The Scoop



        Primary teacher Alma Valle-Beghtol, who teaches at Briscoe Elementary School in   San Antonio, teaches her students ”You can paint a picture with your words.” She uses a picture of an artist’s pallette and where the blobs of paint are, she writes: similes, idioms, taste, touch, interjections, etc. Kids use this visual aid to add beauty and depth to their writing. Alma, you are a Teacher Spectacular, for sure.  




          When I was a teenager, my whole world revolved around my youth group from church. There were about 60 of us, and we were a rowdy, happy group. Our church was within walking distance from the high school, and we were given an hour and fifteen minutes for lunch every day. That meant lunch at the church together for grilled cheese and tomato soup or hamburgers and French fries and breakfast once a week. We did some serious laughing and swapped all the latest gossip over food.

            Our customs were a little weird. After Christmas, everyone looked forward to the huge Christmas tree burns we would have. Everyone looked for all the old, dried-out Christmas trees people put out by the curb. The deal was, you tied the tree behind your bike with a rope, then biked it home. You did this until you had a pretty good stash. Most of the church youth groups in the area were planning for their Christmas tree burns, too, and finding those dried-out trees meant war. It was not unusual to wake up and find your stash GONE, stolen in the night, swiped by one of the other youth groups, no doubt. Even so, we racked up more than 100 trees, maybe more. That was a serious pile of pine and icicles.

            The night of the tree burn would rival Dante’s Inferno. Imagine the heat the enormous pile of dried-out pine generated. The flames leapt 40 and 50 feet into the sky. Our custom was to line up, and every kid had a tree that was his or hers to throw. We were at least 100 feet away because of the immense heat emanating from the burning starter pile. Then the insanity began. When your turn came, you grabbed your tree with an intense grip and ran like an idiot toward the giant flaming pile. As you got as near as you dared, you heaved the skeletal tree up over your head with as much force as you could muster. I swear some of them burst into flame in midair, they were so dried out and flame ready. Then, with your face burning and your hair flying, you turned and ran back to the line to do it all over again when your turn came. Why our parents and our youth leaders would allow this barbaric ritual is anyone’s guess, but it was repeated year after year. To my knowledge, no one was ever hurt or burst into spontaneous combustion, a miracle, if you ask me. What didn’t kill you made you stronger.


   Who doesn’t love a good game to play with a crowd, especially when it involves writing?

At a recent workshop in San Antonio, the teachers and I played a fun writing game with the teachers from Briscoe and Stuart Elementary schools. Each team was given a different category, such as the names of children’s books, soap names, candy names, etc. Each group’s mission was to write a short, funny story incorporating brand names or titles from their categories. Well, you’ve never heard teachers laugh so much. We had a blast. Here are the results for you to enjoy.


   On a beautiful IRISH SPRING morning, DAWN was approaching. PALM OLIVE WHISKed out of her IVORY sheets and reached with her ARM & HAMMER to SAFEGUARD her DIAL LEVER 2000 from the SURF. At the COAST as the TIDE came in, the salty sea water CASCADEd down the LAVA rocks. The FABULOSO twins, JOHNSON & JOHNSON, CARESSed her HEAD & SHOULDERS. “OLAY!” she CHEERed. Her PUREX was ALL gone.

    AVEENO at home, they sipped the FAB HERBAL ESSENCE tea. It was an ELECTROSOL experience.



           What can I say about this holiday season? Everyone I know has less money this year. Some have none. I fall somewhere between those two. Less money means less spending. For our family, there is no spending frenzy this year. And guess what I’ve discovered: that’s a good thing. Without even planning to do so, we’ve spent more time with each other, just loving and supporting, babysitting the kids, laughing together, cooking homemade dinners.

