Ashes or Sayso

Ashes 001Ashes 002

Ashes or Sayso?

In my fourteen years of experience as an elementary school media specialist, I continually maintain that I learn something from the students every day.  One day recently, a student taught me something that will be unforgettable for me and those that I have shared it with. I am eager to share the experience with my librarian colleagues so that it may open their minds as it did mine. It’s moments like the one that I am sharing that remind me how important our jobs are and how we make connections with students that may not happen in the classroom. 

For the past seven years I have served as the coach for our school’s Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl team. The Helen Ruffin Bowl is a competition among school teams held once each year. Each team reads the Georgia Children Book Award nominees for that year and that is the basis of the six-round competition. Each round consists of comprehension questions from the books.  To prepare my team for the competition, I have what I call “Lunch and Listen”. The team members eat lunch daily in the library while I read one of the nominees aloud to them. After each chapter they make up comprehension questions that I record and save for future practice. The students also read nominees on their own time and write down comprehension questions to share with the group.  This year, my team consists of six fifth graders and four fourth graders. 

A few weeks ago, one of the fourth grade students began telling me she wanted to start reading “Sayso” as soon as she completed the book she was reading. This particular student is usually the last to leave Lunch and Listen because her class is the last fourth grade class dismissed from the cafeteria. This gives the two of us extra time to talk about books and share in conversation.  She mentioned the “Sayso” book several times and I was not sure which book she meant but figured it was something she was reading on her own.  One day she asked if she could go ahead and check out “Sayso”. I then had to really grasp what she was talking about. I said, “Sayso is not a Georgia Book Award Nominee.” She said, “Yes it is. It’s in your office on the shelf where they are kept. I said “show me”.  We proceeded to my office where she picked up the book “Ashes” by Kathryn Lasky.   

At that moment I literally had chills. I was astonished and amazed that this student had seen a totally different image of the book than I had.  I was speechless. In a few seconds I said “Wow! The title of this book is Ashes (Lasky, 2011) but I had no idea that it could be read as Sayso. I wondered if Kathryn Lasky knew of this and if it was intentional or not.” Questions just ran through my mind. I wondered if this dual title had something secretly to do with the novel that would be revealed when we read it.  I just praised her for being so persistent about the book and how I could not wait to share her revelation with the rest of the group.  The next day I shared the story with my Lunch and Listen group and they too were speechless.  We talked about it and I suggested we write an email to Kathryn Lasky to find out if the duo title was intentional or not. We were just finishing one book and unanimously we all agreed that we MUST read Ashes next. 

As soon as the kids left, I wrote Kathryn Lasky and email and attached the pictures to it.  The next day I read the email to my Lunch and Listen group and they were so excited that maybe we would hear from the author. We started the book and the coined phrase became, “Are we going to read Ashes or Sayso?” 

To our surprise and excitement, Kathryn Lasky replied to my email in two days time. She, like me, was equally shocked and she used the word “speechless” to describe her feelings. She explained that there was no intention in the title to be read as “Sayso” and this news was completely new for her. She also shared my feelings that we learn something from the students every day. She hoped it would not “diminish” our desire to read the book.  Quite the contrary!  After sharing her email with the group, we were all even more eager to read it.

As I write this we are about halfway through Ashes (or “Sayso” ) and we love the rich work of Kathryn Lasky.   Not a day goes by when I am not rewarded by working with young people. They are uninhibited in thought and unlimited in vision.  I have shared this story with anyone that I think it would delight. I shared it on my morning news broadcast at school and received so many comments from teachers.  I wanted to share it with my librarian colleagues so that you can share it with your readers. I think it will “hook” the kids into wanting to read Ashes…or Sayso. 


