Letters to the Universe

Letters to the UniverseAs the coronavirus pandemic crosses the globe, we are learning that while we may be far apart, we are also deeply connected. In this post, we’d like to invite you and your students and families to write letters to our universe. If you could tell the universe anything right now, what would it be?

Bernardo Marçolla, author of Me and You and the Universe—a book showing us how we are all one—shares his own letter to the universe to kick us off:

Dear Universe,

Perhaps this is the first time I have written directly to you. Yes, we have talked many times . . . We talk whenever I realize the beauty and immensity around me. I know we also talk whenever I have the opportunity to pet a dog or a cat, or even when I see a colorful bird at the top of a tree (how I like them!). I know that sometimes I talk to you in the dark, before going to sleep, even without using words, when I feel safe and grateful to be here. But this time I will do it differently and send you this little letter. I want to ask you something.

I know that we are living in a very difficult time on our planet. I feel in my heart that this is a turning point for all of us. And for that, I ask you for healing. The healing is not for any specific disease; I know that sometimes they come and go—and that is part of life. The healing that I ask is for the heart of all humanity.

Our hearts need to understand that we are not separate from you or from each other. Yes, I suspect that our hearts already know this, but I think they often forget. Then, I also ask you to give us, whenever possible, the opportunities to remember this. Every day. And in the most beautiful ways possible. May we feel embraced when we look at the stars. May we feel loved whenever our bare feet touch the ground. I ask you for trust in our hearts because, knowing that we are part of you, we know that we will never be abandoned or alone.

In fact, what I have to say is difficult to say with words. But I know you understand me, even when I’m silent. Finally, I ask you to keep the child I once was alive in me. Children believe in their own hearts. A child knows that any other child can be a friend, just as we are. Children have the gift of seeing how magical and beautiful the Universe really is.

Well, deep down I just want you to know that I know that you are there—and that we are one.

With all affection,

P.S. I send a photo of me when I was seven years old, when I was in the garden of my house with binoculars hanging from my chest, trying to see even further. We were already friends at that time, remember? 🙂

Letters to the Universe

What’s your message to the universe? Use this space to send your and your students’ messages out into the universe. Your message might be what you’re grateful for, what you’re worried about, what’s bringing you hope, or just a primal scream into the void.

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)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Making the Most of the End of the School Year

By Shannon Anderson, author of  Mindset Power: A Kid’s Guide to Growing Better Every Day

Making the Most of the End of the School YearFor most teachers, the school year is a whole lot of teaching lessons with some fun sprinkled in. But at the very end of the year, when testing is finally over, it is a whole lot of fun with some lessons sprinkled in. You know your kids well, you’ve worked hard together, you’ve achieved many goals, and you finally get the payoff—the chance to celebrate a successful year and enjoy these kids who were your world since August.

This year, it’s different. Some teachers may even feel robbed of their grand finale. How can you still make the most of what time you have left with your class? Here are eight creative ways to help you wrap up your year, even if it has to be at a distance.

Memory Slideshow

Compile the pictures you have taken throughout the school year and create a slideshow on Clips, iMovie, or another app. Add some background music and send it off to students to watch.

Letter to Future Students

After watching the memories movie, have your students write a letter to your next year’s students. Have them share the good times you had, what the incoming students will learn, and tips for keeping on your “good side”! Print these off next year to hand out to your new students.

Time Capsule

Have students each decorate a jar or box with the label “Third-Grade Time Capsule” (or whatever grade level you teach). Have them take plain or colored strips of paper and write various memories from the school year on them. They can place all their memories in the jar or box and seal it shut. Tell them to wait at least a year to open their boxes. They should definitely put in some things that happened during the pandemic, since we are living a piece of history right now. You could provide prompts for each strip of paper if needed.

Wordle Awards

Have students submit two or three adjectives about each of their classmates to you. Create a Wordle for each student in which their name is the biggest, boldest word and all the adjectives from their classmates surround their name in various colors. If there is a way to print the Wordles and mail or deliver them, even better!

