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.

DigiLit Sunday: Earth Day

I’m celebrating Earth Day with Margaret Simon on her DigiLit Sunday link up. Click here to join in and read other thoughts.

“UNLESS  someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
— The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

This quote was rattling around in my brain this morning. The Lorax was published in 1971 one year after the first national day to celebrate and protect our planet. It was followed by the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.  All are testaments to all the “someones” who cared a whole awful lot.

The work of environmentalists has made a difference. Earth Day marches have effected change.  As does education. Education is one of the best defense mechanisms for our planet and our future. Teachers do this work daily when we ask students to look at the evidence around them and question. We do this when we teach students to think like scientists and historians.  We do this when we share literature and news articles and ask them to wonder and think.

This week, I am pleased to include Scholastic News’ special Earth Day issue in my plans. The issue highlights the effects of global warming in Alaska and on the Great Coral Reef as well as articles about garbage art, banning plastic bags and using recycled toilet water as drinking water.  Newsela’s tremendous text set will add in the history of Earth Day and work of scientists who are passionate protectors of our planet.  Check it out here.

Amy Purdy, para-olympian,  offers an inspiring message as an Athlete for the Earth —
“It’s up to us to take care of our environment it’s not that hard to think on a bigger scale and not just think of ourselves. We need to think of our planet. We need to think of our home.”

The Lorax’s words are as important today as they were in 1971. We are all standing in that UNLESS outpost.  And, we do have the ability to effect change because we see the future every day in our classroom.

Celebrate: Back to Books

Testing is over.
Can you hear the cheers?
And this week, I’m celebrating being in the classroom that reads.

Julio* walked up to me after read aloud and said, “Mrs. Harmatz, I’m sorry, but I have a little complaint.” He went on to explain that while he appreciated me, and didn’t mean to criticize, but he needed to point out that the number of books finished chart had not been updated.

Ah, yes. He was right. I’d forgotten. It’s funny what matters to students. I don’t make a big deal of this chart. It’s meant to make them aware of one aspect of their reading life. The goal is a book a week so the number of books read should match (or exceed) the number of weeks we have finished. And this week, week 34, the chart was inaccurate.

I’m glad Julio cared. He hasn’t. Until now. “I read a lot over the break, and I want my mom to see,” he told me. “She’s coming by on Friday to check the chart.”  Oh, I see. So I asked if he’d like to do the updating. He felt this was an excellent idea.

At lunch recess, he recruited another student to help. They organized the logs. And executed their plan: Julio read the name and number of books finished and Theresa* recorded. Every now and then I’d hear Julio remark on the number of books another student had read.  “Whoa! Carlos* has read 52 books.”  By recording all of the data, he not only noticed his work but the work of others. Maybe for the first time. Maybe he sees them in a new light. Maybe he sees his own possibility as a reader.

The chart hangs. Weeks pass. Numbers change.  I know it matters to competitive students and to those who read a lot. Apparently, it matters to those who those who find a renewed reading life. Maybe because of a new book, a new interest, more time to read, or some parental nudging. Whatever the reason, this week I celebrate a student complaint, a chart that has a new student caretaker, and to a back to books feeling in the classroom.


Slice of Life: When we figure it out

It’s been a week since I’ve visited this page. Just a week and I’m bursting with things to write. Things to think through. Being back at writing and school is good. I’ve missed both.

Last week before Spring Break, my student Callie* asked, “Mrs. Harmatz, now that testing is over, what are we going to do?” The way she said it made me hear, Testing is done. Why are we still here?  So I asked her, “Is that why you think we are here? To take the test?” She looked at me sheepishly, “Well, uh, yeah.”

I can’t blame her for thinking it, and I thanked her for saying it.  I might say, It’s not about the test. But, what Callie* and other students feel is truer than what I want to admit. As painful as it is, I listen.

I assured her that the next eight weeks will be exquisitely focused on the joy of learning, reading, and writing.

Yesterday, we started a reading unit focused on Fantasy. The word fantasy was enough to send students into squeals of delight. But as I started our read aloud, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, I was concerned.  Last year I tried it out with my students and stopped. It seemed to be too much for them. But this year, buoyed by Vicki Vinton’s new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, and the pure strength of Barker’s story, I decided it give it another try. I knew if we had the strength to get through the tough spots, students would love this story and with that have moments of loving the work they would have to do to understand.

The story starts strangely as the “gray beast of February” threatens to swallow our hero ten-year-old, Harvey.  I stopped at the moment when Harvey feels like life might be over.

It was a monstrous month, that was for sure; a dire and dreary month. The pleasures of Christmas, both sharp and sweet, were already dimming in Harvey’s memory, and the promise of summer was so remote as to be mythical….He simply knew that long before the sun came to save him he wold have withered away in the belly of the beast.

I asked students to talk with their partners about what they were noticing and what they were wondering about.

Many took it literally: February was the name of the beast that was about to kill Harvey. Others were thoroughly confused and irritated. “I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense!” Meanwhile, one student murmured to her partner that perhaps this was figurative language.

I charted their thoughts and said, “This is a complicated book, isn’t it? That is how fantasy can be. Particularly in the beginning. It’s our job to figure it out. We have to trust the writer and ourselves as readers. So let’s read on.”

