Celebrate: Seeing them shine

This week marked the culmination of our fifth-grade project. Every year I worry, will this unpredictable lot of preteens pull it off? Every year I write about it.  How they rise to meet the challenge. How they make me proud.  And this year was no exception. Every student shone.

I walked around the fair knowing this is one of my favorite moments of being a fifth-grade teacher.


Teaching requires we take in and on our students’ lives. We see moments like the one this week, when they make you proud as well as many moments of trouble and struggle. Being their last year of elementary school, we don’t know what comes next.  We know what could be and we worry.

But this week I got to see and hear about what came next for a few students. Because this annual event not only brings out the best in our fifth graders, it brings back alumni. The middle schoolers, the high schoolers, college students and college graduates.

This week they came back to remember and share their accomplishments.

This week I celebrate my fifth graders. The ones who inhabit my classroom today and the ones who used to. The medical technician, the junior college student, the artist who just sold her first painting, the librarian. All of these students were once in my fifth-grade classroom.

This week I celebrate the gift of seeing students shine.

Thank you, Ruth, for your celebrate link up. Find more celebrations here.



Slice of Life: Math Redux

I’m afraid my mathematical confidence peaked in third grade. Perhaps it was the fractions of fourth grade. Whatever it was, at eight I discovered math phobia.

Reading in fifth grade resuscitated my belief in me. Maybe that’s that’s why I’ve loved teaching reading to fifth graders.  I have not wanted to step away from the literature and grade level I’ve loved. But a position cropped up, and the possibility of promoting cross-content area thinking with students as well as the opportunity to learn something new convinced me to try to fourth grade to teach all subject matter, including math.

It sounds good in theory, but my math memories of scary words like addend, need to be addressed.  I’m approaching this challenge in the way I know best, with books. A stack to be exact. And a few conferences to attend. The first was a conference on Cognitive Guided Instruction (CGI) hosted by Cotsen last weekend.

Megan Franke provided the keynote starting as any researcher-educator might by asking the audience their definition of CGI.  While I was a newbie to this work, I felt at home in the pedagogical stance. Here are some of the answers given by participants:

  • Provides students with multiple gateways to have success and opportunities to participate.
  • Starts where students are in their development
  • Designed to grow student’s thinking
  • Encourages students to be curious
  • Empowers students
  • Unlocks patterns and underlying concepts
  • Focuses on children’s ideas, not teacher’s ideas
  • Problem-solving is not just about solving problems; it’s what you do when you don’t know what to do.

The small group sessions I attended highlighted the idea of unpacking problems, inquiry-based teaching and listening to students thinking to guide their thinking.

Understanding story problems as a story first: think about what you know, what you need to solve and what are the rules or constraints of the problem. Stories? What do I know, and what do I need to figure out. Sound familiar?

Inquiry-based learning to discover patterns by counting objects to make groups. Symbolic concepts become concrete:  three-dimensional representations of numbers called squared or cubed become just that. So much of what I learned by memorization and rote came to life. Wow! Could I possibly become a math geek?

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

Celebrating: Literate Humans

My fifth-graders’ elementary school life is coming to an end.

I hear, “why can’t school be over?” and the worried corollary, “I don’t want to go.”This is the predicament of a culminating class.

I hear, “were not little kids anymore,” said with a tinge of sadness.  They know this is the end of a chapter in their lives. While all may not be able to articulate it, they all feel it.

I want them to reflect on and celebrate all that they have done and become. For most eleven-year-olds, this is not a natural act. They need some assistance.

So, this week we talked about reading.
One by one.
We started with a running record as an easy way to look at strengths and set goals.

I talk about what they do well as a reader and what they can work on next.
We speak of the tricky things they need to be on the look out for and what they can do to work out those difficult places.
We talk about summer reading plans. (when, what, how, how much)

I congratulate them.
Tell them, I am proud of the readers they have become.
Tell them, they are ready.
And still, at the end of these conferences, students often ask, “Did I pass?”
I say, pass what? Oh, the running record?
(Maybe we shouldn’t have started our conversation that way.)
I understand. That’s the nature of assessment. Pass or fail.  They want to know.

This is what I know about every one of my students:
They can find books they love.
They can search for articles to understand their world.
They can express their thinking in writing.
Every student in my classroom is a literate human.
Every one of my students, no matter who they are or where they come from,
have received reading instruction and books to take home.
Every day everyone reads, everyone learns.
Every day, over the past six years, 1,080 days of school,
my students have gotten reading love.

This week I celebrate the power of public schooling, books, and my school community that make it possible for everyone to be a literate human.