Summer Goals

If you normally have a way to celebrate the goals the kids achieve throughout the year, have them write up and submit one or two summer goals to you. When they make their goals, celebrate their success. Find a way to show you are excited for their achievements by making a video of you sounding the celebratory class noisemaker, making a post on Seesaw, or sending a postcard.

Book Awards

Have kids go through their reading logs or lists and choose their favorite books of the year. Compile a list of what the most-loved books were for kids to have as a summer reading wish list.

Adventures of a Six-Inch Teacher

To keep kids writing over the summer, send them a miniature cutout of yourself. Have them take your picture on various adventures in their home or yard. They can write about this as a story or funny diary of their six-inch teacher. Ask them to email their stories to you, along with the pictures they take.

Fun in the Sun

If social distancing is lifted by the end of the summer, plan a picnic for your class at a park so they have some time to play and chat together. Bring bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and games, or just hang out. It would be a great way to bring closure to your year together. If that isn’t possible, maybe you could drop off a small surprise to each student’s home and chat at a distance in the yard, if it is safe to do so.

Ending the year without our students in our classrooms is not what anyone ever expected to happen. With a little creativity, you can figure out some fun ways to still highlight the year you had together and make the most of the little time you have left with your amazing kids. They deserve it and so do you!

Shannon AndersonShannon Anderson has her master’s degree in education and is currently a third-grade teacher, high ability coordinator, and presenter, and a former first-grade teacher, adjunct professor, and literacy coach. She loves spending time with her family, playing with words, teaching kids and adults, running very early in the morning, traveling to new places, and eating ice cream. She also enjoys doing author visits and events. Shannon lives in Indiana with her husband, Matt, and their daughters, Emily and Madison.

Free Spirit books by Shannon:

Mindset PowerY is for YetPenelope PerfectCoasting Casey

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)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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3 Ways to Ease Children’s Anxiety in Uncertain or Unstructured Times

By Danielle Schultz

3 Ways to Ease Children’s Anxiety in Uncertain or Unstructured TimesUnstructured time can make some children (and adults) feel anxious. Here are tips to help ease stress and anxiety by adding some structure to otherwise unstructured time, whether that’s due to COVID-19 or summer break.

Create a Daily Schedule

Creating a daily schedule can ease children’s anxiety and help them know what to expect each day. It is not too late to create a schedule, even if you haven’t been following one up to this point.

Here are some examples of daily schedules that can be adapted to fit families’ needs:

If scheduling to the minute stresses you out, create a list of things you hope to accomplish each day and a rough plan of when you will do them. Even a loose schedule can help children have some predictability in their day. Divide the day into morning tasks/activities, afternoon tasks/activities, and evening tasks/activities. For example, a few tasks and activities you might want to plan in the evening include dinner, bath time, brushing teeth, and storytime.

For children who are too young to read or understand a written schedule, you can create a visual schedule using pictures for each item. There are many free visual schedules available online that you can use to create your own. Here are two visual schedules you can purchase or use as a model:

When following a schedule, be willing to adapt or change it if necessary. Be aware of children’s needs and adjust the day accordingly. If you have to make a change, communicate the change to children so they know what to expect.

Give Children Choices

Giving children choices can help them feel in control, especially in uncertain times. Provide opportunities throughout the day for children to voice their opinions or make a choice. Here are some simple ways to give children choices:

  • Allow children to choose which movie the family will watch for movie night. Either give them the choice between two options or have them help come up with a list of suggestions that the family will vote on together.
  • Give them choices for meals. For example, ask, “Which fruit would you like to eat with lunch today—apples or grapes?”
  • Ask children to assist with meal planning and/or creating a grocery list. Providing input and making choices will give them something to look forward to and may result in less stress at mealtime. For example, you can ask, “Which vegetables should we add to our shopping list this week?” Or say, “I’m planning the meals we will cook this week. Are there any dinners you are craving?”
  • Let children pick when certain things will occur in the schedule. For example, “Would you like to get a bath before or after dinner today?”
  • Permit children to make choices for personal items like attire, bedding, hairstyles, and so on. For example, “Would you like to wear dinosaur pajamas or striped pajamas tonight?” Or, “Do you want me to fix your hair in a braid or in pigtails?”

