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.






Slice of Life: Supporting Students by Letting them Lead

Years ago, at the beginning of my teaching life, I went to a conference that featured student-led conferences. The idea seemed great. I took notes. Imagined how it could go in my classroom. And then. It got buried under a pile of everything else I had to do.

Years later, I read a post by Pernille Ripp that detailed how she did student-led conferences. Just as she guided me in my first blogging work with my students, and the global read aloud, her generosity in sharing simple steps and documents reminded me of those notes and led me towards action. And, I am grateful.

For the past five years, my students begin and end their conferences with their families. I believe this is the most positive and productive work I do to connect with students and their families. This year was no different.

It begins in the positive. It is a conference of discovery, not a gotcha. It is a time to share how students see themselves. I start them off with this form a week before the conference. It is purposefully open-ended with suggestions as to what they might include. There is ample and equal room for strengths and challenges. Just reading the forms prior conferences gives me a quick snapshot of the good and the not so good.

The form begins the conversation. It is a starting point for the real data.  Students share what was on their minds and for the most part what they said was what I was thinking. My observations and assessments mirror their words.

But the beauty of this work happens because this conversation, with a family member, allows the child to present themselves as a learner.

Concerns like, “I’m a slow reader.” Led to a home investigation of how many pages that student could read in twenty minutes at home. And while he is an excellent reader, he’s right. He reads at a slower pace than he should. I had thought his slower movement through books was a function of his social nature. But even at home, reading side by side with his mom, he was, in fact, slower than the rest. His insight and his family’s follow-through will make a difference in his reading life.

Conversations about attentiveness in lessons or during independent work time have instigated students to make the better decision about where they sit and how they get ready for the work of the classroom.

Another critical element to the success of this kind of conference is that it is scheduled well before a grading period. Because of that, the discussion is not about grades; it is a celebration of where a student is, how they have grown, and what we as a cohort of invested adults need to do next to support the child.

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


Celebrating: Our Caldecott Writing Journey

This week I’m celebrating my fourth graders’ four-week study of potential Caldecott Medal winners. While the work was fun and accessible, it required complex thinking. It is literary analysis with a purpose, a medal.

For the first two weeks, my kiddos analyzed the books in small groups featuring the child-friendly Caldecott criteria shared by Jess Lifshitz. The beauty of the criteria is that it sets up the “reason” or “supporting idea” for students to be proven with evidence.  By week three, each student was asked to choose one book they felt should win. It was difficult. Many had rated all books as their favorite. Using the criteria as their reasons for selection, each student had to defend their choice using the evidence to debate another student. The result, deafening noise, and a few changed opinions.

This week, I wanted students to write their thinking citing the evidence. To do this well,  every child had to have access to every picture of the book they selected. I wanted them to be able to point out, in writing, exactly what they saw in the pictures and explain how that connected to the criteria.  With a Google Doc of pictures from each book, they could do it. Their task was to choose the pictures that provided the evidence for their beliefs and explain it in writing.

There were, as always with technology, issues. My conferences often began with how to do something technical and then moved into writing craft. (Find my mentor text here.) The time spent on how to do tech always worries me. How much is about the writing when we leave pens and paper for the digital world? In this, our first attempt at using pictures with writing, students learned as much about how to write around pictures as they did about introductory phrases.

There were, as always with technology, mistakes. Pictures were deleted inadvertently. Work was lost. But they kept on.   I was amazed at their perseverance and stamina. And in the end the joy around the work.

Now we wait for the actual Caldecott Medal winner’s announcement and begin reading short stories for their literary craft. Hoping for transfer of technology and writing skills.



Celebrate: Wanting, Giving, Dreaming


Getting back into the classroom after a long break is rejuvenating and exhausting. That’s the beauty of being in a room full of nine-year-olds. They want it all and at the same time are eager to give.

This week we started anew. A read aloud, a unit of study, a poem. The adrenaline-fueled beginnings erased the time we were apart.

Langston Hughes poem Dreams started our week. I introduced the idea of metaphor and simile to our poet’s toolbox. Students added in repetition and rhyme as other tools. Connections to Dickenson’s “Hope” is the thing with Feathers were whispered to neighbors.

Then, we started Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. Picturing the wild Washington territory and wondering what could be around the next bend, has students on the edge of their seats. Exactly how you want a book to feel. The voice of our main character, Joseph, is one of goodness and independence. Striking out bravely for what is right even when he knows his actions could lead to his own discomfort or demise.  Joseph and his story help bring our study of the western expansion to life. All in all, a perfect read aloud.

On Friday, we watched, listened and read, via closed caption, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address delivered at the march on Washington. Students took notes with the Hughes’ poem in their laps.

“There’s repetition, each one is like a stanza.”

One hundred years later…
Now is the time …
I have a dream…
Let freedom ring…

“There’s metaphor, the bank of justice.”
“There’s rhythm. His voice goes up and down.”