Thank you, Ruth, for your weekly celebration link up at Ruth Ayers Writes. Read other celebrations

Read other celebrations here.

Slice of Life: Museum Love

Walking down the darkened halls of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, I realized my museum love. The high ceilings and polished floors. The generous spaces and expertly lit treasures. The marble stairs and mirrored elevators. The gift shop and garden. The curators and educators all there to preserve and communicate, to help us understand how things work and how we fit into this amazing world. Museums are our history and judging by the many visitors last Saturday, they are our future.

I waited for the elevator with a young preschooler and his grandparents. He danced around us. His shoes lighting up as he circled asking questions and getting answers that required more questions. Why was the elevator taking so long? Which one do you think will open first? Why does it take so long? Don’t they know we’re in a hurry? I wondered who he thought “they” were and marveled at his urgency as if it might disappear if he got there too late.

The elevator finally arrived, and the boy ran toward ding only to stop short at the closed doors. The doors opened, and he ran in to face the mirror at the rear of the car.  The doors closed, and he jumped with the movement.  The elevator stopped, and he froze just long enough his for grandpa to grab his hand harnessing him for the next adventure.

This little boy reminded me of many museum trips with energy-filled kids.  Of the times I’d answered questions, grabbed a hand, pushed a stroller, pulled out the snacks,  and wandered the many halls, till the wonderings and energy waned, and we found our way past the dinosaur in the entryway and towards home.

IMG_5103.jpgThank you Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.

DigiLit Sunday: Celebrating Work in Progress

Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday topic is Summer Slide. Today I’m celebrating a week of writing. Perhaps if we had more weeks like this one, the summer slide would lessen.

C_qPoIKU0AAlFmyIn the past, the words celebrate and writing would have meant the end of a piece.

This week students shared their independent writing projects. This unconstrained writing makes everyone happy. Or as Ralph Fletcher might say joyous. Students could choose any style, any topic. The only constraint was that they let me know what they were writing.  Friday was the deadline. The day I told them it was “due.” All but two were still deep into writing. So the due date turned into a share.

Students found others; partnerships and writing groups were formed.  I pushed in as to how they might share, but they already had plans. One group looked at me, a bit guiltily when I suggested they share electronically. They already had. This group of girls was collaborating long before I had suggested it. I was not needed. I walked away, trying to stay unnoticed as I passed other groups.

Aleta* and Jayson* sat side by side practicing the stories they would read aloud to the group.

Jasmine* looked up at Anna* saying, “that is the sweetest story!” At this point, it was between these two writers. I had no place in it.

Before we knew it, as that always is when things are going well, time was up. We had just enough time to listen to two writers who wanted to share with the whole group.

Aleta* was first. She read her fantasy with confidence. She’d shared it on the blog, so we all were familiar with the story. But, reading it aloud gave it a different pacing and power. The story of at sick little girl who had slipped into a fantasy world at the hospital ended with this, “That same day she left with no note nor butterfly or no wolf to howl just a little magic and a last breath.”  I know this kiddo will be writing this summer. This is just one of the many narratives she has in her Google drive. Every moment I let her loose on that device, she is writing. Something.

Next was Jayson*. He had finished his superhero picture book days before the due date. He had practiced reading it at home. Now he stood before the group. Shaky. I sat in the back. But something was happening in the front row and Jayson started to tear up. Someone had commented. Unkindly. As I moved toward the front, as William* began to stand and defend Jay, everyone felt it. They saw Jay and his bravery. They focused and let Jay stop and pull himself together. He got stronger and read on. Through the lunch bell. At the end, students cheered. I wanted to hug him, but I just gave him a high five.

There are times in your classroom when kids reach to places you never think they would go. Times when you are so proud to be there. Times that tell you in your heart, this is why I teach.

This week I celebrated our work in progress. We aren’t done yet. All are still in the midst of writing. Perhaps that is one way to approach summer. In the midst.

Read more celebrations posts here at Ruth Ayers Writes. Find DigiLit Sunday on Summer Slide here at Reflections on the Teche.

Slice of Life: Beginning thinking about the past

Friday we visited Riley’s Farm to witness a bit of living history.  It’s the history we hope to understand and reenact at our school in a few weeks.

Monday we read to learn more.
We stayed offline.
Developing initial understandings from just right texts.
And with complex ideas, just right starts simple.

I handed students files of information culled from previous students’ research and the books I’ve collected over the years.
I asked students to start easy and build your understanding by asking…

What have I learned?
What does it make me think?

I sat down next to Selena*. She’s pleased with herself. “Look at the information I’ve collected.”  She lifts her notebook and points to the list of steps that were necessary to make a piece of fabric. Yes, I think. Step one down. Now for the slippery part, “So, what does this make you think?”

