Slice of Life: Writing Discomfort

“But I like my beginning,” he said. “Do I have to revise?”

“I felt the same way when I looked at the beginning of my essay. I liked it. But I tried out other ideas, knowing if I didn’t want a revised version, I could keep the old. Just try it, see what happens,” I told him.

As I plan tomorrow’s lesson on elaboration, I keep this conversation in mind.

Writers… help readers envision by telling the story bit by bit. I avoid this type of writing,  leaning toward images and ideas.  But tomorrow’s lesson wouldn’t let me get away with this choice.

How could this strategy possibly work for me in my draft? In a moment of desperation, I considered writing a new essay to fit this lesson.  Crazy talk.  Miserable and resistant as I was to this idea, I knew this was the time take my own advice: try it, and see what happens.

I dug in looking for a moment that was clear in my mind but not on the page. One that might benefit from a storyteller’s voice. I doubted it existed until this line popped out.

Standing in line he was ready for school, but when his mother left he transformed into a caged animal.

Had I not been scouring for this opportunity I would have left this line alone, but tonight in the spirit of trying it, I pull out my yellow drafting paper. And even though I don’t want to, I struggle through.

The boy’s eyes widened when his mother kneeled down. His lips trembled with her hug. His shoulders raised with her kiss and the teacher reached for his hand. Enraged, he bent back the fingers attached to that hand and ran toward his mother who had left the room. Down the hall, he ran until a chainlink fence trapped him inside. 

Hmm. Tomorrow’s lesson on elaboration is tonight’s lesson in writing discomfort. Writers learn while writing things that feel wrong; things that seem unnecessary.; things that are deleted. Tonight I value the process over product. Believing that builds the writer.

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



Slice of Life: Saved by a Mentor Text

I love gathering ideas. Writing long about things I’m thinking about. I could go on forever with that work. And, it’s not surprising that I’m exceedingly comfortable with my students in this phase of the writing process.

But there’s a time to break out of the gathering process and come out of the notebook. Choose one that you are willing to share with the world. One that means the most to you. One that you have the most to say about.

This part of writing and teaching writers is scary. For me. And, for my students.  Some are ready to jump. Fearless writers. Those who feel at ease in their writing selves. The words flow, and the pages fill.

Today I gathered my kiddos on the rug.  In my hands, yellow legal paper.

Most had their plans made. Ready and willing to take the risk.

But I knew some kiddos weren’t.

This is the do or die moment. All must come to terms with what to write. All must reach a decision. This urgency makes for some of the best conferences.

Students start to go off to write. And I tell them, if you are unsure, stay. We’ll figure it out.


The group that remains, mostly boys, gathers around and one by one we talk through the process and their idea.

Some needed nudges to commit to an idea.

Some needed a confidence boost.

Some needed to be reminded that this isn’t the final product.


And some needed another mentor text. One that could give them a simple structure to launch their journey of thought. Lucky for us, my colleague, Cathy Skubik, handed me a golden text last night. It was late in the game, but who knows? Why not share it.

I’m not sure where this text came from, but it provided a structure that made sense to the unsure and uneasy writers on the rug. We read it; talked about its replicable structure. One by one, ideas were translated.  Light bulbs went on and off they went with a stack of yellow legal paper.

Today we drafted our journeys of thought. Our true essays.

Today, many young writers were saved by the power of a mentor text.

Thank you, Katherine Bomer, for writing this book.

Thank you, Beth Shoshan for being a mentor.

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

#IMWAYR: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

imwayr-2015-1Books, books, books.There’s always another book in my to be read stack and on my students’ “want to read” list. Lucky us. Three books I’ve shared over the past three weeks, Beyond the Bright Sea, Orphan Island, and The Girl Who Drank the Moon are being passed around. Friends share books with agreements: I’ll read it in class, you can read it at lunch, and you can read tonight.

9781338157710_mresTomorrow, I’ll handoff  Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart. Students are already slipping me post-its, saying things like, Please put my name on the list for Scar Island. I really want to read it…it sounds amazing! And, it is just that.

Last year, my students and I fell in love with this writer and his action-packed story, Some Kind of Courage. I finished Scar Island Friday night, on the edge of my seat. This tale of middle school-aged “bad boys” is filled with punch-in-the-stomach moments as well as keen lessons to be learned.

