Reflective Renewal

finding meaning and inspiration in children's literature

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So simple, yet so complex: Check out this year’s Caldecott Honor books

April 6th, 2010 by christine · Creativity, children's books

Don’t you consistently find that the simplest things in life are the most beautiful, and sometimes the most complex and fulfilling?  I find that I get more out of a simple children’s picture book than I often get out of a complicated textbook.  The same goes for a single flower versus a bouquet, or a quaint cottage versus a mansion.  There is much to be said for simplicity.

That is why I love this year’s Caldecott Honor books– Red sings from treetops: A year in colors by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski and All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Marla Frazee.

Both books are essentially poems accompanied by rich, layered illustration, yet both books elicit such pleasure, emotion, and thought.

Red sings from treetops is an exploration of the seasons done in an innovative fashion, by personifying colors.  While the book is seemingly simple in its content of colors and seasons, it does so with sophisticated language and sensory detail. Personally, I was most struck by the book’s cohesion.  There is cohesion between text and illustration, as well as cohesion within the text and illustrations themselves, which ties the whole book together.  People rarely understand the importance of cohesion in holding a piece of work together, and this book is an exemplar for repeating elements, carefully woven in a way that makes sense.  Although I love the text, which is a brilliantly crafted poem, it is really the illustrations that mesmerize me.  With a contemporary flair, Zagarenski appears to have combined collage and paint techniques to capture fine details, such as ladybugs and a sip of lemonade.  Her illustrations are fun and whimsical, and the kind you want to look at over and over again to discover little details that were missed the first time.  She personified color in a way I didn’t know was possible.  This book reminds us of what it is we all love about each of the seasons. In the end, it is the simple things that truly matter– the marriage of yellow and purple on a pansy, or the feeling of our warm hands on the cold cheek of a snowman.

All the World feels like a classic to me.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this book were on the bookshelves of many people decades from now.  The text is a relatively brief, rhyming poem, with excellent rhythm and flow.  The illustrations almost feel retro to me, as though they were done 60 years ago, reminiscent of Leonard Weisgard.  Let’s face it– children love and respond well to rhyme.  There is an inherent part of our brains that resonates with the patterns rhyme offer us.  I find it ridiculous when snooty, unaware children’s publishers and literary agents shy away from rhyming picture books for children. Have they actually met children or worked with them?!  Children grow in their literacy and linguistic skills by being exposed to rhyme!  All the World is a perfect example of a brief, rhythmic, rhyming poem that appeals to people of all ages, while simply exploring the complexities of life, such as the intricacies of nature, or age, or what makes the world go round.  The soft, detailed illustrations are timeless.  In short, this book captures and conveys what really matters in life.

Remember– in the simple resides the complex.  When life gets too complicated, as it often does, nothing make any sense, and nothing seems to matter anymore.  These two Caldecott Honor books remind us that simplicity holds beauty and fulfillment.  Money, power, and status don’t matter in the end.  Togetherness, a connection and appreciate of nature, and loving gestures are what really count at the end of the day.  Do yourself a favor and curl up with these books after a long, difficult day.  All of a sudden, you’ll have a fresh perspective you didn’t know existed.

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March 29th, 2010 by christine · Creativity

Thank you to everyone for participating in the Library Blog Challenge.  Reflective Renewal will be donating $50 to the Beardsley & Memorial Library of Winsted, CT.  Keep on supporting those libraries!

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This is a library-loving blog challenge!

March 19th, 2010 by christine · Creativity

For every commenter on my “Entice adolescent readers: Secrecy and social class divisions… this stuff never gets old!”post between now and midnight on March 27th, I will donate $1 to my local library: The Beardsley & Memorial Library of Winsted, Connecticut, up to an amount of $50.

How easy could it be?  You comment, I cough up the money, the library gets a gift!  If you don’t know what to say in your comment, “I love libraries” will do.

Note that my pledge is “per commenter”—so if a single person leaves 50 comments, that still only counts once!  But you can do more by spreading the word … please link to this post, tweet about it, and send your friends here so they can comment and raise more money.

If you’re moved to make a flat-fee donation to your library, or to start your own challenge, you are quite welcome, and please leave that information in the comments.

