Day 14: Lessons from our Music Teacher

I remember watching my own children’s fascination when they heard live music for the first time.  They were awestruck by the sounds that emanated from objects. The ability to make, understand and teach music astounds me. I feel like a three-year-old watching musicians play. Music is magic and something that is entirely out of my reach.

Our music teacher visits my fifth graders once a week. I worry she’ll lose patience with the ragtag bunch. She doesn’t. She has faith in them and the power of music.

Yesterday, she said, “I’ve noticed when I teach you something new, you guys get kinda out of control.”

What a profound observation. I don’t always see that phenomenon in the moment of teaching, but it is clear as day when I watch her instruct. The discomfort in learning can produce divergent behavior. That feeling of, I’m not any good. Or I’ll never get it. Show up in different ways. We all have those moments.  Some are more susceptible to it.

I have some kiddos who let you know how they’re feeling. You can’t miss them. The real problem comes from the ones that pretend they are doing.

Yesterday in music, I noticed Jeffery*. He was holding his guitar. His hands were in the right position. But they weren’t doing. He just sat. Still. Waiting patiently as others played.

What was going through his head as he sat waiting for the song to end?  I looked around the room. The majority seemed like they were doing it. Strumming, moving their fingers back and forth on the neck of their guitars. Many kids were approximating. They didn’t have it, they fumbled here and there, but they were trying while Jeffery sat.

Watching this lesson and Jeffery, I couldn’t help but think about the reading lives of my students. For some reading is a magical thing. While others look at books the way, Jeffery handles a guitar. They sit quietly turning the pages waiting for time to pass. They fly under the radar. Hoping not to be found. They haven’t found a book, yet. I have a group of kiddos that fit this description. We keep looking for that  I-love-this-book book. One that they will remember.

At the end of the lesson, Jeffery sat in his chair holding his guitar while the others lined up to leave. The music teacher walks up to him and patiently instructs him. In this private moment, he tries. Bravo Jeffery.

Yesterday I learned lessons alongside Jeffery. About patience, believing in my students and the magic of the music.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers and the Slicer community for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.


Day 13: Monday Monday

As I closed my planner, I realize Monday will be tougher than usual. We’ve all lost an hour.


Last Monday, we had art and music.  It was a scheduling mistake.  I remember a comment, “This is the best Monday ever. Why can’t all Mondays be this way?”


This Monday starts a two-week mini test prep unit.


I know every minute counts. And I know the energy level counts.


Can this Monday be brighter with some slight adjustments?

Yaretzi Bernal, six, gets a hug from Pepper the ‘social’ robot.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Art? Could we use it? Photos?

We’ve been reading The Wild Robot.
I Google robot pictures.

Isn’t she darling? What if six-year-old Yaretzi Bernal and Pepper the ‘social’ robot is our inspiration?

What writing tools would we need to tell a story of this picture? How might that story go?

What would we need to write an informational article? How could we start it?

What’s your opinion about having a robot as a friend?  What would we need to write an effective argument for or against robot friends?

Not exactly music and art, but a better plan than I had… for a Monday.

I move my Monday plan to Tuesday. When we’re all more awake.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.









Day 12: Thinking in Our Notebooks

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my teaching day every day.11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

One of the challenges I face every day is getting thinking going in my classroom. Thinking is uncomfortable.  I could go on about all those frustrating moments when kids just don’t think. But. How often have I just wanted to hear the answer from my students? How many times have I thought I had a “good” teaching day when kids “got it.” And, how many times have I had that horrible feeling of this isn’t working, I *** as a teacher?  Plenty. When we make mistakes, when we don’t know, we hate it and sometimes we hate ourselves for our lack of success. We just want the answer. I could blame the culture, our mindset but that isn’t an answer. It’s an intellectual excuse.

I’ve read Choice Words and Mindset many times. I’ve had many discussions with colleagues and shook my head over the lack of growth mindsets; the poor choice of words, such as that’s so smart. But I haven’t considered my problem-solving process. How I do it, when I do it and when I don’t.

