Seeking heartfelt dedications

I found Ursula LeGuin’s blog a few years ago and fell in love. Funny and fun, her blog showed the wise and witty thoughts of a master writer.

This week I started reading a collection of her blog posts, No Time to Spare, Thinking About What Matters,  Her ruminations leave me laughing out loud and thinking. About cats, literature, and teaching.

The other day, I was reading a post entitled “Kids’ Letters”.

…so many kids are perfectly willing to write a book (the book may be fifty words long). They are confident about doing it and about illustrating it. They take obvious pleasure in giving it chapters and a table of contents, and a cover, and a dedication. And at the end, they all write “The End” with a proud flourish… To have written a book is a very cool thing, when you are six or eight or ten years old. It leads to cool things, such as fearless reading. Why would anybody who’s written a book be afraid of reading one?

I have students write books and have been tickled by their table of contents and about the author pages, but I had not thought on the “cool” side effects. At least not in the way LeGuin puts it. If you write a book, how could you not want to be a part of?   What an important breakthrough for those who fear or perhaps say they “hate” reading. How can you hate something you lovingly add a dedication to?

As I’ve moved my students’ writing toward electronic composition, the booklike quality has diminished. When printed out on paper it does have the page-turning book feel. Maybe that’s why students want their fonts so large.

I read on.

…I can say the best letters and books by kids are handmade. A computer may make writing easier, but that’s not always an advantage: ease induces haste and glibness. From the visual point of view, the printout, with all indiosyncratic characters blanded into a standard font, is drably neat, while the artisanal script is full of vitality.

This notion of handmade haunts me. The things we piece together manually connect to us in a different way. I have been and am a proponent of writing electronically. I enjoy it. It makes the craft and revision easy, even playful. Copying text and moving it from one place to another allows a writer to try on different structures and sequences.  Why not allow students this same ability?

Of course. But, I’ve seen that skill used to lift another’s work and represent it as original thought. Perhaps I am asking too much of young writers.  Perhaps this copy/paste function is too tempting. Rather than liberating students from the arduous work of recopying their writing, the ease of movement makes interpretation of text seem silly.  Especially when the resource states it so clearly.  Why not simply copy/paste and modify a few words?

All of this has me thinking about how to approach our next round of writing. How my fourth graders need a mixture of technologies when then write. For years I had one device for every two students. That forced moderation. This year, I have a device for every child. While I’ve tried to be purposeful in the selection of writing tools, the electronic world is slippery and seductive. And a little heartless.

With every innovation and increased access to technology, we need a careful examination of writing purpose, genre, and student need. Why not a melding of the past and present writing tools rather than a wholesale adoption of abandonment? Tricky, but exciting.

Tomorrow, with a mixture of source material and media, we will start to write information books about things and ideas we know a lot about.
Things we have experiences with.
Things we want to learn more about.
Origami, guinea pigs, penguins, and competitive swimming.
World War II,  soccer, basketball, and owls.
Cats, dogs, foxes, and Star Wars.
All of it interpreted by students.
Guided by picture book mentors.
I’m hoping for books
that have
texture, color,
a page-turning quality,
and perhaps a heartfelt dedication.


Technology Bumps and Blessings

Two weeks after my hard drive crashed, I am still working out all the things my computer did for me without me having to think.

Connections to printers, wifi, passwords. All those automated maneuvers I took for granted were no longer. Every day I discover yet another roadblock I need to overcome.

When I attempted to log on to this blog tonight, the automatic, three stroke move did not work. My site was there but I had no access and when I tried to establish contact, WordPress greeted me with the possibility of creating a new site because I had no site.

Ack. No, no, no, no.

I retraced my clicks and found the correct email path. A reset and thankfully, the door unlocked and I was allowed back into the place I created years ago. The old posts and familiar faces who have commented over the years.

Those moments of not being able to access what was mine showed me how I value this space and the journey recorded. Years of moments and reflections. Comments and connections. All treasured bits of my life.

Technology. A blessing when it works.


Slice of Life: I Walk the Line

How often does one get to stand up for what matters?

It started in the dark. In the rain. Armed with laminated signs, rain gear, and caffeinated energy, teachers walked. All day for our students. A choreographed act of belief.

Today offered the chance to do the right thing.

Tomorrow, and until students get what they need, we use our voices and walk the line for the future of public education.

I embrace this opportunity.

Embracing 2019

Yesterday, my students returned to their classroom after Winter Break full of their usual energy and enthusiasm. All felt as it should be. But in buildings where adults manage issues that ultimately impact the future of my students, other things were happening.

As we read the next chapter in Some Kind of Courage, adults discussed their future. In a conference room somewhere in Los Angeles, my union and my employer confronted each other, again. Perhaps they were talking over whether or not my students will have a nurse on hand when they suffer an asthma attack. Maybe they were discussing the merits of psychological social workers in schools where the majority come from households who qualify for subsidized meals.  Possibly they were debating the merits of librarians and counselors in the high school my students will go to.

As my students and I analyzed a letter of an immigrant at Ellis Island in the 1800s, other people were making decisions that will impact their long and short term future.

