Illustrator Spotlight: Melissa Iwai

Melissa Iwai, illustrator of "Just Because I Am" and "We Can Get Along"The staff at Free Spirit is privileged to work with many amazing authors and illustrators. Click here to see more author spotlights, and we hope you enjoy learning about these writers and artists who are dedicated to helping kids succeed. The following spotlight was recently published in our newsletter, Upbeat News.

Melissa Iwai received her BFA in illustration from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and has illustrated many picture books. She illustrated We Can Get Along and Just Because I Am for Free Spirit.


I’ve been a freelance illustrator since 1998 doing mostly children’s book illustration. I’ve illustrated 29 books and numerous pieces in educational textbooks and children’s magazines throughout the years. I’ve written and illustrated one book (Soup Day) and collaborated with my husband, Denis Markell, on two books (The Great Stroller Adventure and Hush Little Monster).

These are some of the books I’ve illustrated:

Melissa Iwai's Books

Since my husband and I both work at home, it can be a bit difficult in the summer when our son is not in school or camp. During the school year, our lives are much more structured.

A typical day in my life during the school year goes something like this:

I wake up early in the morning (around 5:30 a.m.) and drink three cups of lemon water while checking my email. If I have an inspiration or idea for an illustration upon waking, I will sketch instead. Then I go to the gym to work out and come back around 7:00 to make breakfast for my son and myself.

I take my son to school, and if I am in the sketching/research phase of a project, then I go to a café to work until lunch. I like to get out of the house during this time, because when I am painting and doing finals, I am stuck at home all day! If I am painting elements or inking rather than sketching, I will do this all morning in my studio.

Here are some early rough concept sketches:

Melissa Iwai's Early Concept Sketches

When illustrating We Can Get Along and Just Because I Am, I worked closely with Steven Hauge, the wonderful art director at Free Spirit. The plan was to create a brightly colored textured background and use white line drawings and decorative borders with the text on the left page. On the right page would be a full-color illustration in an interesting shape.

A pile of final sketches:

Final Sketches

After sketching, I like to go to the local markets to buy groceries and decide what to make for dinner. We don’t own a car, and we live in a great area in Brooklyn, so we tend to only buy foods that we eat daily. Cooking is another creative outlet of mine, and I love making up recipes and experimenting in the kitchen. I have a cooking blog at The Hungry Artist.

I eat lunch with my husband, and we do the crossword puzzle together. We sound like an old married couple, don’t we?

Then, it’s back to work. I usually start work on the computer in the afternoon. This includes my final illustration work, as well as blogging, doing email, and posting to social media.

For the illustrations in We Can Get Along and Just Because I Am, I created most of the elements by hand. I painted swatches in watercolor and shapes in ink. I wanted the books to have a consistent color palette, so I decided on the colors beforehand.

Here are some of my painted watercolor swatches, which I organized into a layered Photoshop file:

Painted watercolor swatches

These are shapes of a tent and kids painted in ink:

Ink Drawings

I also lettered and did line drawings with Micron pens. I usually don’t include line drawing in my illustration work, so this was fun.

Line drawings with Micron pens

Then, I scanned everything to my computer and assembled the illustrations digitally. It is a fun way to work because a lot of unexpected things evolve during the process.

Tent Illustration

By 5:30 or so, it’s time to make dinner, so I take a break to do that. We eat together at about 6:00 and chat about our days. If the weather is nice, we like to walk to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is a couple blocks away. I love people watching, and the area is gorgeous and so great for that.

Sometimes I take photos, which I will refer to later when drawing and painting. I do a daily sketch/painting and post it to my Instagram feed. During the past fall and winter, I was doing a lot of them in acrylic, but in the summer, I switched to watercolor and ink. I started doing these dailies because I wanted to improve my drawing and painting skills, and I know that consistency is key. I post them to keep me accountable, but it’s something that I truly enjoy doing. In the past, if I got too busy, I would stop doing “extra” work, so this is a way for me to remember to do it! I only spend about 30 to 45 minutes, sometimes less, per daily painting.

Winter (Acrylic):

Winter (Acrylic)

Summer (Watercolor and ink):

Summer (Watercolor and ink)

I’ve found that I have improved since I’ve been doing this. It also helped me in drawing all the children in the Free Spirit books.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek into my life! Please visit my site if you’d like to see more of my work.

Free Spirit books illustrated by Melissa Iwai:

Just Because I AmWe Can Get Along


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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10 Things Every Student Needs to Hear from Teachers

By Barbara A. Lewis, author of Building Character with True Stories from Nature

10 Things Every Student Needs to Hear from TeachersWhen I returned to teaching after taking a 20-year hiatus to raise my own children, I had an opportunity to take over a sixth-grade class during the last six weeks of school. When first entering the room, I dodged ricocheting spitballs—not a prime situation for success. I knew I needed a strategy fast.

