Middle Grade Read-A-Thon

This week, I knew I’d have a hard time committing to reading during the transition back to school. Plus, I had a National Board meeting on Saturday, which rendered me so exhausted I basically spent the entire weekend sleeping.

So I agreed to join the Marvelous Middle Grade Read-A-Thon. Although the challenge ends at midnight, I’m just going to post now, as I imagine I will fall asleep as I attempt to read this evening. Here’s what I accomplished:

I.M. Pei: Architect of Time, Place, and Purpose, by Jill Rubalcaba. This book has been sitting on my kitchen floor for weeks. I avoided it because I thought it’d be overly specific and boring. Nope. I may have a biased opinion, though, because I’ve had a chance to see almost every building featured in this book.


The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting. As of this writing, I’m not quite done with Dr. DoLittle, but unless the book ends on a huge letdown, I doubt my views of it will change. The pacing of the book is swift, and I’m loving it. I’ve been thinking A LOT about the fact that the library copy I digitally checked out is the “censored” version. I’m perplexed by how much I like an edited edition… the out-of-date language wouldn’t make me NOT want to read the book, but I have found that I’m not as distracted by cringe-worthy language, and I stay more in the story. WAT DO?

The Luck of the Buttons, by Anne Ylvisaker. Betsy Bird said fans of historical fiction would like this book, but at first I violently disagreed with her. What the heck, I groused, all these characters are dopey and have no clue what’s going on around them. Then I settled down and things picked back up.  Final thoughts: It’s a good read, but when you ask me about it in five years, I probably won’t be head over heels in love with it.



11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass. Our class voted for this book as our next read-aloud. It’s PERFECT for our new unit focusing on how characters change throughout a book. I’d read it last year when it was announced as a Battle of the Books title, but it seems a ton funnier this time around.




Huzzah! What fun! Now, I must head offline to finish answering Letters to Ms. Houghton!

A Tale of Two Articles

Ever since I learned that you could make your living as a nonfiction writer, I wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

I had a few plum internships, my final one sending me to the Florida Times-Union. The job was stressful and enjoyable, but two main articles stick in my mind seven years later.

The first is essentially the reason I left journalism.

Cause of death released for pair.

My metro editor deserves mad props for giving this story to a metro intern rather than one of the other three cops and courts reporters. Except that I didn’t really want to call a family to tell them their parents were buried alive. At all. Ever. Calling them was the biggest regret I have in my reporting career. My and my editor’s choices were questioned by the alternate weekly, and even by our conservative editorial board. As a human, I do not regret my choices. I can see how a journalist might disagree with me.

Earlier that month, I called L. Patrick Gray’s son to add to the AP’s obituary. L. Patrick Gray was in charge of the FBI during the Deep Throat scandal in 1972-73. Ed Gray called me back as I was leaving the Jacksonville Police Department, where I had just finished sifting through the police reports for the day. I sat in the lobby, a bit unprepared for his call. I asked him all the questions I usually asked for obituary stories, about his life, about their last times together, etc. I figured the AP would have all the Watergate and Deep Throat details. Plus, my knowledge of post-1920 history was woefully minimal (nice work, Stevenson High School), and I didn’t want to look like an idiot.

As our interview reached its end, I thanked Ed for his time and expressed my sympathies. Ed cleared his throat; he’d ostensibly been talking to reporters for the bulk of the day. “Thank you,” he said. “You know, you’re the first reporter I’ve talked to all day who has actually asked me about my father.”


I’m glad I’m no longer a reporter, but I still love nonfiction. I hope you join me in 2012 for the Sibert Challenge. More information to come.


Early Book Box

Every year since I can remember, I’ve received a book box from my parents. Usually wrapped in green paper (my favorite color), usually attached to my Christmas card (which sometimes, but not always, indicates it is a “significant” gift), my book box has been a staple of holiday giving in our immediate family.

This year, I don’t know if I’m going to get a book box. I’ve been checking books out from the library a TON, reading free classics on our McHoughtKindle, and frankly, most of my book purchases have been turned over to my classroom. Oh, and did I mention this is the first Christmas in 28 years that I’ve spent without my parents?