It starts with input. A problem. An idea. Something to solve or wonder about. Then I ruminate on it, alone.  I turn it over and over in my mind. When I run. When I write. When I doodle. When I drive. I might bounce a thought or an idea off someone else (that would be collaboration) but many times I just take that idea and try it in the classroom. It could work, or not. Refer to the good teacher, *** teacher paradigm above. The results return as input, and the cycle starts again. With failure, I often reach out for input. That’s how it goes for me. I do it. But.

I don’t explicitly teach this process to my students.

I’ve given thinking stems, have students create t-charts where they write what they know on one side and what they wonder on the other. These tools have helped some students push to new ideas. But many still have a blank column where the wondering should be. They just keep collecting input. The thinking side is blank.

A weekend class on STEAM note booking got me thinking about another way to explicitly teach thinking.  Math and science are natural places for mistake making. Notebooking in these subjects is designed to promote the “figuring it out” mindset. Why not borrow a method from those domains in our reading and writing work?

The structure of the notebook required students to put input, something like a focus question from a teacher on the left side of their notebook. The right side was for their thoughts and sketches.  Explicit input and output.  Perhaps stimulating right and left brain connections. Perhaps a way to explicitly teach the idea of how to take input and push for our own output.

Could this physical layout make a difference in our thinking in reading and writing? It could easily and unobtrusively be applied to students’ current nonfiction and poetry notebooks by explicitly placing the “input” be it research or poetry on the right, and leaving the left side for student “output” for thought. This simple adjustment might stimulate and encourage a few more students to make the jump.

Thinking is not only hard it is scary. Sitting in that workshop yesterday, looking at that blank left page that was supposed to contain my thinking was not comfortable. What made the jump easier was when I talked with a team member who was trying to solve the same problem. The collaboration made my thinking take off.

Could this work in reading and writing?

It’s got me thinking.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here. 


Day 11: Recess

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my teaching day every day11454297503_e27946e4ff_h.

Recess is the reason many kids love school. It’s time to be with friends. Time to play, run, talk, bounce a ball, share snacks.

But there are those kids who don’t love recess.

They ask, can I help you? In the office. The kindergarten. These kiddos may enjoy helping the adults or small children, but more often than not, they’re seeking refuge from recess. They aren’t comfortable. And it happens for many reasons.

Best friend drama. Hurt feelings. Exclusionary moments. Competitive instincts gone wild. This happens at recess. These issues come off the playground into the classroom. Some walk in and hunker down in their seats. Some ask to speak with me privately. Some say they feel sick and ask to call home. All of these strategies are ways of coping.

These human dramas are a part of growing up. And as their teacher, I try to help. To counsel. To guide. This is the work. Our children need so much more than what we plan.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life March Challenge. Read more slices here.

Day 10: Poetry Thursdays

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my teaching day every day in chronological order,11454297503_e27946e4ff_h sequentially.

Every year I take on something new in the classroom. Something to lift the level of our work. This year I wanted to explore poetry with students weekly. I knew there was so much to be gotten out of the study of poetry.  But I had concerns. Mainly, did I know how to teach poetry, so it was worth students’ time?

Not knowing led to me to inquiry, that meant learning with students. What do you notice and what do you wonder, what does this make you think, how does this relate to you questions has been how we ventured into poetry.

I committed to a poem a week. And excluding the occasional and predictable school interruptions, we’ve done it.

At the beginning of the year, reading a poem felt like we were stepping on the moon.
As I passed out this week’s poem, I heard ripples of yay!  And “I love poetry.”


Today, their notebooks are filled with poems, thoughts, and drawings. Reading a poem a week has allowed students to make connections and to be exposed to beautiful language. The benefits have accumulated indirectly. They richness sneaks up on you every once in a while and bam! Connections are made with a news article, a book, another poem. Poetry adds dimension and depth. It exposes ideas that longer texts hide.

This week’s selection was from the new Slyvia Vardell and Janet Wong collection, Here We Go.

