Matt de la Peña: Writing From the Outside

If I had to choose a few books that should be in every K-12 classroom, I think one of them would be Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson. It’s an important book on many levels, conveying messages about gratitude, cultural awareness, and diversity.

So I was felt fortunate to hear Matt de la Peña speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention this past weekend. If I could summarize his session, in which he spoke about his journey as an author, it would be “writing from the outside”.

The author’s father is Mexican and his mother is white. He shared how growing up, he had to code-switch a lot between the two families to feel a greater sense of belonging within each. This paradox influenced de la Peña’s work. Instead of trying to simplify the topics he wants to write about, he leans into these complexities and describes what it is like to live between two worlds.

For example, in Last Stop on Market Street, the author highlights the ways people are diverse beyond the color of one’s skin. CJ learns while riding the bus that a blind man can see with his other senses. As de la Peña noted during his session:

Diversity goes beyond just race. We need to examine our thinking about this concept, such as seeing one’s class status or disability in a new way.

As the author read aloud and shared about his books, he also explained how he can write about complex issues within the small window of a picture book.

The more you can simplify, the more you can do with a book. For example, CJ sees the people in the soup kitchen and he associates the service with them.

Related, in another picture book he wrote, Love, de la Peña explained how the story and illustrations move from a familiar idea of the title’s name to a more nuanced understanding that helps the reader build perspective.

You can’t know love if you also don’t know adversity.

The author also has several acclaimed young adult novels. I’m not familiar with these titles, but after listening to Matt de la Peña speak, I am looking forward to reading some of them with my own kids as they approach adolescence.

And I believe that is an important, final point to make. The author shared an observation after having visited schools in both affluent/mostly white communities and in more diverse areas. In the former, it was rare to find many of his books in the school libraries that depicted different cultures. “We just don’t have many kids who look like that in our school,” shared one librarian. Given the frequency he sees the Harry Potter series in schools, he wondered aloud during the session if these schools have a lot of wizards.

In other words, literature should be diverse because we need to introduce our students to different perspectives, ways of being, and how the world actually is. Authors like Matt de la Peña who write from the outside and embrace life’s paradoxes serve to complicate our understanding of the world in important ways.

What books shaped you? Three for my reading autobiography #WSRA19

At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, Donalyn Miller invited us to write a reading autobiography. This is a list of books that shaped us as readers and as people. My group thought that this activity would be an excellent way to end the school year with students or to re-engage a group of “dormant readers”. Below is my short list.

Elementary School: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume – I was a reluctant reader until my 3rd-grade teacher read it aloud to our class. I’m told that I reread this book several times before I found my next book. I guess I had some catching up to do.

Junior High: It by Stephen King – I’m surprised my junior high teachers let me read this novel and other King books. The content was not middle level appropriate…if I remember correctly, my friend and I found these books at the public library in town. I particularly remember It because half of the story was told from the kids’ point of view. Our town wasn’t nearly as dangerous as Derry but we had just as much free reign, something not often seen in today’s hyper-vigilant world.

High School: Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – My current preference of science fiction was influenced by this book we read in high school English. The idea that science and technology might always have a cost in addition to the opportunities realized has stayed with me.

What books would be in your reading autobiography? How did these books shape you? Consider writing your own post or share in the comments here.

Assessing and Celebrating School Culture #WSRA19

Below is a short article from my staff newsletter I wrote yesterday. We are the midway point of the school year, and I wanted to highlight our successes as a school culture by documenting evidence of our work in writing. I’ll be speaking more about this topic at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week in Milwaukee. If you are also attending, I hope we are able to connect! -Matt

I’ve asked a few staff members for feedback about my plan for publishing To the Point every other week. My theory on this is that our communication as a staff, both formal and informal, is strong. Information shared seems to be frequent and accurate. That is a major reason for my staff newsletters which also helps with not having more than one short staff meeting a month.

This thinking became apparent as I have prepared for a session I am leading at the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention next week: “How to Build a Literacy Culture”. As I go through artifacts of our success and growth to present to others, I could confirm many indicators of a healthy and thriving school culture beyond only communication (these characteristics come from Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman). 

  • Trusting – We focus on our strengths first and follow through on our tasks before facilitating feedback about areas for growth.
  • Collaborative – Our different school teams work together to guide the school toward goals; instructional coaching is common.
  • Intellectual – We have thirteen shared beliefs about the reading-writing connection and reading to understand.
  • Responsible – The goals for the school are limited, focused, student-driven and clear, i.e. “A Community of Readers”. 
  • Equitable – We have high expectations for our students and provide additional support when necessary.
  • Joyful – Celebration and appreciation are interwoven in our interactions with each other and with the community.

It’s an honor to be able to highlight our collective work for others and share our journey toward success. Sustaining a school culture is an ongoing process that is far from perfect and is sometimes challenging. Yet the results we see with our students makes all the difference.

How to Build a Literacy Culture: A Theory of Practice

Today was a snow day for our school, so I had some time to tinker with my session for the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention on February 7.

