Slice of Life: The Classroom Keys

Yesterday, I got my classroom keys.  Now, time feels a little bit tighter.

Mornings now include a stop at school to drop something off, run a few copies, check in on the status of my room (is the carpet cleaned?). Classroom supplies are the focus, grocery shopping an afterthought.

Yesterday,  my errands included a trip to JoAnn’s. I entered telling myself: Just. Choose. The. Cheapest. Fabric. You’d think after years of teaching, this would not be a big deal. Yet, I stood there debating. I know this fabric will disappear once we start generating charts, and still, I stood there, thinking. Purple? No, blue. Red? Too much. Does orange make you hungry?  Silly. I walk out with a blue nondescript fabric. Ah well, I accomplished the cheap mandate. Total cost translated into the cost of one paperback book.

Yesterday, I got my class list. Now, the abstract of planning had children’s faces attached.  The list included names of former students’ siblings, a boatload of neighborhood kiddos (even though I’m teaching magnet students that come from around the district), names that come from diverse heritages. These are my kiddos for the coming year. The ones I’ll find books with and for, the ones who will design contraptions, ask questions, and write a lot. These are the ones that will make me smile and test out my ability to lean into who they are as humans.

Yesterday, I read Jess Lifshitz recent blog post on how she plans to begin her year. Her post and Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers, has me thinking about questions to ask on our first day; how to establish a classroom that honors each others’ needs. A room where we could, in Shalaby’s words, “create a parallel world — a world that is safer, fairer, freer… the world we want, hope for, dream of, rather than the world we have now.”  A world to learn, grow and if needed heal in.

What if, we open up and ask kiddos to think of ways to live and learn together. What if we listen for each other’s goodness. What if we can make this classroom, not like school, but like learning.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Thank you for this place that gets me to writing. Read more posts here.




Slice of Life: Expanding my Universe

Last week it arrived. Our monster refrigerator. Once I adjusted to LED overload, its wingspand, and the ice maker’s whir, I was off to buy perishable food.

refridgerator.JPGFirst stop, Trader Joe’s and a half hour later I’ve reached the cart’s capacity.
I push toward the checkout, and lucky me, only one person in line ahead of me.
The cashier hands the customer his receipt.
My turn. I push the cart. Glance back.
Behind me, a woman holding a few items. No basket handheld or otherwise.
Go ahead, I tell her. Seemed the obvious thing to do.
“Oh, my! Thank you! This lovely woman has done such a nice thing,” she said to the cashier. “Thank you so much!”
“Of course, no problem,” I mangaged feeling overwhelmed by her gratitude.
The cashier had no response. I hope because this is the norm.
Off she went, thanking me again.

My Trader Joe’s shopping lady popped into my mind later this week as I read chapter 5, Find the Humanity in Ourselves and in Others, of Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change.
One of the activities in the chapter asks students to define their “Universe of Obligation” to realize and all the people who we would stand up for; those folks we’d be there in times of need.  Identify them and in the end realize the size of our universe.  See how inclusive it is. It starts with those who are the ones you’d be there for no matter what: your family. And then add in those who are your friends, your colleagues, the people in your community. The intent is not to rank groups or individuals but to realize who you are connected to in terms of responsibility and trust.

Doing this exercise was hard. Not that I couldn’t do it. It was the realization that my universe felt so small.  The world feels close. I read. I pay attention. But who I am proximal to is tiny. being the change.jpg

I live, shop, and work around people who are a lot like me.  By being aware and open, it’s easy to move a complete stranger, like my Trader Joe’s shopping friend, into my circle of obligation. But what about those who are outside my proximal and socio economic space? How I extend my universe? These questions made the last few chapters of Ahmed’s book hard. The concept that we, all of us are in this together. What happens to one, effects all. That’s the idea. And yeah, I got it, but actively doing it, day to day.  That takes purposeful action.