From Blue Bucket

by Naomi Shihab Nye

What if, instead of war,
we shared our buckets
of wind and worry?
Tell me the story
you carry there,
steeping in old pain
and future hope,
rich with fragrant
savory spices,
ginger, turmeric,
tarragon, find me
a spoon in one
of your pockets,
even if we don’t
speak the same language…

you hold my bucket
a while, see what
the handle feels like,
and I hold yours,
or maybe both buckets
are empty and
we trade them forever…

Nye’s words inspired these student words:

We give each other buckets
and get to know each other.
Stories are in the buckets
it gets away from violence.
The bucket may be their
pain and suffering
and the hope to see
in another person,
instead of war.
Maybe it’s like memories of war.

She’s telling a story
of her future hope.
We don’t speak the same language,
but we are still connected.
We are not so different.
The spices are races
and buckets
are our life stories.
The spices are emotions
that people are telling
in their stories.

” trade them forever…”
makes me think they won’t forget each other
means to meet each other.
means sharing things others don’t have

We can make peace if
we share differences.
Your bucket is like a place
where you have all our feelings,
and if you share them,
people will understand
how you feel and we can hear each other.
“trade them forever…”
means you can picture
what it feels like to be the other person.
If you share your feelings today with others,
tomorrow you can build trust with everyone.

I thought poetry would bring meaning to our work. I had no idea.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read other slices here.

poetry-friday-1-1And for Poetry Friday Roundup, click here, to get to others on Michelle Heidenrich Barnes’ blog Today’s Little Ditty.


Day 9: What Readers Really Do and Don’t Do

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my day every day in chronological order,11454297503_e27946e4ff_h sequentially.

I make a point of giving students time to read every day in the classroom. They have the opportunity the first thing in the morning and during Reader’s Workshop. It takes a chunk of time, but it’s essential.

Most of my kiddos are not avid readers. In their spare time, they’re at practice, using some kind of electronic device, taking care of siblings, or just being a kid. Picking up a book outside of class is done when a parent asks. I know this. That’s why in my room a there is always time for reading.

As students read independently, it’s my job to watch their engagement and dip into their thinking. Once they get settled, I check in with several students who had just started a new book. Even though they picked the books, I want to make sure they are still interested. I get a thumbs up from everyone I check in with, so I leave them be. Interrupting their reading is something I do with purpose, knowing if I’m talking to them, they aren’t reading.

Sometimes requesting a post it. A simple “what ideas did you get from your reading today” can show a lot. These notes took a few minutes to compose at the end of the workshop. They serve as launch points for conferences and club discussions.


Yesterday, I approached a student during workshop time who has had Wish by Barbara O’Connor for a week. She looks to be in the first third.  Sara* creeps through books. I know she doesn’t read at home. I believe she has the ability, but the passion isn’t evident.

I sit down next to her. My open-ended queries result in minimal responses.

How’s it going?

So what are you doing right now in your book?

Can you show me?
I’m right here. (she points to the top of the page)

Can you read some more with me?.

She starts to read aloud. Her fluency is slow but persistent. After a few paragraphs. I ask her, so what are you thinking?

She tells me the gist with a bit of inference. I know this book as a story and its difficulty. It’s right where Sara should be able to work independently. And she is — sort of. Her reading rate is a big problem. I ask here to read silently, and I read over her shoulder. After a few minutes she’s turned one page.  The pages are not dense.

We talk a bit more about the story and her thoughts. She can do this work, but it is labored. We talk about reading habits.  This is not the first time we’ve had this discussion. I ask a few more questions about club discussions, reading aloud versus silently, reading environment. Then I ask if this is a book she wants to read or has to read.  She thinks she wants to read it.

We’re not done, but I decide to table the conversation.

The amount Sara reads is far less than what she should. She can do the work, but she isn’t. It could be the story, but it seems to be something more. Something I wrestle with. And not just with Sara.

What students can do in a short teacher-driven assessment required by a running record and what they can maintain independently with sustained focus over a 150-plus page book are often two different things. Both tell things about a reader. When Sara chose this book, it felt doable. The first few pages, maybe first few chapters. But something got in the way.

Tomorrow I’ll sit with her group and try to figure it out. We’ll talk about wanting to read and having to read. About talking about reading. About reading at home. About book choice. About reading a lot more.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.