They have been sent to Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys for various kinds of bad behavior. The school, a former lighthouse then insane asylum, is run by an evil lot of adults headed by the “Admiral.”  Treated as prisoners/slaves, the boys are housed in rat-infested cells and forced to serve or be severely punished.

Jonathan Grisby believes his crime is so horrible, that he deserves the cruel treatment dished out by the adults. He believes his crime is so heinous that he never speaks of it and fears one of the boys who knows.  It’s a big awful secret.

Despite his horrible deed, Jonathan has a gentle, kind disposition that draws him to the youngest, smallest, and cleverest boy on the island, Colin, a cleptomaniac.  Their relationship is a constant throughout the book. Each depending on the other to save them from their lot.

Early on, the adults get what they deserve: a freak accident that leaves the boys without adult supervision. Any sensible kid would have reported it and gone home. But this isn’t a sensible lot. Sebastian, one of the boys with a mean streak, takes over as the leader. He renames the island saying, the Admiral called them scabs, the ones who  were “picked off and thrown away.” But he sees it differently saying, “We don’t need nobody. ‘Cause we’re Scars now. Scars with a capital S. The tough Scars that got left behind.”

All of the boys have their secrets, but Jonathan has the deepest, darkest one.  Like the Hatch that groans down in the basement of the school. The fear of the unknown prompts Colin’s wise observation, “…maybe, once you know it, it’s not all that terrible after all…Maybe it’s the hiding that makes it horrible, you know?”

I know Scar Island will be read and read and read. Passed among my students with agreements as to when it will be their turn.






Slice of Life: On the fourteenth day

Today is the first day of school for many.  In my classroom, it’s the fourteenth day.

On the first day, they were names and numbers: numbers of desks, notebooks, pens, and stacks of post its. They were levels and test scores. They were that too. They were paper files with pictures of their third-grade selves. They were their former teachers, classrooms, and classmates. They were my imaginary students.

On the fourteenth day, I see a room filled with their faces. I see the way they sit in that chair as they read, and the way they move to the rug. I see them standing as they work on a math problem, and hidden under a desk as they write in their notebook.

On the fourteenth day, I know that he can read just about anything but won’t write. I know she can articulate math reasoning way above her grade level but questions her thinking on the page.  I know he rushes through tasks to get to writing his comic. I know she needs quiet and prefers to work alone. I know that this one can’t collaborate with that one, and those two, will work with anyone. Walls have yet to be constructed. Everything shows.

On the fourteenth day, I see pieces of my students’ lives, and I remember my own children at their age. So full of hope and promise.

On the fourteenth day, I see myself, falling ever so slightly in love with this class. Knowing that there is a whole year in front of us. Knowing that we have many mountains ahead. The journey is waiting.

Today is the first day of school for many in this country. One that you’ve been planning for; hopes are high. For those of you who start your school year today, mark the fourteenth day of school on your calendar.  It’s like the first day but in technicolor.

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


#IMWAYR: Beyond the Bright Sea and The Girl Who Drank the Moon



This past week I finished two beautiful books. Two different reading experiences.

beyond the bright seaLauren Wolk’s, Beyond the Bright Sea, touched me as a reader and a teacher of writing. The plot, the characters, and Wolk’s message of discovery moved me to write about it in my notebook.  But what I cherish about this book as a writer is Wolk’s craft moves. My copy is filled with post its that showcase her seemingly simple and beautiful writing.

The way she takes readers  “bit-by-bit” through Crow’s daily routine is perfection. The life of Crow, so far removed from ours, is made real. We can practically feel the salt of sea rinse off her face.

When I got home again, wet to my waist, I stripped off all my clothes, pegged them on the line, and spent a moment at one of the rainwater sinks in the near rocks, splashing myself clean for bed.

I dried myself with a towel off the line, so stiff it could have stood up in a breeze. Then I unpegged a fresh nightshirt and shook the stiff out of it and slipped it on.

Later, Mouse the cat welcomes Crow home. How many times has my cat done the same? Such a simple move pulls me into the story and makes me acutely aware of how important those little things are for readers.

I sat at the table and patted my knee until Mouse jumped up and told me about her day, turning and turning until she’d settled into my lap.

Before I hand this book off to my students, who are begging for it, have to remove my post its. But before I lose those noteworthy pages, I captured a few lines in my notebook and saved the rest as pictures in a Google doc titled Narrative Craft moves.