Perhaps it back to being aware and open. By making a practice of noticing, asking questions and for other’s opinions. By listening and connecting our day to day encounters to what is happening in the world. By reaching out and trusting that person, in line or behind the counter is a part of your Universe of Obligation.



Slice of Life: Hidden Biases

This weekend our refrigerator died.  Equipped with research and measurements, my husband and I walked into Home Depot. We opened doors, slid drawers, removed ice makers, closed doors, imagined the contents of our freezer in the compartments of each. After debate and elimination rounds, we had the one. Time to place the order.

Like magic, Nick (the name written in black sharpie on his orange apron) walked up. Mitch told the young man what we had decided. Nick nodded. And then Mitch said something that changed our course, Nick, what’s your opinion?”

Without hesitation, Nick said, “I don’t like that brand.”  We went on to have a conversation about the attributes and limitations of each. Nick not only sold these machines, he also dealt with customer complaints and service requests. Thanks to his input, we ended up choosing a refrigerator we had not considered.

As we walked away, Mitch said, “He was great!”

I agreed. He was. And said, “I don’t think we have seen that side of him if you hadn’t asked his opinion. You invited the conversation. You allowed him to share his knowledge. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have.”

And I wonder, if I was alone, would I have asked Nick his opinion? I know I was surprised by his knowledge. Twenty-something guy. (That’s my bias speaking.)

And I wonder, had he been older, would have seen him differently? Age and experience are something I link together. (That’s my bias again.)


pilot.jpgI write this after reading Chapter 3 in Sara K. Ahmed’s book, Being the Change.  One of the many benefits of working through this read is learning to examine my biases.  The automatic assumptions I make that lead me to action or inaction. I know my experience at Home Depot was different because of Sara’s words and the exercises she suggests.

In the chapter titled Candor, she asks kids to quickly sketch a pilot, scientist, doctor,  or teacher. My drawing of a pilot is on the right. Yep. That’s how I see a pilot. One that is based on my experience.

I could and do beat myself up about this, but being aware of my bias and addressing them is a better step to change. Sara calls becoming aware of your bias is “activating system 2.” System 1 is your unconscious behavior (action or inaction) that shows a bias.

I can see many of my biases. For example, airline pilots. I know they are there and need to be addressed. My experience with Nick at Home Depot highlights a subtle bias one I was not aware of. Being open, asking questions, reflecting, and be ready to activate your system 2 will help deconstruct bias. These are all steps that I’m working on so I can better lead students to do the same.


If you have not started Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change, I strongly suggest you add it to your summer reading stack and check out the inspiring group of educators who are studying the book for this year’s  #cyberPD.

Celebrating: Hot temps and Jason Reynold’s Sunny

Summer has gone to the extreme. Temperatures exceed 100º in the late afternoon. Our air condition-less house harbors the heat; cool zones vary depending on the location of the sun and the number of hours it’s beaten down. The breeze moves heat towards cooler hallways. Trapping it. My cat stretches out on the tile, the hardwood, the back of a couch.  I keep his water dish filled with cold water thinking, grateful that I’m not in a black fur coat.

This morning I find a cool (er) spot and read, finishing a cup of coffee as I get to the halfway point in Sunny, the third in the track series by Jason Reynolds. I’m not a fan of storytelling via diary entries, but in Reynold’s hands, it’s humorous, varied, lyrical, moving. Bit by bit, I’m loving this character and Reynold’s poetic voice, marking pages as mentors for writing entries.


“That soft green, like the color of grass just before it gets hard in the heat?”
That color, you know it. You can feel it. 

I read on. Celebrating the fan spin spinning and a fistful of pages ahead.


#cyberPD: Being the Change

A few years back, I saw Sara Ahmed light a conference room up. Her passion and presence would make anyone want to be in middle school again.  No small thing.  Remembering this brief group encounter, I was thrilled to buy her book on social comprehension. Thank you to all who are writing and thinking about how this work fits into our lives and our classrooms.