Day 8: Book Shopping

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my day every day in chronological order,11454297503_e27946e4ff_h sequentially.

In an elementary school classroom, the carpet is a sacred space.  In addition to being the place for small group work, read aloud, book talks, club meetings, reading with pillows, reading side by side, the carpet is where we shop for books at the start of each day.
Yesterday, I offered Tiger Rising to a club of readers who flinched at the length of A Fish in a Tree. The slim book, familiar author, and enchanting cover set them at ease. I handed each a book and told them the basic plotline:

“This is a story about a boy whose mother has died and a girl who gets bullied. Both are suffering. They become friends, and together they find a tiger, a real tiger, in the forest. Strangely, this tiger helps them discover how to deal with their problems.”

I used to think giving the plot to readers was cheating, ruining the story. But I’ve come to realize, book talks need to be like everything else in the classroom, differentiated. For some readers, I might not give them all of this information. Other readers might need more. Book talks are best when they engage and inform readers so that they can access the text meaningfully, independently. I want readers to dig into the story. For some, if they know what happens, they are free to think other thoughts. For this group of readers, I wanted them to connect with the problem and be intrigued by the strangeness and excitement associated with the tiger. Tiger Rising can be understood on so many levels, telling readers the plot and what to look for enhances the experience.

Each student picks up a copy knowing their job is to read until I ask them to stop. Before they commit to any book, I want them to feel they can and want to read it. That takes some time. And why not? When I’m in a bookstore I’ll sample a large portion of a book before I commit to it. That is what readers do.

I move to another group who has strong opinions about everything. They want to look at Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ve been holding this book back for a month. I wanted them to become comfortable with novels in verse before they got to this beauty.  I give them a quick book talk about its genre and form. Then, I remind them that this is the same author as Each Kindness.  “And The Other Side,” added Dani*. They open it. Then I hear, “Langston Hughes! His poem is in here!” The poem we had read last week was there.  Dani was glowing. So was I.

I returned to the Tiger Rising group. They look at me. “We want this one,” Frankie* says. I look at the rest of the group, “Do you all agree?” They all nod and smile. Before they take off, they plan how much they should read till the next club meeting.

Back to the Brown Girl Dreaming group. I interrupt and ask if there another book they want to look at. They point to a pink book, Journal According to Ratchet. I give them the background and form of the book. I alert them to potential troubles the book might present a reader and then, let them have some time to read.

I join a group of boys who had just finished Booked. They are eyeing Brown Girl Dreaming and Lena*, reading Rachet, moves it out of their reach.  Joe* asks for Eggs by Jerry Spinelli. He tells the other boys, “It’s about a boy and a girl, and they date.”  Lena* looks up at him and informs him they are just friends. A little deflated, Joe still takes the books and hands them to his partners.

Now, the two groups are clustered together on the carpet, reading, considering. In another five minutes I stop each group and ask for their thinking. Brown Girl Dreaming and Eggs are chosen. Plans are made, eight children and eight books leave the carpet ready to read.

The carpet is the heart of the classroom. It is the beginning, middle, and end of each day. Always surrounded by books.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.

Day 7: A Read Aloud Checklist

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my day every day in chronological order,11454297503_e27946e4ff_h sequentially.The first part of instruction, most days, is Read Aloud.

The first part of instruction most days is Read Aloud.
Arguably,  it’s the best part.

My students have grown up with Read Aloud. Over the years, the books that have been read in their classrooms have become their favorites. Each Kindness, Because of Winn Dixie, How to Steal a Dog, Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, Some Kind of Courage, and Ghost are my Fifth Grader’s reading history. They have these texts in their hearts. Because of them, they know Jaqueline Woodson and Kate DiCamillo and Barbara O’Connor and Dave Gemeinhart and Jason Reynolds. Because of these Read Alouds, anything by these authors is snapped up.

Read Aloud encapsulates all that is good in a reading classroom: community, the joy of reading, and modeling of what and how readers do.

As much as I count on Read Aloud, there are things that I need to guard for and against. Just doing Read Aloud isn’t enough. I need to be mindful that every page I read has a purpose.

