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: 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.


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.

Celebrating: Doing the Work

On Wednesday night, I came home exhausted and told my husband,
“This year is the worst. They don’t get it; it’s going to be a disaster.”

He looked at me and said, “You say that every year.”

At the moment it was funny, and it eased my worries. It’s good to have a witness to your worries. Someone to hold you up and keep you accountable. To your comments, your actions, your beliefs.

I suppose it’s human nature to forget the bad stuff. Replace the painful and messy chapters of our existence with moments that glisten.  But if that is the case, if that is what we do, what does this say about how we approach learning. Can we, do we tolerate the discomfort necessary to learn?

Learning isn’t easy. It can feel like you’re fighting against the current, running backward, and just making a general mess of everything. The natural inclination could be to give up; stop and change course. Why, continue in something that seems to be accomplishing, best case scenario, nothing.

This week the fifth-grade class created a colonial village for their school to enjoy. THEY did it. The process of that creation was loud and disorganized. Students had difficulties. Working together is hard.  It looked bad: like they are just playing around and making a mess. And they were.

Consider the students who were to be the militia. Start by imagining the kids who chose this role. Now, picture a group of sixteen putting together three six-minute reenactments.  Watching this hot mess, I kept telling myself: this is the process; they need to do this.

I had doubts and to get through it, I held tight to my core belief: to learn, one must do. And that in the doing, there is a lot of approximating going on. And that approximating looks awful.

That belief got me through the weeks leading up to the day of the fair.

Nine a.m.: four classes of kindergarteners and six first grade classes entered the “village,” escorted by their fifth-grade guides. They “traveled” through each station where fifth-grade presenters explained, demonstrated and engaged students.

Watching this, no one could deny the learning, the ownership, and the pride.

Watching what came before this, many would have doubted the process.

It is hard to see the purpose in a playful mess.

To be able to allow this process of learning, I realize I must hold on to core beliefs that will sustain through the discord and disorganization. That will right my thinking in the midst of the stormy waters of learning and anchor me.

First and foremost, students must do the work.

To do the work, students must have demonstrations, models and lots of opportunities to try and try and try and fail and try again.

Students must be engaged in the work, so they have the energy to try and try and try and fail and keep trying.

To be engaged, students must have choice and latitude in what is considered successful.

Play is a part of learning.

Learning should have culminating performance-based practices that give tangible feedback and hold meaning for students.

For learning to exist outside of the classroom walls, learning must accommodate spaces bigger than the classroom.

This week I celebrate my students doing the work.

I celebrate purposeful play.

I celebrate their learning.

For more celebrations read here on Ruth Ayer’s Saturday Celebrate This Week.

celebrate link up

Throughout this post I have used phrases that are titles for two beautiful books that are on my desk right now: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’  Whose Doing the Work: How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More and Kristine Mraz’s  Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day.




SOL: Extreme Learning

Finding reasons to avoid something is a skill we develop early in life.  The if-I-wait-long-enough-it-will-go-away philosophy might work sometimes, but not this week.

Monday came, and the presentations students were to share with the school hadn’t materialized, and the deadline didn’t change.

They were to be “interpreters” of colonial times.
Younger kids were coming to learn. From them.

My fifth graders weren’t close to ready.

All had done research; they started off full of energy and excitement.

Then K. got her feelings hurt.
T. reported that N., “Thinks he’s the boss of everything.”
And that, “He can’t tell me what to do.”

They argued about who should do what and how.
They complained that X. was fooling around.
S. was laying on the table.
Y. wasn’t listening to anything  C. said.

There were requests to change groups.

The problem: they had to hear each other’s thoughts and come to a consensus.

It takes a nimble leader to get others to listen and agree.
It takes great skill to have ideas and communicate them in a way that gets creation going.
It takes persistance, resilience, flexibility and I’d argue a deadline to get things done.

What seemed like a relatively straightforward exercise was an intricate dance of intellectual getting-along.

This is extreme learning.

My students had to mix with another classroom’s students and formulate a plan on how to teach something they had learned independently. They had to do it without me arbitrating. They had to do it for themselves. Together.

I sat them down and informed them of their predicament: they had one day to get their scripts written.  The deadline was 2:30. No exceptions.

“Can’t we work on it at home?” pleaded C. as the others looked on.