So when I finally made it over to the post office, where they’ve been holding my box of American Girl books since October (whoops), I decided that in case I don’t get a book box this Christmas, I’d count this one instead.

When we moved from our Lake City apartment, we had more than 60 boxes of books. Sixty. And there were still more back home in Michigan. I think this American Girl box might be among the last of them.

I first learned about the American Girls in early second grade. Laura Ingalls Wilder had made me a historical fiction NUT, and the series fed my addiction through most of my youth.

Olive, inspecting our newest addition.

It’s possible at this point that you don’t fully understand the depths of my love for the world of American Girls. Everyone had a favorite American Girl, right? Mine was either Felicity or Molly. Many people owned an American Girl, right? It’s a bit embarrassing, and I’m aware of the privilege I had in my childhood, but I’ll admit that at the time, I had all of the American Girl dolls. All of them. And the books. And the accessories.

These were acquired over a lengthy period. Namely, my entire youth. I never got tired of receiving accessories for gifts or purchasing them on my own with saved spending money. After a while, I could even decode the heart-shaped labels Pleasant Company stuck to the bottom of every American Girl box to identify what was inside.

But it was always about the books.

The paperback sets, because hardcovers took up more room and weren’t really worth it. You’ll notice in the photo above that I also have Kit. But Kit is one of the newer American Girls, Shannon, you say. CORRECT. I GOT KIT FOR CHRISTMAS IN COLLEGE BECAUSE SHE WAS AWESOME AND FROM THE 1930S WHICH IS AN AMAZINGLY INTERESTING HISTORICAL PERIOD AND ALSO SHE WAS A NEWSPAPER REPORTER LIKE ME. WHAT AN AWESOME PRESENT!!!!! But aren’t the new slipcases ugly?

Did you know my mom worked at a bookstore when I was in school? BECAUSE SHE DID AND LOOK AT WHAT SHE SCORED FOR ME! They were like book group guides and I filled them out in my BEST HANDWRITING because I KNEW I WOULD WANT TO KEEP THEM FOR FOREVER.

Remember when they first introduced the Girl of Today? And there was only ONE outfit you could get for her? I asked for her, but was totally disappointed there were no books. Note the rad stencil I could have used to write my own Girl of Today stories, but I didn’t because writing the TALE of the GIRL of TODAY was intimidating.

There they are (don’t the Kit books look out of place? :( The times, how they change)! Staples of my bookshelves for so many years, finally reunited with me in Seattle!

I’ve missed you, ladies.

At home with some of my other children’s books. <3



Spartan Scholar-Athletes

I know many of you are bummed that our Spartans aren’t heading to the Rose Bowl, but here’s something to celebrate!

Potsy Ross Award (Top Scholar-Athletes)
P Mike Sadler – 4.0 Applied Engineering Science
LB Max Bullough – 3.93 Finance
QB Andrew Maxwell – 3.76 Supply Chain Management
OL Nate Klatt – 3.78 Accounting

This is highly impressive. Although I still hold Chris Hill as my favorite scholar-athlete.

P.S. I learned this information from my fellow alum Stephanie Simpson, who is charming and brilliant and who makes me miss HSTAR.

I’m Bringing Hats Back.

So talk to me, Colby Sharp. And the rest of the Internet.

I read I Want My Hat Back last night in Barnes and Noble while we were en route to see Hugo.


Mr. Sharp is frankly the driving force behind my eagerness to read #hatback, and he has long been a Team Bear proponent. Although I feel similarly to the person on Twitter (help me, I can’t find her tweet) who said both Bear and Rabbit were poorly behaved, I don’t think I should sit on the fence on this issue.

So I began a list of pros and cons for each team. Spoiler alert and such regarding the content below.

ALSO, before I go any further, has anyone yet pointed out how much THIS VIDEO IS #HATBACK? (Learn the history of this meme here.)


