Teacher Tuesday

Had I known that answering an email from Michele Meyer would result in my performing the Ohio State University fight song in front of the student body of Botkins Local School, I might have hesitated before hitting reply. But then I would have been deprived of a delightful connection with a small school with a huge heart!


Michele and I connected over Hattie Big Sky . . .and kept connecting. It was one of the highlights of my professional life to meet her in person and spend the day at her school, a day, I might add, that began with my seeing my name up in lights! Okay. Not lights. But I was up there on the reader board at the local gas station and that is a pretty big deal.

Michele is a reading specialist, working with student in grades K-6; she says, “working with all grade levels and skill levels makes my day fly by quickly!” Botkins Local School is a small rural school in West Central Ohio which prides itself on a long-standing history of academic success. Trust me: Michele could give the Energizer Bunny a run for the money, so you might need a triple shot of something caffeinated before reading today’s interview! 

First, let’s take a peek at Michele’s past!

Second grade (L) Pre-K (R): Already wearing OSU red!
  •  Favorite school lunch as a kid: Ooooooo…our school cafeteria supervisor was my grandmother’s sister and she was an incredible cook.  Hot ham and cheese sandwiches steamed in a foil wrapping was something I always looked forward to eating.  (Maybe the huge foil ball the student body created after lunch made the meal extra special.)  A close second had to be Turkey & Gravy over Mashed Potatoes.  This meal was reserved for special occasions such as holidays and Grandparents’ Day.
  • Best friend in grade school: Anne Freiburger. We bonded the day we made it to the finals of our First Grade Spelling Bee after spelling e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t.  We are still friends to this day and share so many childhood memories.   We were both late-comers in our parents’ lives and laughed about having parents the same age as other friends’ grandparents when we were in Grade 4!  We had siblings that were friends as well.   Because of all of that, we had very similar upbringings and have many reasons to remain in contact to this day.  I look forward to keeping up with Anne (and her siblings) weekly thanks to Facebook. 😉
  • Times you were the new kid in school: I had the pleasure of never moving from my hometown my entire childhood!  However, I did go from my Catholic Grade 1-8 building to our town’s public high school.  The high school blended students from the town’s public K-8 school and three smaller parochial schools.  That was a bit intimidating – going from 22 in a class to 240! 
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch: From grade school through college, I consider myself fortunate to have been blessed with fantastic teachers my entire education.  One teacher who sticks out as one who “inspired me to stretch” was my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Heberle.  I clearly recall the formative feedback he would write on my papers.  He challenged me to “step-it-up” a notch or two!  I clearly recall working on a project for class that had me so fired up, I never wanted to speak to Mr. Heberle again.  I have to laugh about that now because today he is one of the people I would love to hear from most! 
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:I live with few regrets.  J However, if I had to pinpoint one thing I wish I could have done in grade school but never achieved, I would have to say sing a solo.  I am still a bit envious of someone who can get up in front of people and belt out a gorgeous tune.

Michele, you have such a passion for getting kids connected with books. I wanted to interview you because I was completely in awe of the ways in which you expanded on Hattie Big Sky in your classroom. Let’s talk more about what you call “book-end activities.” What prompted you to start incorporating them in your curriculum?

I started usi
ng book-end activities with a group of high-achieving 6th Grade readers I worked with each day.  My goal was to challenge the students to put their higher-level thinking skills into action to demonstrate their understanding of a book in a new and creative manner. 

 Book-end activities allow true-blue fun and demonstrating academic knowledge/growth to marry.  I believe students can be creative in convincing me they understand about characters, events in a story and meaning of new words.

Perilee with baby Lottie
When our class presents our book-end activities, we always invite the other reading groups to participate (a.k.a. learn and have fun!).  Because many of our book-end activities are open to the other students in the class who are not in our reading group, I consider these activities “advertisements” or “trailers” for the book our class has read.  There is no better book recommendation than one from a fellow classmate and pal.  Check!  Another goal met…inspire others to read more.
Bucket brigade to save the burning barn!

