The Miraculous Work of Essay

The writing about ideas can be confusing for young people. So when we started our essay unit, students had little understanding of what was ahead. And, I wasn’t sure we would figure it out. This was a unit based on faith and total acceptance of possible failure.

Most started telling a story or an all about. Ideas were few and far between. It wasn’t until a few approximated this type of writing and served as mentors, did the majority of the class understand what they were going for.  To see how writing about ideas could go, they needed each other’s work.

And once they got that, it didn’t matter where they started, most found ideas through writing.  Some stayed close to their beginning ideas, and some wandered off towards unsuspected territories.  They had incorporated a bit of story, a bit of information, a bit of opinion and a bit of did you know.  Ideas were discovered, played with and in the end even questioned as each piece was written.

Most wrote about what mattered to them. Friends and not friends, video games and youtube, being a sibling and being bullied. They wrote about what they believed in and who are and why.

We celebrated their work yesterday. In small groups. Quietly reading and then, some students chose to share with the whole class. So interesting who wanted to share. A popular student’s piece on bullies; a quiet student’s exploration of why she is shy, a student’s reflection on why nine-year-olds are addicted to technology.

On a Friday, my active, typically noisy group sat quietly and appreciated the work of their classmates.

And when all was said and done asked, can we write another one?

The adventure was uncertain. It could have been a disaster. But I believe it proved the power and importance of writing. For everyone. This is why we need to write. To discover and tell who we are and what we think. A miraculous journey.





Slice of Life: When things fall short

“Would anyone like to share their summary?”

That’s what I asked my students yesterday. Each had tried to summarize a challenging section of a nonfiction article. This is a necessary evil of reading to learn. No matter what the text, summarizing is a slippery skill. It may appear straightforward, but when one sits down to do the work, it is anything but. It was a struggle.  Knowing this, but wanting an example of an attempt, I hoped a brave soul might want to share.

A, one of my quietest students,  hands me her notebook. Her thinking is careful and thought out. An approximation of what we are aiming for. I set it down for the doc cam to project.  Students read silently as I read aloud.

I look up, and the author has her head down.

Apparently, B, who had asked me earlier how to spell article, had discreetly informed her she had misspelled this word.

I looked at him. What?

“I didn’t know it would upset her?” he said.

Ironic in so many ways. Both students are fragile. Both students want so much to do well and are hard on themselves. The one who corrected had the exact same problem as the other. If the situation were reversed, he probably would have responded the same way.

While spelling is an issue for both of them and it matters when you share publically, I didn’t see it. And what mattered at that moment wasn’t about summary it was about being vulnerable and brave. I commended A’s bravery, and I thought about B and his comment.

Later in Writing Workshop, we were setting goals for our à la Katherine Bomer true essays. Another challenging task. About half of the students had approximated the work. A quarter of the students wrote informational articles and a quarter wrote opinion pieces. This is a natural place to land, and my lesson’s intent was for students to self-assess and adjust for another attempt. Everyone had done their best work in an area they had never tried before.

C who is used to reaching well beyond expectations had written a more infomational type of text wasn’t happy. “My next essay will be on how I hate true essay.”

My thought, how it is hard to fail. Fall short of expectation. That was how I felt in the moment. How I felt when B criticized A and when A cried.

Today we start our next true essay cycle. I know what my topic will be.

Slice of Life: Lessons my students teach me

There is nothing quite like connecting to an author or a character in a book. And when we share that love with another human, our feeling for the literature and each otter rise exponentially.

Yesterday I asked my students to come to the carpet if they were interested in Kate DiCamillo’s new book. In less than 15 seconds, half of the class was seated in front of me. I held up two copies of  Louisana’s Way Home.

“I just finished this book. And you know what? The main character, Louisana Elefante, is from Lister, Florida,” I said.

“Elefante? Is there a Raymie in it?”

