Celebrate: A reason to write

Writing is a discipline. One that is easy to question; to talk one’s self out of. I don’t have anything to say, and I don’t have time are easy refrains that justify closing the notebook, and skipping the blog post. What does it produce? Create? How does it better the world? Why write when there is so much to get done? To question the need, to measure the value, and move away from the act of writing seems a reasonable stance.

Yesterday, I listened to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s first Heinemann podcast on their new book 180 days. Today, I relistened to it. These two master teachers hold up what I know to be true. They bring me back to the process of teaching and the reason I teach. And with that, why writing is necessary.

Teaching is day by day, minute by minute process. What I do with a student on Monday, feeds into what was done Friday and all that has been done before that moment. The result of a day builds to the next. One piece upon another. Growing within a unit of study. A piece of a year’s plan. The daily execution cycles in and out. From the macro to the work of the day. And it morphs. Understanding the world of that learner at that moment amongst all those other learners and moments within the standards requires writing to untangle pieces of the learning. Those micro-moments are reflected on, processed and translated to a next step for that classroom, that learner, as I write.

This week my students worked their way through state testing. The discomfort of this was not only about what they were asked to do but how they were asked to do it.

They could not
on the floor with the laptop hovering above their head, not
under a desk. not
perched on a bookcase. They could not
refer to their notebooks, or charts. They could not
or ask a fellow student for advice. They could not
look anything up online. They could not
ask me. They could not
move around the room.

And they could not
understand why.

My nine-year-old students did not
understand, and they asked,
Why not?
 We don’t understand.

As far as they were concerned, this is not
only unfair this is not
what school is or should be.

And I told them, you are correct.
Testing is not how our school life goes.

And  I tried to explain:
It’s like going to the doctor for a check-up.
They take blood, get your weight and height.
It’s a quick way of determining if you are on track.
It’s one measurement of you.

But why?
Why do we have to?
You know where we are.

This was a hard one to respond to. We talked on.
And, eventually, my students did as the district and state asked.
They took the test.

This is not how our school life goes. It’s only for a few days.
But, how can I ignore the questions of my students? How can I not question the process we force students to go through. The mock trial of their ability.  Performance tasks of “real life” situations. Done in an unreal and inhumane way. To children.

This is not to question the intent of standards that ask children to think, read, write and synthesize grade-level appropriate materials. We as learners ask is the manner in which we meet or approach grade-level appropriate expectations appropriate?

The majority of my students are at or above grade level in reading, but for those who are not there yet, how on earth is this test anywhere near what school and learning should ever be?  What is this process doing to children? And why do well-meaning educators and parents keep allowing it?

Midway through the multiple days of testing, one of one of my students, a perfectionist, came to me and said, I’m going to sue the government for pain and suffering. They have caused me extreme stress and depression. She smiled as she said it, to let me know she was okay. I smiled back and said, write a letter.
She asked, “To the president or the governor?”

As long as I seek to engage learners, we will have a reason to write.

Today, I celebrate writing and my students. May they always be intertwined.


Slice of Life: That Was Unexpected

Last week, our classroom received a gift that was unexpected.

“That was unexpected,” is what one might say to a student who acted in an inappropriate manner. No shame and communication of expectations. But the thing is. Unexpected can be beautiful.

I have a student in my classroom who is autistic. He talks about his disability and about his desire for and trouble with friendship. All the adults in his life are aware, but the nine-year-olds have not been paying attention. Misunderstandings have accumulated. Feelings have been hurt. Then out of nowhere, the unexpected happened. And with it, minds were opened and hearts were engaged.

It changed with a poem.
A poem he wrote.
That spoke to his journey.
That he read to the class.

Students sat transfixed.
They raised their hands with questions.
about the symbolism,
the title,
the images.

About his inspiration,
his process,
his favorite poets.

About him
and his journey.

And they said,
“I didn’t know you had autism.”
And they asked,
“What is autism?”

He explained how he sees the world.
And how he is wired.
And how many creative people are like him.
But how hard it is.
Because he doesn’t see the world as most people do.
And they raised their hands and asked:
“Can I be your friend?
“Can I?”
“Can I?”
“Can all of room 32 be your friend?”

And, we wrote poetry. We had to.
He glowed,
and said. “I don’t understand, I’ve been telling them this for so long.”

“But with poetry, they heard you.”

We continue to write poetry. And while all problems are not solved,
we have found poetry as a place to create unexpected moments
of joy and laughter and friendship.