For a complete list of participating bloggers (and to visit other sites where you can help libraries just by leaving a comment!) visit the writerjenn blog at

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The power of children’s books outside the classroom

March 17th, 2010 by lauree · children's books

For those of you not in-the-know, our dear Christine is pregnant with her first child!

I was honored to help plan her baby shower on March 7 at Mohonk Moutain House. Our theme? Cherry blossoms. It’s still a little early for them, even here in Washington, DC, but with the bright blue sky that Sunday morning and a baby girl on her way, it seemed the perfect metaphor.

As I told the 50 ladies who joined us, this is about helping Christine transition into motherhood. There will plenty of time for baby when she arrives. Now is our chance to create a path for Christine to take this new step her life.

As women we have an opportunity to nurture and support one another through our transitions. Motherhood can be a mystery, though it doesn’t have to be. By sharing honestly about our experiences, and offering support to one another, we make all of lives richer. Women, we are in this life together!

In celebration of Christine and her love of literacy, every person was asked to bring a new children’s book to the shower that we would donate in her honor. Specifically they were asked to bring their favorite, either one they read as a child or read to a child in their life.

The response was overwhelming! Just like the response I received to my question posed on this blog – What was your favorite book as a child? – even before the shower people were calling or emailing to tell me their favorite book, and how excited they were to bring it with them.

We collected such an amazing variety, from Dick & Jane to Frog & Toad and of course a bunch of Dr Seuss. At the shower, I had women tell us why they brought the book they did. We heard stories about books read to Christine as a child, to their own children, and books with cherished memories and beloved characters. In fact, going into the bookstore to buy my book for the shower I ended up with one for her, and one for me, my favorite, James & The Giant Peach. (No sooner had I bought it did my father ask to borrow it. The power of children’s literature!)

The books collected are now with The Children’s Home in Poughkeepsie, NY for their new library for young mothers to read to their children.

As we celebrate the newness of spring, of birth and rebirth in our lives, consider how the beauty and simplicity of children’s literature and our connection as women can be equally celebrated and nurtured.

This post is about more than the pregnancy of my friend. It’s about the connection we have to each other, and the role that literature can play in those relationships. As teachers, you offer students a space to learn and grow. What a special gift that you can give yourself and the people in your lives too. A seemingly simple book, and a genuine curiosity about what inspires us as readers, can become a meaningful conversation. Even among people who don’t know each other well.

What support are you wanting in your life? What support can you offer the women around you?

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Entice adolescent readers: Secrecy and social class divisions… this stuff never gets old!

February 23rd, 2010 by christine · Creativity, children's books

Growing up, I was an avid reader.  Even on beautiful spring days when others were out biking and playing, I could be found indoors curled up with a great book.  Like so many adolescents, however, my reading habits did decline somewhat dramatically once puberty struck.  Instead, I was fixated on social relationships and boys, like so many other teen-aged girls.  If one of my teachers were to present my classmates and me with an adolescent novel filled with intrigue, secrets, and romance, we would have been hooked, though.  Trust me!

To all teachers out there reading, please don’t shy away from books such as the brand new debut novel by Jennifer R. Hubbard entitled The Secret Year.  I found this book while perusing a fantastic website called Class of 2k10, which showcases “a group of the hottest debut authors of Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction.”  This website is a fabulous resource for teens, parents, and teachers who may be seeking the latest, most enticing books for adolescents– even the most reluctant teen readers.

As soon as I began reading The Secret Year, I was hooked, and devoured the entire book in one afternoon.  As I reflected on what I found most appealing about the book, I brainstormed the following attributes:

