3, 2, 1, LEGO!


It’s go time in Legosvile. I’ve been coaching the Magnum Mindstorms since the first week of school, and I love them all. They are all the most magnificent nerds. In the last ten minutes, the conversation has ranged from Minecraft to Greek Mythology to the problem of rusty dust on Mars to who wants to live on Mars to lame jokes with Latin punchlines.

But there is something about the competition – how it gets them to come together as a team; how it completely reframes the exerience of the last few months; how they see themselves in the context of this larger group of school kids, both challenging and encouraging each other to bring their best, best selves into the competition. Each one of them is shiny and bouyant and brilliant.

Each blessed one.

Dear Elementary School Reading Teachers and Librarians – I need your help

We interrupt my unbelievably lackadaisical posting habits of late to send out a sincere and desperate plea to teachers and librarians who have used, or are using, or are familiar with the SRA Reading Mastery curriculum by McGraw-Hill. My son’s school switched over to it last year, and it has been extremely rough around these here parts. He went from reading novels on his own (Dahl, Gaiman, Rowling, Sachar) to coming home from school saying “I’m too stupid to read”.

And then my head exploded.

Now, as his mother, it is easy for me to blame the curriculum – and maybe to do so is valid. The problem, however, may not be the curriculum itself, but rather an ill-defined and poorly-execcuted interpretation of that curriculum in this particular school – one that could absolutely be remedied by additional teacher training and alternate strategies. I know from my teaching days that it takes a while to work out the kinks in a curriculum, and I have TONS OF COMPASSION for the dedicated teachers laboring in the fields, trying to make it work.


No child should come home saying things like that. And I will not have it. Not in my house. Not with my child.

What I would like to know from any of you who can help me is this:

  • What are your thoughts about this program? What works? What doesn’t?
  • What are the strategies you use in your building for kids who get stuck? In our experience, Leo became so demoralized that he was forced to repeat the same lesson over and over because he wasn’t able to get it at 100% accuracy – for a month. This seems crazy to me. And he wasn’t alone. What do you do for your kids to keep that from happening?
  • I know the program focuses on fluency as the sole indicator of good reading. What additional strategies do you use to supplement – to make sure that your kids are also demonstrating the other indicators of good reading – inference, analysis, criticism, intertextual connections, reasoning, etc.?
  • From what I understand, this program is really expensive. Is it worth it?
  • My main criticism of this curriculum is that it seems utterly devoid of joy. What are you doing in your classroom to build joyful readers?

If you are not a teacher or librarian, but know someone who is, please send this on. I’m really trying to gather as many perspectives as I can in anticipation of a meeting I have with the Administration, as well as several conversations that I will be having with different members of the Board. Also, if this curriculum has been used in your child’s school, I’d love to hear your perspective as a parent.

Thank you all so much, and I promise to resume my random posts about random stuff very soon.

Much love,

Kelly Barnhill

I am large, I contain multitudes.

My daughter, at 2:45 today will become Walt Whitman. She has the hat. She has the rakish stance. She’s got the magnetic stare. Indeed, she’s had them all her whole life. I think, in the end, I can blame myself – I was reading “Leaves of Grass” obsessively when I was pregnant with her. Over and over again I laid down on the grass. Over and over I was the grass. And now she is Walt Whitman. So it goes.

In any case, at 2:45, she and the rest of her fourth grade class will don their outfits and become the Famous Americans that they have spent the last month researching, and explain to the hordes of adoring parents that will be crowding into the room why their person was famous and important, and it will be ridiculously cute. Also, there will be cookies.

This morning, as we were getting ready for school and Cordelia was going over her note cards one last time, she decided to quiz her brother. This is a time-honored tradition of big sisters (I confess to doing it myself, way back when) of quizzing their younger siblings on topics that they know absolutely nothing about so that they can feel deeply informed and awesome. Here’s how the conversation went:

CORDELIA: Leo. Quick. Who was Walt Whitman?

LEO: Ummmm. A garbage man.


LEO: A farmer.


LEO: A teacher.