These social comprehension strategies must be woven into my plans. This work is not just about getting to know each other it is about understanding each other so we can work together across our day. From math to recess to writing to PE. Many of the lessons and ideas Sara puts forth are familiar. I have done much of this work, but not to the extent I should have done them to bridge differences and build community.

Sara’s words set the stage for social comprehension: decenter the normal, enter with humility, and cultivate compassion.  We are drawn to what is comfortable. It pulls us together, but at the same time, it pulls us apart. By noticing and naming who we are and what we value is the work of the first two chapters: identity and listening with love.

Building identity webs with students pack so much good into a classroom, I can’t imagine not starting with it. In reading this book, I realize how I have underutilized this great tool to build conversations and connections with other students, parents, and literature. Reading this I can’t help but want to turn the clock back to the beginning of last school year.

Using the story of our names is something I have done to inspire writing. Not to connect with others. Huge mistake. Our names, particularly in a classroom of diverse backgrounds, could be a starting place for understanding each other. Every year I have students who have stories attached to their names, but I may have been one of the few people in the classroom who knew the stories.  The work Sara does is not only about connecting it’s about listening. “When we tell stories, we get so excited that we go on forever, or we don’t always listen to the speaker because we start making connections. So make sure you really listen and honor your partner’s name story.”  This work builds how to talk to each other, how to listen to an author’s voice, and how we see ourselves.

Writing a ‘Where I’m From” poem based on Georgia Ella Lyons’ poem is something I’ve done with students. During poetry. Again. I failed to weave this academic work into the social-emotional work of how we see ourselves and others. By trying out the lesson in my notebook yesterday, I discovered a few things that colored my growing up. Understanding where I come from shapes how I see the world.   I love how she weaves this identity work with content work and then back to students: “Revisit the lens of noticing and studying artifacts in any literature, news, or history you approach…taking note of how inanimate objects carry great weight for individuals and societies. This … brings the work back to the students; nothing is ever in isolation when doing the work of identity and social comprehension. We are constantly searching for connection.”

Last year and every year, students struggle to listen to each other. And every year I spend a fair amount of time working toward the goal of active listening.  Learning how to listening actively means we must do it throughout the day and  we learn to see “listening to someone else as an act of love.” Whew! We must learn to stop, pause, speak, ask question reflect, and then talk. It is not just young people who struggle with this concept. Many adults have yet to master this work.

What is different and essential about the listening work discussed in chapter two are the actions and words for disagreeing. Each of the scaffolded prompts Sara offers implies we are respectfully disagreeing. And, that is ok. In fact is a place to grow from. The work here is not about winning or changing someone’s point of view. It is about listening in a way that shows empathy with the speaker and how they developed their ideas.

Prompts like: “We need to take some time to think more. We agree to disagree for now” and “I know that I disagree with what you are saying, but I also need time to build a more imformed opinion to discuss this” allows each to step away with respect; understanding that the ideas are worthy of further consideration.

Prompts like: “Can you say more about that? I want to make sure I understand where you are coming from” and “Can I tell you what I hear you saying?” ask for clarification. They say I’m trying hard, but I need more explanation. Help me understand what you mean.

Prompts like: “Thanks for making the effort to understand where I’m coming from” and “I appreciate that we can talk about this even though we are coming from two different places” say I honor and respect you and your thinking even though I have different ideas.

This is listening with love. Engaging critically, thoughtfully with care for the other human.

Looking forward to reading on with #cyberPD 2018.



Slice of Life: Intersections

The light changed to yellow and I speed up. I’m in the intersection, halfway, before the light turns to red.

The next light, I’ll make it. I think.

But, this is uncomfortable. I don’t speed up when lights turn yellow. Correction, amber. And with that, the next amber signals me to slow and stop.

