NCTE17: Seeing the unseen, opening the gate

Five years ago I read a blog post about NCTE in Boston. That post got me to commit to my first NCTE conference in Washington, DC.  I haven’t missed one since. It has been and continues to be a place for inspiration and hope.

This week I’ll unpack the experience, bit by bit.

The books are piled on my dining room table.
Books signed by authors.
There is something about having a stack of new books.
One done. One started. One settling in my brain waiting to be reread.
There’s safety in it.
A sense of calm.
It is an entitlement to have access and ability to find books I want to read.
Ones that speak to me.

This week I heard writers share.
How they write.
Why they write.

Jason Reynold’s words dug deep. Demanding attention and action.

I’m trying to write books that are protecting young people from invisibility of their personhood. You’re not just a problem, you’re not just an issue or a disenfranchised child….I refuse to let you be discarded.

We need to bolster humanity in the kids that we pity. They don’t need pity. We need to see them as people, not pitiful.

Kids are just like us. Books that speak to them will be picked up and read. They are not the problem. We are when we don’t see or hear our students.

This demands we look closely at our books and our practices around books.
If those books do not fit a child, that child does not fit in our classroom, and that child is unseen. Why should they want to read?

We might start out our school year with a reading inventory.
With questions like, what books do you love?
But how many of those books are on our shelves?
How and how often do we explore what our kids want to read?
It’s there to be seen. But do we look?
How many students don’t know there could be books to love?

What are we doing to see our young people?  What are we doing to protect them?
We need to ask and listen.
Provide some white space as Jacqueline Woodson does in her books.

Woodson’s words ring in my ears.

…not only do you have a right to be here you have right to be here fabulously…

I want to stay visible… the people I love to stay visible. I want people to be seen. I want their lives to matter

And these words:

The DNA we are walking through this world with is complicated. How do we teach people we consider as ‘others’ when we are the gatekeepers?

Time to look and listen deeply.
Think about the time we have with children.
Commit to our beliefs and figure out how to open the gates and let them in.



Slice of Life: We choose to write


Every morning, students can choose to read, write, or shop for books. At the beginning of the year, students read. Mostly graphic novels. It was a lovely prelude to read aloud.

Yesterday, I noticed a shift. Students were writing. Students who a few weeks ago struggled to type in their emails were at it deep into their stories on Chrome books.

Last night I read their writing and noticed my own shift as a teacher.
I noticed my first read has fundamentally changed.

At the beginning of my teaching life,  the first read was painful. I had to work hard to see beyond the errors. The change in my vision started years ago at a TCRWP summer institute in a session with Katherine Bomer where she had us dig for the “hidden gems” in our student’s writing. That summer work marked the beginning of how I saw student writing. I had to consciously stop my problem focused thinking to see the hidden writer.

Last night, I noticed the joy reading student brings. It always makes me smile because it shows me who they are and what they could be. What they value, what worries them.
Bad report cards, popularity wars, Minecraft disasters, lost best friends, after-school drama, trouble with the principal. Cars they want to drive, people they want to be.
The games they play. The stories they read. The lines they hear.
This all shows up in their writing.

Their writing is a window. It helps us see our students and more importantly allows students know themselves. This is why writing matters. Why students choose to write. Why our children must write, and we must allow for it. Writing sifts through our problems and helps us recognize our dreams. Writing shows us who we are and who we could become.

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


Slice of Life: What scares you?

Two statements haunt me tonight.

One from a student when asked what scares you, he replied, “No Wifi.”

The second from my husband quoting the shocking number of times “we” touch our smartphones daily. Suffice it to say, too much. We adults who grew up without these devices are addicted. Just look around  Everywhere, people of all ages holding, scrolling, gazing at the glowing object in their hand.

The nine-year-olds are in my classroom on the cusp of smartphone ownership. Most don’t have one, yet. But based on my anecdotal research, and this article, ten is the magic age. By next year, most of my current students will have one.

It breaks my heart. My joy filled students who play with each other will become less and less in the moment of observation, of curiosity, of learning, of conversation, of human interaction. Smartphones will own them.

I’ve been a proponent of using technology in school. For communication and learning.  And I still am. But with controls. With limits.  I believe we need more time to observe, to play, to be without a device. We need to promote and model a balance of paper, crayons, and books with pages.  They are too young to have this taken away from them.  To be taken over. Heck, we all are.  We have willingly given away so much for so little.

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




Celebrating Conversations

There are only so many minutes. So many days. This week I was overwhelmed by the energy spent on managing the next thing. There is nothing unique about this reflection. We all face these constraints and the frustration that goes along with them. What’s worth writing about is what lifted me out.