CORDELIA: No. Well, yes. But only for a little while. And he hated teaching.

(That was true. Points to Cordelia. This is what he said about his time living in Long Island teaching school: “Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man’s nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here. Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair.” Ouch. Even I didn’t have such rough talk for the profession that kicked my butt, long ago. Though, in retrospect, I think I may have used the “sink of despair” line once or twice.)

CORDELIA: (after some consideration) Well, he had lots of jobs. But what job made him famous? Like for forever. What did he do?

LEO: He was a baker.


LEO: Building canoes?


LEO: Sewing?

CORDELIA: NO! He was a poet.

LEO: What’s a poet?

ME: A poet is someone who writes poems for their job. Just like a novelist is someone who writes novels for their job.

LEO: Is a bookie someone who writes books for their jobs?

ME: No, that’s something else.

LEO: (thinking) Walt Whitman writes poems?

ME: Well, he did. He’s dead now.


CORDELIA: You don’t know that guy. None of us do. Because he’s dead.

LEO: No. I know his poem.

CORDELIA: No you don’t.

LEO: Yes I do. O Captain, my Captain.

ME: (jaw drop)

LEO: (thinking) O Captain, my Captain our fearful trip is done! And….(eyes rolling to the ceiling) then something about bells.

CORDELIA: Nice work Leo. I see you’ve been paying attention.

LEO: I know all about poems. I am a poemer.

Today. In the car.

The kids were all buckled in when I ran out to the car, tea sloshing everywhere, shoes only half on. I sat down in the midst of an argument that went something like this.

Cordelia: Mom.

Me: (searching for keys) What?

Cordelia: Tell Leo what boogers are made of.

Leo: Candy.

Me: Not candy.

The Little Redhaired Boy: See?

Leo: Rats.

Me: Boogers are made of dried up snot, skin cells, dust, pollen, street dirt, in your case: dog hair, and lots and lots of germs.

Leo: Well, that’s not so bad.

Cordelia: Mom!

Me: What?

Cordelia: Tell him that you can’t eat boogers.

Me: Oh. For sure, Leo. You can’t eat boogers.

The Little Redhaired Boy: SEE, LEO?

Leo: But boogers are so good! And sometimes I get hungry.

The Little Redhaired Boy: If you get hungry, then you can eat bugs. Lots of people all over the world eat bugs all the time. 

Leo: Really?

The Little Rehaired Boy: Yes. So next time you get really hungry, just find a spider. Then eat it.

Cordelia: Or a worm.

Leo: Can I eat grasshoppers?

Me: Sure, but you should first ask its permission. Grasshoppers are terribly fastidious and won’t be eaten by just anybody. They will want to know whether you have brushed your teeth lately, and will likely inquire as to the state of your nails. They will want to know if your room is clean and if your toes are free of jam and if you have recently washed the dishes.

The Little Redhaired Boy: My room is clean. I can totally eat a grasshopper.

Leo: I’m fastidious.



Leo: What does fastidious mean?

Cordelia: It means “not Leo”.

Me: You should be careful of grasshoppers, though. While they are reputed to be delicious, they are also terribly clever. A grasshopper might convince you to build it a new house, or give it the PIN to your bank account, or buy it a rocket ship.

Leo: Grasshoppers like pins?

The Little Redhaired Boy: They use them as swords.



I made them myself. And they are horrible! NO JUDGIES!

Still, as my husband worked his poor little soul to teeny tiny pieces in his efforts to coordinate and coach the Lego Robotics team (with, I have to say, very little support from the school. More on that when I can write about it without spitting on my computer), and as the kids both kicked ass and took names at the competition yesterday (and proud we are of all of them), I have spent the last two days baking Lego cakes.

And you know what, those kids deserve cake. Their school is a small, fairly new charter school, and this is the very first trophy that the school has won. The very first one. And I am proud to the teeth of these children.

I am not, however, proud of these cakes.

The cakes are, by every estimation, a miserable effort.

I swear to god, I’m an excellent cook, but I am baking-challenged. I am baking-deficient. I am the anti-baker. Oh, Julia Child! I have failed you! An entire childhood spent watching your show on public television, and so very little to show for it! Only this:

Mmmmmm....... Food coloring......