I continue on my familiar route, in my usual way, the YA novel I’m reading comes to mind. A book for those in the process of discovery. For those who run the intersections without a thought. Those coming of age are allowed, expected to do this. It is a part of the work.

Sometimes we slip back and test the waters. Wondering. What might we have left behind? Missed?  If we had zipped through more of those lights. Who might we have become?

Then again. As I sit a bit longer at each crossing, I find moments.  Wait time. And I think, of who I have become because I brake with the amber light.


Celebrate: Living in the nuance

This week I celebrate the last place I thought I’d want to be in the second week of summer vacation: a classroom learning how to teach algebra. Seriously.  Strange. Even more strange, was the five hours of video I watched after the four-day session. On the same material. And this was all voluntary. Could I actually like algebra? No. Seriously?

I won’t get into the gory details of the importance of the equal sign, or how to build conjectures with students. But what I will mention is the beautiful pedagogy that envelopes Megan Franke and Cognitive Guided Instruction. It fits with everything I know about teaching young people to read and write.

Build on the details of student’s thinking. When we look at student work of any kind, teachers have this natural tendency to find what is wrong. Put it in piles of high, medium, and low and then attempt to fix. I’ve worked hard to contain that impulse in my teaching of reading and writing, but in math, the answer is the answer. Right?

Not. In math, as in reading or writing, the details of how a student came to a wrong answer, has a whole lot of right thinking inside it. A young person may have not answered this problem or interpreted that text accurately, but what they did along the way contains what they know.

Leverage partial understandings by starting with questions that open up a dialogue about their thinking.
“Tell me about what you did here.”
“How did you get that?”
“How do you know?”
Discovering the thinking work done along the way to an answer, contain the understanding. By asking a student to explain their process we see the unseen smart thinking. So much of this reminds me of the reading work of Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton.

Position students as competent. Always. This, reminding me of Katherine Bomer’s Hidden Gems. Holding up student’s work as beautiful and smart positions them as capable. They can do this work. That idea alongside the knowledge of what students need to know should be how we sort student work. What are they doing well (as a reader, writer or mathematician) is ALWAYS the starting point.

Young people are just that, young people with partial understandings of our world. As they build on what they know as they grow. Helping them do that is the exciting work of a teacher. This week I celebrate learning how to find student understanding. To as one smart teacher wrote this week: “Live in the nuance and go for the nudge.”






Summer Reading, Here we go!

Last Saturday, the day after the last day of school, I heard Lee Watanabe Crockett speak about developing a classroom of “future-focused” learners.  I sat there, nodding to these words:”The most underutilized resource in the classroom is the learner. The most underestimated person is the classroom is the learner.” Crockett then detailed three things we can give our students.

  1. Give students problems that matter, to them.
  2. Give them access to the tools. Not hardware but the “head ware” the ability to analyze and communicate their thinking.
  3. Stand aside by moving the responsibility for the learning from the teacher to the learner.

The “head ware” Crockett talks about is what he calls “essential fluencies” that follow the same path that writers, designers, and scientists use to create:

Define: What am I suppose to do?
Discover: What do I need to know and be able to do? Why is the problem here?
Dream: What might a successful outcome look like?
Design: What steps do I need to take to accomplish the task?
Deliver: How will I know I’m successful? Produce/implement
Debrief: How could the process/product be improved.

Yes. Good. This will help.
My students prefer working with others.
Others that they get along with.
All want to engage in purposeful work.
But, not with just anyone.
Too often, something got in the way.

Certain children had that “get along” quality that allowed for successful group work. Mary* was one of them. Something about her smoothed over rough edges. Mary could see others and gave them space to be heard. I wondered, what could nudge others to take this stance. I wondered about who saw her.

As I read Sara K. Amend’s book, Being the Change, I think of Mary, and I realize the essential work I need to do next year. Not just so students can have better group dynamics and work cohesively on problems that matter to them, but be able to see their classmates’ humanity and the issues that exist in their world.