When giving choices, limit options to two or three, especially with younger children. Providing too many options or asking open-ended questions can sometimes be overwhelming for kids. The goal in giving choices is to help children feel in control and reduce anxiety.

Take Time to Connect

Throughout the day, plan or schedule opportunities to connect with children. Having some time to connect with you each day allows children the opportunity to ask questions and feel safe. Some ways you can connect during the day include:

  • Eating meals together as a family
  • Taking a walk together
  • Playing a game
  • Reading a book together
  • Watching a movie as a family
  • Gardening together

In addition to the suggestions above, making some time to talk with children is beneficial. Ask open-ended questions that encourage conversation, such as:

  • We saw a lot of things on our walk today. What was your favorite thing you saw?
  • We did some fun things today. What are you looking forward to doing tomorrow?
  • Wow that is a big castle you built! Tell me about it.

We are living during a stressful time with lots of uncertainty. Providing structure, choices, and connection can ease children’s anxiety and help them feel in control.

What tips and strategies are you using?

Danielle SchultzDanielle Schultz (schcounselor.com) is a middle school counselor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She enjoys connecting and collaborating with other school counselors and educators. Danielle can be found on Twitter @sch_counselor and Instagram @sch_counselor.

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)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Heading to Middle School: It’s Going to Be Okay

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

Heading to Middle School: It’s Going to Be OkayNote: While it’s uncertain what the next school year will look like, soon-to-be middle schoolers are still making the transition to a new environment. Whether students are in the classroom or learning from home, the OKAY acronym can help ease their anxiety.

Hey all you soon-to-be middle schoolers out there, I see you! And I see your parents too. You are the folks with lots of questions, worries, and excitement. The main thing I want you to know is that you are not alone—everyone has to transition—and that adjustment brings up a variety of things.

And that’s okay.

Parents, indulge me in a brief guided visualization of sorts. Take a deep breath and, if you want, close your eyes. Allow your mind to gently float back in time to see yourself as a young person transitioning into middle school. See if you can really remember.

What did you look like? What did it feel like to be in your body? What were your thoughts, worries, and fears? Did you have acne? Were you self-conscious? Were you confused about who to be friends with? Did you feel apprehension related to new systems at school that left you feeling even more unsure?

Chances are, at some point during middle school, you experienced a sense of uncertainty. Perhaps in reflection, you notice that your middle school woes are mirrored in your worries for your own child? That’s okay. Awareness of this will assist in not inadvertently projecting your own stuff onto kids. Their experiences will be their own.

Next, I invite you to reflect on whether you think it is ever okay to be uncomfortable.

Naturally, this may not be our favorite feeling. However, growth lives on the edge of discomfort.

In middle school, your child’s body will physically grow and change, at times so rapidly it will seem as if you are looking at a different person each day. Your children will learn how to organize themselves and build important executive functioning skills. They will be moody at times. They will also explore how they wish to express themselves. Sometimes this will mean looking around at how everyone else is expressing themselves and following the crowd to fit in. But sometimes it will mean daring to be different. These processes will not go perfectly. And guess what?

That’s okay.

Some things that may bring excitement during this transition to middle school include:

  • I can’t wait to have a locker!
  • I get to see kids from other schools!
  • I can switch classes throughout the day!
  • There will be a whole new schedule to follow!
  • I don’t have to be stuck with just one teacher!
  • They’ll treat us like we are older!
  • The schoolwork will finally be more interesting!
  • I’ll get to make new friends!
  • Everything will be so new!
  • I will get more freedom!
  • I can be whoever I want to be!

Interestingly, the inverse of these things can bring feelings of angst as well:

  • What if I can’t get my locker open?
  • What if I don’t have classes with anyone I know?
  • What if I don’t know how to get to my classes?
  • What if the schedule is too confusing? Or too hard?
  • What if my teachers are mean or hard or don’t like me?
  • What if they expect too much from me?
  • What if the schoolwork is too boring or too advanced?
  • What if I embarrass myself and no one likes me?
  • What if it all feels too new?
  • What if I feel pressure to do things I am not ready to do?
  • What if by just being me, I get bullied?

As you and your child navigate this transition, consider the OKAY acronym and share these ideas with your child.