            In our family, Rick and I are the hub of the wheel, and holiday time usually means making sure we’ve covered every wish list, every stocking stuffer, every cute thing that reminds us of one of the children or grandchildren or friends or family members. It embarrasses me how much we buy for each other here in America, like we owe it to each other or need to prove our love by the quantity and quality of gifts. Intellectually, I know this. Emotionally, I fall for it every time, hook, line, and sinker. We already have so much stuff we regularly host garage sales to get rid of it, and then we start the process over: buying, using, selling, buying . . . buying . . . buying . . . . When will we learn?

            Our grandson was nestled on my lap watching a movie with our family. I was so content just to hold him. He’s almost seven, so my holding days are numbered. While we watched, he would occasionally touch my face with his hand, absentmindedly, as if to make sure it was really me. After a long time he got up and said, “Mimi, I need my grandpa,” and trotted over to sit on Rick’s lap. It makes my heart sing to know that down where it counts, what we really need is each other.

            If we could have one wish to make anything come true, including one more day with those who have already passed on, I doubt whether we would use it on material things. What wouldn’t I give to have one more day with my daddy? So, this year, I am not going to focus on what I don’t have, what I can’t afford to buy. I’m going to revel in those special moments with family and friends, and maybe make some more friends. I’m going to thank God every moment I can for his blessings.

            Just thinking about it makes my heart sing.




Just when I get all the glitter vacuumed up from last year’s decorations, it’s time to put out this year’s decorations, and for me, the sparklier, the better. If something has glitter or sequins on it, I want two of them. Three. I’m a sucker for shine. A pushover for glitz. When I was a kid, glitter was made out of metal. Mothers warned, “Don’t get that stuff in your eye, or you’ll go blind.” Glitter was pretty scarce in those days. When it turned up, it was a wonder. In kindergarten, I was a clock in the Christmas show at school. My daddy provided a cardboard box for the costume and painted it for me. The art teacher glued on a clock face, complete with Roman numerals. The older kids in the special ed class added glitter, carefully glued to each numeral. Wearing it, I was in my glory. Glitter for all to see. A star was born.

Today glitter is made from plastic, and though it won’t blind you, it has the cling factor. Try to embellish a craft project with glitter, and it sticks to any and all surfaces, including your underwear. Don’t ask me how it gets in underwear. Doctors are still looking into that. I’ve found glitter clinging to the inside of my freezer, the pages of my high-school yearbook, the dog’s water bowl, and the top of a casserole I baked for my neighbor. Future civilizations will have to interpret these clinging sparkles because, like cockroaches, you can never really get rid of excess glitter. Some glitter is finer than dust, which leads me to think that maybe we might breath it in. Check your tissue the next time you sneeze. You’ll see.

Today’s glitter is not your father’s Oldsmobile. Now we have designer glitter: ovals and orbs, twists and twizzles, spirals and spangles. There is Glitter by Martha Stewart. She went to prison on trumped-up charges, but the girl makes a mean glitter. Seriously. Martha Stewart glitter is beyond gorgeous. But my obsession with glitter isn’t just about using it and displaying it on crafty objects and seasonal decorations: it’s owning it. I can never own enough glitter. One bottle of turquoise glitter dust leads to silver, gold, and peach. My obsession leans toward being a glitterholic. I consider my bottles of glitter part of my personal assets. I’m too thrifty (read: cheap) to buy it at the craft store for full price, so when I find it for a cut-rate price at T. J. Maxx, or at a garage sale, it’s cause for celebration. I’m officially part of the glitterati.

Now that I’m all decorated, it’s time to enjoy. Later, I’ll ride herd on the loose glitter that sparkles from my carpets, bedding, counters, shower tiles, bathtub, and dining room. Yesterday, I found a stray sparkle on the butter dish. The day before, the dog had some on her nose. Glitter: can’t decorate without it, can’t get rid of it. At least it won’t make us go blind.




      Dana Scippo, fourth-grade teacher from Littleton Elementary in North Ft. Myers, FL, was trying to explain the meaning of the word miscellaneous to her students. One boy piped in, "I have a book that explains it, Mrs. Scippo. I'll bring it in." The next day he brought in Debra Frasier's book, Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster, and Dana read it aloud. Ta-da! From this, a beloved idea was born! Her students decided to put on a Vocabulary Parade for the entire school.