And when I asked them to think about Dr. King’s dream my students said:

“Some of it has come true. But not all.”
“People still judge others by the color of their skin.”
“There’s still not enough jobs.”
“There’s still violence.”
“There are still protests.”

So I asked them to write about what still needs to be done. Students wrote in their notebooks. Thank you, Courtney, for the post that inspired this work.

Finally, at the end of the day, before the long weekend, I asked students to nominate a classroom citizen of the week. (This idea was inspired by another blogger. Sadly, I can’t remember who.) I didn’t define citizenship. I wanted to see their definition.
Some are personal and specific. Others were more universal.

• thinking about what’s right and doing it in the future
• asking if I’m ok
• sitting next to me when I was alone
• including everyone when they want to play
• cheering up everyone
• thinking of her friends
• loaning me a pen
• listening
•forgiving me when I didn’t play with her for three days
•being nice to me

This week I celebrate the children in my classroom for what they want, what they give, and what they dream.  Read more celebrations on Ruth Ayers Writes.

Slice of Life: Accessing Student Voice

The spoken and the written word is an interesting comparative study. I tend to walk away from my verbal interactions disappointed in my lack of wit and/or reserve. In contrast, I feel my written words are considerably more measured and thought out. The difference between the two can feel so extreme that I wonder which voice is a closer representation of me and my thoughts.

I had not, until recently, considered this as a possibility for my students. For most students, verbal articulation outperforms writing. It’s understandable. Developmental. Writing is complex. Hence the writer’s workshop filled with strategies and opportunity to practice.

Yet, this year I’ve noticed some student’s written voice surpass their spoken words. Especially when allowed to write without constraint. I would have had no idea how funny, thoughtful, and poetic these students are if they did not have the opportunity to blog for their peers.

G* is artistic, mathematical and quiet. Reading is not his strong suit. Talking about reading is like pulling teeth. Yet he is a prolific blogger. Always insightful with a touch of humor.  One of my favorites was a story about a spelling test. In this excerpt, he captures the voice of the teacher and the inner thoughts of the student.

Mr. Olieve said the next word. “Disappointed” I thought really hard. Then I wrote down the best option in my head. “Disupointet” “Hmmm…” I thought to myself. Then I tried again. “Disapoinded” And I thought that was super right.

Alright guys, this is the final word” Mr.Olieve said. “Conclusion” It was super hard for me. I thought harder than I could ever think in my life. And  I wrote it down, hoping that it was correct. “Cunclooshin” Then Mr.Olieve said to turn in our papers in the pink basket.

Every time I read this, I think, what if I had only looked at G* through the lens of the running record and writing workshop’s structured lessons? I would have never seen his ability.  And I wonder, what else am I missing with other students?

Every year, the voices that rise up when given different ways to show their thinking astound me. The open, under-directed nature of blogging can feel risky. No matter how many times I have done it with classrooms, I worry about the time and energy put toward it.  But with the risk, every year I’ve found rewards. Writers like G*, kiddos whose lights shine brightly when given a different way to access literacy.

When I assess and guide my students to the next step with lessons and expectations, what am I not seeing? What am I not allowing my students to see? What other kinds of open-ended opportunities might show more, allow more? These questions tug at me.

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


Celebrate: Reading Revelations

After the holiday celebrations, things slow down. The streets are quieter. Being a teacher, this a nearly perfect time. As Terje reflected in her post, this is a time to revel in. To rejuvenate and recharge.  And read.

Depending on the time of day, I choose a spot in my house and read.  Over the break I read wonderful middle-grade books that I can’t wait to share with my kiddos. But what lingers with me as a reader and a reading teacher is the adult fiction.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was one of my adult reading choices. The beautifully written book is a page turner that feeds your thoughts.  And it made me realize that I have become a lazy reader.

This passage, sandwiched between dialogue, stopped me beause I didn’t understand.

Moody shrugged off his flannel shirt and tossed it on the coach. He had sat at the lake for hours, throwing rocks into the water, thinking, about Pearl and his brother. Look what you did to her, he thought furiously, How could you put her through that?  He had through every rock he could find it was still not enough.

In my hurry to know what would happen next, my brain did not engage on the level it needed to. In that moment of confusion I recognized what I wasn’t doing.  I make choices to read on specific levels, deep or shallow. But this wasn’t that. It was honest miscomprehension. Fixable in the moment, but also a call to engage in and with more complex text.  More than once, while reading, I thought, This is beautiful, I should mark this page with a post it. But my desire to “just read” didn’t allow it. I knew better, but I choose to read on.Rewriting this passage has me marveling at Ng’s use of tense, place, and pronouns. No wonder it through me.

This experience has left me with reminders for the reader and writer in me and in my students.
• Reading easier books all the time can make a lazy reader.
• Reading for what happens next is one of the joys of reading that should be honored.
• Rereading is necessary for in the moment understanding.
• Rereading and rewriting a passage is another joy of reading that can inspire the writer.