“Nope, you have to do this together, now. Write.”

We had space and desks.

Computers opened.
Voices rose.
Students stood around desks.
And wrote on the white board.
For moments voices got strangely quiet.
And then intensity around the work grew.
They shared their Google docs and fought out the work in the document.


Soon it was time to go.

Now, I’m alone in our little building. They’ve gone home, and I’m stunned by the silence and the effort made by those who rose above the mess and owned the work together.

Getting it done tore at some friendships. Strange alliances formed.

Collaborating is a delicate balancing act. For children and adults.

As usual, I learn from watching my students learn. I’m honored to be in their presence.

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

Celebrate: A Long Ride Home

The ride took two hours but felt like less. We were fresh and ready for adventure.

We stepped off the bus, into the chilly 48˚ air, into a colonial village in the foothills above Los Angeles to learn.

We explored crafts and customs of the time: the manners and expectations so far removed from our digital, neon-colored existence.


After lunch, we boarded the bus. Tired and cold.

Driving down the narrow mountain road,  I saw a dark wall of low-lying clouds.

It came down. Hard.  The rain banged on the metal bus roof and summoned quiet.

No one wanted to be on this bus ride. But we had no choice.

That’s how life is sometimes.

We don’t get what we want now.

Sometimes we don’t get what we want at all.

We have to suck it up and hang in there. Knowing, or maybe believing, we will get there.

We have to have patience. With ourselves, our neighbors, the traffic.

Some fell asleep.
Some colored.
Some talked.
Some played cards.
Some stared out the window.
Some invented games.
Some thought.

What seemed interminable and impossible was tolerated. Being kids, they couldn’t help themselves. They laughed and talked and played and invented. Being humans they couldn’t help but look around and notice and wonder and learn.

I learned R notices the small things, on the side of the street and all over the bus.  I found out about E’s cats, and that B had an art show this weekend; that  K has a beautiful singing voice, and A has incredible patience. B knows everything about Mustangs and Cameros and cool looking motorcycles;  T’s sister is starting college, and R’s sister is trying to get straight As.

R, E, O, B, T, and A learned more about my kids, my cat, and my knowledge of songs. That I’m not good at remembering song titles, but I like many of the songs they like.

I listened and learned a lot about the children I sat beside.  We sat, and we shared our space, our noticings, our wonders, our experiences, what we had inside.

We learned. We got along.

That long ride was not planned or wanted, but it added to our understandings of the world and each other.

And we all got home.

This week, I celebrate a long ride home.

Thank you, Ruth, for your weekly call to celebrate the week. Read more celebrations here.

celebrate link up


DigiLit Sunday: Function

slide11This week’s DigiLit Sunday topic is “function”. Connect to Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections On the Teche to read more.

I’m wondering, how are my students functioning with technology and how is technology functioning for them.

My students have the opportunity to write on technology. Every day. They have a blog. They connect to other classrooms and each other. They write for themselves and units of study. As they draft on google docs, the concept of revision has become clearer and more doable.  Electronic tools from spell check to research are becoming second nature. Many are taking notes and collaborating with electronic tools. The resistant note takers and writers are using voice to text apps. All students have time to write. Every child. Every day.

I am thrilled. They are writing more. Their writing is improved. They want to write. It’s all good.

But. Wait.

Hold on.

As much as these technology tools liberate my students as researchers and writers, there is a downside, unless we consider technology through the lens of function. We, as readers and writers, need always be asking ourselves: how does this tool help me; is this the best tool for the job.

Friday, we started a researching colonial times. Even though there were books on their tables, students jumped online. They found quick facts, pictures and much more than they could understand, yet. The books sat their in their baskets. Untouched. I knew they held what they needed to start their inquiry into the period.

In the past, I have controlled their access. Book in the beginning. Controlled whole group introduction to videos and websites. Lectures. Then, when their knowledge was stronger and couldn’t find answers to their questions, access to the internet. It worked.

But. Wait.

Hold on.

Students need to learn how and when to use the tools they have, books and the internet. Just like they need to know how to select a book that is just right for them, without me directing them to the correct basket, they need to know what places to go to find research that matches their needs.