I’ve chosen to use genderless pronouns in this debate. I checked to see if my style guide of choice (the AP Stylebook) had weighed in on genderless pronouns, but it seems they haven’t really. So I’ve gone with my personal favorite gender-neutral pronoun, “per,” which I first learned about in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time.


  • Bear’s gotta eat. (Thanks, Donalyn Miller)
  • Eye for an Eye.
  • I HATE it when people mess with me. I feel Bear’s pain to a certain extent.
  • Bear went through the appropriate channels to find per hat before resorting to what were PERHAPS unsavory measures — per searched high and low through the forest.
  • My initial impression of Bear is that per is rather simple. Is Rabbit taking advantage of a cognitively compromised character?
  • We don’t know what happened right before the end. Perhaps Bear contacted the authorities, who safely removed Rabbit from the forest and returned the hat to its rightful owner.
  • Similarly, maybe Bear is just sitting on Rabbit. Or maybe per tried one of Kelso’s Choices and made a deal.
  • If that’s the case, maybe Bear is mimicking Rabbit’s protests ironically at the end. Like, SEE, I could have been a jerk like Rabbit was, but I did the right thing AND got my hat back.


  • Rabbit must know that its odds aren’t too good in the forest food chain. So maybe per decided to BUCK THE SYSTEM and mess with bear, sacrificing per existence to mess with The Man.
  • Eye for an Eye. Maybe Bear munched on Rabbit’s friend/lover/cousin in the past. WE DON”T KNOW the backstory.
  • How did bear misplace per hat in the first place?
  • If Rabbit innocently happened upon the hat, per might not have realized that it was Bear’s. Maybe Rabbit’s frantic, verbose, seemingly guilty response is due to being TOTALLY FREAKED OUT that a bear is questioning per.
  • Dare I suggest that joining Team Bear be a little bit of victim-blaming?
  • I’m not completely convinced that the fox wasn’t somehow a part of this whole mess.

I’m currently leaning toward Team Rabbit. Which is where I seek your counsel, MISter Sharp et al.

Also, ouch, GoodReads. I thought we had an understanding.


Landscapes from Junk


It’s Monet! But these pictures are made from bits of rubbish! They reminded me of the work we saw in Here Comes the Garbage Barge.

I learned about the artist, Tom Deininger, from CRAFT, who learned about him from Nag on the Lake, who learned about him from Twisted Sifter.

Pondering this medium for our upcoming Pop Art unit…

Why I think college football is (sort of) important

I don’t watch college sports much. Or any sports, really. I spent the bulk of high school alternately railing against and scoffing at meathead jock types. Sure, there were a few intelligent, well-rounded sporty types, but we didn’t talk much in class (and NEVER outside of class), so I considered them outliers. Rob LyonsRenee Pomaville, and Marybeth Knoth were always people I admired. I think it’s pretty awesome that each of them have much “brainier” jobs than I do now. I’d love to meet up with them.

Even though I went to a school in the Big 10, I never attended a football game. I didn’t go to any basketball games either (although that was mainly because I didn’t want to camp outside the Breslin Center to enter the student ticket lottery). The bulk of my animosity toward college sports began to fade, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself a sports fan.

But after college I realized that sports give us a large-scale way to stay connected that, like it or not, we can’t necessarily get from our college academic pursuits.

Look at my Twitter feed after last night’s Michigan State game. The tweets are written by, from top to bottom, a former SNewser who I never even worked with, former SNewser now at the Indy Star, former SNewser now at MLive, former SNewser who left a paper where she was treated like dirt to become a professional superstar, former SNewser who was more of a friend-of-a-friend, and one of my top three favorite MSU professors / physics mastermind. I’m sort of in touch with these people, yes, but there’s an emotional connection I feel with them after big college news like this is announced. EVEN IF I don’t talk with them right after seeing their post. EVEN IF I didn’t even watch the game.

Jane McGonigal would call this fiero, I guess. A more cynical person might call this mob mentality. I think it’s just another reminder that our choices define not only the path we take in life, but also who will be a part of our community.

