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!

Why Middle School?



If any of you teach middle school you often hear, “Oh, I’m sorry!” or something like that when you tell someone what you do. After this, I have often reflect on why I love teaching middle school and I think that this post shows many of the reasons why. These years are molding years and although our students may not visit us often or thank us when they are adults, but we are a major part of their growth and have a larger impact than we even realize.


Although I thought that I didn’t remember much of middle school, I began to realize how much of my current self was molded during that time- specifically 1994. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember most of my teacher’s names* or many of my friends** or boyfriends***, but it obviously left an impact on me. I decided to write this post after a student asked me if everything happened in middle school because all of my stories start with, “When I was in middle school…” At first I told them it was just because I teach middle school, but after thinking I began to realize that it was more than that.

First, let’s see who we are talking about: 

My friend Joanie, Allison, and myself on the first day of 7th grade
Halloween dance!


First Piece of Evidence- My Favorite Word

word power

In Ms. Paulsen’s 7th grade language arts class, we were assigned to learn vocabulary through Norman Lewis’s Instant Word Power and suddenly in Session 6 we were introduced to words I will never forget- SESQUIPEDALIAN and SESQUIPEDALIANISM. I thought that they were awesome and hilarious words! If you don’t know what they mean, sesquipedalian actually means 1 and 1/2 feet long. Starting in the 17th century it was changed to mean “a long word” or “a person who is known for using long words”.  This word keeps on popping into my life and I love it every time (including when I used Tom Chapin’s song Great Big Words to practice context clues with my students). Today, while prepping for this post, I found my Instant Word Power book and actually laughed out loud when I saw the practice sentence in my 7th grade textbook: “Attitudinal readjustment is a sesquipedalian term for the cocktail hour. (You can never say it after three drinks.)” Ha! Maybe that sentence is why I never forgot it.


Second Piece of Evidence- My Favorite Book
The Giver (The Giver, #1)
I. Love. This. Book. It is almost hard for me to write about it because it is hard to vocalize how it impacted me when I read it. I think 11 years of age is such an influential age and that is when I read The Giver for the first time. I remember being shocked by the injustices within the book, specifically the lack of books, color, artwork and choices. As a middle schooler, I was so disgusted by Jonas’s society and so impressed by the choices that Jonas makes within the book. It is because of this impression that it has always stuck with me. I frequently forget characters and books and plots, but this one has never left me and I have reread it many times now (which is a rare thing for me). On top of it all, I liked that Lois Lowry made the reader part of her story. The ending, though controversial, is what made me love it even more. It was my decision what happened to Jonas (though it has now been answered in the companions) and as a pre-teen that meant a lot to me.


Third Piece of Evidence- My Favorite Type of Music
I remember April 9, 1994. It was a big day in the world of music and if you were in my middle school you would think that the messiah himself had passed away which to us was exactly how it felt. Sixth grade was about the time where I switched from listening to my parent’s music and pop music to alternative music such as Silverchair, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and later Green Day and Nine Inch Nails. I think that although April 9, 1994 was definitely a tragedy, music lost a brilliant musician in Kurt Cobain that week, it was also one of the reasons why I immersed myself in that type of music. It was definitely an ingredient of who I’ve become.


Fourth Piece of Evidence- Cello
When I lived in Iowa and in 3rd grade we were allowed to pick an instrument to begin playing in 4th grade. The middle school came to the elementary school and the band and orchestra played. I remember looking over the balcony and seeing the cello and I knew that it was the instrument that I was going to choose. Then we moved and it wasn’t until 6th grade that I was able to get my hands on one and this choice changed the trajectory of my life sending me to a music school of choice which led me to playing cello for over 10 years.


Fifth+ Piece of Evidence- Things I still love and have molded me into who I am: Baseball, Girl Scouts, Working With Kids




You may be asking: “Why did Kellee put this reflection on the blog? It is supposed to be about books and teaching.” Though this post may just seem like a way for me to reminisce about middle school, it is actually for a way for me to share how important these such touchy years are in the maturing of our students. So much of what I found during these years has helped me become who I am. We have to help our students during these times find who they are.