  • Hubbard beautifully captures the distinct time of adolescence. It is unlike any other developmental period in our lives, and it is filled with a unique range of emotions attributed to growth and change.
  • Much of the book’s content is influenced by the social class divisions that still prominently exist in our culture.  Just when I thought, “Oh, no!  Not another Romeo & Juliet,” I immediately realized that these castes never get old.  Class divisions not only still thrive, but also still hurt us and shape us in life-changing ways.  In this book, there is a “secret year” filled with the hidden romance of an affluent girl who falls for a boy from the “wrong side of town.”
  • The Secret Year places a lot of emphasis on relationships, both platonic and romantic, and so do teens.  There is no denying the essential role of relationships in humans’ lives, and this novel tenderly explores the complexities of a range of rather mature relationships.
  • Journaling and letter writing have always been a vital escape and mode of expression for humans, especially adolescents.  Much of The Secret Year revolves around the pages of a diary-like series of letters written to the secret boyfriend, Colt, by the deceased, secret girlfriend, Julia.  Through the power of Julia’s writing, Colt is able to gradually mourn her sudden and unexpected loss.
  • Hubbard does not shy away from a realistic portrayal of adolescent sexuality.  Handled tastefully, sexuality is openly explored within the pages of The Secret Year. Teachers and parents– there is no need to blush, though.  When adults consider the facts that most teens are sexually active, it makes sense that we provide them with respectable books that contain sexually active adolescent characters so that we may discuss the books honestly, and in ways that actually pertain to teens’ day to day lives and healthy growth.
  • Although the bulk of the content of The Secret Year would typically appeal to female readers, I do think this book would also appeal to male readers, which is a rarity.  There is one integral reason behind this statement– the book is written from the perspective of Colt, the main male character, which was an ingenious choice made by Hubbard.
  • Speaking of Colt, this main character was easy to like, due to his loving nature and his fantastic sense of humor.  For these reasons, among many, the book is an easy, enjoyable, quick read, which I am positive would delight many adolescent readers.  For teachers, one of the best parts is that Hubbard provides an insightful Readers’ Guide to the book on her website, which would make an excellent conversation starter in classrooms across the country.

Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, all of us seem to enjoy the allure of secrets.  So whether we are male or female, adolescent or adult, the intrigue of a range of secrets cannot be denied as a wonderful pathway into enjoying a book.  For this reason alone, many readers will enjoy The Secret Year.  Check out this book, as well as several other debut titles on the Class of 2k10 website, and entice tons of adolescent readers out there!

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As teachers, what is the greatest gift we give our students?

February 17th, 2010 by christine · Creativity

This is not an easy question to answer.  When I was first posed this question, I immediately thought of the important affective qualities we instill in our students, such as self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, etc.  How do we do that, though?  How are those essential, identity-shaping elements fostered?

Although it isn’t the only pathway, one significant and tried and true pathway is literacy. I think the greatest gift we give our students is literacy.  Literacy leads to empowerment, unlimited knowledge, and plays an inherent role in our lives, and our in our identities as Americans.  Without literacy, and without a love of literacy, citizens in this culture simply do not have the same access and power as those who do.

As a professor, I primarily teach children’s literature and literacy methods classes for teachers.  So, at the beginning of nearly every one of my courses, I ask my students, “So, what is literacy?  We’re going to be talking about it all semester, and it’s one of the most incredible skills you will teach in your careers, so what exactly is it?”  Again, this is no simple question.

I encourage my students to brainstorm this question for a while, often in small groups, and then we all re-assemble to discuss.  Commonly, we all discuss the obvious traits of literacy, such as the ability to read and write.  Often, students will also mention obvious, yet important traits such as comprehension, vocabulary, etc.  Unless I hear more in-depth responses, I prod my students by asking, “What else is literacy, though?” Often times, I also show a short video clip of functionally illiterate adults in New York City explaining their lifelong troubles related to their inability to read and write.  For them, their illiteracy equals fear, lack of opportunity, and low self-esteem.  It is at this point that all of my students are truly inspired and able to articulate that literacy is not simply the ability to read and write.  To be literate and to love literacy equals dignity, self-respect, and freedom.  Literacy is an interwoven piece of our identities; it is not just a skill to be acquired.

As educators, when we realize what a beautiful, inherent gift literacy is, we teach it more effectively and passionately.  We are human beings, after all, and we each bring our own emotional baggage to our classrooms each day, whether we realize it or not, or whether we mean to or not.  One of the hugest emotional suitcases we can bring into our classrooms is how we feel about literacy.  What was your childhood experience with learning to read and write?  Do you have cozy memories of curling up with Grandma and a book of fairy tales, or did you dread being called upon in class to read aloud?  Do you cringe every time you have to write something, or do you take joy in composing even the simplest thank you card?