You will have a lot of options. You will get to choose some of your classes. You will meet new people and get to choose who you spend your time with during the school day and outside of school as well. Beyond this, you will have the option to work hard, get extra help, join activities and clubs, and build connections with teachers and staff.

You will not be able to control other people or all situations, but you will always have the choice in how you respond to people and situations. Know that it’s okay to think about things before making a decision. Just because someone else chooses to do something, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best option for you. You can draw healthy boundaries for yourself. Now is the time to step into trusting yourself.

(Also, it’s more than okay to change your mind when considering options.)


Kindness can be tricky in middle school. But it doesn’t have to be. As you navigate the social landscape, there will be times when kids manipulate relationships to obtain social power (sometimes virtually through phones or social media and sometimes in face-to-face interactions). Being aware of these behaviors is essential.

When my two oldest started middle school, it was then that I began saying to them, “Try hard, have fun, be kind”—often. I said it before school, sports, or other activities. Of course, they rolled their eyes and brushed me off, but they grew used to me saying it. And at times when I forgot, they’d ask if I would. Fortunately, it has served as a foundation for many dialogues along the way.

Kindness as a core value will lead you all the way through middle school. Consider this: if your friends are all talking meanly about someone else, and you notice one friend who is not joining in, chances are you will respect and trust that person. If you don’t feel you can challenge the mean behavior of peers around you, you can always change the subject, say something random, or do something funny. You will never regret being kind.

(And being kind is more than okay.)

A—Allow Failure

You will fail. The amount of brain development happening right now is immense, and the area of your brain responsible for decision-making is still underdeveloped. It is especially compromised when in the company of your peers. So it is inevitable that you will get pulled into something you should not do or you will say something you wish you hadn’t. You will be less than fully prepared sometimes, and sometimes you will forget to do something.

There are infinite ways to “fail” as you transition to middle school. When failure arises, sit with it. Some of your biggest growth can come from sitting with it, owning it, and understanding the value of the experience.

One day, when I was in middle school, I accidentally grabbed the wrong notebook, and I was horrified when my teacher came around to check that we’d done our homework. She simply said, “Today or tomorrow?”—meaning which day would I choose to stay after for detention. I recall feeling all sorts of unpleasant feelings.

But ultimately, that failure shaped me. I became a bit more organized after that and I realized that having a detention wasn’t the worst thing in the world either. It really wasn’t. And this helped me release a lot of judgment about myself and others. Failure can be one of your best teachers in middle school.

(As long as you listen to the lessons it offers, failure will be okay.)


Yield means to give way, allow, surrender. It’s okay to yield and give way to your feelings. Middle school is a time of change. It means that you should expect to have mood swings and big challenging feelings. You will want more independence while still wanting and needing boundaries to help you feel safe.

You may feel good about yourself one day, and the next feel completely confused and lost. This is a time where things are supposed to feel messy. But yielding and giving way to your unique inner voice at this time is extremely important. We all have one, and if you listen closely, you will hear yours.

Growth happens when you simply allow yourself the chance to feel what you feel, name it, and then search for your own inner truth and wisdom. If you don’t want to go to that party, don’t go! If you want to try out for the play even though your friends made fun of it, try out! Raise your hand if you have something to say. If you feel embarrassed at some point, remind yourself that everyone feels this way sometimes.

(And if things get really hard, find that voice inside and invite it to remind you: This is going to be okay.)

It can be helpful to remember this old saying: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

You’ve got this. You’re almost there. And I promise, it’s going to be okay.

Amanda SymmesAmanda Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker and mental health provider who also serves as a school adjustment counselor at an elementary school in Salem, Massachusetts. Amanda loves working with young people of all ages and enjoys meeting kids “where they’re at” and helping them unpack the things that weigh them down. She utilizes mindfulness and meditation as much as possible to stay balanced. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three children (ages 18, 16, and 8) and enjoys walking, listening to music, journaling, and knitting. More of her writing can be found on www.amandasymmes.com.