It soon became apparent after a conversation with his mother, that Harvey was very much alive. Now students knew, that Harvey is just “lazy” and “kind of a brat,” and the gray beast February was not a real beast. It was figurative language. They figured it out not because I highlighted the one student who got it, but because they wrestled through it.

The confused and irritated relaxed in their seats. Yes, they could do this.

It doesn’t get better than that kind of read aloud experience.  Not just because the story brings us together, Not just because the story transports us to places far away. But because it gives all readers the opportunity to figure it out. There is nothing better than that.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. I am grateful for the community you have created and sustain. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Things Get Rearranged

I have things I don’t use, but can’t bear to give away. They accumulate and don’t bother me. Occasionally they come to mind.  Usually due to an acquaintance or memory.
This happened recently.  A side table,  I’d stored away. I knew exactly where it was, beside my desk. But when I looked it wasn’t there. Things get rearranged, so I look in the second bedroom.  No. The garage… No.  I look again. And again.

“Have you seen that side table I used at my desk?” I ask. Blank stares. My husband has no idea what I’m talking about.

I look again. And again.

The promised item is missing, and I feel a bit crazy when I tell my friend this news. But, I let it go.  I don’t hold on to that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s what happened to the table.  I let it go.

A month, maybe two passes. My husband sells his business, and the garage becomes the target of his new found time.  I stay away from the noise that emanates from the front of the house.  Garbage cans fill.  Things get rearranged.

After a week, maybe two the dust settles,  space has been cleared for me to park my car. Then one day, just before I leave for a three-day field trip,  I look on the second shelf, for one of the three sleeping bags we store in the garage. Missing.

I walk in the house, thinking it must be in the hall closet. Soon I come to find out, the sleeping bags, have been given away.  The moment of irritation passes;  I pack sheets and a blanket. Like the side table,  I let it go, and leave for the field trip.

Days later, I walk in and find the side table. Resurrected in the office.

Things get rearranged.

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




Celebrate: Following Wonder

For some time I’ve felt the need to adventure outside and read more. To refill with words, ideas, and experiences. The need to walk, to look, to experience was met last week when I had the privilege to travel over ocean waters, to nighttime trails, and rocky beaches. To adventure on Catalina Island with 102 fifth graders.

The first day, I walked with a few students who lagged behind. Those who were attracted to that rock, that rounded piece of discarded brick, that piece of drying kelp.

One student walked purposely, attempting to save every tiny pelagic red crab who had unintentionally washed up on the rocky shore. She would gently pick one up. Walk as close as she could to the water and attempt to throw it back. Too often the tide was no match for her arm, and the crab would come rushing back. She kept trying. Crab after, crab.

We got to the pier, she paused, looked up and said, “This would make a great picture.”  And walked on head down searching for stranded crabs. Following her lead,  I looked up.

She continued. I followed her up the rocky beach to join the others.

Later we saw birds. Seagulls drifting magically overhead. Idyllic blue skies.  Once again, picture perfect. With those helpless red crabs, below.  Unseen.

Above the beach, high in the eucalyptus tree sat a bald eagle. White-headed, gazing out over the coastline.  Then he took flight. We watch him soar. Kids chanted, “USA! USA!” as they have been coached to do to alerting others that there is a bald eagle in flight. He is beautiful. Until he snags a seagull takes his meal on the beach amongst the dying crabs.

My red crab rescuer looks at me. Pained. Her expression says this is not right. The circle of life or food chain reasoning doesn’t satisfy her. I can’t blame her.

We go on. We study. We humans.   
She sits. Head resting on her hands.

Looking back over the week, I wonder what students brought home. Along with a smuggled rock or two, I hope students have learned. I hope they hold onto the feeling of being outside. I hope they did something that challenged them. The learning, the experience matters. But mostly I hope they brought back a wondering. Something that makes them want to do something. About something. For their future. Maybe for all our futures.

When we return from Spring Break, we will venture into our wonderings for the last few months of the school year. This week I celebrate following fifth graders into learning and wonder.

Find more Celebration posts here at Ruth Ayers Writes.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: A Room Made New

Recently, I had to change the desk arrangement in my room to accommodate testing requirements.
It hid the rug and broke up students seating.
It limited access to the library.
All charts came down.
All personality was removed from the space.

Afterward, the room space needed to be recreated.
I hated the rows.
I wanted large spaces with meeting areas.
But what would the kids want? They see things differently. Knowing this is their space as much as it is mine, I gave them the opportunity to the students. Just bringing them the opportunity brought fresh air into the room blowing out the stress of testing.

I told students they could submit plans as long as they took into account a few requirements:
there had to be access to books,
there had to be a central meeting area,
there had to be room to accommodate 31 students and 1 teacher.

Makeshift groups came together.
Can we look up ideas?
What if …
How big is …
Where would you like …

Designs came in.




Students voted.
The “L pattern” (middle design above) won.

After school, I tried to make it a reality

The end result looked a little more like a cross between pods and the U-shape, but my kiddos didn’t seem to notice. They were thrilled to see the change that they had something to do with it.

Room to book shop and read, read, read.

Bare walls to be used.

Room in the middle.

Room in the back.

Change gives us room. To see things differently. To make new. To rethink. With the end of the year in sight, my fifth graders need this new space. To grow.

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