Skype author visit

Gail Giles, a YA author that has appeal to guys, girls, high and low level readers, Skyped into Collins Hill HS a few weeks ago. I was a nervous wreck, anticipating the many things that could go wrong when you combine teenagers, technology, and the first attempt at something new. However, it was a resounding success! Gail Giles was witty and fun, and our students did a wonderful job asking questions and keeping the conversation going. If you want to see the highlights, see our short video here. If you want more details, keep reading…

Amy Golemme, my co-media specialist, and I brainstormed authors that would have mass appeal. Gail Giles was our first thought, so I took a shot in the dark and emailed her. She emailed back quickly and we got the details planned out – one test session a few days before, then 2 sessions during our 2nd and 3rd periods. We decided to use the media center to keep it cozy and inviting, rather than a larger space like the commons area or theater. I made signs for the hallways and classrooms and the media center. I went into all the 9th and 10th grade LA classes to promote it. Students that wanted to participate had to read at least one of her books, answer a few questions, and write a few questions they’d like to ask her. For those students, I gave them a pass out of class during 2nd or 3rd period and they were our VIPs. I also invited two language arts classes per session and any media specialists from the around the county that could come.

In Gwinnett, we aren’t allowed to use Skype, but we do have an alternative – Polycom and the Blue Jeans network. We use those tools and the author uses Skype. Kevin Tomlinson from the county was excellent technical support for us and helped put my technology fears to rest. On the day of the event, we set up about 80 chairs in the media center, created VIP seats, put out a breakfast spread, set up the technology, and hoped for the best! Gail came on, introduced herself, and then we had the students come up to the computer to ask questions. We had a webcam and external mic hooked up to my laptop. The students asked good questions, and Gail was entertaining, funny, and informative. When I polled the students after the event, they all said they had a positive experience and many expressed interest in doing it again. One student even turned in a top ten list of authors she’d like to Skype with!

If you have any questions or want templates for signs, the handout students filled out, or any other details, don’t hestitate to email me at or call at 770.682.4126. It was a lot of work, but a great experience for us and for the students.

Holly Frilot, Collins Hill High School

In Defense of E-Reading

Call it a backlash.  This holiday season increased the world of e-books and e-readers by something like a jillion fold according to my highly scientific sources.  So in January we had a couple of e-book grouches unload on this new budding trend.

Travis Jonker had an article in the School Library Journal (of all places) called snippily enough, “Fine. I Got an E-Reader. Now What?”  I already responded to him on my own blog.  Doug Johnson took it even further in a post on his blog, calling Mr. Jonker “reactionary” and in the comments said that the SLJ promoting his views was “detrimental to the profession.”  Ouch.

Now we have Jonathan Franzen, the world’s grumpiest writer, getting into the fray.  Not only does he not like e-readers, he fears “it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence [like printed books]. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”  Link to the whole grump here.

Huh?  E-readers are somehow going to lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it?

Science writer Carl Zimmer steps ups to defend e-readers in a wonderful article from Discover magazine.  In Franzen’s diatribe he uses The Great Gatsby as an example of a text that “doesn’t need to be refreshed.”  This leads Zimmer to muse of the differences of Fitzgerald’s minor masterpiece in print and digital formats.  “It’s certainly true that ebooks are an awkward young format that’s still sloppy and hard to manage,” he says.  Then he goes on to speculate, “I expect ebooks will follow much the same trajectory as paperbacks. They will start out being frowned upon as shabby, and then they will deliver literature conveniently to millions of people who might not otherwise have read it.”  To hear more of Mr. Zimmer’s cogent thoughts, listen to him interviewed on this topic (and answering callers) on a podcast from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Jonathan Segura has a defense on NPR’s Monkey See blog called, No More E-Books Vs. Print Books Arguments, OK?  The gist of his argument is similar to one I’ve made before: “It’s not an either/or proposition. You can choose to have your text delivered on paper with a pretty cover, or you can choose to have it delivered over the air to your sleek little device…We should worry less about how people get their books and — say it with me now! — just be glad that people are reading.”