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)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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Online Resources for Kids with Learning Difficulties

By Lisa M. Kiss, M.Ed., contributing author Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom: How Every Teacher Can Help Struggling Students Succeed (Revised & Updated 3rd Edition)

Online Resources for Kids with Learning DifficultiesMarch 13, 2020, will be a date I remember for the rest of my life! It was the last day I taught in a classroom for the remainder of the 2019–2020 school year. Another date I will remember is March 25, 2020, because that is when I found out that I had two days to attend professional development sessions, develop a plan for my students, and be ready to start teaching online. My first thought was, “I teach students who struggle to learn in a structured classroom with me sitting beside them. How am I going to meet their unique needs virtually?”

I know that I am not in this situation alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all teachers to enter the online world to educate their students. I have been in education for 30 years—as a teacher of special education students in preschool through age 21 and as an administrator in special education—but I have never faced anything so unexpected and difficult as providing effective online instruction to kids who have difficulty learning.

With high anxiety and a great deal of determination, I took on the challenge. I learned a tremendous amount about providing education online in a short amount of time. My hope in this blog is to share with you what I have learned so that you can benefit from my experience. This is what teaching is all about!

Help Students and Families Set Up a Work Space

Students with learning difficulties need structure, visuals, manipulatives, interaction, and direct instruction to meet individual needs. One of the first steps I took was to help my students and their families set up a work area in their homes. I provided guidance about what this space should look like and the materials needed to make it a space that promotes engagement in learning. I also assisted families in setting up the various online platforms I am using with each student to support learning.

Tailor Tools, Times, and Methods to Maximize Engagement

I provide direct instruction using Zoom and support that with online learning tools that I tailor to meet my student’s needs. For this to be successful, you need to know your students well. You need to know what their academic levels are, what is going to make online learning difficult for them, and what their interests and their strengths are. This knowledge is key to planning an online program for them that will engage them and promote growth. For example, IXL is a great program, but I have a student who hates it, so that is not a good choice for him. My students love STEAM activities, and presenting these via Zoom is very motivating for them.

Engagement is key to online learning being successful. You need to know what is going to motivate your students to do schoolwork through the internet. This might require you to think outside the box since normal classroom rewards are not available. Talk with parents and students to determine the best time of day for doing online learning and the possible incentives that can motivate each student. Along with incentives, provide a “hook” that gets them excited to join the next learning session: “You don’t want to miss our 11:00 a.m. Zoom meeting today. I have a huge surprise!” Or “What do a soup can and a water bottle have in common? We’ll find out at our Hangout meeting tomorrow. Don’t miss it!”

To engage your students effectively, you need to have well-prepared plans that meet their individual needs. For example, if a student is in seventh grade and reading at a third-grade level, reading text aloud is a critical accommodation for learning to be successful. Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom by Susan Winebrenner and me contains a rubric to assist with evaluating the appropriateness of using an app with a student and a chart of various assistive technology resources to support student growth.

Get Creative with Resources

I researched many online educational resources to assist in making meaningful educational progress happen for my students while not in the classroom. I researched hundreds of sites—here are what I consider the best ones for making progress with your students who have difficulty learning.

Reading/Language Arts
Kids A–Z
Epic! digital library—select Free Spirit titles for kids are available on Epic!
Vooks video books
BookFlix fiction and nonfiction book pairs

I Know It
Khan Academy
Khan Academy Kids

Social and Emotional Learning
Social Express
Social Learning Platform
Zones of Regulation app: Apple | Android app through Amazon

A list of the best fitness apps for kids
Jack Hartmann’s Kids Music Channel

Brain Pop
PBS Kids Martha Speaks
Mystery Science

Educator Tools
Super Teacher Worksheets
Class Dojo
Google Hangouts
Microsoft Teams

Lisa KissLisa M. Kiss, M.Ed., is the director of special education at Tulpehocken School District in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Previously, she taught in special education and gifted education for over 20 years. She has supervised numerous student teachers and has presented at several state conferences on the topics of cluster grouping and inclusion to help all students be successful. She lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

Teaching Kids With LDLisa is a contributing author to Teaching Kids with Learning Difficulties in Today’s Classroom

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)© 2020 by Free Spirit Publishing. All rights reserved. The view expressed in this post represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily Free Spirit Publishing.

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