Black Ants and Buddhists by Mary Cowhey



Black Ants and Buddhists
Author: Mary Cowhey
Published: January 1st, 2006 by Stenhouse Publishers

Summary: What would a classroom look like if understanding and respecting differences in race, culture, beliefs, and opinions were at its heart? Welcome to Mary Cowhey’s Peace Class in Northampton, MA, where first and second graders view the entire curriculum through the framework of understanding the world, and trying to do their part to make it a better place.

Woven through the book is Mary’s unflinching and humorous account of her own roots in a struggling large Irish Catholic family and her early career as a community activist. Mary’s teaching is infused with lessons of her heroes: Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, and others. Her students learn to make connections between their lives, the books they read, the community leaders they meet, and the larger world.

If you were inspired to become a teacher because you wanted to change the world, and instead find yourself limited by teach-to-the-test pressures, this is the book that will make you think hard about how you spend your time with students. It offers no easy answers, just a wealth of insight into the challenges of helping students think critically about the world, and starting points for conversations about diversity and controversy in your classroom, as well as in the larger community.

Review and Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: Mary Cowhey’s book is a phenomenal resource for teachers. It is directed for elementary school educators, but I learned a lot, and I am a high school educator. Her main focus is to promote social justice, action, and independence in the classroom. Cowhey integrates stories from her personal life (she grew up without much money and as an adult, was a single mother on welfare) into her lessons to show how she helps her students feel comfortable and safe when sharing their own experiences. She teaches them that regardless of their social or economic standing, they have the ability to be successful.

Each chapter addresses important issues that teachers face, such as how to: set routines, differentiate, respond to tragedy, teach history so kids care, build trust with families, and go against the grain. When her students were dissatisfied with something, she had them write letters. They became young advocates. Cowhey has an extremely responsive classroom, where she takes the students’ interests and teaches different aspects of history, literature, and life each year. Some may find her ideas to be a bit liberal, but they are certainly adaptable for more conservative classrooms. Her students learn in the field, walking to see the mayor to demand a change in their town or visiting a sanitation company when a student wondered, “Where do the poops go?”

What I loved most about Cowhey’s book is that it showed me how to make my students more in-tune with their surroundings. I would love to have my own child in her classroom, as I know he or she would learn a lot about self-advocacy.

Discussion Questions: How do I teach my students to value social justice?; How do I create a culturally responsive and socially responsive classroom?; How do I make class meaningful for my students?; How do I create a safe and comfortable place for my students?; What do I do when students are distracted while I am trying to teach a concept?

We Flagged: “How we respond to tragedy, as teachers, as parents, as humans, not only provides comfort and security, but also can provide hope and power for children in a world that is often unfair, and sometimes unspeakably violent” (181).

Read This If You Loved: Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word by Linda Christensen, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers by Paulo Freire


What is your favorite book for professional development? Have you read this one? What did you think? Please share your thoughts!

When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12 by Kylene Beers



When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do: A Guide for Teachers 6-12
Author: Kylene Beers
Published: October 22, 2002 by Heinemann Educational Books

Summary: When Kylene Beers entered the classroom in the 1970s, she had dreams of teaching AP classes, filled with students who were passionate, high-level readers. She was shocked when she was confronted by classes of students who not only couldn’t read but didn’t want to read. While she wanted a job teaching seniors in high school, she took the only available position as a seventh grade teacher. George was a boy in her classroom. He couldn’t read. In a conference, his parents asked Beers how she planned to help George, and she didn’t have the answers. After a few years with students like George, Beers set out to find more effective ways to teach students like him.

Review: This practical handbook will prove to be an invaluable guide for both beginning and experienced middle and high school English teachers. I was told by more than one professor that this is the “best book to teach struggling readers.” I expected to learn a few strategies from the book, but I was shocked by just how much I learned. There are so many new ideas, practical tips, and classroom activities that I wish I’d discovered this book much earlier. The book helps teachers diagnose struggling readers’ issues and offers practical solutions.

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: The book is divided into major sections of: Comprehension, Vocabulary, Fluency, Word Recognition, and Motivation. I don’t believe it is intended to be read cover-to-cover (although I read it that way because I found it to be so fascinating), and teachers can use it as more of a guidebook for diagnosing and addressing concerns with particular students. The inside cover directs teachers to the chapter they might be looking for.

I can’t share all of the awesome details of the book, so I will hone in on one chapter. I’ve always considered myself to be an excellent planner and implementer of pre-reading strategies. I use KWL charts, have students walk around the room to discover concepts, and just adore student debates that stem from anticipation guides. Beers’ book put me to shame. She introduced the idea of a KWGL chart (the G standing for where the students plan to GO for the information). Why didn’t I think of that? Additionally, she presented ideas called the “Probable Passage” and the “Tea Party,” two strategies I had never heard of. In the next chapter about “Constructing Meaning,” she describes ELEVEN (yes, I said eleven) different strategies to engage readers with constructing meaning. I liked the strategies a lot because many of them seemed very fun. I can imagine my students would be extremely engaged in their reading, had I used these strategies. She also provides blank worksheets of the strategies in the appendices (and we love this, don’t we?).

