Celebrate: Reading Together

I come to this page with mixed feelings. Our world is a place that tends to do that to a person. I am devastated and disturbed by it, but at the same time in awe of the possibility and promise tucked in and around the troubles.

Every morning we have a circle question. Questions range from the silly to the serious. I’ve used them to connect and focus my students before the day begins. This week a student asked if he could offer a question for the group.  I asked him if he wanted to ask it.

“No,” he said. “You do it.”

So I did. Offering up this, “If you could take back anything, what would you take back?” Answers ranged from the personal to the political. We learned startling things about each other. Things that moved the talkative group to silence.

Even with this beginning, recess created hurt feelings. Settling in for instruction was going to be difficult. So I changed my plans and pulled out Jaqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness.  The connection to the morning question was clear providing a reminder of who we can and should be for each other.

Thursday, we finished Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. This is the kind of book that kept my kiddos on the edge of their seats all the while developing deep connections to the characters. It’s the kind of book that requires tissue boxes near the read aloud area. It’s the kind of book that produces a pin-drop quiet attention at one moment and screams of nOOOOOO at the next. It’s the kind of book that is hard to put down; the I-can’t-wait-but-I-don’t-want-to-finish feeling.  It’s a book that has students writing and makes me buy five more copies because so many students want to re-read certain parts so they can write the quote on the wall.

Friday, I pulled out a Red: A Crayon’s Story. This picture book is a must-read for every classroom. The depth of it is astounding. A book that is so accessible it can be interpreted as needed. We read it closely. We noticed. So many things. The colors. Inside and outside. Labels. Names. Then we wrote.

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Reading brings us together.  As we laugh and cry and understand, we can’t help but reach out to each other and aspire to be good and beautiful in this world. Schools offer the opportunity to read and listen and talk and think and write. Imagine if we all had this opportunity.  Perhaps that is why we see students rising up in high schools around the country.

Appreciate the week’s beauty and seeds of hope by writing and reading other’s posts on Ruth Ayer’s weekly celebration link up.


Slice of Life: Scheduling Time to Notice

“I’m done. I have no more ideas. I quit.”

So said one of my 4th-grade writers. A student who reads and reads. One who writes poetry with the tiniest nudge. One who wanted to start a grade level newspaper. Now he is done?

While this could be a moment of self-induced drama, his serious face said otherwise.

We sat for an unscheduled writing conference.

“All writers have these moments. When the ideas run dry. When we think we have nothing to say.”

He sat and stared.

I talked. I tried to explain that the heart-wrenching feeling of writer’s block/loneliness happens.  I went on. Talking about how writing is the decision to make something inside visible. How it is the product of personal thoughts, opinions, and imagination.  And because of that, writers are risk-takers. Putting yourself out there is scary. Someone might not like it and say so. Or worse. Not say anything at all.  To write is to be brave. And sometimes it is too hard.

He sat and stared.

I told him that maybe it’s time to collect ideas in his notebook.

“But I have no ideas.”

“Write about your life.”

“My life is boring.”

“That depends.”

“What exactly do you mean, Mrs. Harmatz?”

“Get your notebook.”

We sat and looked. We noticed. And jotted a few things.

Paper, pillows, people.  Perhaps paper was more than something to write on.

Words were written in his notebook. And in mine. Perhaps to surface on another day.

Planning our units of study rarely signal us to commit time to notice. The idea of keeping a notebook with noticings is what writers do. It goes back to the old school version of writing workshop. One that collects ideas. In the wake of ever-escalating expectations that children are subjected to, we must instill balance. One way is to cultivate a practice of noticing.

Tomorrow is a busy day. We will be pressed for time. All the more reason to stop and notice.

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


What we say still matters

√I set my book down. Only a few pages until the end.  I thought I’d save it for tonight. But as I waited for the water to boil, I came to the final page. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, is the kind of story that transports the reader to another world. And as in every good story, moments arise that one recognizes.

When Holly remembered her life in California, she remembered seeing everything in terms of who had less than she did and who had more, who was prettier, smarter… She was constantly trying to figure out how to do it better, how to get it right…

This line, toward the end of the book, made me think of a conversation I had with a student this week. It was after school and the student wasn’t one I knew more than to say hello to. I have no recollection as to how it started, but this is where it went.

Student: I’m terrible at writing.

Me (shocked and saddened): How do you know?
Now I wonder why I asked how and not why. I guess I wanted a specific example like I don’t know how to …

Student; My teacher told us.

This statement was soon followed by I’m not good at writing.
I knew her teacher to be a kind person. A good teacher with no intention of making a student feel less than. And who knows what was actually said. But that doesn’t matter as much as what was heard.

I can only theorize as to why this student felt this way. I’m guessing that most of her writing has a grade attached to it. Derived from a well thought out, common core aligned rubric. That was based on beautiful lessons. All best practices intended to get students ready for career and college. While this is just my theory for this student, it also pinpoints a fear I have about the work. To get students to get smarter, “to figure out how to do it better, how to get it right…” students feel that underlying urgency to perform and take it to heart and if they fall short, they are failures.

Setting standards and expectations can prove debilitating for some, empowering for others. Knowing the different needs of students and giving a liberal dose of individualized acknowledgment of personal strength could make a difference. The teacher who told my daughter she was good at math didn’t change her abilities, he changed her perception of them. By giving her with an honest compliment, she believed and grew as a mathematician.

What we say matters.  A lot. Not a new thought, but in the middle of the school year, it’s an idea to remember, and I remind myself of regularly as the pressures of testing start to weigh me down.

What we give time for in our classrooms matters. Allowing students time to read what they want or write for themselves, not for an assignment or a grade, will promote both. Just because they do it more and by choice.

This week students had time to read or write while others finished an assessment.  Two students were co-writing a song. One that was not for my eyes. While it made me wonder what was floating around in their nine-year-old brains, the fact that it was writing without strings was something to celebrate.

This week, I asked students to leave their writing notebooks for me to look at. I wanted to see how they were developing their thesis statements for a literary essay.  Many gasped at the thought.  Grudgingly, they turned them over many with Post-its saying “look here only.” Again I wondered what in the world they were writing, but the fact that their writing notebook had things in it that were not for my eyes was something to celebrate.

This week I celebrate the difference our words and actions make. A small noticing, an honest appraisal of abilities can change a student’s perception. The time allowed for reading or writing without constraint promotes agency and potential passion for both.

Read more celebrations here at Ruth Ayers Writes.