The topic for this session is on how school leaders of every stripe can build a literacy culture. I took three ideas from a past post I wrote and developed a theory of action that other educators might follow to facilitate schoolwide student improvement in reading, writing, and communicating. See below.

The thing about theories is they are limited, especially when developed by one person. While I do read widely and connect with others, as well as reflect on my experiences here, my perspective is not the only point of view. Other school leaders might have found a different pathway toward success.

So what are your thoughts? I want to put this theory to the test before I present it at the WSRA convention session. That could include offering critique and feedback in the comments, or simply sharing it with a colleague who might have a response. Thank you in advance.

To Raise a Reader

(I wrote this post last week for our families on my school blog.)

If parents want to raise a reader, someone who engages in reading regularly and voluntarily, they should read aloud to their children. Put away the flashcards and take down the sticker charts for number of books read. Make reading aloud every day a priority.

As a parent myself, I realize that this task can be sometimes difficult. There have been evenings when reading aloud didn’t happen in our home due to work or other obligations. However, we have made it a ritual, as regular as brushing our teeth.

The science that supports reading aloud to children, both at home and in school, is clear. Next are some of the biggest benefits, although this list is not exhaustive.

Reading aloud to children:

  • Increases vocabulary acquisition
  • Improves reading comprehension and fluency
  • Increases engagement in reading
  • Broadens their imaginations
  • Improves student writing
  • Fosters relationships between the adult and child
  • Develops listening and speaking skills
  • Facilitates meaningful conversations

Two books reference much of the research on reading aloud: In Defense of Read-Aloud by Dr. Steven L. Layne and The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. Trelease’s resource is in its 7th edition now and should be in the home of every family. Some hospitals will send The Read-Aloud Handbook home with new parents. It was a book I relied on when I taught elementary school.


This feeling is called “retroactive guilt.” Educators feel the same way when we discover a new strategy or method and then think about all of the students we had in the past who did not have access to this better practice. The best thing to do is to start reading aloud now and make it a habit. For a list of titles that will engage kids at every age level, go to Scholastic’s list of 100 Best Read-Aloud Books.


Yes. Tweens and teens may not admit it, as adolescents seem hard-wired to resist any and all direction from the adults in their lives. But they will enjoy it as long as they find it interesting and they have some say in the book. The best read-aloud books are typically plot-driven. They can’t wait to see what will happen next. Consider these lists of possible titles from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Older students also enjoy pictures books; they can even read them aloud to their younger siblings. Audiobooks to listen to on smartphones and in the car is another option.


Two words: Public library. Mineral Point has an excellent public library with helpful and knowledgeable staff. There is an entire floor dedicated to children’s literature. Library staff offers a storytime for little ones every Monday morning at 10 A.M. If transportation is an issue, consider utilizing Overdrive, a digital library of eBooks and audiobooks. Patrons can check out titles and download them on their smartphones, tablets, and computers. Overdrive also has dedicated pages for kids and teens.

Reading aloud is an easy and enjoyable activity for any family hoping to raise a reader. At the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, some Mineral Point Elementary School faculty heard children’s author Mem Fox speak about the importance of reading aloud. Her ten commandments for reading aloud are applicable to parents and educators.

Top Seven Takeaways from the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention #WSRA16

1. Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the U.S.Learn About Educational Change from Others?
The speaker was Pasi Sahlberg, a native educator from Finland. His country regularly scores at the top in terms of student achievement and teacher satisfaction. He offered five ideas to improve American education:

  • Invest in equity, not just excellence
  • Invest in teams, not just individuals
  • Let the children play!
  • Make school ready for kids vs. kids ready for school
  • Celebrate failure, not just success (A national day of failure is celebrated every year in Finland on October 13.)

2. Examining Acts of Literacy Processing in Grade 2

The speaker was Dr. Elizabeth Kaye. She is a professor in the Department of Reading at Texas Women’s University. Here is a summary of findings from Text Reading analysis of 2nd graders reading at grade level.


  • always attempt words.
  • always work left to right.
  • use a variety of word parts on the run.
  • never sound letter by letter.
  • never appeal before attempting.
  • never stop and wait for a work to be told.
  • never skip a difficult word and read on.
  • have a large and varied repertoire of solving actions at the word level.

Implications for struggling readers: Teach for flexibility and expect them to take initiative.

3. Author Jacqueline Woodson is a prolific author. She has written 30+ books from picture books to young adult novels. Her latest book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is on the Battle of the Books list. Check out this author’s website at: Multicultural themes that would make excellent read-alouds for your classroom.

4. Speakers and authors Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty discussed their book Grammar Matters: Embedding Instruction Into Daily Classroom Practice (Stenhouse, 2014). They share ideas and strategies for including grammar instruction in teachers’ units of study for narrative, informational, and persuasive writing. If you click on the link, you can preview the entire text online. Here is one example:Deconstruct for students to reconstruct:

Take a portion Saturday and Teacakes (which we would have already read) and break up some of Lester Laminack’s great text into a simplistic rendering:

She opened the oven door.

The kitchen filled with a smell.

