Slice of Life: Dancing with Rules

I sat with Laura from Brooklyn outside Zankel Hall. In shadow, as the sun hit the southwest side of 120th, we talked about teaching, about the pros and cons of living in New York versus Los Angeles.

And then, we watched the parked cars came to life as they pulled out and waited for the street sweeper to pass. Honking occasionally at the less aware. Weaving in and around, the street sweeper danced with the cars in front of Teachers College.

Apparently, this happens all over New York.

What we watched wasn’t quite as organized as the above, but the technique was evident. These drivers knew how to navigate the rules of the street. It was all a matter of knowledge and timing. If you mess up, you get a ticket; maybe lose a side view mirror. But for those in the know, it works.

There are times I’m all for rule breaking. Or dancing. With certain things, I either go outside the lines or don’t participate. Writing could be one of those things. I write for myself with a set of rules I negotiate in my writing universe.

Last week  I sat in a classroom outside of my comfort zone. In a class of English teachers, the rules became more defined, and I revisited my writing inadequacies. Fears that my thesis (did I even have one?) did not match my evidence. Verb agreement and structure all came into question. And in the end, did I say anything? Mind you, these fears were created, and the rules were enforced by me.

The lessons I took away from this writing workshop were profound.

Some writing lessons I knew but needed to be reminded of —

Reading texts as mentors can create joy and skill in writers.  Dissecting writing develops writer-self-awareness and content understanding. Revising with specific lenses sharpen meaning and lift the writer and the writing. Doing this work will take goal setting and discipline I’m not sure I possess. My rule breaking tendencies could conveniently sneak in and sabotage my efforts.

Some teaching lessons I knew but needed to be reminded of —

Being in a writing classroom means being vulnerable and possibly feeling inadequate or distracted by those in similar predicaments. When I teach towards higher levels of writing proficiency, I must remember that students are infant writers, just getting their bearings on their journey. When I ask them to ratchet up their work and set goals, it must be done with their fragility in mind. And, this is when dancing with and perhaps around the rules is necessary.

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





Summer at TCRWP

It was only a few drops when I entered the Starbucks on Broadway. Then. Downpour. My desire to move on disappeared and I sat down, thankful I was inside with a charged laptop after a day of TCRWP’s Summer Writing Institute. Not a bad place to be caught in a rain storm. Lots to read and reflect on.

The institute starts at Riverside Church listening to Lucy. I will never tire of her message of purpose. The importance of writing. The importance of narratives. The importance of teaching children that their story matters.

Lucy reads a child’s story. Treasuring each word. We hear the importance of this writer’s story. We know, and more importantly, the writer knows, this matters. To find meaning in our lives, we must believe. Something is there. We have stories of consequence.

Lucy spoke of the trouble with writing. When we get to “thorny” places. When we think we have nothing more to say. When we get to the uncomfortable mistakes and empty places in our lives, those stories can lead us to something. Maybe change. If this speaks to you as a writer, think of what it could mean for our students. Stories of confusion and trouble need to be explored. And as teachers, we need to create a safe place for them to be told.

Thinking of my writing workshop, I know I did not meet this need as much as I should have.  The mission of finding writing that matters gets lost. The focus gets deflected. Easily.

I come to the institute to be inspired and aligned to what needs to be created. To be reminded of the importance of what I’ve always believed. That our stories matter. And it’s imperative that students do this work.

The how to teach writing that inspires joyful and courageous writing is the focus of the small group sessions that follow.

Katie Clements: Making Literary Essays Meaningful and Beautiful.
Katie started us off thinking about how we see literary essay with our students and how our students see literary essay. Many saw the work as tedious and uninspired. 
The idea of meaning and beauty was not in our day to day experience.

Katie offered some ways to make literary essays meaningful and beautiful. These ideas give writers permission to grow personal ideas to find joy and importance that liberates thinking and the writer.

• Structure matters, but not one structure
• Include some uncertainty in your thinking
• Provide room for the reader to make meaning
• Create time for lots of attempts and trials
• Showcase a unique take on the text
• Invite the reader in so the reader has a place in the literary essay
• Allow for more joyful and playful language and approach
• Incorporate characteristics of multiple genres
• “Prevision”

We thought and wrote around texts. Lots of quick attempts to see the text differently. Ways to make meaning
• Notice a detail that catches your attention.
• Ask yourself what haven’t you written about or how do two elements work together.
• Study times of trouble and write long about them.

• Talk with others about tentative ideas.

• Move up and down the ladder of abstraction (small detail to big ideas)

Katy Wischow: Creating Tool Kits for Small Groups and Revision
I use tools. But I was sure my “kit” of tools could use improvement.