When I chose to go to Michigan State, I knew I’d be a part of an enormous community, which was thrilling to me. I didn’t want to be a big fish in a little pond. But I also knew I wanted to be near lots of like-minded nerds, so I joined the Honors College and lived on an Honors floor.

My closest MSU friends happened to be in the Honors College too, but I love that on any given day in downtown Seattle I can shout “GO GREEN” and almost always someone knows how to respond. I wouldn’t be able to have that same connection if I said, “YO, Who got that last e-mail from Bess German talking about alumni events???” Cheering for sports has given us this common language, right? Sure, there were plenty of people who, in my view, may have squandered the academic portion of their college days, but for the most part, we know MSU is so much more than a basketball team or a football game.

I guess our school becoming an AVID elementary has got me thinking about college a bit more than usual. We had our first college day last week, and at first I was more than a bit miffed that many students’ college apparel celebrated the sports teams, not the academic programs, associated with the different schools.

Back in first grade, when I was mocked for wearing a MSU sweatshirt rather than a shirt from football powerhouse U of M, I protested, “Of COURSE I’m wearing MSU.” (I imagine you can hear the shrill tone my voice achieved as it reached into the stratosphere) “My Dad is a POLICE OFFICER, why would he go to U of M if MSU has the best POLICE program in the country???”

I’d like to think our kids, especially those who come from families where college isn’t a part of their legacy, understand that the sports spectacle is distinctly different from the learning that happens at college. But the truth remains that when you don’t have time to wax philosophical, the most effective way to express that belonging is with a battle cry or a round of the fight song.

Back to football. If you want to see the big play that everyone’s freaking out about, you can watch it here. But I think you should watch the video that I posted earlier in the season, which shows MSU quarterback Kirk Cousins is an absolute class act.

So I’m not going to start watching any football games (although I might catch a basketball championship game or two). I remain skeptical of the messages families send their students when they put together elaborate tailgate extravaganzas. But I’m definitely proud to be a Spartan.


Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

This weekend, I had the excellent experience of attending the WSASCD conference in SeaTac. Some of the sessions were lovely, some were frankly ill-prepared, but the session that sticks with me, particularly as a teacher who is dipping her big toe in the world of web technology, was a session on Digital Natives and Immigrants. It just so happened to be led by FW’s very own Tech Ninja Hannah Gbenro, the Hannah formerly known as Pena.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “digital immigrant,” and I honestly thought I was going to be talking about students from poverty who come to our schools with no experience with technology. Instead, we talked about the (often age-related) digital divide between teachers and students as well as between tech-saavy teachers and tech-wary teachers.

A few comments and ideas have been sticking in my mind.

1. “Teachers take changes in stride. But technology is the only change I’ve seen teachers actually be afraid of.” ~Ryan Patterson, Wildwood & Camelot librarian

Our librarian said this early in the conversation, and at first I rolled my eyes a bit. Some teachers, after all, grouse over ANY small or large change to the curriculum or the system. Once I got the grouchiness out, I realized, by and large, he was right. Our teachers aren’t necessarily freaked out about power standards, they’re freaking out about applying the power standards to our new (crazy-buggy) online grade book system. Lately, when we talk about the MSP, the conversation focuses largely on the transition to computer-administered testing. I haven’t read any research or articles on why technology shifts seem to be so stressful, have you?

2. Digital learners aren’t spastic, short-attention span techies they’re often stereotyped as; they actually absorb information differently.

I find myself often frustrated when I pass information like links or log-in information along to teachers and they repeatedly ask me to explain the information or remind them how to log in or access a particular resource. Hannah talked about the actual differences in modes of learning between people who are digital natives and those who are digital immigrants. For example, traditional educators often appreciate information to be disseminated in a logical order or sequentially. I’ve been thinking about how I can make information accessible, not overwhelming, when I send out my Book of the Week lesson plans.

3. In education, technology isn’t fully integrated, it’s still an event.

I’m absolutely guilty of this. But I think this is something systemic in education, not just related to our in-class technology. For example, whenever I use an iMovie as part of a presentation or mention cataloging book titles in a LibraryThing account, I’ve noticed staff members sometimes get hung up on the technology I used to present the information. “But how did you DO that?” “That’s SO AMAZING! It must have taken so much TIME!” “There’s NO WAY I can do this because I have no clue what you did technologically in your talk.” I know they mean it (usually) in a complimentary way, but it often frustrates me because I worry they’ve let this wonder distract from the main message/information I was trying to share.

