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Review: Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle

Back on January 27th it was Multicultural Children’s Book Day. As one who has been making an effort to diversify my classroom library and promote diverse books more widely for a number of years now, I was quite excited about this day. And then. Then I totally dropped the ball.

Folks interested in participating in the day were able to commit to reviewing a book and one would be sent to them. I signed up immediately! I got a book back in December and was even more excited about it all. Then life got super busy and this totally fell by the side. Which is completely unfair because the book is wonderful.

Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle and illustrated by R. J. Hughes is a beautiful book in a number of different ways. The most obvious can be seen from the cover. The book is visually gorgeous. The colors Hughes uses and the use of light are simply beautiful on every page.

Inside the main story is of a young girl and her family attending Pascha (Easter service in the Orthodox Church). The service begins in the middle of the night so the beginning of the story focuses on her plans to stay awake for it all. She’s our narrator as well, telling the story of the service through the eyes of one who has never seen it before (as she has always, like her younger brother, slept through it in the past). As I was unfamiliar with this celebration in the Orthodox Church, I loved seeing it as she saw it and experiencing it with her for the first time.

If that were the entire book, it would be a lovely book. But that story only scratches the surface. The illustrations for the main story are set in the center of every two-page spread, bordered by words. At the beginning and end those words are dialogue happening around our narrator. Throughout the Pascha service, those words are Biblical and liturgical. They likely are also words she is hearing but they are a part of the service.

Finally, surrounding those center illustrations are more illustrations around the edges of the pages. These are illustrations of various Orthodox churches around the world.

I chose this two-page spread as an example because I believe the Hagia Sophia is the only one of these churches I have visited.

As to being a multicultural book, it is about a religious service that will be new to many and is full of images of churches around the world (a sign of how we are truly connected even as we see so many differences). In addition, during the service one call and response is done in several different languages, quite a surprisingly diverse set in fact. Also, Catherine’s friend, Elizabeth, uses crutches (not as if she had broken a leg, but as a part of her life). The first few times I read the book I did not notice her crutches. She is presented as Catherine’s good friend and anything else is secondary.

I don’t know that this is a book I would have picked up on my own so I am glad MCBD introduced it to me. Our oldest daughter is a Catherine (although not spelled that way) and our youngest shares a name with the author. When the book arrived it felt like it was the right one for me to review. I learned quite a bit from reading this book (not the least of which comes from information the author has included at the end) which is definitely one thing a diverse book should do.

Meeting Brad Meltzer

Way back in September my class had the chance to Skype with Brad Meltzer for Meet the Author (a local thing). Before that we read quite a few of his Ordinary People Change the World biographies. We continued reading more of them after we had the chance to talk with him. He’s quite a popular author in our classroom, not surprisingly.

Last week Brad Meltzer’s newest book came out. As a part of his book tour he was at Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. It’s nearby but not exactly close. The week before his visit I sent home the information with all of my students in both English and Spanish. But I did not expect that any of them would be able to be there. On the day of the book event, one of my students told me that his dad didn’t have to work that night so he was going to be able to go but he said he needed the address again. So I sent the information home with everyone anyway. This boy even asked if he could take our classroom copy of I Am Albert Einstein to get it signed. I promised him I would take it and he could get it signed if he was there (as I was skeptical).

That evening it took my daughters and me an hour to get to Politics and Prose in the rain in rush hour. (I’ve been there quite a few times so I was grateful to know the way. I can’t imagine doing it in the dark and rain for the first time.) The place was packed so it wasn’t until after Brad’s talk that I found my little guy. Not only had his parents brought him but they bought him his own copy of I Am Albert Einstein.


He even dressed up to meet the author!

This made my night. I’m guessing my student won’t forget this, but I think I’ll remember it even more strongly than he will. We waited in line for about half an hour so I told my daughters and my student that they didn’t need to stand with me. They could wander around and read books. My girls both found a spot, grabbed some books, and sat down. This boy, on the other hand, kept running back over to me to show me books we’ve read this year. He’d say, “Look Ms. Orr, they have this book too!” His excitement and enthusiasm was beautiful.

I realized at one point that he’d never been in a bookstore. He told me he couldn’t wait for his parents to bring him back sometime. When I told him I could find bookstores closer to his house he was astounded. I am certain he has been to the public library, but never a bookstore. It was such a joy to watch him. I haven’t enjoyed an author event this much in a long time.

First Try at 3 Act Math

I’ve been wanting to teach math through 3 Act lessons for quite some time but haven’t seen the path or prioritized figuring it out. This weekend, as we prepared to work on area and perimeter I spent some time thinking about how to make it happen.’