I thought if I focused my attention on what students needed rather than what I wanted, I might be able to create some learning conditions out of the chaos. Here are 10 things that students need to hear from their teachers to help them grow:

  1. “I know your name.” I conducted a crash course, memorizing each first name during the first half hour. Suddenly, I had a connection to them. They could no longer hide behind an anonymous shadow.
  2. “How are you doing?” “What do you think?” “Why do you feel that way?” I wrote down the personal interests and responses of each student and praised them for their good ideas.
  3. “Let me tell you how this makes me feel.” I told them my limits, mistakes, and goals. I asked for their help and we became a team.
  4. “You are unique and special.” I held personal interviews with each student for about five minutes—during seatwork, before and after class, and during recess. I had begun to recognize strengths in each of them and told them what I thought were their special talents. These sincere compliments did more to build rapport than any other strategy I used.
  5. “Mistakes are a part of learning.” When I let students hear that it is safe to make mistakes, they felt more secure trying difficult concepts. Everyone makes mistakes, and that is how we learn. As Edwin Louis Cole said, “You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”
  6. 10 Things Every Student Needs to Hear“Ask me questions when you don’t understand.” Ann Jackman, a gifted teacher, says to her students, “Questions are the only pathway to your full understanding.”
  7. “It is so wonderful to be able to trust you.” I added, “Of course, trust is not bestowed, it is earned.” If I left the room for five minutes and the students stayed on task, I praised them. “It is wonderful to have such trustworthy students.” There were rough patches, but trust was the cement that held us together.
  8. “If you reach out to help others, you will grow stronger yourselves.” I have always involved students in real-life problem solving. It creates unity, builds self-confidence and leadership skills, and improves their learning and participation in school.
  9. “That’s really funny.” I tried to keep a good sense of humor. I reminded myself to laugh and enjoy them. I would say something like, “Today is a great day. We only have a half-day of school.” Amid the cheers I would add, “Half a day this morning—and half a day this afternoon.” (Booing and laughter.)
  10. “I really care about you.” Besides verbal reinforcement, I wrote personal, complimentary notes to each student. As the weeks progressed, instead of dodging spitballs, students wrote kind words and expressions of love to me on the board.

Barbara Lewis, Free Spirit AuthorBarbara A. Lewis is an author and educator who teaches kids how to think and solve real problems. Her elementary school students initiated the cleanup of hazardous waste, improved sidewalks, planted thousands of trees, and even instigated and pushed through several state laws and an amendment to a national law. She has been featured in many national newspapers, magazines, and news programs. Her books have won Parenting’s Reading Magic Award and been named “Best of the Best for Children” by the American Library Association, among other honors.

Barbara’s many books include:

What Do You Stand For? For KidsWhat Do You Stand For? For TeensThe Kid’s Guide to Service ProjectsThe Teen Guide to Global Action


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Back-to-School SMART Goals for School Counselors

Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner. This post was originally published September 4, 2012.

Back-to-School SMART Goals for School CounselorsMany school counselors are charged with creating SMART goals each school year. This can be a challenging task, especially if you have never written a SMART goal. Below is the process for creating a SMART goal and some examples of SMART goals for school counselors.

Wikipedia has a great description of SMART goals, including the history of the concept and how to develop them, but basically, SMART goals are:

  • Specific: They precisely spell out what you want to accomplish and usually answer the 5 Ws (Who? What? Where? When? Why?)
  • Measurable: They provide a specific indicator of success.
  • Attainable: They are realistic.
  • Relevant: They are important and practical.
  • Time-bound: They specify a deadline for when the goal will be met.

In many districts, school counselors and educators create a district-aligned SMART goal and an individual SMART goal each year. Here are some thoughts on preparing each:

District-Aligned SMART Goals
For a district-aligned goal, check what your district’s goals are for the upcoming school year and create a goal that will support one of the district’s goals.

Example District Goal: To support the XYZ school district’s mission of all students being college- and career-ready, all XYZ students will receive explicit instruction and exposure to careers and higher education opportunities.

Example of School Counselor SMART Goal aligned to District Goal: During the 2015–16 school year, I will provide two classroom lessons at each grade level (K–5) related to career exposure and higher education opportunities. These lessons will be aligned to the state career education and work standards.

This goal is:

  • Specific—It addresses what you want to accomplish and answers the 5 Ws.
  • Measurable—It specifies a number of lessons that need to be completed (two per grade level).
  • Attainable—Two lessons for each grade level is manageable in the course of a school year.
  • Relevant—Lessons related to career exposure and higher education opportunities support the district goal of students being college- and career-ready.
  • Time-bound—The goal is specific about being completed “during the 2015–16 school year.”

