished our first chapter book of the year, Charlotte’s Web. It is a wonderful story, and your children loved it. Chapter reading is one of the favorite times of the day because children are captivated by words alone. Those words make the pictures in their heads, and those words make their minds think and their hearts feel. That is the power of reading aloud.

“Can’t you just read more?” is what children ask when we stop reading. That means they are listening and comprehending. Chapter reading is a bridge from understanding a book to feeling a book. That’s a big step for children. In Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig makes his best friend with Charlotte the spider, yet he suffers through sadness and loneliness. Charlotte the spider dies at the end, as all spiders do. These facts are part of the story, yet are vastly overshadowed by the storyline itself. That is why a good book imparts a tremendous opportunity for learning.

Death and dying happens, and when it can be introduced to children in this way, it can better give them tools of understanding. It can also be a soft step to real events in a child’s life. When a grandparent dies, or even when a classroom pet dies, perhaps Charlotte’s Web gave a child understanding and compassion. Did we talk about Charlotte when we read the book? Of course we did; not only her death, but her children (all five hundred and fourteen), and the words she wrote in her web. And, we will continue to talk. Often children bring up questions months later, and we listen and answer.

Sarah and I have a wonderful dialogue when we finish a book. I become very sad and a little teary. Sarah asks, “What’s the matter, Jennie?” I reply, “The book is over. I don’t like that! It was so good. I’m really very sad.” Sarah perks up and says, “But we get to read another new chapter book.” I reply, “Really? When?” Sarah says in a big voice, “Tomorrow!”

That’s our circle of chapter reading, much like the circle of life.

When I first started teaching, our school’s director always stressed the importance of teaching families.  She understood that in order to educate the child you also need to guide parents and families.  She was emphatic about sending newsletters home, and adding one paragraph that would teach something to families.  She was right.  She also felt that educating children and families about death and dying was important.  Gulp!  For many teachers that was an uncomfortable topic to address.

A few years later our beloved classroom guinea pig, Elliott, died unexpectedly.  I was devastated.  First I knew I had to tell the children, then I knew I had to tell their families.  That was my diving board, and I put my fingers to the keyboard and wrote.  I talked about letting children ask questions and giving them an opportunity to say goodbye.  I talked about being honest.  I talked about how perhaps experiencing the death of a pet can help make the death of a loved one down the road a little easier.  The words flowed.

Over the years there have been many classroom pets who have died, and many stories and books about death.  I listen.  I ask questions.  Children always have a voice.  Chapter reading really is much like the circle of life.  I am educating the heart.


Posted in chapter reading, reading, reading aloud, Teaching young children | Tagged , , , , | 28 Comments

A Gift of Charlotte’s Web

When Sydney’s mother asked me if she could get every child in the class a copy of Charlotte’s Web, I was speechless.

“Scholastic has the book for a dollar this month.  It’s really not much”, she said.

Not much?  Are you kidding?  One dollar might not be much, but putting a book in the hands of each child, a book they adore, is priceless.

The books arrived.  I was beside myself.  I just sat and held all the books.  It was a treasure. You see, I knew that giving each child the book would be far more than chapter reading.  It would be ownership.  Their very own copy.  Not a book in the house or in the library, but their book.

Next, I distributed the books to children so that they could feel and turn the pages of their book.  Of course, everyone wanted to find the pictures, which led to great conversations and memories of our chapter reading many months ago.  We had to take a group photo!

Then, Sydney and I sat together to write a letter that would go inside of every book.  Sydney signed it, of course.

In the words of E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”  Thank you, Sydney.


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Before Smartphones and Computers Kids Had Real Fun

The best learning takes place outdoors, where children have to figure things out on their own. No parents or teachers to guide them. This is critical, divergent thinking. That is what astronauts need. So do artists and writers, musicians and scientists, doctors and teachers. Thinking outside of the box, using your hands, and having fun are the skills children need to learn and succeed. All those elements come alive in the greatest classroom of all — the outdoors.


Kids nowadays will just never understand.

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The Art Show Begins

Next week we begin in earnest to prepare for our annual Art Show for the entire community. In past years children have painted major works of art.  I am never surprised when they love a piece of art.  I am always surprised at the results, their masterpieces.  They are remarkable.  Always.

Starry Night by Liam, from Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night

The Girl in the Garden by Colin, from Claude Monet’s Gladioli

Replicating the art of Vassily Kandinsky

How can this be, with preschoolers?  How can a four-year-old see, understand, and have the passion to create?

It begins with looking at art, really studying and talking about what they see.  I ask so many questions.  We just look and talk, together.  Sometimes I say, “Oh, my!” Or “Wow!” and stop.  Children jump at the chance to say something.  That is when they begin to see.  Children have open minds; they have not been encumbered with the ideas of others.  Their minds are sponges and their hearts are open.  Therefore, art is exciting.  It creates an “I can” attitude.  Nothing is impossible.  Or should I say anything is possible.

When I show children art, I often stop to say, “Miles, you could paint that!”  As I do this with art, children cross the bridge from liking to I can.  The next step is to allow them to paint anything they want, give them real paints and tools, and let them work on their painting over and over again.  After all, a masterpiece was not made in a day.

When a child feels satisfied that their art is complete, it is framed in a mat and unveiled.  That is when a child names their masterpiece.  Giving a title validates how important their work is.  This is the grand finale before the art is displayed.

I can’t wait to begin next week and see what children create.


Posted in art, Early Education, Imagination, Teaching young children | Tagged , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

Why Do Play Performances?