Committee Members Needed: Georgia Peach Book Award for Teen Readers

Good afternoon,

Next month, the Georgia Peach Book Award for Teen Readers winner and two honor books will be announced at the Kennesaw State University’s Annual Conference on Literature for Young Adults.  Just a reminder that the voting for this year’s award ends on March 15.  Teens vote online at the Peach Award website:
The committee is now accepting applications for the 2012 -2013 Committee.  If you currently work with teens at the library, love YA books, and love to read (and get tons of free books) then this is the committee for you!!!  This 12 member committee reads and reviews over 100 YA novels and non-fiction texts each year.  In February, the committee selects the 20 nominees for the upcoming award; then Georgia teens vote for their top three titles.  Comprised of both high school media specialists and public library staff who work with teens, this committee provides insight into current YA literature trends and the opportunity to review the best of the best titles available.

If you are interested in becoming a committee member, please take a look at the website for more information about the Peach Award and to complete your application.  And if you have any questions or need additional details about the committee, please do not hesitate to email or call me–I am happy to help!

Mary K. Donovan

Media Specialist

Mill Creek High School


Vice-Chair, GA Peach Book Award for Teens

Celebrating Literacy in the Library and Inviting Participation

How do you invite a participatory culture in your library?  For me, this is a term that is an embedded part of my philosophy.  I strive to find ways for students to have multiple opportunities to connect, participate, collaborate, and create in the media center throughout the year.  All students don’t participate every time, which is fine, but my goal is to offer enough variety of experiences through collaborative lessons, resource promotions, and incentives/contests that every student has a chance to find a place to participate during the year.

After several impromptu conversations with parents and teachers recently, I’ve come to value the power of library sponsored literacy contests and reading promotions.  Teachers have mentioned that they love the “choice” that is a part of these contests and promotions because they see such a variety of students who participate.  Parents have commented to me that their child had no interest in writing poetry or essays until a contest came along.  Multiple parents have mentioned the motivating power of these contests.  My parapro and I have seen how the simple interactive component of stamping a box on a piece of paper can give direction in choosing new books outside of comfort zones and motivation to try something new.

What have I done this year?

  • In September/October, students had sheets where they were asked to read books from different categories of the library such as biographies, informational, graphic novel, fiction, etc.  Each time they read one of these books, they earned a stamp, and they stamped their papers themselves.  When they completed their sheets, they had their name displayed in the media center on our book fair decorations and had their name entered into a drawing for a book fair gift certificate.  Requirements for the sheets were different for each grade level.
  • In October, we partnered with a few other schools in the district and Avid Bookshop, a local independent bookstore, and held a Mysteries of Harris Burdick writing contest.  Students in every grade wrote stories based on the images of the book by Chris Van Allsburg.  We judged the final pieces at the school level to choose the best pieces and sent those on to Avid Bookshop for a local competition.  Avid recruited authors and other community members to select several finalists who were honored at a celebration at the bookshop.  One winner was chosen to enter a national competition.  All students who entered the contest received a certificate of participation.
  • In November, we celebrated National Picture Book Month.  Picture books were promoted all month long on our morning broadcast, and students kept a record of all of the picture books they read for the month, no matter where they came from or whether they were read to them or by themselves.  Depending on how many books students read they earned a bookmark, picture book month certificate, and their name in a drawing for free picture books.  We had about 180 students turn in sheets out of 500 students and over 3,500 picture books were logged during November.

What else is coming this year?

  • In January and February, we will sponsor a persuasive writing contest.  At the moment, we think this will be a spin-off of picture book month.  The picture book month site has several essays by authors about the importance of picture books that could serve as mentor texts for students.  I have already promoted this in collaborative meetings with teachers as a possible project I might work on with whole classes or groups of students.  Students will write pieces about the importance of picture books.
  • In March, we will hold another reading promotion leading up to our spring book fair where students earn stamps.
  • In April, our 2nd annual poetry contest will be held.  This was a huge success last year with over 150 entries from students.  Poems can be written in any form (rhyming, list poetry, free verse, acrostic, etc) and any platform (a napkin, hand written on paper, typed and printed, Animoto, Photo Story, etc).  This year we may partner with Avid Bookshop to extend the contest beyond our school.  The contest will culminate in our annual Poem in Your Pocket Day open mic cafe where all students share poetry into a microphone in the media center.  This event will be broadcast live on the web through Adobe Connect.