Individual SMART Goals for School Counselors
Districts may also ask you to complete a personal SMART goal that does not necessarily need to be aligned to a district goal. However, this goal should support the mission of the school counseling program and/or the mission of the school you serve.

Here are examples of SMART goals for different school levels:

Elementary School—Attendance
Poorly defined Goal: Increase attendance.

SMART Goal: I will reduce absenteeism of at-risk students (students who missed 7+ days of school the previous year) by 25 percent during the 2015–16 school year through providing targeted group interventions.

This goal is:

  • Specific—It addresses what you want to accomplish and answers the 5 Ws.
  • Measurable—It provides a specific percentage decrease (25 percent) that can be measured.
  • Attainable—A 25 percent decrease is manageable and realistic.
  • Relevant—Targeting chronically absent students is a relevant way to decrease overall absenteeism.
  • Time-bound—The goal specifies the time frame (the school year) for when the goal will be completed.

Take it a step further: Check out resources such as Attendance Works to help you in planning your group sessions and other attendance initiatives that support your goal.

Middle School—Providing More Direct Services to Students
Most middle school counselors would probably agree that they would like to spend more time providing direct student services, which include delivering school counseling lessons, facilitating counseling groups, facilitating individual counseling sessions, and doing student planning. The American School Counselor Association recommends that school counselors spend at least 80 percent of their time on program delivery, which includes direct and indirect services to students.

Poorly defined Goal: Spend more time providing direct student services.

SMART Goal: I will increase the amount of time I spend providing direct student services from 40 percent to 50 percent for the 2015–16 school year.

This goal is:

  • Specific—It addresses what you want to accomplish and answers the 5 Ws.
  • Measurable—It provides a specific percentage increase in the time you want to spend providing direct services to students (from 40 to 50 percent). As with any goal, you want to first determine your baseline, or where you currently are, before you determine the measurable aspect of your goal.
  • Attainable—A 10 percent increase is realistic.
  • Relevant—It addresses the American School Counselor Association’s goal of spending 80 percent of our time on program delivery.
  • Time-bound—It specifies that the goal will be completed within the school year.

Take it further: I like to come up with ways that I will meet the goal for my own planning. For this goal, some of the focus areas might include reaching out to teachers to provide more classroom lessons, hosting minute meetings with students on your caseload, and brainstorming school-wide programming you would like to provide students.

High School—FAFSA Completion
Poorly defined Goal: Students will complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

SMART Goal: All high school seniors (100 percent) will complete the FAFSA by the end of the first semester of the 2015–16 school year.

This goal is:

  • Specific—It addresses what you want to accomplish and answers the 5 Ws.
  • Measurable—It specifies a specific percentage of students (100 percent).
  • Attainable—Having every senior fill out the form is realistic.
  • Relevant—The goal is relevant to high school seniors preparing for higher education opportunities.
  • Time-bound—It specifies a deadline (by the end of the first semester).

Take it a step further: Brainstorm other initiatives you may do to support this goal. Planning a parent session about the FAFSA can increase buy-in from families and help them understand the importance of completing the FAFSA. You could also provide an incentive for students to complete the FAFSA, such as being entered in a raffle or drawing.

Setting SMART Goals WorksheetBonus! Download a free printable SMART goals worksheet.

What SMART goals are you setting for the upcoming school year? Share your SMART goals in the comment section below.

Check out back-to-school SMART goals for students to help kids create and implement goals for a successful school year.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

Posted in Counselor's Corner, Professional Development, Social & Emotional Learning | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

School Counselors: Engage Parents with a Family Check-Up

By Laurel Lisovskis, BSW

Part 6 in our Share the Wealth series. Click to read other Share the Wealth posts.

School Counselors: Engage Parents with a Family Check-UpLooking for a way to gently guide parents who want to play a bigger role in their child’s academic experience at school this year? For school counselors getting geared up for the year, the Family Check-Up is an excellent tool for connecting with parents. It’s a simple assessment for parents to evaluate areas of strength and interest that may improve the chances for a student to have a successful year. This tool is geared toward middle schoolers, but I have used it with kids as young as 8 and as old as 16. The beauty of the Family Check-Up is that you can administer it in one to three 30-minute sessions, and if needed, you can even complete it over the phone.