So yesterday I told my 3rd graders that I wanted to start a vegetable garden in back yard. I explained that I’m not good at gardening so I need help. I also told them that lots of critters (deer, raccoons, turtles, rabbits) are around back there so I need a fence and I want to mulch my garden to make sure the vegetables have a great growing space. Then I showed them this picture.


I asked them how I could figure out how much fence and mulch I need to buy. They had some great conversations which included a lot of guessing. One girl finally said we needed to measure around the garden to figure out how much fence. So I put up this picture.


I didn’t tell them what to do with that, but gave it to them. Then we continued with the conversation about mulch. They knew mulch comes in a bag (which I didn’t expect them to know) so I showed them this picture.


We noticed this bag will cover 12 square feet. Huh. What’s a square foot? Again, an interesting discussion. I showed a ruler we’ve been using and we talked about it being a foot, so what is a square foot? Another girl told me to get three more rulers and make a square with them. So we did and figured out a square foot. Then we could see a way to measure for mulch so I showed this picture.


Again, I didn’t tell them what to do with it, just gave it to them. Off they went to figure out how much fence and mulch I need. Lots of interesting work happened. After about 15 minutes we came back together and a few students shared what they had done to find the perimeter or the area. They headed off again and after another 10 minutes or so most of my students had figured out both answers.

Today, while I’m home sick, the new intern I’m working with will be taking them through helping her figure out how much carpet and wallpaper border she’ll need in a new (rectangular) apartment. Can’t wait to see how they do!

If you’re interested, here are some documents.


area-and-perimeter-garden-plot (I would give everyone the first page here and make the other pages available if they need them.)

The Kids are Fine

As I mentioned earlier this week, my classroom is now 1 to 1. We’ve used our new laptops for a variety of things this week but one of the challenges for me is sending students to websites easily as typing in URLs is fairly time consuming. For our Expert Project, I have created a google doc with sources students can use for research. But creating docs full of links doesn’t always make sense.

In math this week we’ve used an interactive activity at NCTM‘s Illuminations site. I added this site as a “Useful Link” on our class website, as that URL ( is an easy one for my students to type in and to remember if they want to find this activity again.

We did this yesterday and I know some students went home to try the activity some more. I thought that was a possibility. I did not expect a student to write a blog post. (It’s not really as exciting as that sounds. She doesn’t have a blog, to the best of my knowledge.)

I added a widget to our class blog that allows people to write posts. My goal is for the students to write regularly there. I haven’t introduced this to them yet, however. It didn’t even occur to me that anyone would notice the opportunity. It’s pretty small on the page.


But this girl did. And she clicked. And she created a title for her post, “Hey”. And she wrote a little. And she submitted it to me.


(Ms. A. is the intern working in our classroom right now.)

For reasons I don’t fully understand, this brought me great joy. My students are using our computers to communicate. They did it back in November when we first started using google docs and I left comments on their writing. They responded to the comments. Usually to actually answer a question I had asked or tell me what they had done in their writing because of my comment. But when I was away at a conference one girl (not the same as the one above) used responding to my comment as a way to tell me she hoped I was having a good time.

There’s a lot for me to do as a teacher. But sometimes the most important thing is for me to get out of their way.

Joyous First Day Back

wixie-4 wixie-7


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Our first day back from winter break was a little bit like Christmas for us. We returned today to a brand new cart (which takes up far less space than our old one) filled with 20 (for my 20 students) brand new laptops. We’ve had enough laptops all year to be 1 to 1, but they were old and wonky. Several of them couldn’t handle wireless and had to remain attached to the router at all times. We made it work but today was beautiful.

Every student now has a computer with their name on it. To try them out today (and get used to handling them, getting them out of the cart, putting them away, etc.) we started off using Wixie. For about 20 minutes we just played around, trying to see what we could do or what we remembered from previous years.

Then we used Wixie to create a goal for 2017. When these are all finished I can put them into a slideshow to share on our class blog for families to enjoy. And if I desperately feel I need to hang them up in the hall, I can print them out.

We’ve done work this year in our Google Apps for Education world, but not a ton. The kids have typed one story up to publish it. They’ve done a fractions activity in Google Classroom (more a glorified worksheet than anything else, to be honest). After 8 years in kinder and first grade I’m having to work hard to use our computers well. We’ll get VoiceThread up and rolling soon, something I’ve wanted to do all year but our computers wouldn’t record. I set up our class blog so the students can post to it. And we’ll use Wixie more now.

I am officially in a 1 to 1 situation and I want to use it well. If you have recommendations or ideas for powerful use of laptops for third graders, I would love to hear them.