Tonight I sit with Post-its and The Wild Robot. Some things will cry out for attention, but other things will need to be coaxed out. In every Read Aloud I reach for…

Just Right Great Text
There is so much to be read and so little time. Every Read Aloud choice should aim to be the best book possible for the kids in my classroom right now. That might not be the book I just read and loved. Or the book EVERYONE is talking about.  What it must be is what meets the needs and interests of my students. That makes it just right. What is good for my students, might not work for yours. Just Right Read Aloud texts should be something the students in front of me can access, with a little work, as a group. Bottom line: we need just right great text so we can do great work.

Mimickable modeling
One of the essential elements of Read Aloud is a proficient reader. Soup to nuts. The orchestration of how the mind works while reading and the art of making it visible must be a conscious part of every plan:  wonderings, mistakes, rereading, and rethinking should be woven throughout.

Thinking and problem-solving
There must be a purposeful beginning, middle, and end expectation of students doing. Passively sitting in a Read Aloud is not an option.  Accessing texts along a spectrum of difficulty sets up opportunities for success and allows for informal assessment. Setting out a problem for students to puzzle through makes for the ultimate student do: constructing their thinking about the story.

Balanced instruction and joy
I have been guilty of either instructing the heck out of a text or getting so swept up in the action of the story all we think about is what’s next.  Both of these extremes can happen. I have to keep in mind Read Aloud is about learning and loving reading.

When a book pulls at our emotions or makes us get those edge of your seat feelings we should feel them.  When it’s so quiet kids are barely breathing, when they are hanging on every word,  is not the time to ask a wondering question.

I need to keep a careful watch on what I do, what kids do, and when to let the book do.

Now, I’m off to plan tomorrow’s read aloud.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.





Day 6: The Trouble with Transitions

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my day every day in chronological order,11454297503_e27946e4ff_h sequentially.

Transitions happen throughout every day. Some students anticipate the next move. They know the drill. They hear the call. They are ready to learn. These students are unusual. When they arrive, notebook and pen in hand, desk neat, I tell them they just got an “A” in middle school.

The majority of students are not there yet. For most, transitions are tough.

There is the one who is quietly reading. The one who is digging around in his desk for his notebook. The one who hopes if she’s really quiet, no one will notice. And then there are the many conversations that distract and derail students along the way to the next thing.

The time between the first student to the last in a meeting area makes me want to abandon whole group instruction. But there are times we need it: a conversation, a lesson, a read aloud. One would think with all my years of teaching fifth graders, with all those transitions, I’d have mastered them, but I’m still learning. Wondering if it is possible.

Recently I’ve been investigating teaching students across all subjects. It’s an exciting and intimidating venture. Just imagining a room of math teachers and my self-esteem goes south. They quickly calculate while I think if I’m really quiet they won’t notice me.  Facing what I don’t know makes me want to stay in my seat and dig for a notebook.

That is exactly what my students feel every day. Because of my experience, I forget what that means. Being a learner is living in discomfort. It makes sense that moving from one thing to the next is tough.

Transitions happen at individual rates.They are sticky and uncomfortable. But they are necessary. And that is the trouble with transitions.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the March 2017 Slice of Life Challenge. Read more slices here.


Day 5: Celebrating Words

I had decided. I had firmly committed not to.
That was my first line of my first post in the March Challenge.
I did not plan to write this month. Not daily. I’d felt I’d done it before. Several times.

The marathon of writing daily was a time commitment. The anxiety of time. Dare I give a piece of it?

After two days of slicing,  I was overwhelmed by the connection.
Me to you.
You, my writing and teaching partners.
I had forgotten.
the generosity
the courage in

I am in awe.
What words do for the reader.
What words do for the writer.

I am honored to be invited into your life.
To look out your windows and into your hearts.
To be gifted with your thoughts.

This week I celebrate writers and their words
who remind me of what I want for my students.
Words teach.
They help us discover.
They remind us we are not alone.
They keep us searching
and hopeful.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Reflections on the Teche
Two Writing Teachers
celebrate link up
Ruth Ayers Writes