This lack of full integration was evident even within the conference itself. Plenty of people were taking notes on iPads, but (until I mentioned it), I was the only person tweeting. The ideas and learning we were exchanging at the conference weren’t being shared with the enormous global network of educators who are grappling with the same issues we addressed this weekend!

A total of three people used the #wsascd hashtag the entire weekend. The WSASCD blog hasn’t been touched since 2009. Google searches for “WSASCD Conference Recap” and the like came up empty.

But outside the education realm, this integration is more and more simply a part of how professional communities share ideas. I’m not just talking about my tech-oriented friends riffing on digital photography and computer programming. My other friends also share information about design conferences, fashion exhibitions, and travel.

I do want to distinguish here that each of the people I linked to aren’t sharing their information simply in an effort to overshare how awesome they think they are, they are looking to connect with others to develop professional learning communities that are mutually beneficial.

So what could this technology integration look like at a future conference? Here’s what I experienced when I went to WordCamp Portland last month. The conference was attended by people on an extremely wide continuum of technological ability. Many folks were web developers, but others were designers, advertisers, and people like me who just create content.

Before I arrived, last-minute changes to the schedule were reflected on the website. When I registered, there was a line on my nametag for me to include my Twitter handle (I’m @MsHoughton) and/or web address. The first page of the program included the hashtag to use when Tweeting so other people could search for tweets related to the conference (in this case, #wcpdx, for WordCamp Portland). Throughout the day, people uploaded images, quotes, and wrote blog posts from the conference.

Weeks later, people were still posting reflection posts. You can see mine here and here. (Full disclosure: I actually wound up speaking about educators and technology at the conference.) Mine are positively vapid compared to some of the in-depth multi-post analyses some folks shared.

So think about that for a minute, administrators. These attendees were INDEPENDENTLY choosing to write lengthy, thoughtful reflections on their experiences at a conference. They were then reading, commenting on, and reposting sometimes DOZENS of additional reflections. Can you IMAGINE the power if more teachers were doing that? My coworker saw me typing up the first draft of this blog post during a break and she asked, “Oh, are you doing a reflection for your National Boards?” “No, it’s just… um, what I do when I attend a conference,” I replied.

4. A principal from the Fife school district really got me thinking. “There’s a level of arrogance I hear so often when someone is talking to me about technology. They don’t need to insult my gray hair, they can just talk down to me about what I can’t do.”

Yes, I selected the picture because I can almost HEAR the gentlemen pictured snidely talking about their superior skills in technology. A further case in point: my comment from #3 above could also be construed as pompous. “Oh, look at me. I’m such a hip, rad teacher keeping it real and sharing a wealth of information with my digital network. Why didn’t youuuuuu do it too? It’s probably because I’m hip and rad and you’re really not.” And to many within the education world, I’m sure it could totally be taken that way (particularly if I were a jerk to begin with. Which I don’t think I am.)

I think that part of this principal’s comment could be attributed to some measure of oversensitivity. After all, I know I’m always pretty defensive if I feel like I’m behind or somehow doing something “wrong.” But I also think she has a HUGE point.

Please allow me to overgeneralize for a moment. I say this because I’ve spent the majority of my life among an overwhelmingly science-and-technology-inclined crowd and I love them, but I admit many come across as jerks. Many of these people are fully aware of their intelligence. They have often been mistreated by people who do not share their gifts. So I wonder if for some of these people, treating folks who struggle with technology is their way of responding to the distain and unkindness they were met with when they were younger. I might also point you to this WIRED article discussing Silicon Valley and folks on the autism spectrum.

Regardless of the cause, this principal was absolutely right that we need to rethink the way we (myself included, if I’m having a particularly stressful day) interact with people still acclimating to technology. That’s part of why I think we need to find out more about the fear (see #1) so many people have about changing technology, so we can then respond to that fear more appropriately.