You are more

We’ve spent the year doing reading, writing, math, and science to the best of our abilities.
Students come to class on fire about the new books in the library.
Students come to class begging to blog,
to write poetry,
to do research.
Students go to lunch
arguing about how to solve a math problem.
Students come back from lunch
wondering what experiment is in store; how does that work?

Now, after a year of learning,  I pull out the test prep passages with multiple choice questions and standardized prompts. With words like “supports” and “generalize” and  “conclude” that ask students to “choose all that apply.”

And no surprise.
Students push back.
Students ask and wonder why.
Students read the test prep text. Sitting at their desks, not on the ground or under chairs, and say “I disagree with this. This isn’t true.” I secretly agree, loving the ever present in your face moxie questioning, critical thinking attitude of students. But I say, this isn’t the time for that type of question. It’s the time to prove you know what that test maker wants. Read the question carefully. And respond.

As I write this,  I cringe at the dystopian bitter pill we make our students swallow every year. I deplore the fact that the test makers drive educational endpoints. Where we put our resources. Dictate the value of our practice and our students. How is it that we give test makers the right to determine how students view learning? How is it that standards that purport to require critical thinking require the opposite?

It breaks the heart. And tears at the soul. But still…
tomorrow I will translate the language of test makers to the language of readers and writers. So students won’t be surprised or afraid. And…
tomorrow I will administer antidotes, by continuing to tell students:
You are more than any test can measure.  

I know, I say nothing new to you who go into classrooms every day in spite of it.
Looking to engage and enlighten. To learn alongside students.

I write this for me. To remember and focus on what has everything to do with the book, the experiment, the story, the research, the art, the poem, the question, the wonder, the connection, the student. The future that I’m honored to work with.



Celebrating: Circle Time

Every year I play with the physical space of my classroom. Moving desks, chairs. Trying to create new areas for children to find quiet, thoughtful moments as well as places to collaborate. Finding what fits the needs of every child takes equal parts kid watching, experimentation and questioning.

When we set kids up to do something and watch, so much is revealed. In January, I changed our morning routine to start the day with a circle question. Watching how students negotiated the circle was fascinating.  Some kiddos chose to sink back behind, while others quickly found their spot. That led to me making the circle space bigger. Still, with ample room, some found a way to be behind the circle. Slowly, those students are finding their space in, outside the circle.

I had discounted this kind of work for upper elementary students. Thought they were too old for this. Oh. So. Not. So.

Questions range from the silly to the serious. They are specific and ambiguous. Student and teacher-generated. Written on the board next to the agenda, there is no verbal explanation. Interpretation is up to the responder. The only rule: one person speaks their mind at a time, and all others listen. Silent approvals are welcome, but verbal responses are not allowed. (A challenge for my very verbose students.)

This week’s questions:
If you were a fairy tale character, who would you be?
What was the weirdest place you’ve ever been?
Where is your favorite place to read in the classroom?
What do you prefer pen or pencil?
What do you wonder about our classroom?

You can probably guess which ones came from students. All gave me insight and direction.

The last question on the list was on Friday. That day students walked into a room that had been changed significantly. About half of the tables had been lowered to the ground. Two tables had been removed, allowing more space in the back of the room. I wanted their reactions, questions, and thoughts. And as usual, unexpected ideas were voiced. Two unrelated to the question, all valuable to me. Views and opinions that will change my approach and course of instruction.

This year, the daily circle question is time students look forward to.  It has led to better listening and has pulled students into the community. Our morning circle has opened doors to instruction and deeper understanding of each other. But, interestingly, I have ended up being the biggest learner.

This week I celebrate the art of wonder, my students’ unrelenting questions and another day to try to answer them.

Thank you, Ruth, for the weekly call to celebrate. Find more here at Ruth Ayers Writes.

Celebrating: How Poetry Teaches

This year my students and I are celebrating National Poetry Month with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s poem project. Every day I add her poem to a Google doc and attempt the lesson she proposes. Then I share this growing document with my students. Their poetry project will last through the end of the year: collecting and creating poetry in their poetry notebooks and then publishing work in a blank book.

I sandwich poetry in between reading and writing workshops. For 20 minutes, students pour through books for poems they love, explore Amy’s poetry, check out the Rhyme Zone (a site we love), write their own poetry, or share poems with each other. During this joyous part of our day, constraints are lifted.
They have stopped asking, can I …
They just
write them in their notebook
create google docs for their poetry
write them on origami
write one for a friend in need
share  their favorite lines

The other beautiful thing about this work is the transference to reading and writing. Earlier this week, we were exploring the importance of understanding a character’s perspective. That reading lesson sat right after our exploration of persona poems. Friday’s poem in the second person preceded our study of craft techniques used by informational writers that included addressing the reader directly. ‘Tis true, Poems Are Teachers.

