Celebrate: Access and Permission

Wednesday the wind kicked up and dislodged dried flowers from trees surrounding my classroom. They floated onto the playground and children lifted their arms and spun around.  It was “the funniest thing ever” according to the three who took the longest to get back into the classroom. Wilder winds caused havoc to the north and south of us, but for my kiddos the wind is magical.

Wind, the impending winter holiday break, Christmas decorations on everything from sweaters to classrooms has heightened emotions and not surprisingly led to frustration and tears. This is a difficult time for students and teachers. Hurt feelings and worry bubble up in unexpected ways.  To counter these effects, I have focused on keeping the classroom inviting and low pressure by celebrating picture books and student writing.

This week students scoured potential Caldecott Medal winners. Every day my kiddos get a new book to read and evaluate. We are so fortunate to have a public library with access to these beautiful books.  I love this work not just for the conversations it inspires but for the discoveries. The selection of books are so diverse, students are engaged in many ways. World War I ships, Muddy Waters, poetry, the study of elephants, a bathtub version of Moby Dick are just some of the topics covered by this wide array of books. The stories are sweet and funny. A perfect way to celebrate books.

I gave my students spirals for poetry. My intent was to start a weekly collection of poems, but my students had other ideas.
“Can we write poetry?”
“Can we look at the poetry books?”
I had no idea they thought they needed permission or a notebook to read or write poetry.

I set aside thirty minutes a day to introduce and promote our new blog.  It has taken very little effort on my part to get the blog going.  I set up categories of narrative, informational, book reviews, poetry, and opinion. With those simple descriptors, students got the idea. After one week we have 48 published posts and nearly 200 comments. It never fails: giving students a way to write for each other is a way to get students to write.

This week I celebrate access and permission. A simple and often overlooked formula for engagement in literacy.

Read more celebration posts here, on Ruth Ayers Writes.


Slice of Life: This is just for fun

“So this is just for fun? We can write whenever we want?”

That’s what T* asked me about our classroom blog launched on Friday.


Her questions surprised me. The purpose of student blogging had become so second nature, I’d forgotten the liberation it offers.  I forgot my intent.

I started blogging with students over five years ago because I was worried about the unit by unit workshop standards-based writing I was offering. I worried it sucked the love out of what writing could be.

Writing attached to a grade no matter how constructive, seemed to move counter to all that a writer needs to keep writing. Comments, compliments, suggestions yes, but a rubric and points assigned to every piece of writing bred a feeling a dread and nudged me to create writers as defined by standards rather than engaged writers.

This is not to say that the units of study are unnecessary. On the contrary, they are the rock on which my students stand. They have had years of explicit lessons on how and why. But just like the explicit teaching of reading, students need lots of time to practice.   Blogging offers students the freedom to write what they want for their classmates and a teaching window into their writing.

Today, E* posted a humorous slice of life. Full of voice. One that only capitalized my name and the word washer. I asked him, what was his intent.

His response, “I was lazy.”

My response, “Oh, I thought the lack of capitals had a meaning. You see, writers do that. They use capitalization to show things. I thought there was something you were showing me.”

His response, “Oh.”

Next thing I know, “Would you look at my post again?”

Amazing, capital letters. I resisted my desire to ask about the one lower case “i.” Perhaps capitalization holds a little more meaning for E.

Passion breeds practice and with practice comes proficiency. With that, skills and strategies have a purpose.

After one day of blogging, I have seen a half dozen completed posts and nearly 20 comments. How to make slime, how much I love my cat, why the guitar is an amazing instrument, and small silly moments are just a few of what is being published. A constant flow of writing, just for fun.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. So we can write. Just for fun. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Facing a dilemma

At recess L* said, “I have a dilemma. Do you know what a dilemma is?”

“Hmm. Yes, I know what you mean. What’s your dilemma?”

He was worried about participating in an academic competition. A math competition. I understood his fear.  No way would I have considered such a thing at his age.