These contests and promotions are just one layer of the participatory culture of the Barrow Media Center, but they have come to be a piece that students, teachers, and families appreciate and expect.  These promotions and contests run simultaneously with the multiple collaborative lessons and projects that take place in the library and by no means replace other purposes of the library.  I will continue to evaluate their relevance to our program and always look to give even more students opportunities to connect and create in our library.  How are you celebrating literacy and inviting participation in your library?

Andy Plemmons

School Librarian

David C. Barrow Elementary

Athens, GA

Using Poll Everywhere to Craft Poetry

Until September 28th, I am hosting the Ashley Bryan Traveling Exhibit of Illustrated Africana Children’s Literature featuring the artwork of Shadra Strickland.   This exhibit showcases 8 works of art from the books White Water, Bird, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, Our Children Can Soar, and Eliza’s Freedom Road.  There is also a curriculum guide that incorporates the art and books into lessons about making text to text and text to self connections, response to literature, and more.  I took these lessons and wondered how I might adapt them to various kinds of learning that I try to support in my media center.

One of lessons invites students to write “Where I’m From” poems from the perspective of a character in the story or artwork.  I wondered how I might support students in writing a collaborative “where I’m from” poem rather than individual poems, so I turned to Poll Everywhere


Poll everywhere allows you to create an open ended or multiple choice questions that students can respond to in a variety of ways:  poll everywhere website, texting, tweeting.  With a free educator account, you can receive up to 40 responses per poll and the responses feed into a real-time screen.  The responses can be downloaded into an Excel file, used in a word cloud, or scrolled through on the poll everywhere site.

For my lesson, I shared George Ella Lyon’s original “Where I’m From” poem as well as a template that pointed out pieces of the poem such as phrases, everyday items, foods, etc.  Then, students thought of lines that might be in their own poems and shared them with partners or with the whole group.  We moved into reading White Water by Michael S. Bandy & Eric Stein; illustrated by Shadra Strickland.  This book details an African American boy’s curiosity with what it might be like to drink water from the “whites only” fountain during segregation.  All along the way, we paused and thought about possible lines that the main character in the story might write in his own “Where I’m From” poem.

Students then moved to computers where I had the Poll Everywhere site pulled up with the question “My line in our where I’m from poem is…”.  Each student thought of one line for the poem.  The teacher and I conferenced with students about their lines to look for spelling and repetition, and then each student submitted their response.  We reconvened in front of the smart board to read our poem, which was already waiting for us on the screen.  Finally, we took the words of our poem and pasted them into Tagxedo to make another version of our collaborative poem as well as to look for the words that we used the most and least.

There are numerous uses for Poll Everywhere, but I loved the fact that it could support a collaborative writing effort with a class.  The whole process took us less than 45 minutes to complete.

Here is a final poem from a 2nd grade class:

Where I’m From:  A Response Poem to the book White Water by Michael S. Bandy & Eric Stein; illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Mrs. Brink’s Class

I am from I know everything
from tricking my grandma.
from White Water at a water fountain in town.
from 6 blocks away from the bus stop.
I’m from drinking out of a colored water fountain.
from telling a lie to the bus driver.
from I can do anything
from drinking lots of water because fresh water is good.
I’m from not being able to drink the white water
from pretending to be sick.
from that good ol’ time of riding the bus to town, waiting to drink water.
from boy you better not do that
I’m from white people sitting in the front seat
from going to town with my grandma
from trying to get white water because I thought it was fresh and cool.
from nasty muddy gritty yuck!
from I can do anything
I’m from
I’m from a water fountain
I’m from I can do anything

Andy Plemmons

School Librarian

David C. Barrow Elementary

Athens, GA

The Reading Promise: A Review and an Idea

My daughter has already had a book read to her every day since she was born

Happy Father’s Day!  For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been enjoying The Reading Promise: My father and the books we shared by Alice Ozma.  This was such a fitting book to read as I think about my own relationship and reading life with my 18-month old daughter, but the book connected with me in so many more ways as well.

