Slice of Life: #WhyIWrite

When I was very young, I wrote for anyone who would read my words. Pens and paper were toys. Desk organization was play.

Then I learned my writing wasn’t. So I stopped.

I got a little older, and I wrote because someone made me.

After the very long time known as school, I read writers who dipped right into my heart, as if they were me, yet were the furthest thing from me. At this point I was certain, I would never write.

Years passed, and my teaching life began. Suddenly, I became that person to make others write. Horrified by this sudden turn of events, it became apparent there was only one way out of this mess: I had to write.

I tried. Sort of. I’d write with my students. But it was half-hearted. Again, I was doing what my teachers told me to do.  Not because I valued it.  I was not writing about things that mattered to me. I was not writing for my peers. I had nothing at risk.

I started writing in this space to look at my teaching self. In looking, I’ve realized if I were to stop teaching tomorrow, I’d write.

I write to notice moments that are washed away by the fatigue that ends a day. To understand what surrounds and inundates me. To discover who I am or maybe find who I want to be.

I have a writing self. One that chooses and revises thoughts, one that edits words and their placement. And I have a self that enters the world. One who reacts and experiences. One who publishes instantaneously. Perhaps I write to get that self, the one that enters the world, a little closer to the self I leave on the page.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for Slice of Life Tuesdays. You provide a place to notice, discover, and understand who we are and who we want to be. Read more slices here.


Celebrate: Doing it Better

Every day I cull through papers.
Sort, staple and put into colored-coded folders.
Every day I think back to move forward.

Some days, it takes a night to figure out.
Some days, it takes all week.
Some days, I’m still trying to figure out.
And some days, I’ve seen before. But the memory isn’t rekindled.
Afterward, I think, oh if I could only go back and do it better. Just as I wished the first time it happened. Oh to see the repetition in the moment.
This is my hope at the end of some days.

This week my students reflected on a unit of study. They self-assessed and added in their next step.  Each and everyone went to an uncomfortable place. They held their words up and compared them to the ideal. It is complicated work. The thinking and the comparing can be painful. This week, my students stepped up after that hard work and added in what would make them better, showing their resilience and courage.

As I look back on my week, a teacher of these brave souls, my students are my mentors. Today I compare my teaching to the teacher I want to be and write in my plan book, a reflection for next year, so when the moment that is a memory happens, and I will see it and do it better.

Thank you, Ruth, for your Celebrate this Week link up. Your call is a gift. Read more celebrations here.


Slice of Life and Slivers of Light

Moments of beauty and promise are all around, but some days they can be harder to see. Sometimes they are slivers of light that come quickly and pass quietly. We have to pay attention.

A morning parent conference brought an immigrant’s story.
She came here at 17.
Learned to read English.
Worked two jobs.
Cared for her family.

Her daughter listened to the stories she has heard growing up. She looked on, proud.

“I tell my daughter, everywhere there are things to write about. You just have to be open to it.”

The bell rings and this momma gives her girl a kiss goodbye, and receives, a when-will-you-pick-me-up hug. I could hear and feel the love between these two.

Inspired by her mother, my student and I walk to the line, looking for stories to tell.

We enter the classroom, and the talk begins. Fifth graders are a busy lot. Blogging brings their buzz down; it’s a quieter way to be heard. And there is a sliver of light.

Later, getting ready for reading Some Kind of Courage the excitement builds. This adventure story has them captivated. But today I ask for thinking about big ideas. It almost seems unfair to ask such a thing when “what will happen next” is of prime importance. Who cares about themes if someone is going to die!

This chapter brought quiet and tears to a boy in the front row. This is the second time it’s happened and the second boy it’s happened to. No one said a thing.

I say, “When a story brings big emotion, we need to pay attention and ask why.”

I hear the slow beginnings of talk. Hesitant words.

“Family is important.”
“How you’ll do anything for family.”

I write their thoughts on the board. And with it, I see slivers of light.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.

DigiLit Sunday: Mentors

Margaret Simon has me thinking about mentors today. Find more thoughts on mentors @ Reflections on the Teche.