            Soon, word spread and the entire fourth grade got involved. Students selected a sizzling, juicy vocabulary word they thought would be fun to explain by wearing a costume that illustrated the meaning in a thoughtful, creative way. Oh, what fun! The next thing they knew, the entire school was abuzz with excitement. Abuzz. Yes, I used that word. I'll use it again: abuzz.



            The parade around the school and presentations on stage to a live assembly was so successful they are planning to do it again this year, using idioms, as well. Dana writes, "We are a Title I school and find that outside-the-box, creative lessons work best with our kids. We try to make it fun and engaging with the hopes of creating happiness and a love of learning."

Oh, girl, you have done us proud! This is terrific teaching if I ever saw it.






            One of my great joys is having two-day workshops in my home for teachers and other adults who have a burning desire to become children’s book authors. As a child addicted to reading all kinds of fiction, the authors of the books I read were mysterious, intriguing individuals so far beyond my reach that I could never hope to see one, much less meet one. Yet, the more I read, the more I knew that one day I wanted to create terrific stories and other worlds for kids to lose themselves in (I know the previous sentence ends with a preposition, but I’m an author for Heaven’s sake. I can twist and manipulate words as I choose).

            I wrote as a child, I wrote as a teen, and I wrote as an adult. I dreamed about writing books for children, but I had no idea how to go about it. I still had not met a real, live author to guide me along the way, so I made every embarrassing mistake along my quest to becoming a published author. I was as green as a pickle. Somehow, because of some budding talent and a huge will and a dogged determination not to be turned away, I got into the vast and curious world of writing for children. Along the way I earned a master’s of fine arts in writing for children from Vermont College. I met and learned from scores of authors, many of them legendary in the field of children’s books.

            I am still on my journey, learning more each year of my life, but I enjoy helping others join the party. It is thrilling to sit at my dining-room table and answer questions from would-be children’s authors. Teachers make terrific writers. After all, they spend hours upon hours with children, answer their questions, and listen to their fantasies. They know what colorful and obscure topics kids are interested in or curious about. I love to listen to story plots and nonfiction topics and discuss which ones might make the best children’s books with the eager future authors who come to the workshops with all the same fears and insecurities I once had (I still probably have some). A writing workshop revs me up and gets my creative juices flowing.

One writer who came to my workshop 15 years ago has published 25 plus nonfiction books. One writer from two years ago is now working with an agent from Los Angeles to turn her children’s series into television or movie property. Another writer last year published a beautiful picture book about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the effect it might have on animals. What could be more wonderful than creating something children will enjoy and treasure?

            Sometimes we have as many as 22 at the workshops in my home; sometimes we have as few as four. Several weekends ago was just such a workshop: four eager beavers who wanted to learn as much as they could about story arcs, memorable characters, current topics that would be of interest, publishing trends, and so forth. We moved from the dining-room table to the living room. One activity on descriptive writing had us blowing bubbles in the front yard. The eight hours each day melted as quickly as butter left in the sun as we encouraged and enthused, analyzed and considered, created and developed every idea we could think of and then some.

            Now, it is up to my fledgling writers to go home and do the long, intricate, solitary work it takes to write and develop a manuscript so that it is ready to be presented to an editor. We need good books for children. We need teachers and other loving adults who want to spin the stories that will transport kids to wondrous, imaginative worlds.

            I wish them well. I wish them every success. I wish them magic. 



Validating children with positive, uplifting responses is an incredible skill for everyone who works with kids. Some teachers are good at this, and some get in a rut of saying the same few phrases over and over. The responses we give might possibly be ones that are remembered for a lifetime. I can remember a variety of teachers who said things to me through my grade school, middle school, and high school, positive comments that live in my memory to this day.


Positive Things to Say to Kids

That’s the way!

You amaze me.

Isn’t this fun? Learning new things is awesome!