She stares at me. Probably disappointed in my response. She might be thinking, “Man, Mrs. Harmatz, always with the thinking. Can’t you give a girl a break?”  Her silent stare continues. I stare back. And eventually, she says, “It wasn’t easy to get clothes.”

With that, my mind spirals off to a place ten-year-olds will not go.
I’m thinking, what a comfortable life we lead. What do we do with all of that extra time?  But I ask, “Is this a new idea for you?”

I want her to see that everyone had to work for everything, so people didn’t have a lot of things or time or choice.

I want her to think about how there is so much extra time in our lives to learn, to think, to do.

I want her to think that this is still the case for so many girls in the world who have to work and don’t have the time to learn, to think, to do.

I want her to see all of that, but she’s ten. Connecting to people in the past is a challenging thing. Our lives are so very different.

She doesn’t make the connection. Yet. And that’s ok. Luckily, she has time. Tomorrow or the next day, maybe in 8th grade or perhaps in 11th grade or in college, when she talks with a group, perhaps she’ll think these thoughts.

The point is she will. This is just a beginning.

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


Celebrate: A Conversation about Fairness

Because of unforeseen family needs, today’s plan was discarded. This change in plans phenomenon occurs more often than I’d like to admit in my classroom. But this week I promised myself,  my plan would happen.

This conversation has been necessary, but other things kept getting in the way.  This Teaching Tolerances lesson on fairness was my starting point. And the outcome of it startled me. Things I thought would not happen, happened. What was so clearly, at least in my mind, unfair, weren’t perceived as unfair by all students.

The lesson brought out the best and the worst. I tweaked the initial set up a bit. Rather than give pencils to some students and not to others, I sat them down and told them if they were born in July, August or September they had to go to summer school. That got their attention, and it took them quite awhile to get to the point of complaining about the unfairness of this prospect. (That in and of itself made me think about how compliant our children must be in school. If “they” say so, we have to. Hmmm. Yes. Well that is a whole other topic.)

After one student cried out “that’s unfair,” I put them at ease by saying what I told them wasn’t true. They calmed down, and I asked, how did it feel? To be the ones that had to go. To be the ones that didn’t have to go. Students were undisturbed if they weren’t the ones forced to go to summer school. They didn’t see beyond themselves. No thought was given to the people that had to go. Only those who were chosen felt the unfairness of it.

That set the stage for them to think about these situations. Were they fair or unfair? Surprisingly, many boys thought it was fair for the boys to have the answer key to study for a test. Whaaa? How could this obviously unjust scenario be seen as fair? (Hmm. See above.) While I couldn’t help but feel a little disheartened, it set up a great context for discussion around bias and discrimination.

Next, I asked students to determine which situation on the list that was the most unfair.
The majority chose, “It is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves in the world today, many of them children.”  One student raised his hand and disagreed. He felt that “Two of every 100 U.S. children are homeless”  was the most unfair, because, “if you are a slave at least you have food and shelter.” His argument was reasoned and worth thinking about.

But the majority would not hear him.  That moment of intolerance was one that I would bring up the next day when we read a magazine with a lens for unfairness. I reminded them of their actions the day before. How they refused to listen to another point of view. They remembered the effect their actions had on this one brave student. You could feel their shame. They were unfair and intolerant. And more importantly, they saw it.

Every day this week there has been a moment or two or three to filter through the lens of unfairness. Little things like waiting for the same students to get to the carpet or putting away community tools. I have simply needed to ask, “Is this fair?” and students process it through their experiences: When told they would have to go to summer school or when saw that they were, in fact, intolerant of another.

This week I celebrate making myself stick to a plan. I celebrate taking risks with student emotions. I celebrate seeing our biases.  Students’ experiences might help them see the unfairness around them and in them. And maybe do something about it.

Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for the Celebrate This Week link up. Find more celebrations here.

DigiLit Sunday: Do Something

Today, I’m linking up with Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday Reflections on the Teche on the topic of advocacy.

Living in Los Angeles, I’ve learned to deal with traffic by finding something good to listen to. Years ago I was limited to my local NPR station and books on tape. Now, I’m addicted to podcasts. There is always something to not just get me through the drive but hold me in a parking lot, listening. The power of story lifts me out of myself to other worlds and leads me into thoughts.

Yesterday, I found myself being lifted by this podcast from Cornelius Minor.  He spoke of his student, “Earl” who felt he was hated by his parents. A staggering thought but Earl thought it. And because Cornelius is Cornelius, Earl felt he could tell him. And Cornelius being Cornelius, listened. And then did something.