The conversations.
About hopes for the weekend.
About the lost pencil that mattered so much.
About a plan for a story about a girl who had no family and a girl who had no friends.
About the first book in a series and the plans for writing future books.
About realizing people who annoy you have a lot in common with you.
About the hug from a sister of your student at the end of the day.
About how hard it is to be me.

This week I celebrate conversations. The data points of relationships aren’t monitored or measured. They don’t exist on any transcript, report card, or compiling device that marks metrics of academic progress or college and career readiness.  This week I celebrate the conversations and relationships that make teaching and life a privilege.

Read more celebrations here, at Ruth Ayers Writes.

Slice of Life: Ancillary Moments

My teaching life goes by at full speed. I’m continually hit with the ups and downs of learning.  Along with the anticipated bumps, it’s the unplanned tidbits that make my day. They aren’t huge.  It’s the moments in between.

Before school.
“Mrs. Harmatz, I’m in this terrible situation.”

Thinking of all the possible things a nine-year-old could be facing. I asked him what happened.

“I’m nearing the end of Zombie Chasers Number 6, and I hate that it’s ending, but that’s not the bad part,” he said barely taking a breath. “The horrible part is that there are only eight in the series, and I don’t know if there is going to be another one after that.”

How I love this kind of terrible situation. M is the kind of reader who is in love with the silly, gory, fun genre. At this point in his reading career, I must say I feel the same kind of panic. What if number eight is the last one?

“You need to write the author,” I tell him. “We can look for some contact information online.”

“I think I’ll do that,” he said.

During Reader’s Workshop.
K shows me Ralph Fletcher’s Guy-Write, and asks, “Is this a nonfiction book?”

“It’s a book on writing,” I tell him.

“I’m using it in Writing Workshop, It is so funny!”

“Yes, it is. I’m glad you found it.” I just put it on the shelf. That’s all it took for J to find it. And now, I have no doubt it will find its way into the hands of many boys. The finding of this book is perfect: right before we start our independent fiction work.

After school. K  picked up Wonder. “We should read this as a whole class read aloud. And then go see the movie when it comes out as a class.”

These moments bubble up. The ancillary pieces that make my teaching day.

They are born from the just right books that connect to my students. The books that incentivize students. Books that make them think, laugh, and make plans for. I am forever grateful for these writers who make my teaching reading and writing a joyous place to be.

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



It was not an easy day

It was not an easy day. The temperatures soared, and students were not allowed outside.

After lunch. Indoors. A group sat on the carpet, in various stages of discomfort and uncertainty. I had invited them there to work on a challenging math problem.

They want to learn. And most of the time my students persevere. Today was different. It was not an easy day.

“I don’t know how to do this,” Z* nearly wailed. The others looked relieved at this admission. Then they looked at me with please help me faces.

I offered up a strategy. Still confusion. Then, I did the thing I should have done at the beginning. I asked the students to offer up their thinking.

T* shared her thoughts. Two equations that demonstrated her understanding of the problem. She didn’t know how to go about solving it, but she could see the relationship between the numbers. Her insight was something other students with higher computational skills had missed entirely. T saw the essence of it. It was the execution that alluded her. Thrilled to see something that would take others further and lift her up as a mathematician, I offered it to every student, calling it the “T strategy.”

Off T went to her team to attempt the hard computational work.

Hearing this new approach, two boys’ faces lit up and off they went to try it out. You’d think I’d just given them a new toy to play with.

Meanwhile, a little more confident, Z went to join her math team that could not agree on the answer.

The noise level increased as more groups debated their results.

Five minutes later, I approached Z and her team. “I helped them understand the problem!” Z said bouncing up and down. They were all beaming. “We helped each other,” she added.

Each member then explained how they had taught another member with something.  Helping their teammate see their missteps in a way that made each feel good about the mistake and their understanding. They did exactly what I’d hope they’d do. Work together to get through struggles.

It was not an easy day. I saw a side of so many of them I had never seen before. Kiddos were at a loss. Upset and loud. And then with tiny aha’s, turning a corner to help each other. The “high-flyer” leaning into the kiddo who admits to not knowing.

It was not an easy day. But, I think it was a good one.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. A place to share and reflect on a teaching and other life journeys. Read more slices here.

A return to celebration

I’ve been consistently missing the call to celebrate my week. Not because I haven’t thought about it. Not because I didn’t have reason to. But because I set it aside. Taking on a new grade level and subject matter pushed writing away. The grading. The planning. The never-enough feeling.  The habit of celebrating, I began to think of as an indulgence.

This weekend is no different than the last ten. I woke up thinking of all the student work to look at; the planning and lessons to be created based on their work. But then remember my colleague, Cathy, saying I needed to listen to the Heineman podcast featuring Tom Newkirk talking about his new book, Embarrassment.