Believing in Students

Back at the beginning of December I shared this picture on Facebook:


I don’t recall exactly what I said, but I do remember being quite struck by this. John Hodge, the speaker here at VASCD‘s annual conference, had spent a lot of time telling stories of several of the names on this slide. Up until this moment, however, the slide had lacked the labels at the top. The response on Facebook was concern that this suggested the savior mentality about teachers. In that moment I was unable to rally my thoughts and respond meaningfully and promised to write about it (with the intention and expectation that I would do so far sooner than now).

The way Hodge spoke about Mrs. Dawson did not strike me as fitting the savior idea, an idea that I do find quite concerning. He did not describe her spending long hours at school. The difference he talked about between Mrs. Dawson and the other teachers was her belief in her students. She told these poor Black boys (and their families) that they had the potential and ability to do whatever they wanted in life. According to Hodge, this was not a message they were receiving anywhere else.

I’ve come to the conclusion that all our talk of pedagogy, teaching strategies, and theorists means little without a belief in our students. The implicit bias (far too gentle of a term) that exists in all of us and is un-analyzed in too many is more harmful than round robin reading or rote memorization of algorithms.

If we could ensure that teachers truly believed that their students can learn and can succeed I think it would make for a huge shift in the education of many children.

Not-So-Great Moments

I just happened to glance at tweets of mine people had liked. I realized I tweet when things are good. This isn’t intentional; it’s just that the good moments are energizing and I want to share them. There are plenty of not-so-great moments. Reflecting on this made me realize that being public about the not-so-great moments is pretty important too.


from Maarten Taken’s flickr

So, here’s a list of things I feel some shame to share:

  • too often we start projects and never finish them because my follow through is weak
  • I engage in power struggles with students at times
  • sometimes I recycle papers my students completed rather than look at them and return them to the students
  • I yell at children for behavior that is normal for 3rd graders because I am not patient or thoughtful in that moment
  • I call kids by the wrong names, sometimes for months on end because I can’t seem to keep them straight even though I know so much about them in other ways
  • this year I’m struggling more than ever (and so far, failing pretty miserably) at living what I believe as an educator rather than getting sucked into the standardization and testing fiascoes
  • I won’t leave some books for a sub to read aloud because I want to be the one to share them with my students (even though this would likely make the sub’s day easier)

I’m sure there are so many more that will occur to me throughout this week with my students. I don’t expect to be a perfect teacher. I don’t even strive for that. I do want to be doing a better and better job for my students every day. Recognizing and admitting the things I am not doing well is one step in that direction.

Making the Day After Work

I spent Tuesday night and very early Wednesday morning depressed but, even more, worried about how to get through the day. First, I was dreading telling our daughters the election results. I sobbed talking with each of them. (On the plus side, the 9 year old is young enough to be disappointed and frustrated but not fully aware of possible ramifications and the 13 year old is immediately move to actions on behalf of those with less privilege.)

School was also a concern for me. My 3rd graders had already been sharing concerns about Trump being elected because of his language about immigrants and people of color (my students all fit into at least one of those groups). I wanted to be open to their needs but not to add any stress if they weren’t feeling any. I had lesson plans that had been written prior to election day that we could use. I also began thinking about books to read, ideas for writing, and thoughts on how to allow my students to process their feelings and thoughts.

My students arrived and were immediately talking about the election. We ate breakfast without rushing (we often are rushing because our grade level is the first to go P.E., music, art, and such). Instead of cramming in our daily calendar lesson we gathered on the carpet in a circle after eating and I asked, “Is there anything you want to talk about as our day begins? Any questions or thoughts in your brain that you want to get out?” And I waited. If no one wanted to say anything that would have been just fine with me.

In fact, the first thing one student asked cracked me up. He said, “What’s in your shake?” (I make protein shakes for my breakfast and I drink them in the car on the way to work. On this day I couldn’t drink it so I took it in with me and drank it throughout the morning so the students had never seen this before.) I answered the question and then waited again. Another boy then said, “Donald Trump won the election.” Immediately voiced jumped in. About half the class was now talking. I stopped them and asked, “Who would like to talk about this?” All but about four kids raised their hands. “If your hand is raised, find a partner whose hand is raised and buddy up to talk. If you’re hand isn’t raised, you can’t find a partner whose hand isn’t raised and talk about something else if you want.” We went on to talk for the seven or eight minutes until we had to head to P.E.

When we returned to the classroom we had our morning meeting, greeting each other, playing a math game, and talking about how we’re all feeling in pretty general terms. One of the books I had decided upon before the kids arrived was Scaredy Squirrel. The book is funny and we needed to laugh but it also has some good things to discuss. So we read it. Then we started making a list of things that scare us. I started with ones from the book that also scare me, bees and poison ivy. Then I added heights because that’s a great fear of mine. The kids then shared some thoughts.