It was a sweet smell.

It was sweeter than summer gardenias.

It was the smell of teacakes.

Tell students to rewrite them by combining thoughts that naturally seem to go together. Try it out two or three different ways. Think about these things:

  • Do I need to add words?
  • Could I eliminate some words?
  • How many sentences did you write?
  • What punctuation did you decide to use to make your message clear?

After examining the way the author chose to write these thoughts, compare his craft to your craft. What is the same? What is different?Have the kids try their ways first and then show them what the author actually did. Remind them there is no right way. The author’s way is just one way. They may like their own way better and that is ok too (as long as it’s still grammatically correct :-).

5. The Power of a Project-Based Approach

Nell Duke is the Professor of Literacy, Language, and Culture, and the Faculty Affiliate in Education and Psychology at the University of Michigan, and a member of the International Literacy Association Research Panel. This presentation was based on her new book Inside Information: Developing Powerful Readers and Writers of Informational Text Through Project-Based Instruction (Scholastic, 2014).

She appeased a teacher’s need for a sense of direction when learning. This session provided a framework for project-based learning that reaffirmed the best practices and beliefs of our school.

  • This framework balanced engaging students through choice, addressing standards across curriculums, and providing a connection or purpose outside of school. Planning guide:
  • Structure was provided for the project through five phases: project launch, reading and research, writing and research, revision and editing, presentation and celebration.
  • Whole class lessons; small group, partner, or individual work; and whole class wrap-up were promoted.
  • Mentor texts were used as models.

6. We Teach Thinking! Curiosity Powered by Pedagogy in the Workshop Classroom

Kristin Ziemke is an author, first grade teacher and innovation specialist for the Chicago Public Schools. This presenter made the audience want to be a learner in her classroom. The top five takeaways from this session were:

  • Children are naturally curious. Keep that curiosity alive with an “I Wonder….” chart.
  • Use iPads during interactive read-aloud to blog or post on Padlet ( Those students who do not have a device can use a clipboard and paper. The iPads rotated among students.
  • Teach students to “read” images from,, and (PREVIEW FOR APPROPRIATE CONTENT)
  • Launch a unit by creating an image file where students view the images, think and wonder. After picking three images, students create three points of wonder and verbally record these wonders. At the end of the unit, students rewatch their points of wonder to see if their research answered their questions.
  • When students ask a question, wait 6-7 seconds and they think of it themselves, or respond to them with “Say more about that.” or “Think that through.”

7. Expanding Understanding: Engaging Dialogically with Multiple Perspectives

Maria Nichols, the author of Comprehension through Conversation (Heinemann, 2006), offered specific ideas for how to structure classroom conversations that helps students develop a deeper understanding of the text(s) they are reading.

One example was to teach the importance of perspective (click here for the slides):

  • Show a picture of a lion. Kids turn and talk about what the picture makes them think. Share and listen to lots of different ideas.
  • Add heading “Cecill the Lion” to the picture. Now turn and talk again and share. Again, lots of different points of view are observed.
  • Show a cartoon with definite point of view against the dentist. Turn and talk and share. This shows a definite point of view whether you agree with the point of view or not.
  • Introduce the New York Times article from a person from Zimbabwe. Read it, turn and talk, share, and develop different points of view based on a unique perspective.
Several of our teachers attended the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention. I asked them to summarize their learning for our faculty in my most recent staff newsletter. What they shared was very helpful. I was unable to attend, so I thought I would throw their thoughts up on the ol’ blog.

#WhyNCTE15: Because we all need to know literacy

This will be a short post, because the answer to this question/hashtag is simple: All educators need to know literacy. This goes for math teachers, science teachers, social studies teachers, specials teachers, administrators, and all other professionals working in education. It all comes back to literacy.

As an elementary principal, I cannot remember the last time I attended a conference for administrators. The topics for keynotes and sessions are worthy, such as school budgeting, thoughtful scheduling, and professional evaluations. I just cannot seem to rationalize going to one of these over a literacy-focused experience.

NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) is not my first literacy conference. For the last three years, I have attended the Wisconsin State Reading Association convention in Milwaukee. Both are worth losing a couple of days in school.

Why? Of all the disciplines, literacy experiences the most change. The influx of digital tools in our world alone have altered how we teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. Literacy integrates into every other discipline. It also binds the different subjects.

“But I am a principal. I don’t have time to spend learning literacy. That is the job of my instructional coach.” Really? Consider:

  • How can you budget your building dollars to best meet students’ needs, when you aren’t aware that having a broad selection of authentic, high-interest literature in classrooms is essential?
  • How can you properly schedule your building without the knowledge that students need lots of uninterrupted time to read, and teachers need this same time to confer with his or her readers?
  • How can you evaluate your teachers if you don’t know the difference between indicators of reading engagement, such as students selecting books based on interest, and reading compliance, for example being assigned books to read only based on level?

We all need to know literacy. My original background was not in this area. I had to read up on the topic, ask our teachers questions about reading and writing, and acknowledge that I have a lot to learn. I still do. So do you.