Here they are in all their gloppy glory. Do not laugh. I shed tears for these. Sweat too, but not blood. At least, I’m pretty sure.

Really, I blame my husband for this. For giving me the idea. For working so hard that I felt that I needed to increase my contribution. I needed to match. I needed to justify myself. I blame my husband for the fact that, when one fell and exploded on the floor with a sickening schllllllurlp, I honestly thought that I could fix it. “I’m sure it’s salvageable,” my Betty-Crockered brain whispered as I gazed at the crumbly goo on the ground.

And I believed it.

This is Ted’s fault.

Ted, my darling husband (god bless his infernal self) who came up with the idea.

“It’ll be fun,” he said.

“The kids’ll love it,” he said.

“Look! Here’s a website! It looks easy!”

He did not, I found out later watch the helpful video that was on the website:

Still I did it. I even have photographic evidence. Look:

Here I am, looking oddly crazy-eyed.




And now they exist. And they are messy. And lopsided. And gloppy. And honestly, not that good. But the kids will like them.


Or, they better like them, anyway.

Congratulations Team Lego Pandemonium and Team Sonic! You guys are AWESOME!

(have some cake!)

Farewell, Kindergarten!

Today is Leo’s last day in Kindergarten.

Just looking at that sentence makes me fall into grief.

Yesterday, in celebration for their hard work as Kindergarteners, the parents were invited for a Recitation and Ice Cream Social. Now, at Leo’s school, the concept of a recitation is nothing new. It’s part of their School of Oratory curriculum, and they learn how to speak in front of a group, how to communicate effectively, how to make eye-contact and etc. But this was the first time they spoke in front of parents, so it was a big deal.

What’s more: they were reciting poems that they themselves had written. As part of their unit on insects, each kid learned everything they could about a bug, and wrote a poem about their bug. Leo chose spiders. “Why spiders,” I asked. “Because spiders are awesome,” he said.

To get ready to write his poem, he wanted to look at every youtube video ever made that had a spider in it. Like this one:

“I like to know how they move,” he said. “Also how gross they are.”

I arrived a little early with my assigned contribution (caramel syrup; on sale), and was greeted with the requisite Kindergarteney hugs (Look! It’s Leo’s mom! I love Leo’s mom!). I always get hugs from Leo’s class. This is partially because they think I’m funny, but it’s mostly because they love Leo. Because he is funny.

There was a little podium in the front of the room, set up on a small wooden dais. One by one, the Kindergarteners walked up, took the podium, recited their poems, and bowed.

Then, it was Leo’s turn. Leo the class clown. Leo the constant performer. Leo who was sent to the principal’s office during his first week as a Kindergartener. That Leo. He stood up, took the stage, paused to gaze at the audience and made a silly face. The other Kindergarteners thought it was hilarious. He took the podium and cleared his throat.

The Awesomest Spider
By Leo Barnhill

The Spider will leap to its prey
it will quietly creep.
The Spider is big.
The Spider dances a jig.

The Kindergarteners erupted with cheers. It was, as far as they were concerned, the best poem that had ever been written, or would ever be written. Leo bowed, then raised his hands in a two-fisted Victory sign. The crowd went wild.

And then, as his piece de resistance, he lifted his shirt, exposed his bare belly and chest, and rolled his stomach muscles like a belly dancer.

He was escorted out of the room.

Later that day, as he played at the playground and I sat on the bench, decompressing (did I wish for a gin and tonic? Or two? Why yes, ladies and gentlemen. Yes I did.), fifteen different Kindergarteners came up to me and gave me a hug.

“Thank you for putting Leo in my class,” one kid said.

“Leo is my favorite friend,” another kid said.

And last, the kid who gave me no less than four hugs that afternoon, motioned for me to lean down so she could tell me a secret. “Leo,” she whispered, “is my hero.”

“Mine too,” I whispered back, as my son, oblivious to our conversation, scooped up handful after handful of playground woodchips, and shoved them in his pants.