Slice of Life: What’s a Just Right Read Aloud

I believe literature can bridge gaps that would otherwise never close. The potential of this brings me hope.

Teaching how to read and love literature is the cornerstone of my language arts classroom. I try to capture it in read aloud. This time is precious. It has to count.

Every year we read joyful, funny books. Books that children love. And every year we read books that are disturbing. Every year I wonder, are my book selections the best I can make. Too heavy, too light. What’s just right?

Our first chapter book of the year was Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I love this book, yet was concerned. How might my students understand it or handle the topic?

The story of Kek is brutal: a ten-year-old Sudanese refugee making his way in Minneapolis after his detention in a refugee camp, after losing his mother, after the murder of his father and brother.

Heavy stuff. My students aren’t privileged by Western standards, yet they are light years away from Kek’s experience. My students read for plot, action, adventure, humor, and fantasy. Is this too big of a stretch?

I went with it because it was the chosen text for the TCRWP Reading unit of study. While I don’t hesitate to change things to meet student needs, I felt I needed to give the design of this unit a chance. The expectations are high. I thought if anything would help students approximate the work required, the read aloud would be the access point.

We have a week left in the book. And there have been glimmers of deep thinking. I’ve seen a few notebooks that gave me hope, but the overall reactions of students worried me. Was the nature of the story turning them off? Was engagement waning? They were so quiet.

Today I read this scene,

The grocery store has rows and rows, of color, of light, of easy hope. . . I stand like a tree rooted firm my eyes too full of this place, with its answers to prayers on every shelf. . .

I reach out and touch, a piece of bright green food I’ve never seen before. And then I begin to cry.

I stop and wonder aloud:  “I don’t understand. This is the opposite of what I’d expect.  A grocery store is a place that ‘answers his prayers.’ Why would he cry?”

I hear

Maybe he’s filled with joy. Yeah happy tears.

Then from a student who seemed disengaged and had voiced his opinion that the text is slow (not enough action) turns to his partner,

I think he’s doesn’t think he deserves these things. Why him and not his family.

We read on. The Library,

I don’t know what to do with it all, I say. I kick a chair leg. To have all this food and all these books and all this freedom. I  feel sort of… I dont’t know, the word. Too lucky.

“Too lucky?” I say. I don’t understand. Why is Kek feeling this way. How could he feel too lucky? His life has been unlucky. Why is this such a problem? Why has the author created this situation for Kek? For us to understand?

Partner talk erupts.

He can’t handle this it’s too much.

He doesn’t think he deserves it.

He feels guilty.

I think I have a new theme!

Somethings can not heal. Things can’t help, sometimes they hurt.

They listen to more.  They hear how Kek handles his trip to the mall, his encounters with money, birthdays, and racism. All ideas that are foreign to him yet he moves through it.

Then, I take them back to the quote that titled the section:

One doesn’t forgo sleeping because of the possibility of nightmares.

Students have interpreted this to mean: One doesn’t give up living because there might be trouble.

I ask, “How do these chapters fit into this part? How does it fit with the whole?

They talk and write.

Later at the end of reading workshop, students finish up their discussions on their books. Two students approach.

“Mrs. Harmatz, we have two new questions we should ask during partner talk: How does this part fit in with the whole and why is this important?”

Whoa.  What I’d been saying again and again in read aloud had sunk in just a little bit and transferred to their work. A few have gotten toeholds on the wall they need to climb.

This book is challenging in its structure and content.  But perhaps, there lies the wisdom of this book choice.

We have to sort through the whys and hows. We have to fit the pieces together to make sense of it. And we do it together. That’s what a read aloud should do.

We have to think through the differences. We have to come to terms with ideas that disrupt our world view. That’s what literature should do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Live Tuesday. You bring us together to write, to share, to connect. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey, and Tara. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Reading Choices

The endless expanse of days to read and reflect and write are tightening up.

Once school starts my reading time will be curtailed.

I remember when I decided to go into teaching one of my biggest concerns was the disturbance of my reading life. I was fearful that my adult reading would disintegrate into kid lit.

I had no clue.

I was correct about my adult reading life. It withered. And I mourn the loss from time to time.  But there are aspects of my current reading life that have changed me in profound ways. The more I learn how to teach a reader or a writer to read like a writer, the more I discover about my reading and writing life.  Now it seems obvious, but at the beginning of my teaching journey, I had no idea. Discovering how reading and writing works is a passion I pursue willingly and at personal cost because it fascinates me.

I reflect on this because of a dinner conversation.

My high schooler was “asked” to read two books over the summer, Hamlet and Siddartha. My teacher self had to ask, what if you were given choice in this rather than being assigned a text.