*Except Ms. Spalding who was my 6th grade language arts teacher. I really disliked her class when I had her, but afterwards I found myself visiting her and helping her all of the time. I think she was the first teacher to show me tough love and I ended up appreciating it. I’ll never forget reading A Wrinkle in Time in her class and detesting it. I also researched Nefertiti and did a gallery walk presentation about her. Though I don’t remember the name of all of the teachers, there are aspects of many classes I remember and I think that the amazing middle school I went to helped me love learning.
**I feel the worst about this. I had wonderful friends during middle school. I do remember Allison Gandy, my best friend who I will never forget spending time with. She has since gotten married and contacted me once and now I can’t find her 🙁 I also remember a boy named Trey because he tragically passed away and a couple of other girls, but I know that I had a good amount of friends and I wish I could get in contact with them and see what they are up to.
***I will never forget my first real boyfriend, David Haney, and to be honest I thought he was my only boyfriend from middle school until I found a book from 7th grade that says “I <3 Justin” and “J.J. + K.S.” so who knows how my memories have been changed.

Academic Games


Last week, I shared my Genre/Format Introduction Lesson, where I stated that I play a pyramid review game with my students before the assessment. After saying this, I had a couple of people, including Julee M., ask me to share more about the pyramid game, so I decided to share my post about academic games. 

I will say, none of these games were originally mine. As a teacher, though, we all borrow and share – so I am happy to share them with you.

Vocabulary Pyramid
Set up like the $25,000 Pyramid, students are given topics and they must have their partner guess each topic using the vocabulary and knowledge from the unit/lesson.
Talk a Mile a Minute
VERY similar to the pyramid game: Students get into pairs (A & B) and one faces away from the board/projector while the other faces it. A student gets a list of terms based on a topic that is being taught. They then go word to word giving clues and trying to get through all of the words. The fastest wins!
After the game, students should record the clues, illustrations, examples that helped them guess each vocabulary word.
 4 Corners
4 corners is like an interactive multiple choice assessment/activity. This game begins with all of the students in the middle of the room. The teacher asks a question and each corner (or side) is an option. Students then go to what they choose or think is correct.
 Swat It
For Swat It you will need 2 fly swatters. The teacher posts vocabulary words on a wall (a word wall would work) or makes a PowerPoint/Word document with the vocabulary words. Then 2 students go head to head. The teacher gives clues or definition and students have to swat the word. I have heard that using a fly swatter is the best way because it is obvious who is first; rulers make it much harder to see who was first if it was close.
Post-It Password
Students put a post it on their foreheads with a vocabulary word on them and then walk around the room having conversations with other students to figure out what their words are.
Draw a Conclusion
This is one of my favorites. It is a backwards circle map. Instead of starting with a topic in the middle and defining it in the circle, with Draw a Conclusion the teacher puts the clues in the circle and the clues have to be used to guess the topic.
Can you guess the answer?
That’s right—Jiminy Cricket!
Self explanatory.
Vocabulary bingo
Hint: Use Smarties and kids can eat them when the game is over.
Vocabulary Squares
Like Hollywood Squares. One team is X, one is O, and the team is trying to get tic-tac-toe by answering vocabulary questions.
Draw Me
Vocabulary Charades
Cards with vocabulary words and then the definitions are flipped over on a table and students have to flip them over trying to find their match.
Find your Pair
Type up all of the vocabulary words and then sentences or definitions that go with the words. It is then the students’ job to find their pair.


I hope you have fun playing these in your classroom!!

Genre/Format Introductions


Earlier this month on Twitter, Andrea P. and Shannon C. asked me about my genre introductions that I do at the beginning of the year with my students. This made me think that it since the new school year is upon us, it may be time to share the lesson I used the last few years to share genres and formats with my students.  Now as my school’s reading coach, I look forward to sharing this post/lesson with my reading department so that they can continue to find the success that I did. 

      At the beginning of each school year, I know I need to acclimate my students to books and my classroom library. Since I teach intensive reading, many of my students are reluctant and struggling readers which means that they have not been around or fans of books, so my classroom library is a bit overwhelming. The best way I have found to introduce my students to my classsroom library and books in general is a mini-genre study. The way it works is I spend each day introducing a genre. I separate my genres into 7- realistic fiction, fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, informational nonfiction, biography, and traditional literature – and 3 formats – graphic novels, poetry, and short stories.  Thus, the mini-study lasts approximately 10 days including 1 review day and 1 assessment day.
     Each mini-study goes the same: After discussion about what students think each genre is, I define the genre (using students’ words when I could) and we enter the definition onto a tree map. Then, the students brainstorm aspects and examples of the genre using a circle map. In the circle of the map, students put words that define the genre and examples of what could be in the books while in the square (frame of reference) they put examples of books, movies, TV shows, etc. for the genre. For example, if we are doing “Fantasy”, the circle would include things like: magic, vampires, talking animals, dragons, couldn’t ever happen, etc. while the frame of reference would include: Harry PotterTwilightAmulet, etc.
     Following our discussion of each genre I read a picture book of that genre and then we discuss how it is said genre. There are so many picture books for each genre, so have fun choosing! The picture books I used last year were:

Historical Fiction: Titanicat by Marty Crisp

Biography: Martin’s Big Words or John’s Sweet Dreams by Doreen Rappaport [I let the kids choose.]
Realistic Fiction: First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg

Fantasy: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

Traditional Literature: Lon Po Po by Ed Young

Science Fiction: Zathura by Chris Van Allsburg
(though we discuss how this one could be considered fantasy as well)

Informational Nonfiction: Volcano by Patricia Lauber [previewed the book]

Poetry: Falling Up by Shel Silverstein (read Strange Restaurant)
Short Story: Nightmare Hour by R.L. Stine [read part of Pumpkinhead]
Graphic Novel: Into the Volcano by Don Wood [previewed the novel]

     After each picture book/story, I use this opportunity to show students how to respond to writing like I am going to ask them to do weekly by modeling a journal entry after each complete picture book.
     Next, I allow my students to access the classroom library. Each student gets to pick two books of the discussed genre (books are marked with a sticker to distinguish between the genres).  I then do a book pass where students pass around the books they chose. With each set of books, the students get 2 minutes to preview the book and decide if they want to add it to their “Books to Read” list.
     The last thing we do, and this was new this year (an idea that I stole from my friend), was after the book pass, as an exit slip, they needed to tell me why the book at least one of the books they wrote about on their “Books to Read” list was the genre we are discussing. For example, if a student had Suck it Up by Brian Meehl they would put that Suck it Up is fantasy because it has vampires in it and vampires don’t exist.
     After going through all 7 genres and 3 formats, we review by playing the Pyramid Game and 4 corners and we finally end with an assessment which includes multiple choice, short answers, and students writing a story of a specific genre. By the end of the unit, students have a long list of books they want to read from all the genres and know how to find books in the classroom library.
This is the beginning of cultivating readers.
Happy growing!


Top Books for Struggling/Reluctant Middle School Readers


For my first 5 years of teaching, I taught 6th and 7th grade Language Arts; however, in 2011, I switched to teaching Intensive Reading for the students in my school who had not passed the state assessment. When I moved to primarily teaching struggling readers, I knew I had to exam more deeply which books would truly grab these students’ attention and help them identify as readers. After a year in this position, I have some go-to books that I find have become great foundations for my students to grow into just plain readers, not struggling or reluctant. And now, after two years as an intensive reading teacher, I’m very lucky to become my school’s Reading Coach. I cannot wait to help all of the struggling/reluctant readers in our school find the just-right books to make them love reading.


Top 20 Books for Struggling and Reluctant Middle School Students 2012-2013

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (series) by Jeff Kinney

Big Nate (series) by Lincoln Peirce

Amulet (series) by Kazu Kibuishi
(And Kazu’s anthology Explorer is a big hit between Amulet books.)

Bone (series) by Jeff Smith

Knights of the Lunch Table (series) by Frank Cammuso

Graphic novels Bad IslandGhostopolis, Tommysaurus Rex, and Cardboard by Doug TenNapel

Sidekicks by Dan Santat

I Survived… (series) by Lauren Tarshis

Maximum Ride: The Manga (series) by James Patterson

Any nonfiction book by Seymour Simon

Dork Diaries (series) by Rachel Renee Russell

Smile and  Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

dear dumb
Dear Dumb Diary (series) by Jim Benton

Love that Dog & Hate that Cat by Sharon Creech

Bluford (series) by various

Surviving Southside (series) by various

Popularity Papers (series) by Amy Ignatow

Any novel in verse, specifically Lisa Schroeder and Sonya Sones

After looking at my students’ checkouts for the year, I would definitely also add these to the list: 