I was expecting the Lister to intrigue them because of our read aloud, The Tiger Rising, but no, The connection was to another book they had read on their own.

“Why yes! She’s her best friend!”

“Is there a cat named…”

“A dog…”


Yes. Yes and yes.

I didn’t tell them this was a sequel to Raymie. And I’m glad I didn’t. They saw it, and as so often happens, they taught me something. About their reading lives and about the story. Truth be told, I didn’t get far enough in Raymie Nightengale to see those connections.   At the moment I read Raymie, it didn’t work for me. I set it aside. But, I couldn’t put Louisana’s Way Home down. She captured me in a way Raymie did not. Funny how that works.

I raffled off the first read of this lovely book.  The ones that didn’t get the first read picked up Raymie Nightengale to keep them company while they wait for Louisana’s Way. I had that same feeling. I wanted to read Raymie, Give her a go again. Seems I’ll have to wait. All the copies are checked out.

It never ceases to amaze me. What my students add to my understanding and love of literature.

Knowing our purpose

My cat sits. Gazing out the window into the dark. Filled with the purpose of his being. His job is clear. Sleep. Notice. Prowl. Sleep some more. Purr. Allow humans to adore him.

And here I sit. Gazing at the papers I need to look over. Thinking about the various child-centered and adult-oriented snafus of the day and wonder about my purpose that started out so clear at the beginning of the week. Adjusted for the day, readjusted by the hour. .Sitting here, I wonder, how true am I staying to my purpose. What is it that gets me up in the morning and requires me to bring it every day?

I have been given 31 kiddos for 180 days of their 9-year-old life.   In those 180 days. I want for them to grow a year as a reader, a writer, a scientist, a mathematician. But more importantly, I want them to know this is just one step along a long path. Not only toward their growth as a thinker but as a human. I want them to walk out with a little more aptitude in seeing one another. To grow as humans. That more than anything matters.

Thinking about the clear and simple need for a huge and constant doses of humanity, I can’t help but be thankful for the children’s literature we consume and discuss daily.

And with that, I’m sending out deep appreciation for the writers who fill our room with their beautiful words. To Kate DiCamillo and Katherine Applegate. You are our most recent mentors. We are grateful for the centering force you give our classroom.

Tomorrow is another day of unpredictable moments in a nine-year old life. All except that tomorrow we will read your words.

Pausing to celebrate

I have students who write stories about basketball and video games. The kind of writing that has no need for endpoints. The frenetic energy of the writer colors their world. It just goes.

After years of seeing this, you’d think I’d have an action-oriented mentor text to guide them toward convention.  But no. Today,  I sat down with M and R, ready to deliver the usual, add an endpoint at the pause speech. Fortunately, I paused and began with a question. “What type of ending did you decide to use?”

“Action!” M said with a huge smile. It was all he could do to keep seated. R nodded with a look that had that same jubilant energy. They were bursting with pride telling me why they chose that craft move. “It fit the story! It matched the lead!”

“Of course! Your piece is filled with power,” I said, and we paused to celebrate what they had done. And in one of those magical teaching moments when the dots connect, I remembered a story under construction in the class. “Would you like to see J’s story? It has the same kind of action as yours and might give you some ideas.”

Their eyes lit up. “Yes! He’s a great writer!”

After J’s approval, I passed it on.

And then, in the back of the room, I heard, “J’s a mentor!”

The sadness comes and goes

Sometimes when you ask questions, you get difficult answers.
Our world can offer up situations no young person should have to face.

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It happened over the weekend. A family member killed. By a gun. A senior in college. In a dorm. It was news to me yesterday. Today the tears came.

I sat next to my student, at a loss for words.
This not only hurt but created fear in her.  Destroying a sense of safety.

“I don’t mind people having guns. I just don’t like what people do with them,” she said.

“Would it help if you wrote about it?”

That got a nod and the tears to stop.
And as she wrote, they fell again.
“I never got to meet him.”