The Reading Promise is Alice Ozma’s memories of a reading streak that she achieved with her father from the time she was in 4th grade until college.  Her father, an elementary librarian (see another connection?), had seen his older daughter move away from wanting to be read to, so he vowed he wouldn’t let that happen with his youngest daughter.  Even though they already enjoyed reading together often, they decided to make a commitment to read together every day for 100 days.  When they accomplished that, they set their sights on 1,000 days and just kept going.  Alice recounts the stories of her life and how the streak seemed to come into every aspect of her life from informing her questions about growing up to coping with life topics like divorce to finding the conversations to have with her father.  The book is about so much more than just the streak.  It surrounds the reader with ideas and themes such as:

  • a single father doing everything he can to provide for his family
  • the importance of immersing yourself in the written word
  • how a solid foundation in stories can inform every aspect of your life, including your successes and your struggles
  • the changing roles of libraries and librarians
  • the challenges of holding to a commitment
  • the value of daily family time
  • how literature can be a doorway to the most difficult conversations in life
  • the dangers of censorship

After seeing where “the streak” took this now 22-year-old, I can’t help but think about my own life and my own students and families.  What would happen if every family in my school started a streak?  What would it look like?  How would it change the culture of my school?  How would it impact student achievement?  What roles could technology play?


So much has developed since Alice Ozma experienced the streak with her father.  I could imagine families using blogs, wikis, and shared documents to document their streak.  Tools such as Skype or Face Time could be used stay in touch on nights when they might be away from one another. E-books and the many tools that accompany them such as highlighting, sharing, and note-taking could further support family discussions.  At the same time, more traditional print books and journals could still be a valuable tool as well.  I think so often there is a mindset that it’s technology or paper when in reality it’s a combination of them all.  We must harness the wealth of tools at our fingertips and find ways to incorporate them into our lives.


At the end of The Reading Promise, there is a form that can be used to create an actual promise to read together as often as possible, to protect the written word in whatever format it takes, and to celebrate the joy of story.  It makes me curious, and I’m thinking a lot this summer about how this idea might come to life in my school next year.  I encourage you to read this book and consider this too.


Andy Plemmons

School Librarian

David C. Barrow Elementary

Athens, GA

What Are YOU Reading This Summer?

Why are you gliding through your feed reader?  You should be out by the pool or beach or on the porch or deck or whatever with a cool refreshing beverage in one hand and a book or ereader or audiobook device of some sort in the other enjoying the heck out of your own summer reading!  Here are some lists to help you out:

Top 10 Summer Reading Picks for Adults & Kids

What they’re reading this summer at the NYT Book Review

Must Read Summer Books

10 Books That Will Fry Your Brain This Summer

NPR’s Summer High Flyers

Crime Fiction Picks for Summertime Suspense

and, of course, How to Create and Awesome Summer Reading List

Have a great summer!

Jim Randolph

Partee Elementary Library

Snellville, GA

Shanna Miles Wins the 2011 AASL Innovative Reading Grant

For Immediate Release
April 26, 2011

Contact: Jennifer Habley

CHICAGO – Shanna Miles and her project the “Billionaire’s Book Club” is the 2011 recipient of the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) Innovative Reading Grant. Sponsored by Capstone Publishers, this grant of $2,500 supports the planning and implementation of a unique and innovative program for children that motivates and encourages reading, especially with struggling readers.

Working out of the Tech High School Library in Atlanta, Ga., and with the support of the Tech High School Parent Teacher Association, the Billionaire’s Book Club will team ninth grade struggling readers with an upperclassman who is a member of the National Honor Society.  These teams will read one book a month for six months, and each month the teams will host an online radio show analyzing the book read.  In addition, the teams will keep a reading journal and maintain a Billionaire’s Book Club Facebook group as a place to share their thoughts about their reading.

The goals of the project are to increase the reading level of the struggling reader by improving reading comprehension and fluency. The students will also use social networking to improve their academic success by discussing literacy academically and socially. The program seeks to create a reading culture within the school and help bridge the digital divide.  Throughout the program the students will work cooperatively to produce their radio shows, but team members can work competitively to earn the grand prize, an e-reader.