I swim with a masters group a few mornings a week. There are plenty of mentors in the pool. Some are age group record holders. Many were college athletes. There’s even a former Olympian. They are experts in the work. While these athletes are inspirational to watch, if all I had were their example, I’d probably give up. A mentor is more than a model of proficiency. A mentor needs to reach to a place of ability and understanding in the student. That’s where the coach comes in: taking me where I am and showing me what I can try.

I’ve learned a lot about teaching by paying attention to my reactions to workouts. When do I push myself? When do I want to give up?

Translating my experience in the pool to my readers and writers in the classroom, I reach for mentors with these ideas in mind:

  1. See the student in the work. By noticing and naming what a student does like the mentor, I invite the student into the club.
  2. Break the mentor down. By looking closely at one or two things the student could approach, I keep it simple and replicable.
  3. Step away from the student. By giving lots of room to practice, I let the student try and try.
  4. Reflect. By asking, what went well?  Celebrate the approximations.
  5. Repeat  #1-4

Mentors and coaches are guides. They provide road maps. They inspire and invite us in. As we try, we see more and continue to try. That’s the cycle we want our students to feel. It’s a cycle that builds on itself.

I’ve been lucky to find mentors who make me want to try. To mimic and morph, look back with new understanding, and try again.

My mentors’ words resonate in me, and I hope, shape my actions and decisions in the classroom.Listed below are some of the biggies.
A warning to readers and my apologies to the referenced  mentors —
These aren’t exact quotes. I’ve paraphrased the words that live in me.

Teach the writer, not the writing. — Lucy Calkins
The student is the curriculum. — Mary Howard
You learn to write by writing about something that matters to you. — Ralph Fletcher
Find the gems in student writing. — Katherine Bomer
What do you notice? What do you wonder? — Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse
Nonfiction lets us learn more; fiction lets us be more. — Kylene Beers
Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale. — Lester Laminack
To keep our students reading, we have to let them. — Donalyn Miller
We teach to engagement, not mastery. — Cornelius Minor
Teach one thing. — Shana Frazin
What could you try? — Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
Model, model, model. — Fran McVeigh
I’m not good at this, YET. — Peter Johnston
Every child can learn. — Chris Cassidy




Poetry Friday: Seeing With Others

Violet Nesdoly hosts  the Poetry Friday Roundup.


Every Thursday we read a poem in class.

My students have new poetry eyes and understanding has been a bumpy adventure. Seeing poetry with others can color our thinking. Each class has a different tone. A different dynamic. And, it changes how they see. It can sharpen and distort our vision.

I’ll ask,
“What do you notice?”
“What do you wonder?”
“What does that make you think?
“What is the author telling you?”

I’ve encouraged. Gone slowly. Line by line. Stanza by stanza. Prompting them to notice, wonder, think and speculate.  They talk. I listen and ask for more.  And then they write. Talk, I’ve found, can skew thinking: what I think they think and what they think. It isn’t until I read their responses that I get a peek at what some can articulate in the quiet of the page.

Talk, I’ve found, can skew thinking: what I think they think and what they think. It isn’t until I read their responses that I get a peek at what some can articulate in the quiet of the page.

Last week I shared Adrienne Jaeger’s New Eyes. We read it line by line. My west coast students held the idea of Madison Avenue and the sea of tank tops and shorts tenuously.  I worried the message of homelessness and human worth wasn’t felt as keenly as I’d wished. Perhaps it was their lack of schema. Wrong poem? Wrong teaching?

This week I thought my fifth-graders could use a dose of empathy. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s tribute to Georgia Heard’s new book Heart Maps seemed just the ticket

Click here –> Like Windowpanes

Students loved the sound and the rhyme but, the message seemed to fall short in the class that needed it the most. One boy spoke how it made him think of a family death. Then others joined in with other deaths of animals. How had the message has been confused? Missed? I asked, “What part of the poem connected to their thinking?”  They responded,”…we’d know her cat had died last night.”

I fretted and tried to understand their point of view.