She was right.

After listening, I realized weekly celebrating needs to be redesignated as a necessity. It should be the first thing to do on Saturday. I realized that marking of a moment of goodness has been an essential element of my teaching life.  It is an antidote to my battle with how I think life should go. Some might call it perfectionism, but of course, I would not see it that way. I’m too far from perfect to even consider such an ideal. But that, in fact, is the issue.

I fight with a vision of who I believe I should be as a teacher. There are moments when it happens. Those moments are not the norm. The times when all the beautiful occurs in a classroom. Those moments are to be noticed and celebrated. They need to be replayed and remembered. Because so often, most often, I replay those moments when I could have been better. I should have been better. Because I know better.  And as I write these words, I think, why are you saying this?  Why admit that you even thought for a moment that you are less than? That little secret is what we all live in. Our students and our colleagues alike. We all live in and with the fear of embarrassment. That fear that holds us back from happiness and learning.

When I started celebrating with Ruth a few years ago, I did it because it was a safe place. A place of acceptance. It was a place that required me to take my week and find the moment that was pure and good and celebrate it. To hold it up and admire it. To set it on the shelf as a treasure. To say that was good.

This week I celebrate students’ joy diving into nonfiction books, groans when we have to stop writing, begging to read another chapter of Zane and the Hurricane, and constant questions of what does _____ mean? I celebrate their enthusiasm for learning and ability to ask why.

I celebrate the concern and support of parents and colleagues. Virtually and face to face.

I celebrate the brillance and compassion of Tom Newkirk.

I celebrate Ruth Ayers and her weekly call to write and honor the beauty we see

Find more celebrations here.

A Whole Class Read — Things I Didn’t Expect

It started with a book, a featured dollar deal from Scholastic. With what would equal the cost of two hardback books, I got 34 copies of The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.  I had no idea what I’d use them for. Perhaps student Christmas gifts.

The box sat in the back of my classroom for weeks.

And then, I found Kate Roberts’ ideas about teaching whole group novels.  In her September Ed Collab session, Kate described the possibility of using the pedagogy of reading workshop with a whole class read. This is well worth watching in that she outlines her journey from the traditional secondary whole class read to the workshop approach and then circles back to what could be harvested from each. After watching, here are my takeaways:

• The level of the text should not be “profoundly” difficult.

• Focus the teach by identifying one to three skills you want students to get better at

• The book choice should fit your focus and your kids’ interests/identities

• The methods to teach should vary.  Mix read aloud, mini-lessons, independent reading, small group support, and activities to develop specific skills without killing the book.

• The time taken to read the book should not overwhelm or overtake students’ reading lives.

Ivan seemed a great selection to shore up my kiddo’s understanding of character and theme. He is a complex fellow. Agreeable, yet surprisingly passionate.  The real-life basis for Ivan is interesting for students and would offer a perfect segway into the next unit of study around nonfiction. The writing is accessible and exquisite. Knowing this, we started Ivan with this eight-day plan, 

The investment in time wasn’t huge, so if it was a bust, the cost wasn’t high. I promised myself I’d listen more than I’d talk and adjust as necessary. I was determined not to kill this beautiful book.

And things happened that I didn’t expect.

Each day students became more engaged and not surprisingly, less scaffolding was needed for fragile readers.

Conferences were brief because I knew exactly what they were encountering. With a peek over their shoulder, I could turn to that page, read a bit and get to what mattered quickly. From student one-on-ones, I could collect their noticings to share in mid-workshop interruptions.

Talking about reading improved. The end of workshop share ranged from book club to whole class conversations. Character and thematic ideas were developed in these encounters that I had not come to in my own thinking.

A community was built around this book. Similar to a read aloud, but the effect was more profound. Perhaps because it was focused. Maybe because it was quick. More like reading pace. Perhaps because students had more control of the book. I was just the coach. They played the game. Their hands turned the pages.

This worked beautifully for this class. My students have grown up with a balanced diet of daily read aloud and direct reading instruction with choice in reading. They have the opportunity to self-select independent reading and read for pleasure. The whole class reading of an excellent book adds into their learning by providing a powerful way to understand literature as a community.

Other things came out of this experience. Things I didn’t expect.

Students in room 32 now have a passion for all things Applegate. The waiting list for Wishtree is long, so this weekend I purchased a few more along with extra copies of Crenshaw.

Coincidentally, one of my students did the same thing. First thing Monday morning, T* walks up to me and says, “Mrs. Harmatz,  I was at Barnes and Noble, and I bought Crenshaw. After I read it, I’ll give it to you.”