We humans can have a tendency to become silos. All wrapped up in ourselves and our hidden biases. Not seeing our neighbor who is not like us because they are not like us. For my students to do the meaningful work  Crockett suggests,  we will need to see and hear each other. We need to learn to be more like Mary. These two books have a lot to teach me this summer.



Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Tuesday’s Slice of Life. Read more slices here.


Lingering as the Classroom Door Closes

Thursday morning I packed their alphabetized files into a box and handed them to the next grade. The first act of the last day with my students.

Thursday morning they walked into their classroom, in pajamas, carrying board games and stuffed animals.  We started as usual, with a circle question and literary choice. They blogged and read picture books, worked on their writing in google docs. And then, slowly the board games came out. Groups of students naturally formed. Chess, Sorry. Mancala, Apples to Apples. A group began construction of a dinosaur world on the carpet. Beside them, Twister’s plastic sheet of dots was placed, In the corner, the group of Rubik’s cube enthusiasts spun the geometrics into solid sides of red, yellow, blue, green, white, and orange.  The noise levels rose and fell. Natural rhythm and a sense of calm filled the room. All were at play. Negotiating their space and the rules, kids at their best.

This class. This year. Each child with their own set of needs and wants had times when they did not get along. Yet today, they meshed perfectly. Choosing the game, finding someone to play with. Taking turns. Two times I’m asked to intervene. Other than that they take care of the business of play. They are experts in no need of assistance.

Watching this community of cooperation and calm, I couldn’t help but wonder, how to capture this in the daily life of a classroom. We did group work across all subject areas but based on my classroom survey and daily observations, working in a group isn’t preferred. Group work is difficult when struggling with a problem, determining the next step or negotiating differing opinions. Clearly, the task of play is less challenging than a math problem, but these kiddos have the skills to negotiate moments of discord and disagreement.

Is it the task, the novelty, the self-selected grouping, or the freedom to choose that creates this competence and general satisfaction? Is it a combination of these elements? I couldn’t help but wonder and think, what if I’d done this sort of play as a precursor to group work? What if I did this form of play on a continual basis? Would our community be stronger and more productive in the end? How could we promote the transfer of skills all children own when at play, to the more difficult group work in the classroom?

As I hand over my kiddos to the next teacher, their responses and reactions to our year linger in my heart.

Today I celebrate the end of the year deep breath and the exhale of summer. An opportunity to wonder and grow.

Slice of Life: When Writing is Play

The end of the year is approaching, and the to-do checklist seems endless.

Today, amid the to-dos, students slogged through one more reading assessment. The last one of this year.

Thirty minutes into it, I asked them to pause and come to the meeting area. About half had finished.  They sat there full of that energy that says let me play.  When I told them the rest of the period was for their independent writing projects, you’d thought I’d told them to go to recess early.  And it’s no surprise when you consider these titles:
Pickle Man and Green Screen Man #2
Zenomorph Special: Surfing the Net
Accepted for Who I Am
Real Friends: For my real friends
Why I think dogs are great pets to have
The Date
The Journey of My Life
Behind the Scenes at the Krabby Patty

Or these leads:
One cool day in Lima Peru I stepped outside of my home…
So, I honestly don’t know what is happening, I think I am stuck in a game called …
Here these were the doors that would lead me to high school.

Crazy good fun. In every genre imaginable.
Pages and pages of writing.
As far as they are concerned, the only constraint is time.
As far as they are concerned, this is play.

They have learned, without any assistance from me, how to share their Google docs with their writing partners. They comment and revise as a part of the process.

They have learned, with some input from their fourth-grade year of writer’s workshop,
a little bit more about being writers.

Tomorrow they will write more with their sights on a Friday celebration. That will be the end. Or (as my students love to say) will it?

I’m hoping their writing lives will continue in this way. Using their Google docs and their cyber writing partners.  Outside the requirements and expectations. Just to play.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday.  Read more slices here.