“Shanna Miles has established an exemplary example of engaged reading opportunities for her students with the Billionaire’s Book Club,” said Leslie Preddy, award committee chair. “This project incorporates reading with social interaction, which is vital for reading to thrive and survive with this generation. It is a shining model for others to follow.”

Miles’ “Billionaire’s Book Club” project and other AASL award recipients will be honored at AASL’s Awards Luncheon during ALA’s 2011 Annual Conference in New Orleans. The luncheon will be held Monday, June 27, and Lauren Myracle, best-selling young adult author and national spokesperson for intellectual freedom, will headline.  Ticket information can be found on the AASL website at

The American Association of School Librarians,, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), promotes the improvement and extension of library services in elementary and secondary schools as a means of strengthening the total education program. Its mission is to advocate excellence, facilitate change and develop leaders in the school library field.

Happy Poetry Month 2011

Poetry month is here!  We’ve already seen some great posts on the GLMA blog to get us thinking about this creative month:

Poetry Resources in Galileo

Looking Ahead to National Poetry Month

Later this month, I’ll share some of the products we’ve made and celebrations we’ve had in the Barrow Media Center, but I wanted to take a moment to wish all of you a Happy National Poetry Month and to pose some questions for thought:

  • In what ways are you incorporating poetry into the lessons you are already teaching in your libraries?
  • What kinds of poetry are your students creating in the media center?
  • How are you celebrating the joy of reading and writing poems in your library?
  • How are you honoring student work?
  • How are you incorporating technology for both inspiration and creation of poetry?
  • What special poetry events have you planned in your school (poetry picnics, poem in your pocket day, contests, etc.)?
  • How are you sharing poetry beyond the walls of your library?

Here are a few of the things that we will be doing over the next month in the Barrow Media Center.  Some things are already underway while others are still be fleshed out.

  • PreK Poetry:  PreK students are writing their own shape poems on large cut-outs of symbols from their classroom and will video record their final poems to upload to Teacher Tube.
  • Joyce Sidman collaboration:  A few groups of students will be studying the poems of Joyce Sidman and writing poems inspired by her writing.  These poems will be created in multiple ways from using Photo Story to simply writing them on paper.  The poems will be featured at Joyce Sidman’s keynote speech at the NCTE conference in November.
  • List Poetry:  Using Georgia Heard’s collection, Falling Down the Page, students will study list poetry, write list poems as a whole class, and write individual list poems in a variety of ways.  A first grade class is planning to use Photo Story for this project.
  • Book Spine Poetry:  Students in various grades will create a kind of found poem using books from the library shelves arranged in a stack to write poems using the titles on the spines.  Classes will photograph their stacks and record themselves reading their new poems.
  • Poetry Display:  5th grade has an autobiographical poetry and photography display on the media center shelves.  This project was a collaboration between the art teacher and the media center.
  • Poem in Your Pocket Day:  The official national poem in your pocket day is April 14th this year.  We’ll be celebrating on April 15th.  The media center will be transformed into a poetry cafe with tablecloths, special lighting, and an open mic for all classes to read both original poetry and favorite poems.
  • 1st Annual Poetry Contest:  Students in all grades PreK-5th can submit poems to our media center poetry contest.  A panel of judges will read and select the most creative poems at PreK-1st, 2nd-3rd, and 4th-5th grades.  Top poets will receive autographed books that I had autographed at the Decatur Book Festival, and other special poets will receive things such as pens, bookmarks, and other special trinkets donated from Borders.


  • Poetry Tag Time:  For $0.99, you can download a creative e-book called Poetry Tag Time. The book features unpublished poems by top children’s poets.  Each poem is somehow connected to the one before it as each poet tags the next poet to write a new poem.  There is also a blog connected with the book.  You can also follow the Gotta Book Blog and Poetry for Children Blog, where free poems will be posted each day of poetry month.  This would also be a fun way to start a poetry project in your school among students or teachers.

Have fun this poetry month and feel free to share the exciting things going on in your library in the comments section of this post so that we can all continue to learn from one another about how to honor this genre of our collections.

Andy Plemmons

School Librarian
David C. Barrow Elementary
Athens, GA