Katy set us up to discover ways to use mentor texts across the writing process. Most of my tools revolve around revision. But Katy had us thinking about how tools could be used.

A few things to consider-

Look at what could be used and ask, how does a writer get to an idea? Travel to author’s web page.

Wonder — how do you think this author got there. Both Jack Gantos and Ralph Fletcher have published ways of mapping their neighborhood. Georgia Heard has her beautiful heart mapping ideas. Author websites and YouTube videos can provide insight into the invisible work writers do.

Mark up a text with post its. Asking, what are the big things I want to show? Consider craft, structure, grammar and our own attempts at writing. 

Clarify the teach by creating tools. If I can’t say it as a step by step, 1-2-3 process, then I’m not clear on how to teach that strategy. Tool creation tightens up your knowledge.

As with all tools, it comes down to selecting the right tool for the job. What and when to use them. We thought about tools as scaffolds. Acknowledging that some tools will always be needed. And other tools are helpful in the moment.

There’s more, but the rain has lessened, so I’m off. Tomorrow will offer more learning and (hopefully) clear skies.

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





Celebrate Summer Reading!

This morning I celebrate the beginning of summer.

Though school ended a week ago, it’s taken a week to close up the space that will be my home next school year.

Teachers collect things. When we move we take stock of what we have and make decisions as to what we need. Treasures and tools that were essential might not be anymore. In my world book are important tools. To meet the needs of students, I’ve collected thousands of books. Boxes and boxes. But here’s the problem, over time books age and become less relevant.

As much as it pains me to discard these treasures, no nine-year-old will pick up a book with an aged or torn cover. No matter how good the story is, yellowed or water damaged pages will not beckon a reader. Donalyn Millers’ advice was in the forefront of my thoughts as I sorted books this week. Bolstering each decision. To keep or toss.

Books with stains, torn pages, split bindings, or funny smells turn off readers. If a book is yellow with age or depends on tape to remain in one piece, throw it away, The physical condition of the library says a lot about its currency and how much we value readers. — Reading in the Wild

There are other lenses I’ll need to consider when summer ends.
Some around science and social studies. Others around fourth grader needs and sensibilities.  But this week, I celebrate the removal of “ugly” books and the beginnings of a new home for my classroom library.

Yesterday, I closed the door on a stripped-down, boxed-up room.

Today, I open the door to summer reading.

4th Grade TCRWP Reading and Writing Units of Study
My growing TBR pile
Fabulous books from Booksource to introduce Nex Gen Science Standards

Read more celebrations, here on Ruth Ayers Writes.

Slice of Life: Holding On

In thirteen years, things accumulate.
Things that sit on a shelf in a cupboard.
Things you don’t pay attention to
they just live there.

After thirteen years, things that were important aren’t
and garbage bags fill.
Five cabinets, cleared.
One to go.

In thirteen years, student writing accumulates.
They sit in books
on that last shelf.
Ready for that plastic bag.

After all those years, I opened one.
When I did it
with each one
I remembered that kid.

He’s finished high school
she’s started college
But that writing is the writer I knew
It’s important so I hold on.

That plastic bag got pushed aside.

I packed up those writers
and moved them
with me
across campus
to my new home.


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




Celebrate: Culminating Moments

This week was the last week of the school year and every day felt like Friday.  It was joyous and as all culminating moments are, bittersweet because, at the end of this week, we won’t be back on Monday.

This week all fifth graders wrote reflections on their time in elementary school. They ranged from the first day of school moments to the best friend forever meeting, to the field trips to the ridiculous moment at lunch. All of these memories make up what mattered to our fifth graders.

On Thursday morning, five students stood and addressed the audience at culmination. They spoke of their challenges.

Having a disability and the daily challenge it presents to their learning and happiness. 
Being retained and watching their classmates move ahead.
Coming to school and not knowing a word of English.  
Feeling like an outsider and trying to fit in.

As these ten- and eleven-year-olds’ told of their fears, they spoke for many, perhaps all in the crowd.

I have difficulties controlling my emotions. It’s hard to make friends. 
I was embarrassed and thought people would put me down. 
I didn’t think I could learn.
I was afraid.

And they reflected on who helped them and what they did to overcome.

My family supported me.
My friends corrected my English.
A boy in my class showed me around.
My teacher helped me.
I got better and better.
I didn’t give up.

It was a lesson in how to be vulnerable. It was a reminder of how difficult it is to learn and what courage, support, and perseverance it takes to keep learning. Without realizing it, these brave children spoke for all.