Where have you been all my life?

Move over, (popular star or hero): there’s a new superstar in town!

You light up my world.

You used to struggle, and look at you now.

You are headed for greatness.

I never knew that. You’ve taught me something new.

Teaching you is such a pleasure!

Attitudes like that fill up this classroom with sunshine.

You are an example to us all.

I can see success in your future.

You’ve got it! Would you help me teach the others?

Your smile lights up this room.

I can hardly wait to get here every morning to teach you.

I can see college in your future.

You, my friend, are a good citizen.

School can be a challenge, but you meet that challenge head on each day.

I am so lucky to be your teacher.

How did you get so smart?

Did your mother teach you that? Please give her a big thank you tonight.

If you keep this up, you’ll be in the Hall of Fame.

That’s a home run if I ever saw one!

I wish they gave black belts in excellence because you would surely win one.

Today is a brand new day. Let’s start fresh.

I have no choice but to tell our principal what incredible work you’re doing.

You are brave, hard working, and intelligent. What more could I ask for?

You are the dream team!

Do you know how special you are to me?

I am never going to forget what you just did. This is now one of my favorite memories.


Who ARE you? How did you get so smart?

I saw what you did for ________________. That was a terrific thing to do.

You are an example for us all.

Do you know how many people look up to you? Well, I’m one of them, too.

Thank goodness I’m not the only one who asks a lot of questions. That’s how you learn!

I will be happy to answer that for you.

I agree. It is hard. Let’s see if we can figure it out together.

Happy dance! Happy dance! Happy dance!

Brilliant! Simply brilliant.

If you can’t figure it out, let me know. I’m happy to help you.

You have a great work ethic. I know grown men who don’t work as hard as you do.

I count on your great attitude every day.

If I could pick any kids in the world to teach I’d pick you.

Wow! I don’t know if there are enough words in the English language to describe how good that was.


You are little professionals, that’s what you are!


If you want to see perfection, look at this!

(cheering) We want another one just like the other one!

(singing) I like it. I love it. I want some more of it!

I was hoping you would work hard, and  you did not let me down!

Look how far you’ve come. It’s astonishing, that’s what it is!

I wish I had a real crown to put on your head right now.

Spectacular! You better get used to hearing that word!

I wouldn’t trade places with any other teacher on the planet!

Get ready for success. That’s all I have to say. Get ready for success!

Would you teach that to me? I would like to understand how that works.

Remind me to write a note to your parents telling them what an amazing kid they have!

I can’t wait to tell the other teachers about this.

When I see that look on your face—the look that says you got it—it makes my day!

It’s not just about me teaching. When I see you working hard, I know I’m in the right job.

You are one curious kid. And most of the world’s geniuses were also curious kids.

Thank you for making the right choice. I was holding my breath, but you made the right choice!

If students were paid for learning, you would get a big raise!

Let me take a picture of you. I don’t ever want to forget this moment!

A person who works this hard could own her own business one day.

If this gets any better, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand it!

You should feel very proud of yourself.

Diligent. If you look up the word diligent in the dictionary, your picture should be there!

I am so proud of you I might start dancing!

There is no stopping you! Get ready, world!

Phenomenal. Simply phenomenal.

They need to name a new flavor of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream after you!

I can always count on you to have a positive attitude. That is a valuable asset.

You work hard…and then you play hard. That’s what winners do.

You are a spectacular listener. That is a huge life skill.

I will do whatever it takes to help you be a success. You’re worth it!





Give Me Wings

            Have you ever longed to fly, to have wings that would allow you to glide over the treetops? To soar across the sky with giddy abandon? To chase the horizon against the setting sun? I grew up where there were mountains, and I thought having wings would be the greatest thing ever.

