Posted in Book Spotlights

Book Spotlight: The Quickest Kid in Clarksville

I cannot believe that it is October and that I haven’t posted in a month! September seemed to fly by and took summer with it. Now that my television is teeming with political ads, I find myself wishing for the simple pleasures of August’s summer Olympics.  Luckily, I have the perfect book to get my fix.

In the first of what I hope will be a regular feature, I plan to shine the spotlight on an individual book, highlighting different skills and standards to which the book lends itself particularly well.

Since this is the first post of its kind, I thought I’d start by telling you how I go about deciding what I might be able to use a book for.  I bucket my thoughts into four categories, taken from Jennifer Serravallo’s Independent Reading Assessment and The Reading Strategies Bookplot and setting, character, vocabulary and figurative language, and themes and ideas.  I give each category a different color sticky and I get going.   I read the book four times through, each time through the lens of a different category and with a different color sticky in hand.fullsizerender-11

In the end, I have loads of ideas for how I might use the text, and the book ends up looking something like this:fullsizerender-13

So, onto the book spotlight!  The Quickest Kid in Clarksville was written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Frank Morrison.    Alta is a girl growing up in Clarksville, Tennessee, which just happens to be the hometown of Olympic runner (and gold medalist), Wilma Rudolph.  It’s 1960 and Clarksville is throwing a parade in celebration of Wilma’s gold medals.  Alta knows she’s the quickest kid in town, just like Wilma, that is until Charmaine comes into the picture.   She’s got fancy shoes and fast feet.   Eventually, on the day of the parade, Alta, Charmaine, and their friends run the relay race of their lives to get a banner to the parade on time.

So, how could you use this book?

When I finished stickying up the book, I noticed just how many pink stickies I had (vocabulary and figurative language).
The book is just crying out to be used with standard RL.2.4: Describe how words and phrases (e.g., regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.

fullsizerender-12The author repeats the name “Wil-ma Ru-dolph. Wil-ma Ru-dolph,” every time the characters are running, giving their feet a beat.  She also repeatedly uses two word fragments across different pages to create a mood and a sense of rhythm  (“Arms moving.  Legs grooving,” and “Bodies lunge.  Feet tangle,” and “Feet dragging.  Head hanging.”)   This isn’t the easiest standard to match texts to and this book was positively made for it.

How else could you use this book?

Plot and Setting

  • Setting affects the plot: It matters that this story takes place in Clarksville in 1960.
  • Multiple problems: Alta has the conflict with Charmaine about who is the fastest runner, she has the problem of not having new shoes and much money, and finally the problem of getting the banner to the race on time.   Each of these ends up affecting what the character learns in the end.
  • Passage of time: Midway through the story the line, “When parade day dawns…” tells the reader that it is now the next day.
  • Identify the narrator: This story is told in the first person from Alta’s perspective.  (This also makes it a great mentor for personal narrative!)
  • Unassigned dialogue: At various points, readers need to use what is happening in the story to figure out who is speaking.


  • Infer character’s feeling: Much of what Alta is feeling must be inferred through what she says, thinks, or does, or through her facial expressions in the rich illustrations.  There are opportunities for students to go beyond “happy” or “sad” to more rich feeling words.
  • Character comparisons: Alta and Charmaine have more in common than they have differences.  They don’t see their similarities, but skillful readers will.
  • Feeling change: Alta’s feelings change about Charmaine and about herself throughout the story.  Readers will have to identify when those feelings change, how they changed, and why they changed.

Vocabulary and Figurative Language

  • Repetition and rhythm: As described above, this book is perfect for analyzing how and why authors use repetition of words, phrases, or even sentence structure.
  • Simile: There are fantastic similes in this book!  (“I puff up like a spitting cat,”  “I leap after her like a scalded frog,” and so many more).
  • Other figurative language: When describing her old sneakers, Alta laments that they have “laces that never thought to glimmer.”