As, at the end of every writing focus lesson, I told the students they could continue writing like we had done or they could write about anything they wanted. Almost all of my students grabbed their writing notebooks and began lists of things that scare them. As I walked around I found that most of my students had Donald Trump on their list. We didn’t specifically talk about that, but I hope that writing it down helped ease some of the anxiety.

After writing and sharing with a partner, we read Extra Yarn. I choose this book because it’s about someone doing something kind for others. It’s not an in-your-face story and there’s a lot of surprising twists in the story. We had some good conversation throughout the book about the main character and the ending.

After lunch and recess we spent some time reading independently. It’s always good to have some quiet time lost in books.

To wrap up our day we watched the final few minutes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. Then we wrote about and drew our dreams. Here are a few:


My dream is making people in the army be safe and people out of the army to not have guns.


My dream is to be equal rights like don’t be racist and be kind and if you’re the boss of your job please don’t fire them and army thank you for saving us.


My dream is that I want the world to be equal rights. I want people to use their words and no swords and no guns. We need our world be freedom.


My dream is to tell people to keep the world clean. And never be mean to people that have different skin color. Friends are more important than things.


My dream is to the world to be equal rights and to people to be nice to each other. And I wish we never fight. I wish nobody to care what skin they have.


Everyone to be together and to not be mean to each other because that makes problems.

These are their words, their ideas, their hopes and dreams. That gives me hope.

Weekly Wrap Up

It’s an ongoing goal of mine to share or comment on blog posts regularly. Sadly, it’s an ongoing goal at which I fail regularly. Here are a few that really struck me recently.


from Aiza Zainol’s flickr This was a bubble wrap kind of week.

One Good Thing is a blog I never miss. I don’t always understand the math being discussed, but the celebrations of things that go well in classrooms is universal. This post especially struck me because it recognizes that students face many challenges outside of school that impact them in school. This teacher (who I adore thanks to her posts on this blog) went the extra mile of recognizing challenges, believing that negative behavior was not about her, and taking steps to show the student love and support.

I love the poems Miss Rumphius writes and shares. (Someday I’ll get to meet her…) This poem, inspired by Langston Hughes, is absolutely heartbreaking and hopeful. It left me astounded.

Another one I regularly love is Dean Dad who writes brilliantly about community colleges. His thinking around professors trading papers seems like a brilliant idea to me. I think it would make a lot of sense for high school teachers too, in many ways.

Reading Aloud

Ever since I learned I’d be teaching third graders this year (after eight years with first graders and kinders) I’ve been thinking about what books I want to read aloud this year. There are so many purposes for reading aloud and so many wonderful books. (Just to be clear, this is about our sacred read aloud time after recess each day. We read picture books, fiction and nonfiction, during lessons throughout the day frequently.)

  • To help students discover new authors or series that they will want to continue reading independently. These read alouds are chosen to help hook students as readers. I am considering Mercy Watson, Time Warp Trio, Dork Diaries, 39 Clues, Percy Jackson, and so many others.
  • To introduce students to new genres they may not know. We have an extensive classroom library and helping students find the right books for them is a big job. Read alouds is one tool in that work.

Day Before Kids Library 2

Day Before Kids Library


  • To help students see what proficient readers do. These read alouds are chosen so that I can model what I am doing as a reader. (This does happen with all read alouds, but some are books are chosen specifically for this.)
  • To help students think about the world in new ways.

We began the year with Donovan’s Word Jar. It’s at a great reading level for my students, it’s about a boy who loves words, and it is full of diverse characters. It was a wonderful choice to start off our year. Students found some copies at our Reading Is Fundamental giveaway so a few got to go home with their own copy of the book.

Then we read the first Mercy Watson book, Mercy Watson to the Rescue. As soon as we unveiled our basket of Mercy Watson books in the classroom library it was empty. It has remained that way almost constantly for several weeks.

We followed Mercy with the first Key Hunters book, The Mysterious Moonstone. Geeky, diverse characters who cleverly solve a mystery, fantastic. Now I need to get more of this series for my students.

Image result for princeless

This week we started Princeless. This graphic novel is actually a collection of the first four issues of the Princeless comic books. It addresses racism and sexism with humor but quite significantly. I’m trying something new with this one. Thanks to Franki Sibberson I’ve given my students little notepads and pens to draw or write as we read. I’m putting the book under our document camera so students can see it clearly. We spent the first day with the book just looking at and discussing the front and back covers. I’ve planned the first two weeks of this book carefully, where we’ll stop, questions I’ll ask, things I want to help them notice.

I’ve always enjoyed read aloud time but I’ve never been this thoughtful about it. I’m excited to see where it takes us in our discussions, our thinking, and our interests in further reading.