Nothing earth-shattering here. I’ve known all of this.
This kind of adult reading experience made the reading teacher in me sit up and notice.
And. There’s no doubt the reading sermon I’ll give to my students on Monday will be filled with my own reading revelations.

Thank you, Ruth for your weekly call to celebrate. Read more celebrations on Ruth’s blog, Ruth Ayers Writes.

Slice of Life: A Lime Green Bike

I started noticing them in the summer. Lime green bikes, baskets in front. Clustered together, unlocked. Here and there. Waiting to be used like little shoots of hope in a city ruled by the automobile.

I first noticed the bikes in the older part of town where you find the art galleries, restaurants, and coffee shops; the chamber of commerce, vacant storefronts, and small theaters; the new highrise apartments, Subway sandwich store, and ILWU local 63 office

Time passed, and I noticed the bikes started showing up further north. At the 7-11. The 99 cent store. The public library. The Payless shoe store.

Yesterday, I noticed one, a half-mile north or its origin, at a major cross street. Apartments, homes, people, and cars flowed around the parked bicycle.

Today I noticed this one.

IMG_5767.jpgI couldn’t help but wonder. Who used this bike? Who will pick it up next? Where will it go?

Then, four blocks from this, I spotted two, side by side.
Two create a whole new set of possibilities of what might be.

bike 2.jpg

Then, a block away, three.
I pulled over, opened the window and heard quacking. I had forgotten about the ducks. What was the story here? Three friends who stopped to take a walk. Perhaps. Are they feeding the ducks or just relaxing under the trees? Or, are they in one of the homes nearby.

bikes by the park.jpgThe bikes are filtering uptown. To the more suburban, park filled locations.
This has been happening for some time. I just noticed it.

Today, I drove a few blocks south of where I first noticed the bikes, below the art galleries and coffee shops. This area overlooks our waterfront. This is where you find the post office and a growing homeless population. Right behind renewal lives poverty.  And it’s growing.  Steve Lopez gives voice to the people in this situation in this recent Los Angeles Times article. These are people who are working, living in cars, and in encampments like the one near the waterfront. It is painful to read. Even more distressing to notice in your own neighborhood.


I ask my students to notice. Awareness is the start of all things I want for them. Noticing precedes action. And it’s something I don’t do enough of. Ever.

Noticing. The lime green bikes. The honking ducks. The sun peeking through the mist. The kiddo who forgot his lunch and sits alone. The woman pushing a shopping cart oblivious to the cars that just avoid her.

Notice. My one little word for 2018. Noticing is the first step to doing. Something.

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

celebrate — OLW 2017 — lift

The end of the year provides extra time to read and reflect.
To collect ideas
To envision the next year.

For the past four years, I’ve chosen one word to act as a guide or a mantra. A word to remind me of what I want to act on and grow toward. I believed my success with last year’s word lift, had fallen short of my original intent.  To be fair to my OLW I decided to I reread last year’s posts and look for possible evidence of its effects. I was surprised to find more than I expected and pleased that my writing provided me benefits beyond the moment of initial reflection. This week I want to celebrate the subtle power of finding and honoring a word that can light a path for the year.

This week I celebrate my OLW with a found poem reflection.

Overwhelmed by the scope, and intensity
one sentence, line, word
sharpens meaning
to face constraints

and find the necessary
words to heal.
Counteract the ones that sting, confuse, worry
and make something beautiful.

Children lift their arms and spin around
waving warmth
taking others further
shared humanity.

Offer it
say it
out loud
every student
a bit higher every day.

Still thinking about OLW 2018 and grateful for the writing process.

Thank you, Ruth, for your inspiration and the weekly call to celebrate. Read others here at Ruth Ayers writes.

Celebrate: Home

This morning I heard a report about families in Santa Rosa putting up Christmas trees in the places their homes once stood. Because they are working-class families, some without homeowners insurance, rebuilding may not happen for some time. The interviewer spoke with Lily and her dad as they set up their Christmas tree in a burnt out space that was their home. She crawled under it, looked up and said, “Makes me feel like our house is still standing. It’s not like we can’t ever see our house again. It will always be there. You just can’t see it, but I can feel it.”

That sense of home is what you want children to feel. It grounds them in times of trouble. And once they leave home, it calls them back.

Today my children are on their way home.  Each one is in the process of learning and growing. On their own. Finding passions to pursue.

For now, home is where they grew up and the holiday provides permission to pause and reconnect with that physical space.  The house will fill up beyond capacity. They will rub against each other and figure out how to fit together.  As they grow and their sense of home evolves, I wonder, what will stay in their hearts.  What will they carry on?

Today I celebrate homecoming. If not for them for me.

Thank you, Ruth, for your weekly call to celebrate the week. Find out about the link up here at Ruth Ayers Writes.