What kinds of books lend themselves best to extensions?  Feel free to share titles of books that your kids have especially connected to.
Books that have rich vocabulary, figurative language and dynamic characters are the kind of books that lend themselves best to extension activities.  Some of my favorites are Where the Red Fern Grows, The Westing Game, The Beef Princess of Practical County and, of course, Hattie Big Sky.
Teachers are notoriously resourceful – how do you come up with all of your creative ideas for book-related activities?
I am a begger, a borrower and a stealer!  I have many great friends who are incredible teachers who share their cutting-edge work and ideas with me.  If they give me something I like, I may tweak it and make it my own. 
Magazines are another favorite resource of mine.  Websites like Scholastic, International Reading Association and Google are my best resource friends.  My crazy imagination takes off sometimes and all I need is a little spark of an idea to run wild with it.  I jokingly call myself the “Connection Queen”. 
Also, we often brainstorm as a class when it comes to forming ideal book-end activities.  Here’s how it works:  one student comes up with a good idea; two other students toss out additional tweaks to that good idea to make it great;  and three others add their twist to that great idea.  VOILA! A marvelously entertaining and educational activity has been born. Teamwork works!
Talk about some other ways you use literature to supplement the curriculum.
Literature can supplement the curriculum in countless ways.  One of my favorite ways is through word walls.  We create a life-sized vocabulary wall for many books we read that hold new vocabulary words from the book we are reading.  Words from A-Z (with an additional area for important numbers) pack our hallways.  Students use words from the wall to write summaries, create descriptions and analyze characters or settings.
Word Wall

Thanks to the literature we have read, our class has learned about everything from the ins and outs of the stock market to customs of other cultures to how to show a steer!  We have learned about historical events such as homesteading and the Holocaust as well.
Give us a few examples of activities, like Hats off to Hattie Day, that have grown out of your connections, please.
Our class has planned a Where the Red Fern Grows party where everything is centered around the theme of nature, hunting, country living, determination, loyalty and pursuing a dream. 
Another fun day has been Westing Game Direction Day.  This day is structured similarly to our Hats off to Hattie Day.  Students are responsible for creating different whole class/team activities that demonstrate a specific character’s quirks, talents, interests, occupation or disposition.
Why do you think these literature extensions are important? What do students gain from them? 
Literature extensions are vitally important if you want books to come to life and if you want students to have a memorable experience with those stories.  The more students can relate and create, the better they are and the more they learn. 
Pin Violet’s tail back on!

It makes me smile to think students are able to use a talent to convey their understanding of a scene, character or event from a story.   It is amazing to see the students work collectively to come up with educational and fun activities, costuming and even refreshments.
Do you find your students suggesting titles/activities?
As I mentioned earlier, our brainstorming sessions in class are intensely spirited and a bit hard to keep up with on occasion!  However, they are extremely productive.  All ideas are welcome and encouraged.  However, only those ideas that are well-developed and proven fun activities are approved for the activity day.   I work with a creative crew of fun-loving kids.  They require little of me to create an interactive, entertaining and education afternoon of book fun.
What has surprised you about these book end activities? Perhaps a specific student reaction, for example.
A very soft-spoken student surprised me by going all out and transforming himself into the “Ultimate Rooster Jim” character from Hattie Big Sky.  The student even went to his barn and had a picture taken of him reading alongside his chickens as part of his project!  Now that is proof he studied this character and knew the good, bad and smelliness of him. 

Trying parsley for the first time!
How does your administration support you in these activities?
Our administration is supportive of our students extending their thinking and being creative in demonstrating their academic growth.    Often times, our principal and superintendent stop in to participate in some of the activity day fun.
Your students’ families?  
We’ve had a mother voluntarily send in homemade strudel (a Hattie Big Sky staple) with her son for our class!  Need I say more?  We have also had a grandmother provide authentic shorthand notes from her schooling as a secretary when we were learning more about secretarial duties and the art of shorthand (Thank you Ms. Sydelle Pulaski, Secretary Extraordinaire, from the Westing Game for inspiring this activity).
Your community? 
We have taken a virtual tour around our small town trying to equate Billy Coleman’s adventure (in Where the Red Fern Grows) of going into town to pick up his pups from the train depot to what he’d see and where he’d go if he were to arrive in Botkins, Ohio.   
What do you wish I had asked you about this book-related activities that I didn’t? Any last words/thoughts?   
Believe it or not, I think you have left me speechless which doesn’t happen often.  Great questions!
The only one thing I wish you would have asked me was the affect of connecting with an author (via email, SKYPE, in person, etc.) on a student! I could go on for pages about that.  Kids still walk into my room and talk about your visit.  Amazing…just plain, awesome and amazing.

I think this interview gives you a good idea of why Michele’s reading room is a favorite school gathering spot. I so admire and appreciate Michele — and all her educational colleagues! — working so hard and creatively to ensure that students love learning. It does my heart good!

No Responses to “Teacher Tuesday”

  1. Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina

    Speaking as a former classroom teacher, Michelle sounds like a fabulous teacher! I love her extension activities and her philosophy. BTW Hattie Big Sky was a great favorite read of mine. Enjoyed it so much. And this was a great interview.