So tomorrow, after testing, I’ll call them to the carpet and ask them to consider this:

Researchers,  I want your to think about the tools you need to do your job as a reader and a researcher. Consider a few questions:

Is this the best tool for the job?
What is my question? Did this tool answer it?
Does this tool hold on to my thoughts in a way I can reference it any time?
Can I add to it at any time? Is it limiting?
Is it flexible enough?

Just as we decide if we want to draft on our blog or on google docs; just as we decide if we are going to use post its or our notebook for writing about our reading, we must make decisions as to where and how we research.

As we start today let’s consider the function of our tools and question it. Is this giving me what I need now?

Technology is a powerful tool and resource. When we pick it up we must always consider its function and question, does it meet our current need.

Celebrating Choice!

Time to celebrate the week with Ruth Ayers! Thank you Ruth for this great ritual. Read more and contribute your celebration here.

celebrate link upThis week I am celebrating choice. All year we have worked to include as much choice as possible into the school day. There really isn’t much choice for kids. Teachers and parents control their lives. At school, bells signal went they play, eat and go home. . Yet at a point we want them to have “agency,” to make good choices for themselves. It’s unfair to think they can make these choices, unless we give them the opportunity to try and possibly fail. Choice that could lead to a good or a bad result. A choice they’d have to live with.

This week was the last week of school for my 5th graders, and they made some very good choices. Some of the choices were seemingly small and some were bigger. Some were personal and some were group decisions.  I am proud of the choices they made,but also proud we teachers allowed choice.

One: During the last weeks of school we have a crazy schedule, so structure tended to be a little loose. My students didn’t have enough time  for both reading and writing, so I let them choose: poetry, blogging, reading the just released Julian Chapter from Wonder on the iPads or reading a book of their choice. It was pure joy to watch them go to what they wanted for as long as they wanted and then if they wanted, switch to something else when they wanted. One student (a struggling reader) said if given pure choice in reading she could read all day. Interesting and worth taking her up on.  I do give students choice with reading and writing, but  within the genre or unit we are studying. So the choice isn’t really complete.Perhaps those strugglers we need room for more choice to build that capacity for the genre study we attempt. Perhaps next year we should do this more often.

2014-05-30 12.03.38
Poetry books and blogging
2014-05-30 12.03.53
Reading the Julian Chapter

2014-05-28 15.47.172014-05-28 15.47.28-12014-05-28 15.47.11-2

 Two:  Every year at culmination we choose students to give culmination speeches. This year we let the students choose. The entire class heard speeches of students who wanted to present and then voted by secret ballot. I’ll admit I feared it would be a popularity contest. We told them to choose two speeches that they felt would represent them well.  In the end, students made great selections, but more importantly they gave reasons for their choices.

It made me want to cry.

It made me laugh.

It sounded like a speech.

It was like a conversation with the audience.

Three. There was one student who was especially sad about not being chosen. Truth be told, she was writing it as she listened to others present, so her speech, which could have been good wasn’t.  Interestingly, even though she was not chosen to speak, she chose to write a speech  She shared it the day after culmination. We  commended her on not letting the loss stop her from still writing and giving that speech she wanted to give. While she didn’t get to share it with the culminating class,she shared it on our blog.

Four: The day after culmination we always go to the park next door to play games. The first part of the time is free play. This class all chose to play games together without any instruction or refereeing by an adult. They played, made sure it was fair, listened to each other and could have gone as long as water was available. They chose to play and play well together.

2014-06-05 09.53.42

 Five: After free play we played team games that they’ve never experienced. “Old fashioned” completely entertaining games: shoe relays, tug of war, and sack races. No choice here except to have fun.

2014-06-05 10.44.51-2

Six: After school on the last day of school, some students chose to stay with me. They read, went on the iPads, wrote poetry. Some helped me put books away. Some chose their favorite poem copied from books posted on the wall. One took her favorite chart. One student told me the best things about being in fifth grade were 1) genius hour, 2) read aloud, 3) the Catalina Island field trip, and 4) Colonial Fair. I asked him why and he gave me the best and most logical answer:

Because they were all really fun.

Happy weekend, and for some happy summer!




Celebration: My Students, My Girl and A Long Weekend

celebrate link upEvery week Ruth Ayres invites bloggers to celebrate their week.  I love this ritual. Thank you Ruth for the opportunity to share. Read more celebration posts here.