When I worked with Leah on her blog post, I suspect our newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom was making his inaugural address. I wonder, does he plan on sending his adorable two-year-old son to a middle school with a class size that exceeds 44? How will this man I voted for the address the wealth gap in our state that mirrors the “…achievement gap in our schools and a readiness gap that holds back millions of our kids”? Will he step up for my students?

I have two more days with my students. To read the next chapter, write another article, develop a conjecture, do another experiment. It breaks my heart to acknowledge I probably will not be with them on Thursday. Perhaps this is what it takes to move the second largest public school district in the nation in a direction it needs to go.

Last night, with all of this running through my heart, I finally settled on a word for 2019.  One to hold on to. One that will allow me to step forward in a direction that is true to my beliefs.  A word that is positive and active. My one little (but powerful) word for 2019 is

Here’s to embracing all the challenges and opportunities, adults and children that 2019 presents.

Picture this

He whines.
I look up.
Bothered by the disruption
my annoyance is met with a look.
He continues to stare. Probably thinking unkind thoughts.

Rousted from my comfort, I check
the bowls. Full.
The answer must be outside.

I open the door
out he prances,
paws in pursuit.

Done. I presume
returning to where I left off
I sense I’m being watched.
My unslakable explorer awaits.

seeking cat.JPG

Keeping Track of Myself

The light streams in the east facing window next to my writing space. And if I look to my left, I see copper wind chimes. Still. Perched just outside on an arbor that is at the forefront of the hillside. The photo in the header, what I saw as I walked up to my cluttered desk this morning, inspired me to open up my neglected blogging site. A new look for a new year. And with that, a reflection the year that has passed.

Last year my teaching life changed to include a new type of student and new content. Both fascinated and overloaded me. So much information swirled around me. I felt like my student, Steve”,  who had so much going on in his head he couldn’t decide what to write about. When he did start to write, he’d get distracted by another idea. Exactly. Too much stimulus did not allow my mind to settle enough to write.

I learned a lot last year. A lot of content and pedagogy around each domain. One of the costs of all that learning required me to step away from blogging. Last year my writing life changed from blogging to list making and notetaking.  A surprising benefit of this overwhelming stream of informational was that reading for pleasure became a necessity.

Last year, I learned about myself. I was overtaken by new learning. And in the process, l lost my bearings. Today I feel like I’ve pulled out of the swirling current of content to take a look. Take a breath. And realize the flow of learning and children will continue. Get over it. It’s on me to seek out still waters, to pull out, look back, and find myself.

The year ahead looks no calmer than the year that has passed. Personally and professionally it will be turbulent. As always. But this year I’ve made simple, measurable goals around areas that matter to me.

Reading: log books read on Goodreads.
Writing: a post a week, journal most days. poem a week
Making: a weekly photo that could become something
Family/Friends: daily contact with three individuals, a gratitude journal to keep track
Professional: three professional reads; one conference.

I shy away from metrics, but this year I want to capture what was done and what was undone. That is something I resist for many reasons. Mostly because I’d rather look ahead assuming the past could be better. But this year I’m giving it a go.

Here’s to a new year and new goals designed to capture memories and keep track of what matters.


Slice of Life: Time to Play

Even though I believe in the power of play, when I see it in action, I wonder how much healthier students would be if we built it into the classroom. Not woven into an academic pursuit, but purposely placed to support the social-emotional development of children.

My classroom ended 2018 with board game time, honored in the way we honor any part of our academic day.  Many games were brought from home. Children had a choice as to who to play with and what to play.  If they didn’t want to play, they could choose to write or draw or read or take a break.

Watching them work together was remarkable. The child who has trouble getting along did and was happy. The quiet child participated taking on all roles required by the game. Children played outside of their friend groups.

The occasional squabble was worked out without adult intervention. Turns were taken. Children moved seamlessly from game to game, person to person.

And when it was done with all pieces picked up and put away, one student said, “We learned absolutely nothing today.”

To which I responded, “Did you learn about each other?”

“Oh, yeah!’ he said with a big smile. “We learned who was flexible and who was not.”

Knowing the limits of the people we interact with is essential. Yet these students, who have been together in a classroom for four months, did not know this about each other.  That is shocking.

My students showed me they understood how to play. They did not have to be taught how to negotiate, how to take turns, how to listen. They got that. But in the process of all of that play, they did learn subtle moves to get out of tense moments.  That social-emotional how-to is built in to play.

Classtime has socialization build into it with collaborative projects and partnership work, but little cooperative time is spent working outside academic confines, AKA play.

How much of our success in life, be it academic or work-related, requires an understanding of the person beyond the task?

Would more play increase student flexibility and understanding of each other?

If we play with the people we work with, how much better might our work be?

What might we learn about ourselves?

What if, we just took the time to play?


Slice of Life: Figuring out our purpose

Purpose matters.  It motivates and directs.  I try to remember that. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not adhering to our purpose but figuring it out.