Like so many of the kids who walk into our classrooms, Earl needs a champion, an advocate. And, that’s where it gets sticky. Uncomfortable. Too often, when that happens, I don’t know how or I’m afraid. To mess up. And there are times I don’t do as much as I should. There are big problems like the one Earl is facing. And big problems that all kids face daily. And it’s time I face it overtly. It is my job to be the advocate, to take action or as Cornelius says, “do something.”

Listening and watching, becoming and being that person who can be approached matters. Students need to see it in you. Noticing, asking, listening helps. But there is more that should be done.

No matter how many books I read, or stories I tell on kindness, I see kids being unkind. Where it starts and why it starts is a tangled mess. And, we all know how it feels to be the recipient of unkind. It appalls us. Being with kids all day, teachers have the opportunity and the responsibility to do something. Not just walk away shaking our heads.

So here I sit looking to create a classroom of kindness in a sea of kids who are fighting to survive unkind acts. And what astounds me is the lack of my professional development and energy given to explicitly teach fairness and kindness. It needs to be taught directly not as a subtle tuck into a mini lesson on literacy.  Fairness and Kindness should be content areas. I want my students to become literate humans but more importantly (yes, more importantly), I want them to become kind humans. This is my job.

Today, I dug into the Teaching Tolerance website and found this link. All I can say is why haven’t I looked here before.

Today, I encourage you to listen to the podcast above and dig into the resources and lessons like this. It’s our job and if we don’t know how we need to find out how.


Slice of Life: Foreign and Familiar

One of the benefits of being a Cotsen Art of Teaching alumni is being invited to ongoing professional development opportunities.  The lovely people at Cotsen believe in supporting teachers all along our teaching journey.

Last Saturday, I ventured to the first “Cotsen Playground Challenge.” I arrived to find tables full of wires and toys. Legos, drones, balls and even playdough.

My first station held what appeared to be a Lego vehicle. Familiar yet foreign. A young woman, light years ahead of me in knowledge, started programming her EV3 Lego.  Soon she’d made several trips around the challenge course and had calculated the perimeter of the area.  I sat puzzling through the program and she was off to the next challenge. I tried and failed. Eventually, I got the hang of it or at least the idea of it. The kind teacher who set up the activity assured me she was equally clumsy when she started using these devices.

The next learning space used a HyperDuino maker kit. All new to me.  This project wired lights and a circuit board to a Chrome book to create touch activated virtual tours of the National Parks.

The last station I visited held a maker project that spoke to my writing self. A student created book wired to a computer program.  With a touch, the graphite-colored image activated the MakeyMakey alligator clip that started a Scratch video made by the student author bringing the story to life. Now that is cool.

My first jobs out of college involved programming with a dial-up connection and computers that opened up to reveal a circuit board. Back in the day, we saw the insides of computers and made them run.

Today, our computers are sealed, phones process as computers in the pockets of many ten-year-olds, and Wifi is close to being as essential as clean drinking water. At the same time, teachers and young students are entering the world of STEM through simple circuit boards and programming moves.  What was old is new.  Familiar and foreign.

Thank you, Cotsen. The learning experiences you continue to provide are gifts to teachers and their students. And thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays, a place to share and reflection on our teaching and writing lives. Find more slices here.

Slice of Life: A Lesson Gone Awry

It’s Monday morning, and I’m ready for a great day of reading and writing. My students have different ideas.  I’d imagined furious note taking on Colonial Times that would have followed my groundbreaking lesson, did not come to pass. We ran aground.

Students resisted. Maybe it was the nature of the writing: genre specific and content driven. Or maybe it had to do with the task:  students were to do, read across texts look for information, take notes, connect dots, flesh out their thinking,  and write their ideas. Or maybe it had to do with the day of the week, the time of the year.


“This is hard! Mrs. Harmatz!” That’s how it felt all day.

When students push back, I consider outcomes.

  • Limited conversations
  • Solo attempts with notebooks are a struggle

I consider my intent.

  • Content and text is complex but doable
  • Notetaking and talk will build understanding

I revise my process.

Tuesday morning. Chart paper and markers. Each partner is given a pen and asked to write everything they know about the topic. They can read, look at each other’s notes, look at my notes and talk.

Students sat side by side negotiating for a spot to write their learning.

Their learning and tentative thinking are visible.  And I can see, the challenging nature of this work.

Tomorrow we will sit and think and talk. And push our thinking by asking questions of our learning:

  • How do geography and climate affect how people live?
  • How do attitudes toward religion impact people?
  • What might be some predictable problems colonists will face?

And then, we will write.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for this venue to reflect and grow my practice, to look a little closer and see what students can do.

Read more slices here.