She assured me she preferred the assigned books and would probably not have read any book over the summer if she had a choice. After some inquiry, her bottom line was that there would be no accountability for choice so she would not do it. With assigned books, there would be a discussion and a test. If it were a choice, she could just say she read a book.

I sat there. Taken aback. I had felt bad for her being assigned a text such as Hamlet without any instruction. But come to find out work that is assigned is in her comfort zone. Being required to do something with a test connected to it, motivated her.

“High school is not like elementary school,” she said. “It’s about points and tests. How can a teacher give you a grade without a test?”

My daughter is but one student on her journey. The lack of reading and choice disturbs me. The lack of instruction with a text like Hamlet shocks me. But what gets to me at my core is the training of students to be motivated by a grade. I realize that is our educational culture that reflects our society to some degree.

This accepted matter of fact way school goes worries me.

When I think back to my high school days, I was just like my daughter. I was assigned books. I didn’t read unless I was asked to. My reading life came to me after formal schooling. That’s when I embraced choice and became a reader and a learner. That was my path. I believe/hope this will happen for her as well. She is much more than just a grade and can do so much more than the assignment.

But this stance in education this treatment reading and learning worries me. An environment that only asks our students, especially high school students, to do as assigned to pass a test worries me. Does choice and active learning only exist in elementary school? Is this “do the assignment and take a test” the way of secondary education? Or is this just my slice of life?

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Thank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for this community of readers, writers, and learners. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Under Cover

Children seldom misquote you. They usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said. — Unknown

One towel covered me from head to toe. The towel beneath me absorbed water from my swimsuit.  Protected from the breeze, I huddled under cover. With the sun above and the heated concrete pool deck below, I found quiet. I loved this part of swim lessons. This plus the popsicle we’d get on the way home made it all worthwhile.

My eight-year-old body was positioned far enough away from the splash zone of the pool, near the chain link fence and the moms. Save haven.

I woke up to their voices.

“It’s sad,” one said.

“I don’t know why she brings her,” said one mom.

I knew that voice, she lived down the street.

“Poor thing just can’t do it,” said another.

“She shouldn’t be in this class,  it holds the others back. It just isn’t fair.”

That was Tucker’s mom.  I’d never heard her talk that way before.

“You have a point. Everyone has to wait.”

“Of course I have a point.”

My throat tightened.

Then, “Hello, all! Thanks for watching her.” It was Mom.

Did she hear them?

“No problem. She sleeping. Probably so tired from the lesson,” Tucker’s mom said all sweet.

My eyes hurt. I lifted the towel, rubbed my eyes and reached for my mom.

Going in the big pool took every bit of brave I had. Some days I didn’t have enough. This day was one of those days.

After that, shame took control. At first it hurt. I wonder if they knew. That made it worse. By the next day, the fear of drowning was nothing compared to my I’ll-show-you-attitude. Shame drove me to mad and then to prove something. Strange. Shame led to mad and took over fear. Was it pride?

I survived the pool incident. And I remember. If you think that’s what I needed to get on my brave, think again.  I overcame this moment, but it left seeds of doubt and scaring. I don’t always pull out from underneath the covers and approach my fear. Sometimes it’s too big or I’m too small.

This memory drives my thinking tonight as the start of the school year approaches. We need to be mindful. Not just of our 11454297503_e27946e4ff_htalk when we think no one’s listening. We need to be mindful of how we think about children’s abilities. Our thoughts drive our actions and our words that young minds can see, hear and remember.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for this place to share our Tuesday slices. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Holding on to the Moment

Sometimes it’s hard to find that feeling of accomplishment.

There are moments that have that quality, but most of the time I’m on the road and I’m not there yet. I get distracted, sidetracked, lost. The path I choose can get blocked and I have to turn around.  Even in the best cases, the feeling of completion happens infrequently. When I’m in the midst of it, it can seem like I’m not getting anywhere.

Over the last few weeks, there were moments when I had a glimmer of accomplishment.

Prior to my daughter’s week at camp, we went to the mall, to do what she loves, shop.

I may have created a bit of this monster in this department. When you have two boys and then a girl, the compulsion to dress them up doesn’t set forth a good model. Perhaps it would have happened regardless of my actions, but her passion for consumption, her pursuit of the sale and her rather ingenious moves to get a clothes she wants is relentless.

The mall can feel like a death march, looking for the just right pair of shoes to go with the dress, which needs to go with something else. But this time, we walked out of the mall in less than an hour.  No shopping bags and no complaints. In the car, I take this moment in and drive home.