“What if you write him a letter?” I said.
Another nod.

“The sadness comes and goes,” she said.

“It will.”

Too much for someone so young.
Too much for us all.




Reflecting on our Writing Process

This week my students turned in their second narrative. And with that, I wanted them to discern the difference between and reflect on their process and product.

Process matters. Especially for young writers.
That said, most checklists and rubrics presented to students consider the product,  without serious consideration of the process that went into the making of it.

I believe we do our young writers a great disservice if we do not honor the steps that go into the production of a piece of writing.

Today I presented my kiddos with a process chart designed to take them through what they did as they created. Along with the standard process of gathering, planning, drafting, and revision, I asked students to reflect on their work ethic and use of technology.

To be a writer, one must commit time. In most cases, it takes more than workshop’s 40-60 minutes a day. Just as we ask students to read outside the classroom, students must take time outside of class to produce writing they care about. Be it thinking, notebooking,  or another part of the process, writing takes time and commitment. The students who produced products they were proud of, took time.

My writers have various types of technology available to them. Notebooks, paper, pens, and electronics.  This piece of writing was my students first attempt to draft and revise electronically. The majority were liberated by it. A handful felt they did better work with pen and paper.  That’s a great reflection; something students have realized and can act on. What tool is best for me now? What will produce my best work? Many are new to keyboarding and thinking on a computer. While I think they are more likely to reach higher levels of revision if they write electronically, if they are not able to get the draft out, revision is a non-issue. Better to stick with what feels best for now. My nine-year-old writers will get there.

How we approach, the writing process is as important as what we produce.

This year, I want my kiddos to realize what process works for them.
What conditions do they need to do their best work?
Where are they on their writing journey?

As the year progresses, I am hoping my students will grow along a writing process progression towards:

more entries in their notebooks
developed plans that guide their work
revision made accessible and actionable through technology
writing outside the workshop
the realization that the quality of their writing process has a direct impact on the product.

Reading: What One Thing Do You Want?

What one thing do you want your students to walk away with next June?

Amidst the overwhelming, ever-growing list of teacher mandated to-dos, what matters most?

What will keep the focus and the joy?

This year I’m defining the one thing by subject area, I want for my kiddos to own when they leave me.

To start off the year I thought  I wanted my students to have the ability to find a book to read for joy and/or learning. If students have this ability (that includes access and ability), I theorized, they will read. And with that, all else, thinking, imagining, articulating, understanding, citizenship will follow.

But this week I revised my thinking.

Many students see reading as schoolwork.

Last Friday, we sat together, as a class, at the end of reading talking about our reading goals for the three-day weekend, and over the hubbub, I heard, “My parents don’t want me to read on the weekends.”

What? I thought.
And, this picture emerges in my head:
“Honey, you know how we’ve told you to limit your reading on the weekends. Put that book down, let’s have some family time.”
Or maybe it was like this:
“Homework on the weekends? Oh no, this is family time.”

“Wait.” I say, “let’s talk about this. Reading on the weekends should be about joy and entertainment.” And we go on to talk about ways reading can go. I ask them to revise their plans. Don’t do the partner work, read that funny, scary, silly book and just enjoy.

Even after that conversation, I know I it will take more.

Today, a few stayed on the carpet to say they didn’t meet their commitment over the weekend. Perhaps we need to revise our work for the weekends. Revise our commitment to our partners and enjoy books differently.

The work goes on to define what readers do and how these readers in my classroom need to read.
There are those that read because they love it.
And there are those that read because they are told to.
Attitudes and abilities have been created over the years

And here’s one conundrum.
By telling students, reading is homework, do we confuse the idea of reading for joy?

Reading that is constrained to school can limit. When it becomes the thing your mom makes you do and your teacher has you respond to in writing, it is a chore and a burden. And if that’s how students see reading, I have let my students down.