Yesterday, I introduced Amy’s poem for April 5th, shared the strategy, and then my own attempt.  It was a humbling challenge you can read below. From the form to the topic. I can’t say I’m thrilled with it but, my students were.  Funny. All the parts that I disliked they loved.  They are a generous audience.

Thank you, thank you. Amy, for your daily inspiration.

You Are Not Alone

Yesterday I told you, “Today we will take a test,
don’t worry, just do your best.”
You looked like you were going to cry.
I said, “I know you can! Try.”

This morning Coach said, “The next set’s a test.
Don’t worry, just do your best.”
Hearing those words from another
I freeze up, want to call my mother.

I wonder, what excuse can I make?
Is there something I can take
to  disappear, avoid the pain
I see nothing here to gain.

After the swim, I stop and think,
of what made my soul sink.
The competition was too much for me
even if it was for my eyes to see.

I thought of you and in my heart
felt the panic that can break you apart
the fear of not being your best,
the agony of failing a test.

Please know, you are not alone.
Testing makes me want to stay home.

And thank you, Ruth, for your weekly call to celebrate the week. Read more celebrations here at Ruth Ayres Writes.

The grinds

Spring Break lingers for me. One more day to write like this. A time to give praise to National Poetry Month.
I look forward to what April brings. Each day.

Today I honor my notebook that habitually falls short of what I think it should be.
Today I acknowledge my notebook’s nature. My reflection. Filtered through influences of the moment.

The Grinds

Coffee promisesnotebook.jpg
as a gray sky blankets —
creamed comfort for each sip.

Then the pen stutters,
skips, slips and words stumble
on that lined-page.

Repetitions sneak
in alongside arrows
and doodles flourish
obscuring the ugly

Unwanted. The first
impulse is to tear and toss
a thought creeps

No. Turn. Compost the page.
History nurtures
the grinds left behind.

Celebrate Poetry

Finally, it’s April and the beginning of National Poetry Month. Hurrah!

Usually, I sit on the sidelines and watch and read all those who dedicate themselves daily to poetry during this month. But, this year is different.

Perhaps because I am going to embark on this journey with students.
Perhaps because I have gotten more comfortable with it.
Perhaps because, most days, I partake in poetry.

So today is a day to honor and celebrate April and National Poetry Month.

I celebrate the plans I’ve made for my students and me.
Read a poem a day.
A blank book to document our journey.
Time to read, notice, sketch, write.
Choose to memorize a poem. Perform it for ourselves.

Today. Sunday. Time to read many poems.
Today,  This poem.


I will offer my students on day one. We will plant shriveled seeds.
It’s perfect.
“These shriveled seeds we plant…type and retype”

again and again.



by Naomi Shihab Nye

These shriveled seeds we plant,
corn kernel, dried bean,
poke into loosened soil,
cover over with measured fingertips

These T-shirts we fold into
perfect white squares

These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips
this rich egg scrambled in a gray clay bowl

.This bed whose covers I straighten
smoothing edges till blue quilt fits brown blanket
and nothing hangs out

This envelope I address
so the name balances like a cloud
in the center of the sky

This page I type and retype
This table I dust till the scarred wood shines
This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again
like flags we share, a country so close
no one needs to name it

The days are nouns: touch them
The hands are churches that worship the world

Sharing True Selves

I shocked my students this week.

During a rainy day game, there was a moment of silence. We were waiting for one student to finish his thought. A predictable comment. Something he is known for and says all the time. One that always gets a laugh. And at that moment, I said it. It just came out. And the class exploded.  When they calmed down, I apologized.  And one student said, “No, that was too perfect.”

I had joined in their play, and I couldn’t help but think of the beautiful new book by Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz, Kids 1st from Day One. In it, they reference Stuart Brown’s Play Personalities having readers determine what type of play personality they have and can bring into the classroom. At that moment, I was taking on the “joker” personality. Opening this side up to my kiddos, left them happily shocked with my silliness.  And it made me feel good too. To be silly with them.

Later this week, during a whole group discussion about a scientific phenomenon, excitement bubbled over into sidebars. Shouted responses to questions dissolved the group’s attention. One student wanting to be heard said in frustration,  “Why can’t you stop talking and listen?” And I said, “A thought I ponder daily.”  It just popped out and stunned students. One said, “That isn’t positive. You are supposed to be positive.”