As the culminating class of 2017 stood, there was a palpable sense of pride and hope.
I was lucky to be there.
This week I celebrate culminating moments.

Read more celebrations here on Ruth Ayers Writes.


Slice of Life: A Timely Visit

I choose a student desk to work at after school. This is out of partly out of necessity (I don’t have a desk) and because I like having space to sort out my day.

Today I look at end-of-the-year student data and wonder. What will they hold on to?  Was this year enough? Will they keep reading and writing? I worry about those kiddos that should have grown more.

A knock on the unlocked door is followed by two, sixth graders, come to visit. We settle into a conversation, and the papers are forgotten. We catch up. Talk about family, friends, their classes.  It’s always a gift when former students come back. I feel honored by their presence.

“Everyone looks so little,” says Jay*. “I feel so old.”

“Can we use a Chromebook?” Kalie* asks.

Go ahead I tell them, and I lean in to see what they are up to.

“I’m going on to Canva,” says Jay.

These two loved Canva last year. They spent hours at home creating pictures to go with their writing.  Jay pulls up an image with the title Going to Rome superimposed on a picture of Kalie in mid-leap.

So cool. I ask, “is this for school?”

“No, we just do this for fun,” Jay says.

We talk until suddenly Jay says, “We gotta go.” And they’re off.

Just when I got to a hopeless-I-don’t-do-enough-for-kids moment, they walked in and saved my day.

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


Celebrate: Reading Growth

The end of the year is an opportunity to celebrate growth. Finding that growth isn’t always obvious. It’s personal. Taking where a student is and using it positively can be tricky.  Especially when a student doesn’t hit the benchmarks in typical ways.

In the last few weeks of the school year, I do running records.  It’s an opportunity to talk about what they did well and work on their next step as a reader. We practice in the text. At the end of the conference, students will often ask, did I pass? Or what’s my level? Questions like these make me wonder what do students take away from these conferences. Does it boil down to pass or fail?

I worry about that. No matter what I say, or how much I downplay the importance of a level, students are very concerned about it.  For those who do well it’s a positive bump, and for those who don’t succeed, it drags them down to a place of  “I’m not good at reading” or worse “I’m not good at anything.”

This week two students showcased these effects.

The positive effect of knowing your level can be seen in Xavier*. He’s a reader through and through. He reads everything. Anything other than reading is an inconvenience.  He’s read 101 books this school year. Something he’s informed me should earn him the student of the month award.

This week he passed his running record with ease. I knew he would. Now he wants to try the next level.  When choosing a book, levels aren’t an issue for Xavier.  He could care less if it’s a P or an X. What matters is that it interests him. For Xavier, his reading level is a badge of honor. It’s bragging rights, just like the number of books he’s read.  He knows who is as a reader, but he wants the acknowledgment that others can recognize.

I see this effect every time a student passes a level. They go back to their desk and tell their seat mates they passed. And their neighbors say “good job” or “I knew you would.” It’s like they won the race. And I guess that’s a good thing. We all want to see the results of our work. Passing a running record is like getting a prize.

But sometimes they don’t win the prize.
Sometimes students get that it was just too hard. And that’s ok. That’s a lesson in itself. But sometimes the reaction to a “no, not yet” can shut them down. This week I saw that happen with Elizabeth*.

Elizabeth isn’t a self-sustaining reader, yet. She can read. But she doesn’t unless I sit with her. She loves that. She especially loves passing a running record. Yesterday she didn’t.  I didn’t think she would, but she wanted to try.  Afterward, she was angry. And the words, “I hate reading. Books are boring,” erupt. She tops it off with, “I don’t think you’re a good teacher anymore.”

Ok. I told her, “Your job is to find a book online you that is not boring. A book you like. There are so many books in the world, I know there is one for you.  Remember the Summer Reading assignment I gave you?”

She looked at me and said, “Can you show me how to do that?”

We spent a few minutes doing some research. I suggested Bad Guys, and we read a part of the book on Amazon.  She liked it. I showed her how to copy the link on to her Summer Reading Google doc. Then I left her to find another one.

About five minutes later I hear, “Hey Mrs. Harmatz!” Elizabeth is waving me over. “I love this book!”  Her smile is proof enough of that. It’s the Lunch Lady.  Standing next to us is Jorge* who asks, “Can you show me how to do that?” I ask Elizabeth if she’d mind helping him. Now the expert online book-shopper, she nods, and they work together to find books for summer.

This week I’m celebrating the growth of each and every reader in my classroom.

Find more celebrations here on Ruth Ayres Writes.