I assured him that this competition was about being able to work as a team. Only students who could explain their thinking, listen and then rethink their ideas would be successful. Those who were all about speed, no matter how “smart” would be wouldn’t make it if they didn’t listen and consider other’s thinking.

T* overheard.

T is the type of kid L is worried about. The speedy quick kiddo who always has the answer. The kid who prides himself on it. The kid that says, this is so easy.

I looked at T.

“I heard you,” T said.

“I know you did. You listen.”

During PE we ran. Short sprints. They are exciting. Students cheer.

Every year at some point, students make this decision about who to root for, and they start to chant that student’s name. It breaks my heart for those kiddos running so hard and not being cheered for.

It happened yesterday.

After the race, I had everyone sit. Close. I say that type of cheering is unacceptable. We cheer for everyone. Because that is who we are.

They listened.

Last week, Jason Reynolds’and Jacqueline Woodson’s thoughts led me to this podcast featuring the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and to this podcast with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I listened. And was left unexempt and uncomfortable. Owning racism.

I have been afraid to face racism straight on in the classroom. Fearful of being wrong. The thing is, it’s a done deal. I am wrong. I had manufactured a dilemma to hide in.

My slice of life is small. It’s one group of kids. Yesterday was one conversation. One race. But. This group of kids will not go on without experiencing intolerance to arrogance and exclusion of others in teachable moments and explicit lessons around race and equality. We are different. None of us fit. And in that way, we are one. That is the beauty of it.

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




NCTE17: Beginning and Ending with Our Assets

“Resources tend to dictate practice.” So began my last section at NCTE.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, Vicki Vinton, Donna Santman, and Ellin Keene took us on a reflective journey turning that idea on its head. If resources dictate our actions, we will always fall short.

Vicki, in her quiet but brilliant way, asked us to articulate our beliefs by pondering these questions:
What is the purpose of education?
What do you want for children?
How do you see children?
And finally-
Do your actions line up with your beliefs?

Of course, she gave us ideas to consider.
This one sticks.


The only way I own my learning is when I create it. This is real. And I’d venture that the majority of the teachers I work with and those at NCTE believe this.

But. Does this belief drive our instruction?
Does it show up in practice?
Perhaps, in the beginning, it is acknowledged. But in practice, is it supported or measured?

Donna Santman shared her journey over the past year and asked us to consider these questions:

How do beliefs and practices live in school?
What made your current school and position a match for you?
Does the match live on?

The answers to these questions lead to more.

How do you reconcile the realities of your school with your beliefs?
Do practices support or corrupt beliefs?
Is there a point when we say no?

Where is your line?

I believe part of the answer is how we monitor and support children.
How do we define growth?
What is learning?
It should go back our beliefs and what we want for our children.

Ellin Keene ended the session saying something that hit me hard.

“We are in a self-deprecating profession. We are humbled by our responsibility for children.”

This should not disable us.

Keene asked us to consider:


Defining our work in these terms would allow so much more. I can’t but wonder why this stance isn’t a natural one. One that allows the alignment of belief with practice.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. It is wonderful to see you here.

NCTE17: Seeing the unseen, opening the gate

Five years ago I read a blog post about NCTE in Boston. That post got me to commit to my first NCTE conference in Washington, DC.  I haven’t missed one since. It has been and continues to be a place for inspiration and hope.

This week I’ll unpack the experience, bit by bit.

The books are piled on my dining room table.
Books signed by authors.
There is something about having a stack of new books.
One done. One started. One settling in my brain waiting to be reread.
There’s safety in it.
A sense of calm.
It is an entitlement to have access and ability to find books I want to read.
Ones that speak to me.

This week I heard writers share.
How they write.
Why they write.

Jason Reynold’s words dug deep. Demanding attention and action.

I’m trying to write books that are protecting young people from invisibility of their personhood. You’re not just a problem, you’re not just an issue or a disenfranchised child….I refuse to let you be discarded.

We need to bolster humanity in the kids that we pity. They don’t need pity. We need to see them as people, not pitiful.