5. Reality is Broken by JaneMcGonigal is a critical read for today’s educators.

Truly. Read it now. I wanted to jump up and hand everyone at the session a copy.

The book talks a lot about what we can do in the real world so our students (and fellow teachers) will have a chance to experience the fiero (rush of excitement, pride, and accomplishment) they often find in game play but not in their workdays. Can’t handle an entire book right now? That’s fine, you can read just the first five chapters, they’re the ones most relevant to education. Heck, even the intro could be enough. (If you want the intro, e-mail me and I’ll hook you up.)

There’s more that I’m still processing, but I’m interested in your thoughts so far. What am I missing? What do you think I’m totally spot on or absolutely wrong about?

Living with Intensity

I’m been reading the most therapeutic professional text I’ve seen in a while. When I first checked out Living with Intensity, everyone laughed at me — my husband, my colleagues, even my students (I post in our classroom what I’m currently reading). They thought I was reading a book that would teach me how to be even MORE intense. Rest assured, that’s not the case.

Instead, Living with Intensity is a guide about how to nurture gifted children, adolescents, and adults to channel their quirks and use them for good. I say it’s therapeutic because as I’m reading, I’m also finding elements that apply to me in my adult life. The authors are always cognizant of toeing the line between helping students cope in a neurotypical society while being careful not to dampen students’ gifts. This part of the book DIRECTLY related to a conversation we had in class earlier this week:

One way that parents and teachers can best support gifted children in their development is by recognizing that emotional growth and personal growth are a necessary part of the educational process (Roeper, 2004b, 2007; Piechowski, 2006). Most educators and parents these days seem to believe that, for gifted children, emphasis must be placed first and foremost on their intellectual development. But intellectual development rests on the development of the child’s Self, on his or her insights and deeper sensitivities. In fact, we cannot separate one from the other. It is this very separation that makes gifted children experience stress as a negative force. (p. 81, emphasis mine)

I really want to copy some of these ideas and share them at conferences later this month. For example:

There is another dimension of how stress affects gifted children. They not only receive stress, they also create it. Gifted children create a kind of discomfort in their surroundings, for by their mere existence, they uncover shortcomings. They question and challenge traditions and the status quo and are not comfortable doing things just because everyone else is doing them. Their experiences are unconventional; their needs are not typical, and society — many schools and other institutions — is unable to fulfill them… The gifted do not accept neat, simple categories; they expect society to think in complex ways, as they do. They expect society to look honestly at itself and to perceive things about itself that it cannot and does not want to see.(p. 79, emphasis mine)

I’m sure there will be more as I continue reading, but I needed to share these publicly. Additionally, there’s apparently a family guide and a teen guide available from the same editors. It seems like these are the more current, in-depth version of the Gifted Survival Guide.

Yesterday, a primary teacher told me how lucky my students were to have me as their GATE teacher. Normally, when I hear comments like that, I blow them off because praise makes me feel really uneasy, especially when I feel like I’m just doing my job. But she looked at me and said, “You know exactly what they’re going through, you know how to listen to them.” She shrugged and sliced some math work on the paper cutter. “I wouldn’t have the first idea of what to say to them, much less teach them.”

I realized she was right. Ever since I received my position as the gifted/talented teacher, I had been doubting my beliefs. Did gifted students really deserve a more challenging, “better” education than their peers? Was it “fair” to have a gifted teacher working with students who are already meeting standard when there are dozens of other students struggling who could benefit from her support? I would honestly not be alive today if it were not for the gifted and talented support system I developed in high school, but now I fretted that maybe the gifted program wasn’t what was best for kids.

When I was applying for the 2/3 GATE position and right after I received the job, I’d heard plenty of people say things like, “Hey, better you than me” or “You’re the best choice to work with them,” but this moment in the staff workroom was the first time where our educational experiences, both my students and my own, felt validated. We really do have special needs, and we really do benefit from this least-restrictive learning environment. I can’t wait to see what we achieve this year.