Students need to learn how to dig for a theme, notice character action and write about reading because it makes them better readers. Better at understanding texts that can open their minds and change their lives. Deep thinking around reading is necessary to create our future leaders, thinkers, and doers. At the same time, and of equal importance, our students need a reading life that lives in joy and entertainment. Both are necessary.

We make time for this in the classroom. There is time designed for reading that is that for free, easy, and joyful consumption. Be it Dogman, Minecraft, or Harry Potter. There is dedicated time to dive into pure reading joy.

And we make time for deep thinking and writing about reading with partners, goals, and objectives. Because this, as my students report, helps them see more than they did before.

When my students leave my room next June, I want them to have a reading life that is lives where no one is watching; when they choose to find books that allow the pure joy of loving a book. And I want them to walk away knowing that there are times that digging deeply into text delivers a different kind of joy. One that expands their mind and connects with another.

What do you want your students to walk away with at the end of the year?


Knowing and Doing

The first three weeks of school are done, and I’m in the middle of a long weekend. Rather than the day to day that can fixate on missteps, this is a time to take stock and see positive movement.

This is what I noticed. After years of attempts, I have eliminated the use of “you guys” as a group identifier. I have made stilted efforts to replace it in the past, but in times of stress or exhaustion, I reverted to my old habit. Despite knowing better, breaking the habit of, “hey, you guys.” was harder than I thought.

You may have accomplished this gender neutrality by using words like scholars, students, or people. I have struggled even though I knew better.  Strangely, a math class changed my language.

Algebra marked the end of my math competence. The only reason I enrolled in a summer course focusing on said content was my desire to be a better teacher and the instructor, Megan Franke. Her equity approach to learning is evident in every move she makes. I went to the class thinking if anyone she could teach me the content. Turns out, four days with her translated into more than just algebraic thinking. Megan’s consistent use of “you all” during instruction hit me as an adult, and all the more vulnerable, learner.  It was a gut level reaction. You all referred to me. It welcomed me to learn.

Perhaps hearing it as a learner made it sink into my heart and change my ingrained language.

Understanding something is an essential step in our journey as educators. Experiencing it and doing is something altogether different.

Read more about gender neutral ways to students here.




Slice of Life: Sprouts and Dreams

Sunday, I stopped by my classroom to drop off a few things; put away some books.  Before I left, I checked on the seeds we planted on Wednesday. They sat, jars filled with dark, damp soil. I held each up and looked through the glass. The seeds were unchanged; suspended in the dirt. I worried about the upcoming lesson plan that assumed growth. My students planted each seed believing, that they held life. Sunday afternoon I saw little evidence of it.

The first week of school holds the excitement of newly planted seeds. Hopes and dreams of how each child will flourish. With the just right soil and with proper care, each seed will burst forth, and our garden will be filled, heads reaching toward the sun.

But want if it doesn’t go as planned?

This weekend, I looked at my students’ beginnings. I read bits of writing and math thinking. I tried to picture each student and list three things I knew about each one. I thought back to their choice of books, where they sat in the classroom, who they chose to sit next to, how they left for recess, what they shared with me. I remembered how they read. Some head down, book firmly grasped. Others were squirmy in their seats. Many on the carpet. Some perched in corners. This weekend I just took it all in and made some lists.

The beginning of the year holds hope as well as the possibility of judgment. Of putting students into one box or category. This weekend, this week, and next week I will make my lists. I’ll be collecting things I know about each child. Trying to piece together who they are, what they need.

Monday morning there were squeals in the corner. “Look! They’re growing!” Students clustered around the jars of planted seeds. The pots that held little hope of a plant the day before had burst forth.

Today, X, Y, and Z revealed tiny bits of themselves. X’s favorite sport is soccer, even though he’s finishing a summer baseball league. Y knows a lot about what she reads, more than one would assume by watching her. Z has a tough time making mistakes.

This year, every day is a day to look to find another sprout, a searching root, reaching for more.