I’ve had The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill  in my to read stack since it won the Newbery, but it was buried. It the girl who drank the moonwasn’t until I heard this Brains On podcast on how reading affects the brain and featured Barnhill reading a part of her award-winning book, did I find the need to dig it out.  And oh how glad I am that I did

Barnhill’s story starts in the Protectorate, a gray world controlled by fear of the world coming to an end and sorrow over their annual sacrifice of the village’s youngest baby to an evil witch in the forest. The stories told about the witch keep people captive in a system devised to destroy their hope and keep the powerful in control. An age old story that keeps repeating itself. And here lies the gift of fantasy: good, eventually, conquers evil and gives us hope.

The journeys of a newborn baby who accidentally is en-magicked, a young man who is willing to risk his life to save his family, a madwoman who believes her sacrificed child is still alive, and a kind witch who heals sorrows are intertwined. Add to this, humor and wisdom supplied by a swamp monster who falls in love and a tiny dragon who believes he is simply enormous and you have the recipe for a great fantasy read.

I’ll pass this story on to my students tomorrow. I’m sure they’ll devour it.


Celebrate: Just in case

It’s been blistering hot this week. The walk across the blacktop to the next air-conditioned building feels much longer when temperatures get close to 100ºF.

August and September are the hottest months.

This week, I celebrate the air conditioning that worked throughout the day and the Arrowhead water cooler that is always filled (thanks to a wonderful PTA) in our staff lounge.

Things could be much worse weather wise. We don’t live in the pathway of tropical storms, hurricanes or monsoons.

But. We live on a fault line. Earthquakes don’t happen like storms. They don’t come with regularity or reliable predictions, and because of that, people get complacent.

Every time a natural disaster hits somewhere in the world, I think but for the grace of God…that could be us.  And every time a natural disaster hits somewhere in the world, I am grateful for all the actions taken at school to be prepared.  We aren’ t complacent.

This week I want to celebrate the family-supplied emergency kits that fill our school storage areas, just in case. I celebrate next week’s and every month’s evacuation drills, just in case.

If a disaster hits at school we’ve taken action and have a plan, but at home, what if?

Because of what we do at school, six fresh gallons of water sit in my car ready to be unloaded. Today I celebrate that, along with new batteries and a flash light. It’s a beginning. A meager start according to this list and this list.  What could be reasonably necessary is overwhelming, so I printed it out and created a checklist.

Funny how what I practice at school needs to come home. Not just the reading and the writing, but being prepared, just in case.

Read more celebrations at Ruth Ayers blog, Discover Play Build.


Slice of Life: Things I didn’t expect

For most of my teaching life, I have taught two classes of language arts. And I’ve loved it. It gave me a chance to focus on something I’m passionate about and the time to become better at teaching something complex.

When our school made the decision to have upper-grade teachers teach all subjects, I had mixed emotions.

There were good things about being an expert in a subject matter, and it was a joy to know an entire grade level of children.  These were things I knew I would miss.  But there were things I didn’t expect.

After a reading or writing lesson I think, next time I’ll… but the next time I teach it, won’t be in forty minutes, it will be next year. This is a serious shift in my teaching brain. I miss not having immediate do-overs. I miss the opportunity to tweak the lessons. Slightly. Now, I must write my thinking in a way that will translate to next year’s teaching. This is a change. Perhaps for the better. I’ll know next year when the do-over happens.

Reading and writing workshop is the time to learn the lesson. To do the work. While this practice is one I believe in and continually study, I have wrestled with the part of it that makes reading and writing work. Something we push students to try on. To do. This is necessary. But. The thing is, I know the only way anyone will read and write enough to become good at it is when it is done a lot. And that means doing it by choice and for enjoyment. If all we do in class is the work of reading, when do kiddos get a chance to practice loving it enough to want to do it outside of the classroom?

When I only taught reading and writing, I had trouble finding time to practice loving books. I’d squeeze in moments here and there. But it wasn’t enough. Instructional time was limited and precious. It still is. But, now I that I have students all day, and with no lost transition time between classes, I’ve found the time in ways I didn’t expect.

I found it as we walk back from the library. Each kiddo, nose in a book, just missing trees, walking up steps, into the classroom, reading. And I found scheduled, in-the-plan-book, listed-on-the-white-board time. Time later in the day, outside the workshop, nose-in-book, giggling-in-the-corner reading.  That was something I didn’t expect.