Kids are just like us. Books that speak to them will be picked up and read. They are not the problem. We are when we don’t see or hear our students.

This demands we look closely at our books and our practices around books.
If those books do not fit a child, that child does not fit in our classroom, and that child is unseen. Why should they want to read?

We might start out our school year with a reading inventory.
With questions like, what books do you love?
But how many of those books are on our shelves?
How and how often do we explore what our kids want to read?
It’s there to be seen. But do we look?
How many students don’t know there could be books to love?

What are we doing to see our young people?  What are we doing to protect them?
We need to ask and listen.
Provide some white space as Jacqueline Woodson does in her books.

Woodson’s words ring in my ears.

…not only do you have a right to be here you have right to be here fabulously…

I want to stay visible… the people I love to stay visible. I want people to be seen. I want their lives to matter

And these words:

The DNA we are walking through this world with is complicated. How do we teach people we consider as ‘others’ when we are the gatekeepers?

Time to look and listen deeply.
Think about the time we have with children.
Commit to our beliefs and figure out how to open the gates and let them in.



Slice of Life: We choose to write


Every morning, students can choose to read, write, or shop for books. At the beginning of the year, students read. Mostly graphic novels. It was a lovely prelude to read aloud.

Yesterday, I noticed a shift. Students were writing. Students who a few weeks ago struggled to type in their emails were at it deep into their stories on Chrome books.

Last night I read their writing and noticed my own shift as a teacher.
I noticed my first read has fundamentally changed.

At the beginning of my teaching life,  the first read was painful. I had to work hard to see beyond the errors. The change in my vision started years ago at a TCRWP summer institute in a session with Katherine Bomer where she had us dig for the “hidden gems” in our student’s writing. That summer work marked the beginning of how I saw student writing. I had to consciously stop my problem focused thinking to see the hidden writer.

Last night, I noticed the joy reading student brings. It always makes me smile because it shows me who they are and what they could be. What they value, what worries them.
Bad report cards, popularity wars, Minecraft disasters, lost best friends, after-school drama, trouble with the principal. Cars they want to drive, people they want to be.
The games they play. The stories they read. The lines they hear.
This all shows up in their writing.

Their writing is a window. It helps us see our students and more importantly allows students know themselves. This is why writing matters. Why students choose to write. Why our children must write, and we must allow for it. Writing sifts through our problems and helps us recognize our dreams. Writing shows us who we are and who we could become.

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


Slice of Life: What scares you?

Two statements haunt me tonight.

One from a student when asked what scares you, he replied, “No Wifi.”

The second from my husband quoting the shocking number of times “we” touch our smartphones daily. Suffice it to say, too much. We adults who grew up without these devices are addicted. Just look around  Everywhere, people of all ages holding, scrolling, gazing at the glowing object in their hand.

The nine-year-olds are in my classroom on the cusp of smartphone ownership. Most don’t have one, yet. But based on my anecdotal research, and this article, ten is the magic age. By next year, most of my current students will have one.

It breaks my heart. My joy filled students who play with each other will become less and less in the moment of observation, of curiosity, of learning, of conversation, of human interaction. Smartphones will own them.

I’ve been a proponent of using technology in school. For communication and learning.  And I still am. But with controls. With limits.  I believe we need more time to observe, to play, to be without a device. We need to promote and model a balance of paper, crayons, and books with pages.  They are too young to have this taken away from them.  To be taken over. Heck, we all are.  We have willingly given away so much for so little.

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




Celebrating Conversations

There are only so many minutes. So many days. This week I was overwhelmed by the energy spent on managing the next thing. There is nothing unique about this reflection. We all face these constraints and the frustration that goes along with them. What’s worth writing about is what lifted me out.

The conversations.
About hopes for the weekend.
About the lost pencil that mattered so much.
About a plan for a story about a girl who had no family and a girl who had no friends.
About the first book in a series and the plans for writing future books.
About realizing people who annoy you have a lot in common with you.
About the hug from a sister of your student at the end of the day.
About how hard it is to be me.