On Saturday, I picked her up from Y camp where she spent the week as a volunteer counselor. Eight days, seven nights. She’s been a camper since she was eight, but this time she was in charge.

Before I set eyes on her, I heard about it from other counselors. Apparently she was assigned a rather challenging group of middle school girls.

I waited. I knew she was there, waiting with her “kids” until their parents picked them up.

The crowd of parents and children lessened. The piles of luggage and sleeping bags that lined the parking lot diminished. Finally up she walks, tanned and tired. She hugs me and lays her head on my shoulder. I steal a kiss and take that moment in, holding it close.

On the way to our car, advisors and counselors hug her. We walk on, and I look back, making eye contact with her director. I wave goodbye.

She returns the wave and says, “You have raised a really great kid.”

“Thank you!”  My daughter looks at me, and I say, “I know.”

I take that moment, drape my arm over my daughter’s shoulder and hold her close.

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Thank you, Two Writing Teachers blog for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Read more slices and share your own slice here.

Slice of Life: Consider Your Audience…Message and Purpose

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThis weekend, my sister-in-law reported the fact that her nephew, my son, had not followed through on a business opportunity she had set up for him.

I knew about this. I knew he wanted it, and was shocked that he had let it slip.

She went on to explain, “His generation operates by text, they don’t understand that the business world operates by email.”

Apparently my son hadn’t checked his email.

I agreed his generation, doesn’t use email as its prime mode of communication. They don’t check it as they do their texts. But, I thought, my email is a dark hole. Things get buried there so quickly. Anything that matters doesn’t go there. Surely executives have similar issues.

“You see,” she went on, “he (the executive) is continually on planes, the only way he can communicate on a flight is by email. He can’t text.”

Oh, got it. Interesting.

We thrive on communication. The ways and the speed at which we do it are exploding. How we harness it, is complicated. And as always, audience matters. If we don’t ask ourselves how do they connect, what are their constraints, and how do I best reach them, we might not connect.

My mother had to learn to call my cell phone. I don’t answer the land line. Forget calling my daughter. Text is the only thing that will get a response.

You might think this is a generational divide. But consider this: I’m trying to get my friend, who is new to Twitter, to a chat. If I want her to get the message as to the time and hashtag, I text her the information. Tweeting her wouldn’t work. That’s not how she gets her information.

So it’s not just generational; it’s how people access information.  And as I thought about it, it’s more than just access, it’s about purpose.

I recently let Voxer into my life. Initially, I resisted. One more way to get communication felt overwhelming.  But I’ve found, Voxer has a purpose and a place.  It allows for a spoken group conversation. Thoughts expressed through talk are different. They are less restrictive and open up possibilities that might be limited by written words. We know talk is necessary in our classrooms, why not in professional development.

Last week, I was involved in a Google doc discussion on a book. We choose this because of accessibility but also for the type of communication.  We wanted a flexible, communal space to share our ideas. Access, our purpose, and the message being conveyed mattered. The tool we choose to communicate with had to match the needs.

With all of this choice in our personal and professional lives, what about our classrooms. The ways we can communicate are so varied and changing, how do we decide what works best for our students. Perhaps by looking through the lens of audience access, message and purpose the choice will become clearer.

And as for my son, apparently it wasn’t too late. Emails were sent and received. The executive was impressed. The opportunity was saved.

Happy ending and lesson learned:  it won’t matter how good the message is if it isn’t heard.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog for providing a place every Tuesday to share our writing. Find more slices here.

Slice of Life: Are you a writer?

“Are you a writer?”  said the man seated next to me. He was peering at my notebook.

“Oh, nooo! I’m just taking notes.”

I felt shame. Shame for being caught.

Yesterday as read comments on Jo Knowles’ blog, that ghost of shame revisited me. Writers participating in Kate Messner’s Teachers Write Summer Camp were offering their work, their story ideas, their writing that was in progress. I read and thought, Write like this? Oh nooo, not me.

No, I’m a teacher. I teach writing, so I’m learning about ways to teach writing. But, me, oh nooo. I don’t write.

That’s how I described myself to the man who sat next to me on the flight to New York.

I was too embarrassed to say, yes I write.

Whoa! What?!

I’m the one who tells students and colleagues that they NEED to write to understand who they are and what they’re thinking. Shame on me for not having the courage to say what I believe in about myself.

On Slice of Life Tuesdays and within the Slicer community, I write.  The evidence, acceptance, and the expectation is here. I’m not afraid or apologetic.

But when I venture outside of this space, into the world where everyday people go to work and do everyday things, I choke on those words.