In Lauree’s last blog post, she posed the delightful question, “What was your favorite book as a child?”  As teachers, it is imperative that ask ourselves not only that fun question, but also lots more questions about the role of literacy in our lives.

Many literacy scholars believe that in order to become effective teachers, we must first reflect on ourselves as readers and writers.  Moreover, we must be readers and writers in order to be effective teachers of reading and writing.  Therefore, I always ask my students to write a brief paper about their reading and writing lives.  I encourage them to have fun with this assignment.  Often times, I am impressed with the personal, touching, humorous, and nutty responses I’ve received over the years.

In order to encourage the flow of this exploration and writing, I pose the following questions, which are meant merely as guides.  Most of these questions came from the wonderful book: For a better world: Reading and writing for social action by R. and K. Bomer.

  • What do you remember about your earliest reading and writing experiences?  Did someone read to you?  What was that like?
  • Growing up, did you have books and writing materials?
  • Currently, where are your reading spots?  Do you read in coffee shops or cozy corners?  Why?
  • What are your writing spots?  How did you establish your writing environment?
  • What do you currently read?
  • Who recommends texts to you?
  • What do you currently write?
  • Most importantly, what is your literacy social network?  In other words, with whom do you discuss and have relationships surrounding books, writing, etc.?  (friends, relatives, book clubs, religious organizations, etc.)
  • What are your reading/writing habits?  (Do you eat and/or drink while reading/writing?  Wiggle?  Sit still?)
  • How do you think as you read?  (Do you envision the setting/characters?  What do you notice about the ways particular texts are written?)
  • What gives you pleasure in reading and writing?
  • Are there any aspects of your reading/writing that you attribute to your gender, ethnic group, or social class?

To all of you out there reading, I encourage you to please ask yourselves these questions, and feel free to write back or email me about this meaningful process of exploring the complex roles of literacy in our lives.

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Pairing Caldecotts with Writing Lessons

January 27th, 2010 by christine · Creativity, children's books

caldecottAs a child, I remember visiting the library and seeing the silver emblem stickers on certain picture books that had been awarded Caldecott medals.  Honestly, although I markedly noticed the Caldecott stickers, I never gave the awards much thought.  I just loved the books.  As teachers, though, we all anxiously await the announcement of the Caldecott winners each January.  In the months previous, we also love to speculate about who might win and why.  When I am teaching children’s literature courses at the college level, I love to start off the spring semester by showing all of the winners and runners-up during class so that we may all debate about who won and why, and who may have been deservedly left out.  In previous years, those Caldecott discussions have been some of our liveliest!

For those of you who are newer to children’s literature, the Caldecott award has been given out by the American Library Association (ALA) since 1938.  According to the ALA’s website: “The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.”  The awards committee generally selects one Medal Winner and then sometimes a few Honor Books.

lionThe 2010 Caldecott Medal Winner is The Lion & the Mouse, illustrated and written by Jerry Pinkney.  It is a wordless picture book version of the classic Aesop Fable.  Since I love Aesop’s Fables, and I also happen to be one of Jerry Pinkney’s biggest fans, this year’s winner is certainly no disappointment for me.  Pinkney consistently illustrates in a luscious way, always using vibrant colors and somehow conveying rich texture through illustration as though it were fabric. 

There is no denying that children simply adore picture books with animals as the main characters.  As an educator, I can also personally attest to the fact that children learn lessons in more earnest ways when the main characters happen to be animals.  Children can somehow summon more empathy and understanding for animal characters than for humans.  Since this classic fable reminds us of the importance of the underdog and the power and enchantment of unlikely friendships, the possibilities of using this book are countless.  Whether you are nestled up at home flipping through this book’s gorgeous pages, or holding it up in a classroom using it for specific teaching purposes, no one will be disappointed. 