Tonight I read their thoughts. Many were swayed by the one boy’s interpretation. With his words, they were sidetracked and failed to see other ideas. But a few quiet words came through in their notebooks. The class that had not heard his comment saw it as a poem of listening to other’s hearts and seeing people for what they had inside.

What I thought failed, hadn’t completely. In fact, one student saw the connection between New Eyes and Like Windowpanes. Something I had missed. Completely.

Seeing through another’s eyes can skew or sharpen our vision: a lesson in human nature and capacity for understanding.


Slice of Life: Home Alone

They left me in the morning to sleep. No matter.

I move to the foot of the bed.

Stretch in the morning sun.

Lounge atop the living room couch.

Perch on the shelf.

Stroll past the window to keep my mind engaged and the animals on alert.

Nap in the study.

Temperatures drop, and the light fades. Dark. These hints of fall confuse me.
The wind is a fascination. I want to venture, and at the same time, prefer to stay within. A conundrum.

The absence of my people is noticeable; close to annoying. How will sleep come? Do they expect me to sleep without their bodies to disturb?

I sit. Howl.

They do not come. How rude.

I shall not look at them when they return.


I whine and paw the door. Insistently.

They do not appear.

I am unnerved.


I find a box. Its four walls bring comfort abating my anxiety.

There are many small moments in a cat’s life. They are fleeting but dramatic. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for a place to write about our many lives. Read more slices here.



#DigiLit Sunday: Conferring

This Sunday, Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche is celebrating her daughter’s wedding. In her absence, I’m hosting #DigiLit Sunday. Thank you, Margaret, for creating this place to share our digital teaching and literacy thoughts.


This week’s topic is conferring.


This quote sums up the essence of teaching. It is the continual challenge. The most difficult and the best part of teaching. It’s the part you never have enough time for; the part you always wish you could have done better.

After years of worry as to how to best confer with student writers, it has come down to this: hearing, seeing, and honoring students’ words. When I sit next to a writer, I can interrupt, impose, or act as their perceived savior. Ultimately, I want to honor their process and lift them up to the next step. Aid and assist.

Digital writing with Google Docs has allowed me to read student words before conferring. Now, when I sit beside them I have a better understanding, and I can see the possible, writer to writer.

“Writers, like you and me and all of those writers we read, have faced this problem. Can I show you one way I have tried to solve it?”

That is conferring as I know it. A communion of listening and thinking.
A call, response.
What do you want to say?
Can I show you what I’ve tried?

How does conferring go in your classroom? Add your thoughts by linking up  in the comments below.



Celebrate: Feeding the Library

Ever since a book ordering mishap, I’ve been a bit skittish about Amazon shopping. But, a few things happened this week. I had no choice. I had to buy books.

First, an overheard conversation.

“You want this book?”
“Sure. I don’t care.”

Compliance. It’s the last thing I want when it comes to reading.

That evening, cleaning up the library, I threw out three well-worn books. The book baskets looked sad. Tattered. Bottom line: we need to feed classroom libraries. Books wear out and disappear. Different book tastes appear. Students need to consume books. Continually. And not just any book. A book they want to read.

That evening, I read NCTE’s Council Chronicle article “No Longer Invisible- How Diverse Literature Helps Children Find Themselves in Books and Why it Matters.”   Read and venture onto the many links in this article.

That evening, I read through the book recommendations of my students. The authors they love and pass on to each other.

Today, I shopped for books. Books about football, superheroes, dogs, divas, and middle school kids. Books with characters that look like my students and are about what they care about; what they dream about.

Today, I’m celebrating books that kids will pass from kid to kid. Books they’ll read in math. Books I will not get back. Books that, if I do get back, will be so worn I’ll have to throw out.



Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for Celebrating every week! Read other celebrations here.

Slice of Life: Levels as Student Tools

Friday I asked Lori (not her real name) to read a little of her book with me. I reminded her of what we worked on the last time we met, tracking the speaker in dialogue when there are minimal dialogue tags.

She shared this page from one of the I Survived book series.


The trouble was, there was no trouble.