The Family Check-Up looks at the child’s grades, behavior, attendance, peers, and healthy decision making. The assessment consists of a short interview and a short survey. Questions for parents focus on how they feel the school can help their student, perceived barriers and strengths of the student, the family support system, and the school support system. Answers are compiled, scored, and plotted on a spectrum that can be shared with the parents. This scale is divided into three areas: family, student, and parenting. Depending on the level of interest, different topics can be drawn out and addressed based on the counselor’s feedback.

The family section focuses on things like family stress or general support the caregiver receives. In the student section, areas for discussion include behavior, attendance, and homework completion. In the parenting sections, the feedback looks at positive behavior support, monitoring school success and peer relationships, limit setting, and parent-school connections.

As you go over the results, the parent can pick and choose which areas of interest to pay attention to. Areas of strength can be pointed out and reinforced. Areas that are challenging for parents can be addressed by a wide variety of resources. Within the Family Check-Up, parents can find simple brochures on things like supervision, knowing your child’s friends and peers, and encouragement. Tools for family negotiating and communication are provided, including suggestions for blended families. Community resource suggestions are also referenced.

Parents can focus on as little or as much as they wish, and you can easily direct them to tools that are very straightforward and empowering. Plus, it’s a simple and caring way to build rapport with parents that can help make interactions they may have with school staff, including teachers, more useful. Give a baseline of support right off the bat, and reap the benefits of positive, easier, and friendlier interactions all year long!

For more information on the Family Check-up, check out the book Intervening in Adolescent Problem Behavior by Thomas J. Dishion and Kate Kavanagh or write to Kevin Moore, Ph.D., at the University of Oregon’s Prevention Science Institute.

Laurel LisovskisLaurel Lisovskis, BSW, is in her second year of graduate school working toward clinical licensure in social work at Portland State University. Her field placement is at the school-based Bethel Health Center, an innovative program that brings services directly to students and families at school sites. Her intern experience includes doing individual and group therapy, as well as traditional social work roles. Laurel also works within the clinical setting to streamline integrated care services. With over ten years of expertise in counseling, she lends a unique perspective on the connectivity between mental health and the well-being of middle school students.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


FSP Springybook Signature(c)© 2015 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved.

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How Is Concussion Awareness Affecting Youth Sports?

By Eric Braun

Concussion AwarenessWhen I was a kid, I’m pretty sure that my coaches did not have to take online concussion training, and not just because there was no such thing as online. If we got hurt, we were usually told to “walk it off”—even if it was a head injury.

But these days, learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of concussions and what to do if a player suffers a head injury are basic training for youth coaches. And the truth is, even though I may have been annoyed by the extra hoop to jump through, I’ve had to administer the test a handful of times over the past few years, even in baseball, which statistically is the sport where kids are least likely to suffer a concussion.

Concussion awareness has spiked in the past few years, due in part to lawsuits brought against the NFL by former players, increased research, and an awareness campaign done by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). In 2012, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide three years after retiring, shooting himself in the chest so that scientists could study his brain and how it was affected by the multitude of violent hits it took. Last year, the NFL admitted that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems due to the violence of the sport. And just a few months ago, 49ers linebacker Chris Borland announced his retirement from football after only one year in the league, saying that his health “is a little more important” than money.

It’s not only football that’s dangerous. According to a study by the CDC and the NFL, high school football players suffer concussions at a rate of 11.2 per 1,000 exposures (practices or games). The concussion rate in boys lacrosse was 6.9 per 1,000 exposures, and for wrestlers, it was 6.2. For girls soccer it was 6.7, and for girls basketball it was 5.6. (You can read the whole report here.)

Parents are taking notice. Emergency room visits for head injuries in kids and teens jumped from 150,000 in 2001 to 250,000 in 2009. According to this ESPN story, participation in youth football dropped by 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012. But according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in the sport rose again in the 2013–2014 year.

Perhaps the changes are just a natural fluctuation and can’t be connected to concussion awareness. According to this Associated Press story, nearly half of parents are uncomfortable with their child playing football. The same percentage was uncomfortable with ice hockey, and 45 percent were uncomfortable with wrestling. But, only 5 percent of parents surveyed said they have discouraged their child from participating.

So what do we do when our beloved children beg to play a sport we know is dangerous? More and more parents are saying no. Douglas W. Green, Ed.D., advises us to steer them to track and field or other less dangerous sports. Knowing what we know, that’s clearly the best advice. But, not all kids will be so easily swayed. At least delaying the start of a high-impact sport until high school or college can help a lot. Research shows that concussions become less likely the older a player is.

If your child does play a high-impact sport, pay attention to how practices and games are run. Ask coaches what they are doing to keep kids safe from brain injuries. And keep learning—all any of us can do is stay informed and make the best decisions for our families.

Minneapolis writer Eric BraunEric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor with two sports-loving sons.


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.


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