So sweet. What more could a reading teacher ask for?

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for a space to share our teaching and writing lives.







The Questions We Ask

Kelly Gallagher looked out at the audience at the Long Beach Hyatt and said, “You are the 5%.”

This wasn’t a comparative statement. He was referring to educators who are looking to grow 5% every year. Everyone in attendance at the Cotsen Annual Conference,  alumni, mentors, and fellows were there to grow and learn.  I was fortunate to be among them.

Ellin Keene, Georgia Heard, Dan Feigelson, Matt Glover, Megan Franke and Vicki Jacobs, all stellar educators in their respective fields, were leading sessions. Who among you wouldn’t want to be there? My biggest challenge was choosing only three.

My first choice was Vicki Jacobs, from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Her specialty is elementary mathematics but her session titled “Linking Our Questions to Children’s Strategy Details” spoke to the essence of good teaching.  Jacob’s bio states,

At the core of her work is the use of children’s mathematical thinking as a vehicle for helping teachers learn and create more equitable classrooms in which they can better understand, value, and support each child’s thinking.

Teachers hold power in the questions we ask. They determine our effectiveness and potentially student self-worth. While the content of Jacob’s presentation was tied to mathematics, the process and beliefs reached to all subject matter.

Jacob’s shared research that considered the power of approaching students with questions that start inside or outside the child’s thinking. There isn’t a magic formula or ratio of these types of questions, yet in the end, one thing was clear, starting inside a child’s thinking is preferable.

Taking what students are doing and then leaning into the next step requires constant listening as well as a depth of content and process knowledge. It takes knowing where that child is on a continuum of learning and knowing the next itty bitty step to nudge them towards.

We don’t know a child’s thinking process until we ask questions that invite students to explain and describe their process. Questions like – tell me about…, can you explain…, how did you know…, or what were you thinking… tell us where they are and open up a dialogue that could invite the next step. It respects the student as a learner and thinker and is more likely to be taken in as a strategy to try.

Monday morning, these ideas permeated our reader’s workshop. Where are you in your book? Could we read a little bit together? What are you thinking? Where did you notice that? What could you bring to your partner? What might you write?  Inside questions that directed me to where students were in their reading and maybe a few outside nudges that could show allow another step in their thinking.

Writer’s workshop continued the questioning. What are you working on? How did you get this idea? Can you show me something you are proud of? Why? How did you do that?

And of course, our math conversations. How did you know? What did you do? Can you show me?  All valuing student learning all teaching me where they are as learners.

I am fortunate to be able to access opportunities to learn and grow. To learn new ideas that connect to my sensibilities as an educator and to be reminded of things I know, but may not be currently accessing.  And, I am grateful to the Cotsen Foundation for continuing their founder’s mission to support teachers who are looking to learn.





Slice of Life: Book Heaven

I opened my closet to get out my bag.

“Look at all those books.”

“Can I see that one?”

“C* come here and look at this?”

“It’s like book heaven in there.”


It’s true. Every cabinet in my classroom is packed with books. Books for a little later. For the next unit.  Like gifts stashed away.

I bring books out of the closet bit by bit. They are snatched up. Waiting lists are all over the room. Students know who has which book and they complain when someone takes too long.

My students are book hounds. They horde books in their desks. They cheer for reading time. They sneak books.  And I’ve found getting 34 students to stop reading to learn a new strategy is best accomplished with a beautiful book to read aloud.

Yesterday, we finished The Tiger Rising.  The silence was punctuated by the occasional, “Nooo.” We paused to think and write at the end of each chapter. To connect to our ideas. And then to talk about all of the images and details Kate DiCamillo left for us.

Students paired in teams of two shared their thinking. The chatter went on and on.

“I think the anger was the key to opening the suitcase.”

“Yeah… I think it’s about the anger. It’s like when he hit his dad. It was like the pressure was so big he had to let it out.”

“Like a volcano. Boom!”

“I think the weather was like depression. So gloomy. And then it rained. Like tears. Like the pressure was too big for the clouds to hold.”

“But then the sun came out. That’s so weird. It was like the funeral. But different. This time it wasn’t sad. It is like new again.”

They went on and on. And then, time was up.

“I can’t believe it’s over.”

This is the way it should always be. Begging. For. More.

I told them, and myself, not to worry, The Tiger Rising will live with you. You will always remember Rob and Sistine and the tiger. I believe this is true. Just like Fern and Wilbur live in me. Characters I met and loved as a young person.

We had to move on, but not until we write to capture this moment as best we can.

Silence again. Furious writing all around.

And when the time was up, I heard the familiar, Noooo! We just don’t want to let it go.

Book heaven.


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