Bird and Squirrel On the Run and Gabby and Gator by James Burks

Teen Boat by John Green

Liam O’Donnell’s Graphic Guide Adventures

The 9/11 Report by Sid Jacobson

Olympians graphic novels by George O’Connor

Mal and Chad (series) by Stephen McCranie

Discovery Channel’s Top 10 Deadliest Sharks and Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Predators

The Elsewhere Chronicles (series) by Nykko

Ghetto Cowboy and Yummy by G. Neri

Adventures of Captain Underpants (series) by Dav Pilkey

charlie joe
Charlie Joe Jackson (series) by Tommy Greenwald

cow boy
Cow Boy by Nate Cosby

Vladimir Tod (series) by Zac Brewer

The Lightning Thief (series) by Rick Riordan

These books listed may not all be relevant now. Each year, I will share my students’ favorites to keep you all updated:

An updated post about the books that were checked out most frequently from my classroom library in 2014-2015

Post about the most checked out graphic novels and novels in the 2015-2016 school year

Top Checked Out Books by Kellee’s Middle School Readers 2016-2017

Kellee’s End of Year Student Survey Results, Students’ Favorite Books, and Top Checked Out Books 2017-18

Kellee’s End of Year Student Survey Results, Students’ Favorite Books, and Top Checked Out Books 2018-19

2023 Note: These posts end in 2019 because I moved to the library starting int he 2019-2020 school year. Reflecting now, I should start pulling statistics from my whole library to share–I’ll do that from now on!

Reflection Note (2018): This post was originally written years ago, and I now struggle with the terms struggling and reluctant readers. The connotation behind these terms is so negative when really these students need all positivity in their lives. There are other options I’ve heard over the year like striving, undiscovered, or developing; however, I think in general we need to just remember that all readers are individuals, and we need to get to know each kid to see exactly what they need. I explain more in my You Tube Literacy Teachers Vlog interview:

What books/series do you find to be most popular with your middle school readers? Have you found success with the books I listed above? Have you/your students read any of the books I’ve listed? Did you/your students enjoy them?

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!


20 Moments I Will Miss With My Readers


This summer is bittersweet. I will be leaving my position as a high school English teacher to pursue a doctoral degree in Secondary English Education at UConn. I feel sad to be leaving my colleagues and readers but excited for this new adventure. I’ve been thinking about some of the moments I will miss most with my readers, and a few (okay, twenty…I got carried away) are listed below. I dedicate this list to all of the reading teachers out there. Being a teacher is the most rewarding experience in the world.

20 Moments

  1. The look on students’ faces when they return a book and we tell them there is a sequel.
  2. The clawing, reaching, and grabbing of books. All’s fair in books and war.
  3. When the bell rings and three students are still reading at their desks.
  4. When a student walks into a classroom in tears and thrusts a book at us.
  5. Making the boys cry. Thanks, John Green.
  6. When students whine that their to-read lists are too long.
  7. Waitlists for books. Not fun to keep organized…but fun to watch them check where their names are on the lists every day.
  8. When students ask, “Can you get me other books by this author?” We point to two on the shelf, and they look at us like we gave them free kittens.
  9. When an author tweets/emails our students back. Thanks, authors. You don’t even understand how excited they get. The squeals can be ear-piercing.
  10. When students battle over which book is better. This will never get old, will it?
  11. Searching for our names on Twitter and seeing kids posting about books/YAL. #guilty
  12. When students call our classrooms the free bookstore. Our hearts swell with pride every time.
  13. Changing a self-proclaimed “non-reader” into a reader. Because after all, everyone is a reader—some of us just don’t know it yet.
  14. When a teacher complains that a student was reading one of “our books” in his/her class, and we have to feign disappointment in the student.
  15. Listening to students’ book talks for books we haven’t read yet. And having to add our names to the waitlists for those books.
  16. When another English teacher compliments us on the writing of one of our readers. Thanks for being great models, authors.
  17. Telling students that we met [insert author here]. They gaze at us as if we are celebrities. Nope, we were giddy schoolgirls (or schoolboys) when we met them. It wasn’t pretty.
  18. We can’t relive a book for the first time, but it is almost as fun watching a student experience it for the first time.
  19. Getting a new book and knowing our students will be just as excited about it as we are.
  20. Receiving emails from students (who graduated over five years ago), asking for book recommendations. Here’s to hoping they keep in touch!

What are your favorite moments with your readers? Share a few!