Slice of Life: Read Aloud Windows and Mirrors

My unwavering goal as a teacher is to make sure my students leave my classroom knowing that it’s possible to love a book. Every day we read aloud.

Most recently, we have been reading picture books with the lens of windows and mirrors. My students never cease to surprise me and teach me.

We read Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle. This beautiful picture book poem tells the tale of a Cuban-Chinese girl living in 1930s-Cuba. She wants to play the drums but is not allowed because she is a girl. I expected this to be a mirror for girls who saw this as unfair. Yet it was boys who saw this as a mirror. “My parents say only girls can make slime, not boys, so I can’t,” A– said.  The girls saw this story as a window. “That was how it was, but now girls can do anything,” said K–.


While it’s progress, girls have accepted their right to do, I know these same girls know women aren’t being paid equally. Many of the girls who sat on the carpet saying Drum Dream Girl is not a mirror have written about the inequities of women’s soccer player pay. So while it might look like gender inequity solved, it isn’t.  It’s a subtle change. This generation of girls is growing up, knowing they have the right to do. That’s the past. They are a part of the next step, equal acknowledgment for what they do.

The strict gender expectations of how boys must operate in the world saddened me.  Boys doing something girls do is not ok. An unchanged scenario. This seems a much smaller step than girls crossing cultural and work domains. But apparently, even a hint of a boy doing something a girl might choose to do is not allowed. Insulting and limiting.


Tomorrow we will read Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman. I can’t wait to see what type of reflections and viewpoints this will bring.



Slice of Life: Handwritten Letters a Reason to Write

As I thought about the possible things my students could do to celebrate national #whyIwrite day, I kept coming back to the handwritten letter. The rapid decline in letter writing is understandable. Emails, texts, direct messages are expedient and effective ways to conduct business. But what of human relationships? Are they a thing of the past?

Reading the letters saved by my mother makes me believe in the continued importance of letter writing. I had no idea these letters existed or how much these slips of paper would mean to me. Not just for the content, but for the way they were treasured. Wrapped in ribbons and rubber bands. The correspondence saved in postmarked envelopes. The paper, the script, the pen used all create dimension and context. 

I shared some of the letters with my students and invited them to write their own to people who would value them; save them for the future. They wrote to parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, friends.  Sweet letters with rainbows and hearts. There were letters addressed to authors, YouTubers, and boy bands all signed, sincerely from your number one fan. These tangible objects sealed in an envelope, carry weight giving everyone a reason to write.

Literary essay: obvious but unnoticed

My fourth-graders read with giggles and gasps and oh nos. They stop with urgency and reach for their notebooks to write something they must hold on to and then race back to their book. They ask for books by title and author. And when I hand them a new book, they jump and squeal. This is how they read.

Many students take notebooks and pads of paper to recess to create comics and stories. They ping pong off each other’s characters and ideas. There are often cheers when writing workshop starts and groans when it ends.  This is how they write.

This is why I struggle with the idea of literary essays. To ask nine-year-olds to take their developing love of story and turn it into something to be sliced and diced.  Analyzed. Schoolified. Why just when reading and writing are becoming something they enjoy, must we make it something they don’t?  Every year I wrestle with the why.  Some years I’ve simply refused to do the standard work. Having students write their opinions about issues that matter to them; finding relevant support for their ideas is an authentic way to approach opinion writing. The only justification I can manage for writing literary essays at nine is to teach a structure and discipline of thinking about opinion writing.

This year I decided to start it off writing about stories they have heard since kindergarten: Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel.

At first, they were beside themselves, mimicking the yoo-hoo’s of Cherry Sue. But once they settled into the idea, they got into spirited discussions as to whether Cherry Sue was annoying or thoughtful.  Students came to their ideas with ease: Poppleton is lazy; Toad is caring.

The tricky part has become the process of writing their explanation of their beliefs.  At nine, students can reason verbally in sophisticated ways, however, putting those ideas on paper is a big step. And, this holds true across subject matter. And it makes sense. That’s why the most accessible texts and that give rise to simplistic ideas work. The writing becomes all about the reasoning.

In the past, I’ve asked students to write about Those Shoes by Maribeth Bolts or Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson or Taco Head by Viola Canales.  These are stories students understood and connected to. But they were too much. Students focused on the evidence, not their reasoning. The evidence was the explanation. Also, students held the same beliefs about characters. There was no difference in interpretation. With Poppleton and Frog and Toad, the text is limited. The same evidence resulted in differing opinions, and that required explanation.

I started out this unit unhappily. Wondering why. Wonderfully, I have relearned something fundamental. I knew simple texts pushed bigger thinking in reading, but I failed to implement this understanding in writing. Obvious, but unnoticed.

I wonder and hope my students learn half as much as I do.


Slice of Life: Writing Found

I’ve been wrestling with writing. Many days I’ve composed thoughts only to allow something to get in the way of it arriving on a page. Day after day, I fill moments where writing could have been. It may have been with a book or a friend. But as time goes by, so do we. Writing represents who we are, how we remember, and how we are remembered. I felt this intensely when I cleaned out my parents’ home.

With the closing of their home, I pulled their notebooks and letters, their lived lives into mine.  Their writing holds who they were; of the times they lived in and through. And as lived, they wrote.

Boxes and notebooks. Writing done with manual typewriters. Letters penned by my grandparents who learned English as their second language. Letters sent home from war fronts, written on fragile airmail paper. Boxes of letters saved just as valuable as the yellowing wedding dresses and baby clothes. Words mattered.

Now their writing sits in boxes alongside the notebooks, poems, letters, and other musings of my children; the detritus of who they were at five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. And I sit in between. Examing how privileged my people were and are to be literate.

How lucky I am to have the opportunity to write and to be able to teach writing. What a crucial way to be human.