In particular, I would recommend this book for writing lessons.  Let’s face it—we all need inspiration to write. Writing can be an extremely daunting process.  I have had continued success using wordless picture books as springboards for inspiring writing lessons.  Children of all ages love to narrate the story as they look at the illustrations.  Assist students in keeping track of their wonderful ideas, so that they can later add details and voice to their re-creations of the story.  Using wordless picture books has never failed me, and if I were you, I would be anxious to try out Pinkney’s new winner. 

Some other of my favorite wordless picture books that I recommend are:

Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola     Pancakes

The Red Book by Barbara Lehman

Flotsam by David Wiesner

To all of you out there reading:

Please share with us your favorite wordless picture books.  Have you ever had success in using wordless picture books with your students, especially with writing projects?  We’d love to read about all of your ideas!  What Caldecott-winning picture books have touched your hearts over the years? 

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New books and new perspectives for a new year

January 6th, 2010 by christine · Creativity

A new year brings new everything, including new books.  For all you teens, parents, and educators out there ready to tackle the latest titles, here is a resource to help you get started.  In particular, as teachers, we are always searching for the up-to-the-minute books on the market to tempt our adolescent readers.  For those of you who may not already be familiar with it, each year a collection of debut authors assemble to create a website to promote their new books.  This year’s website is:

The website boasts that they are “the hottest debut authors of Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction.”  Personally, I am sick of vampire books right now, but for those of you who may be seeking titles to whet the appetite of Twilight fanatics, there are plenty of titles on the Class of 2k10 website to satiate your tastes.  A non-vampire title that immediately caught my attention was Of all the stupid things by Alexandra Diaz.   OfAllStupid

One of the attributes of this book that I enjoyed the most was its narration style.  Of all the stupid things is written from the first-person perspectives of three best friends, so each of their voices and each of their views are clear to the reader.  Each chapter heading reveals which of the three friends—Tara, Whitney Blaire, or Pinkie, will be narrating the chapter. Tara is an athlete struggling with rumors about her boyfriend, as well as emerging, unfamiliar feelings she is experiencing for the mysterious new girl in town.  Whitney Blaire is the quintessential rich girl who seemingly has it all, yet lacks a true sense of self worth.  In navigating the loss of her own mother, Pinkie becomes the mother hen and worry wart to all of her friends.

I was touched by the raw vulnerability of each of the characters in Diaz’s well-crafted story.  One of the most compelling lessons in the book comes the complex relationship Pinkie maintains with her deceased mother.  By writing notes to and talking to her dead mother, Pinkie attempts to work through issues in her day-to-day life.  It is at the end of the book, when Pinkie finally says good-bye to and lets go of her mother that she can move forward into a new chapter of her life.  I was also struck by the astute persistence of Tara, the athlete.  Diaz carefully captured the attuned perception of an athlete, and how runners find solace and therapy in their exertion.  Tara was able to sift through difficult relationships in her life by training for a marathon.  Towards the end of the book, when Tara pursues an intimate relationship with the new girl in town, Diaz tenderly and respectfully allows the reader to experience all of the “firsts” that come with any new love.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

As I reflect on this book, I am not sure if I would use it in a classroom setting, although I would highly recommend it to adolescent girls for outside of school reading.  And let’s be honest—out-of-school literacies are often more influential and identity-shaping than in-school literacies, anyway.  That said, I would still encourage teachers to not shy away from these topics, either.  Girls need and deserve safe classroom spaces to discuss and explore topics such as gender, sexuality, mourning, friendships, and other sensitive issues.  Literature is one powerful pathway for those conversations.

Last, I would just like to re-emphasize what an asset Diaz’s book is simply because of its narration style. Since each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, readers are able to get an up-close glimpse at each girls’ feelings and perspectives, which helps adolescents develop deeper comprehension skills and critical thinking strategies—a bonus in any book!  

Check out Of all the stupid things by Alexandra Diaz, as well as lots of other fascinating new titles on

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What was your favorite book as a child?

December 14th, 2009 by lauree · children's books

I posed this question to my Facebook friends recently and the flood of replies seemed to signal how much we all relish the chance to be kids again.