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





Slice of Life: Reading Partners

My first week of school has come to a close.

There were no drills, messages, disabled copiers, or eclipses.

Today, every fourth grader was there, really there.

Today, eight students found reading partners and books to read.

Side by side, two boys, fell into Hatchet.  One minute they were looking through book baskets the next minute they were engrossed. Side by side, perfection.

Another pair of boys grabbed Barbara Park’s Skinnybones, and I overhear,  “I loved Junie B. She’s so funny, this one’s gonna be good.”

T* approached me and requested a partner. He knew exactly who he wanted to read with and what he wanted to read. Unfortunately, Shiloh was not what his partner wanted. Not that she didn’t try. She sat on the carpet and read the first five pages. In the end, she shook her head saying, no, it’s not right.

I wondered, are their tastes aligned? Will this partnership work?

“That’s ok,” he said, I’ll read it another time.”

These two taught me what really matters for a successful partnership. Honesty, flexibility, and kindness.

Setting up reading partnerships is a hopeful time. The year is in front of us. Everything is possible.

#IMWAYR: Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

This year I promised my fourth graders that I would read 30 to 50 pages a night. Just like them. Every year, my reading life dissolves when school starts. The day-to-day eats up my energy, and the end result is the absence of a reading life. By committing to my kiddos, daily reading is now a necessary part of my teaching life. I’m doing it for them, but I get added benefits.


Last week I read Laurel Synder’s beautiful Orphan Island, a story about the joys of childhood and the pain associated with stepping away from it. Each orphan brought to the island as a young child, soon forgets what and who they came from. Their world becomes the magical island and the eight other children. With the arrival of a new child each year, the eldest must leave. On the same boat. The same day. It’s the rule, and it maintains the balance of nine. The next eldest becomes the Elder and is responsible for teaching the newest orphan, or Care, tFEE88543-10FF-4C33-BE88-64762EC94159hree things: to swim, to fish and to read. Swimming and fishing are essential on an island, and reading is the children’s source of entertainment and information of the outside world. All they know is their island, and the world presented in books. Jinny the eldest loves the island and refuses to leave when it is her time.


Each morning this week I shared Orphan Island with students by talking about how the writer made me feel; what I’m thinking and I tried to explain why. I’d read a line, or two show the magical way Synder brought the setting to life.  I shared the time when I stayed up late reading because it was impossible not to read on. You know that feeling? I asked my students when you must turn the page.

By Thursday, one of my students asked if he could borrow the book. Of course, I want to share. But, when I came to the end of this book, I wonder this is something for an older student. The magic and adventure would appeal to a young fourth grader, but the meaning of this book would be lost on those still on the island of childhood. Perhaps by the end of fifth grade. Or perhaps I am sheltering them. Just as Jinny did with her Care, Ess.

This year I’m also keeping track of my reading. It’s a choice on my part as it is for my students. This simple tracker of pages read was designed by my brilliant colleague, Michelle for students who want it. She showed it to me last year, and I recoiled at the thought of it.  But, as we started the school year, I revisited it and decided to give it a try. So far it’s easy and rather satisfying. Each morning before we talk, I record my reading with the kids who have chosen this method.

reading log.JPG

My reading life is alive and living beside my students.

Celebrate: Stepping into the Middle

This weekend I celebrate the first week of school.
Finally, all of those unknown faces came to life in the classroom.
Every day they were there. Early. Waiting. Excited. So was I.

We’re learning to be fourth graders.
To have ten more children in the classroom.
To go to lunch twenty minutes later.
To take more responsibility.

Fourth graders aren’t the littles anymore. And they aren’t the big kids on campus, yet.

Bit by bit each day, I saw students negotiate how to be with each other.
“I partner with whoever doesn’t have a partner.”

Bit by bit each day, I saw students learn something about themselves.
“I can’t read my writing.”

Bit by bit each day, I saw students be brave.
“Can I share my work?”

This week I celebrate the energy and enthusiasm that fills the classroom and the playground. The noise that rises up and up when the math manipulatives are out. And the quiet that settles when heads are buried in books. The playground balls that fly toward the ball box at the end of recess. And the two-by-two, lunch box in hand, walk-towards-the-lunch-benches calm.

Bit by bit each day, we stepped into the middle-grade space.

Read more celebrations here, on Ruth Ayer’s blog Discover, Play, Build.