I have read many professional development books. This is certainly one of my favorites because it is practical, easy-to-employ, and extremely useful. I am jealous that I haven’t thought of all of the great strategies, activities, and pointers that Beers has used in her classroom. If I employed more of these ideas, I would feel like the Wonder Woman of the School.

Discussion Questions: What do we do when a student comes tell us they ‘just don’t get it’? What is a struggling reader? Once we’ve discovered that a student can’t read, what can we do about it? How do we create independent readers out of dependent readers? What is the best way to teach vocabulary? How do we help students with fluency and automaticity? Are phonics important? How do we create confidence in our readers?

We Flagged: “I think back to any one of the many days that I encouraged George to ‘just reread it’ and acknowledge that there’s wisdom in that comment, but more important[ly], I recognize the assumption that guided me for a long time: if they read it (the text), it (the meaning) will come. ‘Did you read it?’ I asked. ‘Well, go read it again. You can get it.’ Meaning was obviously something in the text that George could surely grasp if he just read it often enough” (p. 8).

Read This If You Loved: In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, The English Teacher’s Companion by Jim Burke, Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher, I Read it but I Don’t Get It by Cris Tovani


What is your favorite book for professional development? Have you read this one? What did you think? Share your thoughts!


Teachers Write Sunday Check-In 7/7/13


Teachers Write

Teachers Write! is an online virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians who understand how important it is for people teaching writing to walk the walk.

My plans for Teachers Write: 

This summer, my friend Jennifer Fountain and I are working on writing a proposal for a education professional book about teaching struggling readers which is our passion. Our goal this summer is to finish the cover letter, the expanded outline, and a couple of sample chapters so that by the end of the summer we can present our proposal.

My summer writing recap so far: 

So far so good! However, does anyone else find that the summer is going so quickly! This is also my first summer trying to have a reading and writing goal and it is so hard to keep up with both of them. Also, when your reading is research, it goes much slower than reading for pleasure or even for review or a committee. Also, launching a new blog really eats into both!

Writing a proposal is a lot more work than I even imagined. The biggest challenge for us has been putting onto paper what we already understand in our brains. When writing the proposal, you have to remember that the editor or publisher reading it may not know certain things about education and you have to explain it. You can’t just say book pass or other terms; you have to explain them.

I’ve also found out that I really like the idea of co-authoring. I am truly enjoying working with Jenn. It is so nice to have someone to talk to about decisions, have someone to read your work, and someone to bounce ideas off of.  I also think that she keeps me on track which means I should be writing right now…


How is writing going for all of my Teachers Writes friends? Do you find it hard to keep up with writing and reading? How do you balance the two?

Happy writing!


Launch Week: Recap



Thank you all so much for being a part of our launch week!

We hope you enjoyed the week and will continue to come visit us.

If you missed any of the days these days, please go check them out:


It’s Monday! What are you reading?

Meet Kellee

Meet Ricki

How to Navigate

Our Favorites

Favorites Blog Hop


Giveaways from the week

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Thank you for stopping by this week and see you tomorrow!

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Launch Week: How to Navigate our World



Welcome to Unleashing Readers!

The goal of Unleashing Readers is to be a go-to resource for all levels of teachers to find resources for utilizing the best pieces of literature and nonfiction in their classroom. We hope to do this by making our website specifically tailored to give teachers exactly what they need.

For each book we review, we will include a summary, our thoughts, potential discussion questions, quotes/pages we flagged, and books that are similar. To make the review even more useful for teachers, we will include how we would use the book in our classroom, including if we recommend the book for a read aloud, literature circle/book club, close reading/analysis, and/or classroom library buy:

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To us, these four suggestions are quite different.  If we recommend a book for:

Read Aloud

This would be a great choice to read aloud to all students in the class. We often suggest this category when the book has strong, widespread appeal to many types of students.

Lit Circle/Book Club

This text would work very well for discussion within small groups. We often suggest this category when the book offers great points of discussion, but it might not appeal to every student in the class.

Close Reading/Analysis

There are many passages within the book that would be great for close analysis. We often suggest this category when a book has complex passages or great sections to teach literary elements to students.

Classroom Library

This would be a great addition to your classroom library. Often, these books fit well with a specific type of student, but we definitely think it is worth purchasing for your classroom.

Every classroom is different, and therefore, our categorizing is merely a suggestion. Please feel free to comment on a review if you feel a book might be used in other ways. Each review will also be categorized by genre, sub-genre, format, and teacher uses. These categories allow you to find exactly what you need by clicking or searching for a specific category. The reviews will also be tagged with topics that are found within the book. This allows you to find specific books that fit into a certain unit, topic discussion, or theme.