Our classroom blogging is writing for writing sake. It is 100% student driven. This writing, the kind that Ralph Fletcher calls “greenbelt” writing, may not be perfect. The audience is other kids. Not adults. This is by design.  The purpose is joy based writing. that tell story, give information, and share ideas that matter to other kids.

Enter student blogging that is shared with the world and   This year we have started a new student blog. Open to multiage writers afterschool. The topics are still chosen by students, but the content is now linked to the school’s website read by adults.  And with that, my purpose as a teacher changes. I now must seriously address grammar and capitalization slip-ups. An area I typically have no problem overlooking in favor of content and the desire to inspire young writers write.

Today, I conferred with a 5th grader about her fiction piece. A potential series of posts called, To be continued… The title says a lot. It’s funny and full of suspense.  I want to publish it, but first a little work around capitalization.  She started capitalizing the word “I” but then stops. I assume this is an oversight, so I mention it as a simple editorial reminder. And with that, I get a lesson.

“You always capitalize I? I thought it was just the first one.”

Whoa!  This student, one I’d lay money on getting an advanced score on any test. didn’t know to authentically use this straightforward writing rule.  One I know she’s been taught every year.

What does this mean for me a writing teacher?

We must write a lot to learn the rules.
To write a lot, we must want to write.
To want to write, we must enjoy it.
To enjoy it, we need to feel good about what we write.
To feel good about what we write, choice in the subject and minimal critique are necessary.
But at some point, the rules of writing need to be upheld.
When is that time?
When the audience changes? Sooner?

I go back to what I hold in my core. Each child is at a different place along the writing road. It is my purpose to note where they are and anticipate the upcoming bend in the road.

Always a journey for the writer and the teacher.






NCTE18 Reflection: The necessity of writing

Writing shapes and reflects our identity.
Our written voice is how we find ourselves. — Katherine Bomer

These words offered at an NCTE18 session linger with me. What this means about the necessity of writing.

In the pursuit of teaching students to write, we have overemphasized and overwhelmed students with the how. We give them the form to put it in. We show them how we want it to look. We tell them how we will score them. In this process of how we have forgotten the essential reason to write. To share ourselves.

Later in the session, Donna Santman asked, what do we actually believe? And then she said, we are conflicted.  She said the input is the output. And at the time, I thought I knew what she meant.  I thought no, I’m not conflicted. I know what I believe.

I’ve never been conflicted about the absolute necessity of reading and the role it plays in creating happiness and a healthy humanity.  I’ve never doubted the essential nature of it. To quote Kylene Beers, “Reading for information is about saving our democracy. Reading for pleasure is about saving ourselves.”  But I don’t believe I felt that way about writing. It’s good to write. But is it essential? There lies the conflict that I didn’t know I had.

Looking back on Katherine’s words, I realized something I haven’t been able to own. Writing is necessary to live a good life. Not only in schools as a precursor to a high stakes assessment. And not to be justified by a practical need or even artistic pursuit, Writing is a necessary step in the discovery of our world and ourselves.

Now connect the idea of identity to the writer’s voice,  Katherine wisely asked us to name that voice we hear in our student’s writing. Describe it specifically. Acknowledging its identity. How could this not be an essential way we spend our time with children?  To coach them towards their truths because writers look for truths. In themselves and in the world around them.

And even with all of that, I must be careful to value all voices. The strange. The angry. The silly. Couldn’t that be precisely what might surface? My idea of good is not necessarily valuable. The idea of searching and trying things on is essential to growth.  Remember to cherish the process as well as the product; don’t devalue worlds I don’t inhabit.

I think about the writer’s notebooks that live in my students’ desks and backpacks. And wonder, what percent of it is directed by me. What is purely them? What time have I committed to allowing them to venture and discover their voice?



Slice of Life: Unconventional nonfiction reading

According to my students and retailers, the holiday season is here. Days off, the promise of gifts, parties with family and friends. Today, as we walked toward our room, one student shared what many were thinking. He’d rather be at home.

Fortunately, there were a few things that made being at school almost as good as a long weekend. After the last few chapters of  Zane and the Hurricane, we went into a culminating part of one of TCRWP’s reading unit, Reading the Weather. This unit is a favorite not only because of the engaging subject matter but because of how students take nonfiction reading and share it in unconventional ways.

For the past three weeks, students have researched a particular area of interest: hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis or earthquakes. Today, they were to craft their presentations.

The what to, how to, and who will present their work to another student group was all up to the team. Poster boards, notecards, tape, glue, scissors, markers were everywhere.

Some had been planning for the last week.
Others just got the sense of urgency. “Tomorrow? Like ALL of it ready?”

They worked, and ideas kept surfacing. More materials were requested.

“You know this paper could make a great cape,” said team member in charge of the effects of tsunamis.

“And how is that connected to tsunamis?” asked co-member in charge of historical tsunamis.

They worked through their recess. And their lunch.

As I walked students to the buses, student team member in charge of safety during tsunamis was sharing her giant blue wave with a student from another fourth-grade class. She put her head through the hole at the top, and said, “Tomorrow we get to teach!”

Unconventional fun nonfiction reading. Almost as good as a long weekend.