When I construct my public persona, the one I tell my neighbor or any stranger, I might mention my occupation or my family status; I could easily continue by describing myself through my passions.  I’m a far cry from an Olympic athlete, but I can, without a moment’s hesitation say I run, or I swim. And I say this because I do it, regularly, five to six times a week.

Telling someone outside this community that I write doesn’t feel acceptable.  Perhaps because I haven’t done it long enough. Perhaps because it’s a thing that no one sees you do. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

Whatever the reason for my reluctance, it shows a lack of faith and belief in writing as plausible pursuit or passion. If I can’t admit that I write in the same way that I say I run, how can I convince others that writing is something one does or should do. Much like exercise, it’s good for you and at times, feels good.

When that man asked me if I was a writer, I was embarrassed and denied it. Now, I feel shame for what I didn’t say. He wasn’t making fun of me, he was just asking.

So, the next time someone asks, Are you a writer? I’ll say, Yes! And you?

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Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the space to write and the community of support. For more slices click here.

Slice of Life: This is What I Want

I’ve been thinking a lot about what my students have gotten out of this school year.  Maybe it’s because year end’s in sight. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had some time to read, think and write. Or maybe it’s because some students are struggling with life and school, and I’m at a loss.

Probably because of all of these reasons, I’ve been thinking about bottom lines. What are students walking out the door holding on to? Are they gonna be ok, taking the next step? Are they ready?

I’ve asked these same kinds of questions about my own children.

While I’m not sure of the answers, this is what I want:

I want them to walk on knowing that they are seen. That the world has space for them and that they are entitled to be there. That they are a part of a community that needs them, and that they need to contribute by doing what they can. That trying is hard, but if they keep trying they will move. That doing well on a test is just that, doing well on a test, nothing more. That what matters is that you come every day and expect something of yourself.

I might forget these ideas in my mission to teach the concepts, the skills, the strategies. I might forget this in my desire to fix, to challenge, to grow.

I might forget that the most unforgettable thing I could give a student is the knowledge that I see them, that I care about them, and that I honor them – what they think and who they are.

I was listening to a podcast with Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and author of Tattoos on the Heart. While my kiddos aren’t as tough as Luis, nor am I as saintly as Father Boyle, the conversation made me laugh and think about the feelings I have toward my students and how they might think of me.

I said, ‘You know, Luis, I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it, and when you were born, the world became a better place, and I’m proud to call you my son. Even though’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times, you can really be a huge pain in the ass.’

In response, Luis looked up at me and said, “The feeling’s mutual.”

Maybe I returned him to himself, but there is no doubt that he’s returned me to myself.

If we value our students for who they are and where they are, we are right there beside them.

That is what I hope they walk away with.

This is what I want.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hGlad to be back to the slicing world.

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

#SOL15: Day 31, Community is a Non-Negotiable

I sit at gate 38 waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles.

Coming here, I felt guilty.

In my mind, I tried to justify it by adding up the learning I’d attain and see if it balanced out with the money I’d spend.

I knew my desire to go was as much about being with the educators sitting beside me as learning from the educators who stood in front of me.

And I did gain knowledge, tangible strategies I can use tomorrow with students. But, I got something else which has changed my construct as to what professional development is.

The presenters were the focal point and clearly inspirational. They were the reason we came. 

But — 

This weekend I realized the importance of community. A community that is passionate and committed, that rallies around core beliefs, that shares struggles and a strong faith in humanity may matter more than any presenter’s research, idea, strategy, or book.

While  professional development with specific learning goals in mind is clearly necessary, our learning opportunities must include the development of and participation in a community of shared purpose and belief.

No matter what the standards, no matter the mandates, no matter the strategies and practices your school has in place, no matter the technology, no matter the environment, no matter the financial support. What matters most are the core beliefs built and sustained within a community of learners. Without this, nothing else matters.

There was something very powerful about meeting in Riverside Church. We came to listen and commune in our shared beliefs in literacy and humanity. We came because we believe that literacy is a necessity for our continued existence. That literacy is non-negotiable. And that no matter what, what we do is essential.

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This is why I came to Riverside Church to be with my community that sustains me in a job that is difficult and often defeating but essential.

Without the TCRWP community, the community of bloggers and tweeters, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, ready to go back to a classroom of learners with a renewed sense of purpose. Profession development needs to be seen as more than just learning how to do something. It also has to be about becoming a part of something.

Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey, and Tara for building and sustaining the powerful blogging community of Two Writing Teachers. Read more slices here.