More than the titles of books, I saw in the responses a sincere joy in remembering the sensory feel of the pages, the vivid illustrations, and where they were or who they were with when they first discovered reading. There also were the lingering lessons:

  • The_Giving_TreeYou can be anything you chose to be
  • Make yourself happy
  • It’s possible to give yourself completely to another person
  • Unabashedly be yourself
  • Even in the toughest of situations, you can be brave (and thrive)
  • Be kind to others, including animals
  • War is useless
  • Your challenge can also be your greatest gift
  • It’s fun to be silly
  • You’re not alone

These lessons have shaped us, and shaped the decisions we’ve made throughout our lives in a way that only our core values can do.

I’ve blogged before about values. They can come from any number of places – your experiences, what was instilled in you by others, or what you were born believing. Once a belief is introduced, we often use what happens around us — more specifically, our viewpoint of what is happening — as a proof point that it must be true.

Take for example, The Wizard of Oz. Reading it one could believe, or find proof, that a magical world is waiting to be discovered out the front door. Or, that there’s no place like home, so stay close to it. Same book, completely different lesson and resulting perspective on opportunities that arise in our lives.

Values, no matter how unquestionable they seem or how long you have held them to be true, are not hard-and-fast rules. You always have a choice about what you believe.

I love talking about choice. As a life coach, I host guided conversations on this topic. It’s amazing what can happen when we step outside ourselves and see how much change we can affect just through our perspective.

Look at any situation in your life right now, from the relationship with your mother to a disagreement in the checkout line. What would it be like if this wasn’t happening to you, if you were watching it unfold in a book instead? Suddenly each person involved (including you) are “characters” with their own needs, motivations, fears and desires. As an objective reader, you can see what led to this point and what might happen to change the outcome.

From this perspective, how might all of the characters get what they really need?

Not only is stepping outside of a situation useful for working with values and perspective in your own life, it brings new meaning to role of parents and teachers. Children’s minds are being shaped, and lasting values are being forged at every moment. Though we can’t control what they take with them or how it’s used later, your contribution is immensely powerful. More, in fact, than you can realize.

Makes me think that my next Facebook question should be – who was your favorite teacher and why? Stay tuned!

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Why go it alone when we have our friends?

November 18th, 2009 by christine · Creativity

Have you ever felt afraid to do something simply because you were alone?

As an only child, that is a familiar concept to me. As a matter of fact, I think one of the many reasons that Lauree and I are such good friends is because we are both only children, and we had one another’s back at several points growing up… and today.

Why go it alone when we can all rely on a little help from our friends?

That is the concept behind a 2008 autumn-themed book written and illustrated by Carin Berger entitled Little Yellow Leaf. As I sit here staring at the last of the autumn leaves to fall, I am drawn to this book even more. As most teachers do, I love autumn, and I was getting bored with the same, old autumn books I had been reading for many years. Little Yellow Leaf is a refreshing, modern look at autumn, with sleek, contemporary collaged illustrations and a powerful message. One frightened, lonely, yellow leaf isn’t quite ready yet to let go of the tree yet. Even as Little Yellow Leaf watches all of the other leaves fall, it still can’t quite muster the courage to let go and trust that everything will be okay. That is, until, Little Yellow Leaf finds a leaf companion with whom to take the plunge. They decide to surrender together, and let’s face it– together is a great way to go. We don’t always have to face our fears alone. Every once in a while, the support and trust of loving others can make a tremendous difference in officially facing the fears, and tackling the fears more permanently.

As teachers, I find we are often isolated behind the walls and doors of our classrooms. It is absolutely essential to establish and maintain active, healthy relationships with other teachers to share and ponder life’s difficulties. In fact, I think we construct knowledge within the context of relationships. We need to pay attention to the textures of quality and trust in relationships in order to allow new knowledge to flourish.

Teachers all agree that affective and relational dimensions should be emphasized in the education of young children. Why don’t we consider our emotions and relationships in the education of every individual, regardless of age? Adolescents and adults all deserve this attention to the emotional, relational qualities of their education, too.

To all of you reading out there—how do you foster and utilize relationships to learn and grow in your own teaching practice? Have there ever been times when you just couldn’t go it alone, yet found solace in the relational support of a colleague? In the same ways you honor the emotions and friendships of your students, how do you respect your own feelings and the relationships in your own life, as an adult and educator?

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