Whether or not I should have said that and how I could turn that moment into a teachable one rolls around in my head.
And I wonder. How we share ourselves in our classrooms is essential.

The community develops, and more of who we are becomes apparent. It can’t be helped. We are more than the moment or the lesson.  It’s a continuum of understanding that develops, and we are real. All the bumps and smooth spots; trust and truth.


Celebrate: What my students taught me

Feedback is an essential element of teaching. Teachers and students give it in every move we make.  It’s implicit in our actions. So I do my best to notice how kids approach a problem; how they sit as they read or write. And then ask questions about it. In the hopes of understanding and offering opportunities for them to understand their practice, their successes, and their struggles. But with a big classroom, those one-on-one moments just can’t happen enough. So when a kiddo offers explicit, unsolicited feedback, in the midst of the work, I am amazed. And I take note.

Last week I asked students to work on math problems on their own.”Just for me to see where you are in this work.” I could tell from their body language, and general unrest this was hard. Feedback received.  But when I looked over their work, I got more.

feedback 1.jpgfeedback 2.jpg

By looking at her answers, which were correct, I would have assumed she “got it.” But with her self-designated “hardness level,” she gave me feedback I would have missed. And it made me wonder, what else am I missing?

I ask explicit questions about our classroom and the work. But am I asking the right questions, and are their being asked at the right times? With her response to the task, it made me realize that this is something that needs to be honored and included. Kids have things to say all the time.  I need a manageable and meaningful way of soliciting it.

Next time and every time I ask students to “show me where they are in the work” I’ll add this prompt: Hardness level? Simple and naturally differentiated.

Just one example of what my student taught me this week.


STEM meets Social-Emotional Learning

If you were to ask me where I’d rank roller coasters, physics, and engineering as to my expertise/interest, it would not have made my top ten. Not surprisingly, studying the concepts with my fourth graders, have me hooked, and I’m finding it difficult to keep my hands off their paper roller coaster creations.

Today, I’m celebrating our process.

It’s been a process. At the beginning of this unit, students knew the goal was to build rollercoasters. But to do the work, we needed to do a lot of reading, experimenting, and thinking.

Newtonian Laws of Motion are kid-friendly concepts; they understand because they see or do every day. And our experiments required not much more than marbles and rulers. Find amazing links to our process here.

With the theoretical knowledge of the laws of motion, we stopped and worked on building together.  Each design team had experience working together in reading research and presentation projects. Creating a paper tower made of index cards was their first engineering project. Interestingly, what made a successful team was not about design or engineering ideas, it was about how the teams worked together.  Those who found success as teammates in reading research projects found the equal success in engineering and design. A fascinating lesson for all. Collaboration skills are essential, no matter the academic domain.

Building structures required students to “hear” each other’s ideas. For some, this came quickly. For the majority of teams, the motivation to create prevailed over the desire to give up or fight about an idea. For a few teams, teamwork is the most significant hurdle. Proving kids need more time to play and interact with each other to be successful in cooperative academic work.

paper towerspaper towers 2paper towers 3

After all the study and our initial building experience, roller coaster designs were imagined and planned. Materials were presented: cardstock, tape, and a base of cardboard. The timeline was established: Six days.

And, I was nervous.  Would students be successful? Would the science concepts transfer? Would they be able to work together through the troubles?

Day one building conversations, materials, and emotions were everywhere. Words like “you need to have more supports” and “there’s not enough potential energy” and “can you hold this” and “that’s a good idea” made me smile.  While words like, “they aren’t listening to me” and “I’m stupid” hurt my heart.  Both things were happening around the room. How similar life and engineering can be. The bumpy teamwork moments required some to stop, think, and collect their emotions before they could listen to each other. STEM meets social-emotional learning.

The beginning.

day one rollercoaster.jpg

Early attempts.

roller coaster day 1.jpg

Early success. Test, re-engineer, and work from the ground up.


Day two the designs get more dramatic.

day two designs.jpg

And yes! They work. Sort of. More re-engineering needed.


Three more days of building are in front of us. And while I can’t wait to see what will be created, the biggest lessons are outside the science standards.


  • Kids are fearless explorers. They venture in, eyes wide open.
  • Kids expect the good. They want the challenge.
  • Desire, motivation can overcome trouble.
  • Play matters. Getting along as humans first is essential to our student’s success.