#SOL15: Day 30, Notes from TCRWP’s Saturday Reunion

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend TCRWP’s 88th Saturday Reunion. The beauty of TCRWP is their belief in teachers and the need to build and bolster the community as learners. The reunion was open to all; a gift to anyone who makes their way to New York City.

There was so much to be gained from the sessions. The only problem was choosing which one to go to!

Carl Anderson’s session lifted my understanding of how to use mentor texts, particularly in narrative writing.

2015-03-28 10.08.49Some key points:

  • Students should be immersed in the sound of a genre and to see the way a genre is written.  To be able to write well, students must understand how it goes. Perhaps we don’t put enough emphasis on this because it doesn’t look like writing.
  • Collect texts that are examples of the genre you are working in, that will work best for your students and that you love.
  • A writer’s ability to envision a text is dependent on their knowledge of texts. Therefore, we must surround our children with mentor texts. This means read texts as readers first and read a lot of them before we start to read them as writers.
  • Choose a few of to use as mentor texts for writing. Know these well, examine them through a lens of writing by asking, “how did the writer do _____?” 
  • Identify parts of the text to show how it’s put together. Carl did this with Ralph Fletcher’s memoir “The Last Kiss.” He blocked out  and named parts of the text. I’ve done this with informational and argument, but not with narrative writing. What a huge aha.2015-03-28 10.38.14

Cornelius Minor’s session helped us make some sense of the common core demands to find that “main idea,” “theme,” and “evidence” to support their thinking.

  • First know this: one can’t find evidence without an idea. Hallelujah! 
  • Cornelius shared video clips to show us how to formulate an idea:
    • first find a topic,
    • second say what do you think about it and
    • three say it in a sentence that seems true and that
    • equals an idea!
  • By going through this process multiple times, we had the opportunity to try, try, and try again. Which brings to an essential tenant: students must be able to try, fail and try again and again. This “how-to” broken down into a one-two-three sequence with accessible text (think video) allows students to reach toward finding that idea, so they can then go back and find evidence.
  • Lastly, Cornelius shared a way to support students in finding thematic concepts. He shared five “universal” themes presented in middle school kid language. By giving students the possible ideas up front, students can consider these possibilities and see what fits.

Kylene Beers’ closing was beautiful. Her recent post outlines much of her keynote’s high pointsMany have blogged about it. Check out Fran, Tara and Catherine’s posts.

Kylene knows how to bring home what matters in a clear and concise way as these points show:

  • The reading of literature is necessary to develop our human qualities.
  • When we become a part of the character’s life we learn the most about ourselves.
  • A book’s “want-ability” is much more important than readability.
  • For books to be relevant to kids they must have choices.
  • Deep thinking always begins with questions, not the answers.

Attending the reunion was a teacher fantasy come true. Spending time with colleagues and Slicers made New York like home.

Just one more day left in the month of March! I can’t believe it’s almost over. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara for hosting the challenge. Read more Slicers here.

#SOL15: Day 23, What We’re Reading

It’s Monday, and I made a commitment to a chapter book Read Aloud. I don’t take this decision lightly. Our class Read Aloud shoulders a huge responsibility.

Read Aloud is the centerpiece of the Reading Workshop. It guides and informs reading and writing instruction: from vocabulary, structure, and craft to understanding character, cultural  and historical perspectives.

Read Aloud is our shared group experience. We are tied together by this text. It’s one of the biggest decisions I make for my students. It nurtures our reading community.  For this reason, the majority of our Read Aloud time is spent in literature. I believe that is how we learn about humanity and how to be humane.

Informational text happens beside our Read Aloud, with online articles, picture books, infographics, maps, pictures, and primary documents that supplement the literature.

Some of my students struggle to love reading. They read because it’s good for them (like spinach), because their parents require it, because they want to do well in school. Not because they love it. I get that. But if all goes well, Read Aloud is the best part of the day.and these students know that book love is possible.

Because of this, Read Aloud must be a book that students will carry with them forever. When they come back to visit me as middle schoolers, the first question they ask is what are you reading.

These reads have met the standard for my students over the years-

  • Because of Winn-Dixie
  • Flying Solo
  • Mick Harte Was Here
  • How to Steal a Dog
  • Tiger Rising
  • Wonder
  • Out of My Mind
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Locomotion

All of these reads have included kids that in some way connected to my students.They could see themselves in one way or another in these books.

Today we will start a book that may stretch their thinking a bit, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Will they see themselves in Salva and Nya? Can they connect to this world of war and struggle for the basics of life? Will this be just a window into this foreign country and culture? Or will we find threads that connect us to these characters.

9k=The Sudanese children in this story are a far cry from Los Angeles urban kids. Or are they? We start our journey today.

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Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.