Theme and Ideas

  • Lesson revealed through an “Aha Moment”: Alta realizes that shiny shoes don’t matter as long as she has her feet.  Readers will have to work to think about what this really means
  • Character change reveals lesson: Alta changes her attitude towards Charmaine and in doing so gets the banner to the parade on time–also learning something about teamwork.
  • Cross-genre work: Using Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull, readers can work to compare the lessons learned from Wilma Rudolph’s real life to the lessons learned from this work of fiction.


I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!   Happy Reading!


Posted in Thematic Spotlights

The Best Books for Back to School

The first weeks of school are tough.   We’re tired.  The kids are tired.  We’re trying to get 20, 25, 30 (or more!) small people to move in a common direction, both physically and mentally.  The expression “herding cats” floats through our brains with frightening frequency.  We’re trying to set up routines and procedures that will keep our kids safe  and productive all year, and at the same time, we are trying to establish warm, engaging classroom culture where every student feels known and loved.


This is why, for me, Read Aloud is so important in the first weeks of school.  It’s the time when kids can relax a bit, not having to worry about the right way to head a paper, get into a line, or ask for a new pencil.  They know what to do during a read aloud.

It’s also so important because we use stories to create a vision of what we want our classroom communities to be.  A place where Lilly can make mistakes and fix them with an apology and an interpretive dance.  A place where Swimmy learns that teamwork can you get out of a tough spot.  A place where EVERYONE can learn to ride a bicycle (or cement their growth mindsets, at least).

So, with that, here is the non-exhaustive list of the best books for back to school!

Growth Mindset

Chris Raschka’s Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle feels like it was written for the exact purpose of introducing the idea of growth mindset and persistence to children.  It chronicles the journey of an unnamed character learning to ride a bicycle.  There are small successes and many bumps in the road, but in the end with continued practice and hard work, it happens!

You’ll undoubtedly ask your students to do many things that won’t come easily this year.  Make this little cyclist your mascot, and you’ll remind students that even when things get bumpy, persistence will lead to success.  (Bonus Book: If you want to teach students how their brains develop and learn new things, I suggest Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, PhD.)


We dream of classrooms where our students not only notice each other’s feelings, but also take great care with them.  We know, though, that this is not always their first instinct.  Leonardo can relate.

In Mo Willems’ Leonard0 the Terrible MonsterLeonardo dreams of being a truly terrible, terrifying monster.  He is not.  He develops the ingenious plan of finding the biggest scaredy-cat of a kid and scaring the “tuna salad out of him.”   It turns out that this is not quiet as satisfying as Leonardo would have hoped.  He makes the decision to be not a terrible monster, but instead, a really good friend.  Let’s all be like Leonardo.

Learning to Read (and more Growth Mindset!)

Much like Leonardo, the titular character in Becky Bloom’s Wolf!  wants to scare the other characters in the book.  Unfortunately for him, the farm animals who are his targets are too busy reading to pay his scary howls any mind.   Wolf decides he will also learn to read.

It is a slow process in which Wolf returns to the farm several times before he truly proves himself a reader. Wolf struggles to read complex words, read at an appropriate rate, and read with the expression of a storyteller.   With practice in school, at the library, and with his very own storybook, he gets it.    Students will be able to relate!

Making Mistakes

 Lilly.  Oh, how I love Lilly.  In Kevin Henke’s classic, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly struggles to delay the gratification of showing off her new purple plastic purse (it plays music for cryin’ out loud!).    When her teacher Mr. Slinger holds onto to it for her, she takes some regrettable action in retribution.

Lilly makes a mistake, but Mr. Slinger accepts her apology and suggests, yes, an interpretive dance that makes everyone feel better. If only all classroom conflicts were resolved thus!   Use this book to normalize the making of mistakes, and to build the understanding that we can always fix our mistakes.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Leo Lionni’s Swimmy is the story of a little black fish who uses quick thinking and his own unique characteristics to rally a school of little red fish to fend off a big, bad predator.

Use this book to help students understand that being different can be a good thing, and that working together can make even the the most insurmountable problems solvable.

Happy Reading and Happy Back to School to all!