This week I celebrate conversations. The data points of relationships aren’t monitored or measured. They don’t exist on any transcript, report card, or compiling device that marks metrics of academic progress or college and career readiness.  This week I celebrate the conversations and relationships that make teaching and life a privilege.

Read more celebrations here, at Ruth Ayers Writes.

Slice of Life: Ancillary Moments

My teaching life goes by at full speed. I’m continually hit with the ups and downs of learning.  Along with the anticipated bumps, it’s the unplanned tidbits that make my day. They aren’t huge.  It’s the moments in between.

Before school.
“Mrs. Harmatz, I’m in this terrible situation.”

Thinking of all the possible things a nine-year-old could be facing. I asked him what happened.

“I’m nearing the end of Zombie Chasers Number 6, and I hate that it’s ending, but that’s not the bad part,” he said barely taking a breath. “The horrible part is that there are only eight in the series, and I don’t know if there is going to be another one after that.”

How I love this kind of terrible situation. M is the kind of reader who is in love with the silly, gory, fun genre. At this point in his reading career, I must say I feel the same kind of panic. What if number eight is the last one?

“You need to write the author,” I tell him. “We can look for some contact information online.”

“I think I’ll do that,” he said.

During Reader’s Workshop.
K shows me Ralph Fletcher’s Guy-Write, and asks, “Is this a nonfiction book?”

“It’s a book on writing,” I tell him.

“I’m using it in Writing Workshop, It is so funny!”

“Yes, it is. I’m glad you found it.” I just put it on the shelf. That’s all it took for J to find it. And now, I have no doubt it will find its way into the hands of many boys. The finding of this book is perfect: right before we start our independent fiction work.

After school. K  picked up Wonder. “We should read this as a whole class read aloud. And then go see the movie when it comes out as a class.”

These moments bubble up. The ancillary pieces that make my teaching day.

They are born from the just right books that connect to my students. The books that incentivize students. Books that make them think, laugh, and make plans for. I am forever grateful for these writers who make my teaching reading and writing a joyous place to be.

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



It was not an easy day

It was not an easy day. The temperatures soared, and students were not allowed outside.

After lunch. Indoors. A group sat on the carpet, in various stages of discomfort and uncertainty. I had invited them there to work on a challenging math problem.

They want to learn. And most of the time my students persevere. Today was different. It was not an easy day.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Z* nearly wailed. The others looked relieved at this admission. Then they looked at me with please help me faces.

I offered up a strategy. Still confusion. Then, I did the thing I should have done at the beginning. I asked the students to offer up their thinking.

T* shared her thoughts. Two equations that demonstrated her understanding of the problem. She didn’t know how to go about solving it, but she could see the relationship between the numbers. Her insight was something other students with higher computational skills had missed entirely. T saw the essence of it. It was the execution that alluded her. Thrilled to see something that would take others further and lift her up as a mathematician, I offered it to every student, calling it the “T strategy.”

Off T went to her team to attempt the hard computational work.

Hearing this new approach, two boys’ faces lit up and off they went to try it out. You’d think I’d just given them a new toy to play with.

Meanwhile, a little more confident, Z went to join her math team that could not agree on the answer.

The noise level increased as more groups debated their results.

Five minutes later, I approached Z and her team. “I helped them understand the problem!” Z said bouncing up and down. They were all beaming. “We helped each other,” she added.

Each member then explained how they had taught another member with something.  Helping their teammate see their missteps in a way that made each feel good about the mistake and their understanding. They did exactly what I’d hope they’d do. Work together to get through struggles.

It was not an easy day. I saw a side of so many of them I had never seen before. Kiddos were at a loss. Upset and loud. And then with tiny aha’s, turning a corner to help each other. The “high-flyer” leaning into the kiddo who admits to not knowing.

It was not an easy day. But, I think it was a good one.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. A place to share and reflect on a teaching and other life journeys. Read more slices here.