Paying attention to children and what they like is the key to their greatest learning experiences.  It’s called emergent curriculum, and this is much like how it happens:

“Imagine being on a quest with a group of children, walking through the woods, and suddenly discovering something shiny on the ground.  You pause to look, brush away the dirt and leaves, and uncover a hatch.  You stop, knowing the excitement is just the beginning, and ask questions.  Oh, those “W” questions lead to hours of wondering and predictions.  At last, you open the hatch and discover there is no darkness.  There is light and a beautiful stairway, leading to the joy of learning.”

In order for emergent curriculum to happen like this, I have to be open and let my instincts be my guide.  Of course, it is the children who always start the ball rolling.  And, a play performance can often be that shiny hatch, what the children want when they are involved in learning.

We studied Fairy Tales recently; reading stories, telling stories, writing stories, using props, learning about different characters.  The children deemed Goldilocks a “not-listener”.  They were right.  We then voted on the Fairy Tales we liked the best, and one was The Three Little Pigs.

The children were interested in the story and the characters.  After reading different versions, we debated on what the wolf really did.  Did he eat the pigs, or did each pig rush to the house of his brother when the wolf was huffing-and-puffing?  Hands down, the popular choice was the pigs running away.  So, the only thing left to do, in order to make this thinking and studying work, was to become the characters ourselves.  That meant a play performance.

After all, isn’t that what a good book ultimately does?  The reader becomes the characters.

Costumes?  Oh, no.  The only thing we needed were the pig’s houses.


We placed the straw house and the stick house atop our classroom tables, and the brick house alongside our loft.  Children chose to be pigs, wolves, and sellers.  Then, I stood back and watched amazing things happen.

Jayden, one of the quiet and younger children, and only three-and-a-half years old, decided to be a seller.  When the pigs came to buy his straw, he belted out, “I don’t think that’s a good idea!”  When the next group of pigs came to buy his sticks, he said, “That is NOT a good idea”, with the confidence and determination of a real seller of sticks.  I could hardly believe it.

Wolves and pigs nailed the words they wanted to say, and became the characters.  Even the old sow, the mother pig, had a grand performance.

Why did this play work?  There were no costumes, no set lines to say, just the children wanting, needing to do this in order to go along that stairway in the light, under the hatch.

I have watched far too many plays with nervous children worrying if they mess-up their lines, and plays that focus on the costumes.  It makes me sad.  It has nothing to do with learning and developing self-esteem.  What do children really need to experience?  Self-esteem, bravery, and joy.  Those will be their foundation.  I know this to be true; it all started with Kevin…

Kevin was what teachers refer to as an “observer”, a child who watches others, usually at a bit of a distance.  He was painfully shy.  Even talking with his teachers was not easy for him.  Kevin was in my summer camp group, and we did a play performance at the end of each camp session.  Kevin decided he wanted to be a dog in the play.  We sneaked into the storage room so children could pick anything they wanted to make their own costume.  Kevin found a piece of brown card stock paper, cutting out a small triangle.

“It’s my tail”, he exclaimed with a satisfied look on his face. “Do you need anything else?” I asked.  “No, I’m all set.”

When the play began, Kevin walked onto that stage with tall shoulders and a big smile.  Of course, no one could see the tail, but that didn’t matter.  Kevin knew it was there.  He was terrific in the play.  We did another play, with children wanting to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  That is one difficult song!  Yet, the group was sure, mainly because one boy was quite a gifted singer.  The plan was to have him in the front, and the other children behind him holding the American flag.  We practiced.  It worked.

As we lined up behind the curtain, ready for the play to begin, the boy panicked and refused to sing.  He was in tears.  Before I had a moment to help out, Kevin stepped forward and quietly announced he would sing.  Kevin!  He was wonderful.  The audience cried silent tears.

That’s what happens when children have the freedom to be, and the support to ‘just do it’.

Today Kevin is in a top college, a math and science guy.  He wears a big smile, and he has a knowing warmth about him, much like someone who has had a few life experiences under their belt.  He has, indeed.


Posted in Early Education, Imagination, play performances, storytelling, Teaching young children | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

A Few Quotations on Reading

These quotes on reading convey all that is important, and they say it so well.

charles french words reading and writing


“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

                                                                  Frederick Douglass



“You’re never too old,

   too wacky, too wild,

   to pick up a book

   and read to a child.”

                                                                  Dr. Seuss



“If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”

                                                                 J.K. Rowling

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Thank You, Sergeant Curran, Our Pen-Pal

“Thank you.”  Those are the most fundamental words, next to “please”, that shape children’s character.  It is far more than manners; saying the words is one thing, doing the words is another.

My class is thanking Sergeant Curran, stationed in Afghanistan.  We’re doing it the good, old fashioned way; writing letters and drawing pictures.  We are Pen-Pals!

For children, expressing their thoughts in words and drawings is age appropriate and very genuine.  That is exactly what we did for Curran.  After we wrote and decorated our big letter, we drew him individual pictures.

Children need to learn that kindness and thanks matter.  They need to learn about the big, wide world.  They need to learn about other people.  Curran is our Pen-Pal in the big, wide world.  When he was a little boy, his favorite book was Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, by John Burningham.  We love that book!  Curran’s dad came to school and read-aloud this book to the children.

This made Curran ‘come alive’ for the children.  Suddenly he was one of us.  Then, when we went to our big book atlas to find Afghanistan, it mattered.  Because Curran was there.  He is our Pen-Pal.

Saying “thank you” by doing acts of goodness makes children feel good.  They care, and want to do something.  By doing they are learning the most important things in life.

We will bake up a storm, then have a bake sale at school.  We’ll take the money we raise, walk to CVS, and let the children buy whatever they think Curran will want or need.  That will be a great care package!


Posted in Early Education, Kindness, Learning About the World, patriotism, Teaching young children | Tagged , , , , , , | 48 Comments