Another resource we are hoping you find useful is our Navigating Literary Elements page. On this page you will find a list of books that we recommend for teaching different literary elements. This page is continuously evolving as we add more elements and change/edit/add to our lists.

We hope that you find Unleashing Readers to be useful.
Please contact us at if you have any questions,

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Launch Week: Meet Ricki



Today we wanted to let you get to know Ricki a bit better. You can find out the basics about her by checking out our About Us page.   We tried to make it a little more interesting by having Kellee interview her.


Kellee: What were your favorite books as a child?

Ricki: I grew up loving The Boxcar Children and Babysitters’ Club series. I owned all of the books and read them multiple times. As a teen, I loved Homecoming and The Face on the Milk Carton. I devoured any book that I could get my hands on. Every night, I tried to hide my book under my napkin at the dinner table, but my mom always caught me.


K: What was your favorite hobby when you were a kid (other than reading)?

R: I loved playing school with my sister and cooking in my Easy-Bake oven. I was a crafty kid. You could find me singing as I walked around the house, noodle necklaces swinging from my neck, or concentrating on my bead loom, tuned out from the world.


K: When did you know you were going to be a teacher?

R: When I was in second grade, I declared I was going to become a second grade teacher. The next year, I realized third grade was cooler than second grade, and every year, I bumped the age level.

Until my sophomore year of college, I always thought I would become a math teacher. I hated the required reading in my high school English classes and loved my AP Calculus course. After a few great English professors, I quickly changed my mind.


K: What is something that most people don’t know about you?

R: I am Native American. Being a minority (and one who doesn’t look like a minority) had a strong impact on my education as a child. I enjoy teaching in diverse settings because I feel that I can identify with many of the emotions the students’ experience.


K: What is your favorite animal? Color? Food?

R: I have a frog pond in my backyard with dozens of tadpoles. I love reading on a chair beside them. Is that weird? I also talk to my woodchuck named Chuck and his wife, Chuckina. Today, my neighbor caught me on my hands and knees, peering into the hole, talking to the woodchuck. It was awkward.

My favorite color is purple. My students realized I wear a lot of purple this year, so they started printing their essays in purple ink.

I am a huge foodie. I spend hours watching Food Network and would probably be a culinary instructor if I wasn’t a school teacher. I love making homemade pasta (It’s really easy if you haven’t tried it!).


K: What is your favorite genre of books?

R: I’ll read anything! My favorite books are those that teach me something new. I always love a great historical fiction because I am bound to learn something knew, but really–I will read anything.


K: What is your favorite movie?

R: I actually don’t enjoy movies (insert gasp here). I can’t watch them without thinking about the good book I am missing. My husband loves movies, and during most of those that we rent, I pull out a book halfway through the movie. As long as we are spending time together, we don’t have to be entertained by the same thing, right?


K: Next to reading, what are your hobbies now?

R: I love to paint, cook, and garden. We bought a house about a year ago, so I have been relearning plants, which were much more familiar to me as a child. Really, I spend almost all of my time reading books or searching the internet, trying to learn something new. I am a total nerd.


K: You are pursuing your PhD. Tell us about the program you were accepted into.

R: I was just accepted to the University of Connecticut’s Curriculum and Instruction program with a concentration in Secondary English Education. I hope to be both a researcher and an advisor to pre-service English teachers. I plan to focus my research primarily in young adult literature, with possible connections to urban education and minority students, particularly Native Americans. I proposed and implemented a Young Adult Literature elective in my school, and I think it would be really neat to develop similar reading programs in other school systems. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I have the best advisor in the world, Dr. Wendy Glenn. 🙂


K: If you could have dinner with one author (dead or alive) who would you pick?

R: I think this is the most difficult question anyone has ever asked me! If I had to pick–Sherman Alexie. He is so wildly funny and entertaining. I have a feeling I would snort my drink by accident.


K: Why did you decide that this was the right time to jump into blogging?

R: I really loved working with you [Kellee] on the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award committee. When you asked me to join you on a new blog, it seemed like a no-brainer because your are so fun, knowledgeable, and hard-working. I am excited to try something new. Plus, we are both control freaks who obsess about things, so why not pair us together?


K: Tell us about your family.

R: I met my husband ten years ago and we started dating four years later. We’ve been married for two years. He is an engineer, and our personalities are very different, but we are both curious people, so I think that makes us a great match. My father and brother are physicians, my mother is a nurse, and my sister works for Google, so really–I am a bit unique in my field of interest, family-wise. I am expecting my first child in December, and I can’t wait to meet my little reader.


 Tomorrow, join us for more information about how to navigate Unleashing Readers and we really appreciate you stopping by today!