            When I was a girl growing up in the jungles of the country of Panama, I would climb high into the mimosa or mango trees and sit as still as a statue so I could watch the birds. The rain forest was full of them: flocks of toucans, harpy eagles, macaws, and parrots. The canopy was filled with a patchwork of colors: scarlet, emerald, cobalt blue. When the birds fed, they screeched back and forth, bragging on their berries and cashew apples. If suddenly a branch cracked or some animal scurried by, the entire jungle of birds rose up as one colorful ceiling and took flight. Breathtaking. I wanted to fly off with them.

            I dreamed of wings. I prayed for wings. I schemed about wings. I used canvas and umbrellas, sticks and netting. I jumped from trees, high rocks, and the roof of the shed, all with spectacularly disastrous results. My longest flight came from holding on to a huge nylon parachute. The wind caught it and lifted me up over traffic on the main highway. It was 30 seconds of glory followed by public shame and minor injury.

            When I realized I could not fly, I wanted a bird. I was in luck. My sister asked for a parrot for her graduation present. The Kuna Indians hunted birds by night and shined powerful lights into the nests of parrots to temporarily disorient them. They scooped up the baby birds in nets and sold them in the market for $20. This is how a young parrot we called Popeye came to live with us in the summer of 1967. We found him at the market, chose him from a cage full of frightened young parrots, and cupped him in our hands. We soothed him and imitated his baby-bird talk, trying to communicate that the life we planned for him would be far superior to living in the jungle.        

We gave Popeye good things to eat and bought him a large parrot cage. We tamed him to come like a puppy and let him out of his cage so he could explore the house. Our feathered plaything learned to say many words with crystal clarity and sing, “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man! Toot toot.” He was a constant source of amusement. My sister went off to college, and Popeye sort of naturally came to me. I took him riding in the car and on picnics with friends. Parrots have roughly the same lifespan as humans, 70–80 years. We were going to be together for decades.

            We clipped his wings so that he could fly short distances but could not fly away. Once, when his flight feathers had grown out more quickly than we had anticipated, he flew away from the backyard, over the short meadow, and into a large tree at the elementary school. My father and uncle spent a frantic hour trying to rescue him, finally climbing down from the enormous tree with Popeye cradled in a beach towel.  It never occurred to me at the time that Popeye could have longed to join the other parrots that flew free, to fly high, as high as the sun.

            Years went by. High school. College. Moving to the U.S. I took Popeye with me wherever I went. He was the hit of the dorm, the talk of my friends, and the resident comedian everywhere. But life, children, and responsibilities encroached. I was no longer free to be a bird’s companion. Popeye was passed to different family members who each took care of him for several years at a time. He lived in his cage, loved and protected, for 25 years, until the end of his life. He died of pneumonia.

            I have made some mistakes in life, but this one causes particular regret. Yes, Popeye was a beloved pet and was well taken care of and adored. But we humans are so misguided. We cage up the only creatures God gave wings to and deny them the right to live free with their mates out in the beauty of nature. I still wish for wings, but not for me. Now I wish them for all the creatures that should be soaring across the sky.



You’ll love this darling story from Kathy Davis, a teacher from Dr. Phillips Elementary School in Orlando, who recently attended one of my writing workshops. We were discussing the importance of involving family members in the writing process and writing topics, and I asked teachers to share how they were already applying this in their classrooms.

Kathy shared, “I have a Dads and Doughnuts event every year in May where the children are able to host their fathers and share their writing. Of course, everyone also enjoys the selection of delicious doughnuts. All the dads were able to attend except one, who was stationed in Germany. We used Skype to reach this father, and during the event, Connor held up the computer screen and introduced him, saying, ‘Dad, this is my class. Class, this is my dad.’ Conner radiated pride that his dad was not left out. It was thrilling to see the two of them united by Skype and both of them able to verbalize and participate. Before he signed off, the father said, ‘The only thing that would have made this better is if I could have Skyped the taste of the doughnut!’ Maybe in the future that might be possible.” 

Kathy’s class also hosts a Mothers’ Tea each year during which children share their writing projects with their mothers. This teacher knows one of the best-kept secrets every classroom teacher should know: get parents involved. Kathy, you are a Teacher Spectacular for sure.