“Wow, you’ve found a book that fits you,” I said.

What next? I want to honor her choice and teach the next step. I sat thinking of what book would help her work toward her goal.  Choosing one for her seemed complicated and inauthentic.

I went off to anther student, thinking about this trouble and my next step.

Monday I gave it another go and asked Lori, “Is if there is a book you wanted to read, but put back because it didn’t feel right? ”

Lori  grabbed the book Ten, by Lauryn Myracle.  She had looked at it earlier in the day because of its cover, but soon  discovered the inside wasn’t what she expected.

“Let’s take a look, ” I said.


The dialogue was much harder to follow than her earlier selection. We worked through it.Even with strategies and support, she felt this was too much. The difficulty was more than she wanted to handle now.

I wondered again. “Do you think there could be something in between the two of these books?”

She nodded.

“What could you do to find it?”

She looked at the levels marked on the top of the books. Ten was a ‘T’ and the “I Survived” book was a ‘Q.’

She looked at me and said, “Maybe one that’s an ‘R’ or an ‘S’?”


Lori started looking and found Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher. We tried. The reading felt harder than the “I Survived” but doable.


Using levels to guide a selection can help. It helped Lori choose a book that she could read when she wanted a stretch.

In this case, levels became a necessary part of choice. It reminded me of Jan Burkins using the metaphor of shopping for a tunic in The Ed Collaborative Gathering. Sometimes the size can help us shop.


Sometimes we choose to stretch ourselves as readers, and when we do this, some direction on levels could help us find a book. There’s nothing to say that it’ll work every time. But this adventure is something  to keep in mind the next time a reader ventures into the library.

Thank you, Lauryn Tarshis, Lauren Myracle, Ralph Fletcher, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris for your work. You help my students become better readers and thinkers.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. A place to share the bits of our lives that we need to figure out.


DigiLit Sunday: Agency

Children must be in control of their own learning. — Marie Clay

Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and  Opening Minds, spoke these words yesterday at my first session of the Annual Cotsen Conference.

Students should expect to learn from each other.
Children’s questions are the most important part of the process.
Students should see themselves as mentors.

What better way to start a post on agency.

To make these words a reality,  I need to adjust expectations and plan towards that kind of thinking. Students can’t just walk in the door and take a thoughtful agentive stance as learners.  And, it isn’t something I can schedule or compartmentalize.

9:30-10:00 Reader’s Workshop
10:00-10:15: Read Aloud
10:15-10:35 : Agency

But to be honest, there is an element of this in my classroom. Student agency opportunities exist in some parts of the curriculum. And sometimes, agency disappears or is a quick add on and not a priority.  Saying “turn and talk” isn’t enough. Explicit teaching as to how that looks needs a bigger place in our lesson plans.

It’s a relentless choice of how we draw lines.

How much of the perceived must do’s overwhelm the agency necessary to “control your own learning.” And how compelling is the choice? Is there a reflective protocol around choice and agency? One that transfers. If I value and believe in Marie Clay’s words, more reflection is needed.

Johnston went on to talk about constructing causal process. In other words, when you do “x,” this is the outcome. It’s a reflective and potentially predictive.  Perhaps, constructing causal consequences with students is the cornerstone of understanding how to have an agentive classroom, academically and socially.

It’s complicated work. We as individuals and as a community of learners need to set goals for this kind of learning; intertwined with each other and understanding:

Mistakes and quirks are not who we are.
Kids want to be a participating part of a community.
They (students) need to know how to live together

Seeing our differences as positive additions to a community is more than just up to the teacher. Students need to be taught to see we are better and stronger individually when we listen. Listen, as Johnston stated, “because we give a damn; because we find them interesting.” To create this kind of community, it takes many conversations around literature and learning where student talk is the majority and teacher’s questions are minimal.

It is a journey. One of redrawing the lines and approximating.

Thank you, Margaret Simon, @ Reflections on the Teche, Peter Johnston and The Cotsen Foundation for making me think about agency in my classroom.


Writing has great mental health benefits. — Peter Johnston