Today I’m celebrating my students who hosted a school-wide Colonial Fair. Here are some of the Friday reflections they posted on their blog.

The colonial fair was pretty cool because we were acting characters from 290 years ago. It was sort of a celebration from the past.

My favorite part at the colonial fair was the One Room School House  because  they would tell you about manners and the correct way to eat and if you come to school dirty you would get whipped. 

Some of the 5th graders had to be a tour guides for 2 sessions, even though it was hard to take care of second graders and third graders while suffering of feet pain and hunger. 

The two kindergarteners I was responsible for were so calm and nice… one of the two kindergarteners hugged me. They got so many things I had to hold the stuff. It was hard to hold their hands with all the stuff in my hands, but I managed to do both .

It was super easy to take care of the kindergarteners because they were quiet and very interested in what the fifth graders in the booths had to say. They had fun and laughed. It made me feel good about helping them get around the fair.

I feel like just because I got tired does not mean that I did not have fun. I think that this was the best Colonial fair ever because the kids really got to learn and so did I.

I enjoyed the colonial fair and I really liked taking the kids around it made me think that I was an actual grown up chaperone. I felt glad to show kids how colonial times were like and how I got to teach about farming back then.

I saw the kids having a lot of fun because we had props and games that the kids could use to make learning fun, so it wouldn’t  just be us talking. Another reason working at the booth was fun was that you could see the smiles on the kids faces and how the Colonial Fair was a big experience for them.

Just feeling that you’re teaching something so cool and new to somebody else is amazing!!!! All the kids listened and did what they were supposed to do, even though there were some trouble. I liked teaching the little kids since they were so cute!!! I even learned things I didn’t know before while tour guiding.

Today I’m celebrating student blogging. On Wednesday, one of my students told me, “I’m posting my 100th post!” I was a little ashamed because I had no idea she had that many posts. (I just got to my 100th post in March!) In total, two classes of 5th graders have posted 960 posts and 2,019 comments. Feel free to check out their interesting thoughts here and here.

Today I’m celebrating my daughter. On Monday she found out that she would miss two days of classes due to school swim meets.  Because of block scheduling two days is like four and right before finals. She’s worked hard for her grades and was concerned. She said,”Don’t they realize I’m a student athlete. The student comes first.” I’m proud of her and she’s right.

Yesterday, she swam two individual events (500 free and 100 butterfly) and two relays in the dIstrict’s CIF finals. She had knee reconstruction surgery on December 31st.  This makes me worry. When I met her afterward she was icing the knee but happy with her performance. I asked her about the knee. She calmly stated,  “It’s ok, this is a part of it. I just don’t tell you because you’ll look like that.” I’m  proud, and she’s right again.

Today I am celebrating a gray morning.  This weather, the beginnings of “June gloom,” is a comfort.  It gives permission to stay in and slow down.  All parts of me need a fog-filled Saturday: to sleep in, to read, to put on warm sweats and put my feel up.

2014-05-24 08.11.04


Happy Memorial Day weekend!

On Being a Teacher

Today my students rocked.  They have spent the last three weeks preparing for a traditional event – our school wide Colonial Faire. These fine fifth graders ran the fair from 8:50 to 2:35 with only breaks for recess and lunch.

They took on the roles of people in early Colonial America.

They taught children from 5 to 9 years of age.They learned how to manage children moving them from one place to the next.

The adjusted their teaching based on the children they had to teach.

Some of great lessons and comments came out of our meetings after the sessions.

When talking about how difficult it was to manage children, one said, “Don’t be afraid to be strict with them.”

And another shocked student commented, “I couldn’t believe a kid ran away from me.”

And more wise words, “If they don’t listen tell them to sit next to you on the ground.”

But one said, “My kids were good they did whatever I asked them to do.”

And some thought they had the cutest kids. “They hugged me afterward.”

I sit here at my computer writing. My feet hurt, but my heart is full. I am amazed at what students can do. When we give them a little guidance and have high expectations.

This year my fifth grade students showed learning, responsibility, maturity, independence, and compassion.

I am so proud. My students are ready to leave this school, to move on to middle school. I am honored to have the opportunity to spend an entire school year with these young people.

Being a fifth grade teacher simply rocks.