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.


Celebrate: Reading Together

I come to this page with mixed feelings. Our world is a place that tends to do that to a person. I am devastated and disturbed by it, but at the same time in awe of the possibility and promise tucked in and around the troubles.

Every morning we have a circle question. Questions range from the silly to the serious. I’ve used them to connect and focus my students before the day begins. This week a student asked if he could offer a question for the group.  I asked him if he wanted to ask it.

“No,” he said. “You do it.”

So I did. Offering up this, “If you could take back anything, what would you take back?” Answers ranged from the personal to the political. We learned startling things about each other. Things that moved the talkative group to silence.

Even with this beginning, recess created hurt feelings. Settling in for instruction was going to be difficult. So I changed my plans and pulled out Jaqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness.  The connection to the morning question was clear providing a reminder of who we can and should be for each other.

Thursday, we finished Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. This is the kind of book that kept my kiddos on the edge of their seats all the while developing deep connections to the characters. It’s the kind of book that requires tissue boxes near the read aloud area. It’s the kind of book that produces a pin-drop quiet attention at one moment and screams of nOOOOOO at the next. It’s the kind of book that is hard to put down; the I-can’t-wait-but-I-don’t-want-to-finish feeling.  It’s a book that has students writing and makes me buy five more copies because so many students want to re-read certain parts so they can write the quote on the wall.

Friday, I pulled out a Red: A Crayon’s Story. This picture book is a must-read for every classroom. The depth of it is astounding. A book that is so accessible it can be interpreted as needed. We read it closely. We noticed. So many things. The colors. Inside and outside. Labels. Names. Then we wrote.

red1red 3red 2.jpgred 7.jpgred 4red 6.jpg

Reading brings us together.  As we laugh and cry and understand, we can’t help but reach out to each other and aspire to be good and beautiful in this world. Schools offer the opportunity to read and listen and talk and think and write. Imagine if we all had this opportunity.  Perhaps that is why we see students rising up in high schools around the country.

Appreciate the week’s beauty and seeds of hope by writing and reading other’s posts on Ruth Ayer’s weekly celebration link up.


Slice of Life: Scheduling Time to Notice

“I’m done. I have no more ideas. I quit.”

So said one of my 4th-grade writers. A student who reads and reads. One who writes poetry with the tiniest nudge. One who wanted to start a grade level newspaper. Now he is done?

While this could be a moment of self-induced drama, his serious face said otherwise.

We sat for an unscheduled writing conference.

“All writers have these moments. When the ideas run dry. When we think we have nothing to say.”

He sat and stared.

I talked. I tried to explain that the heart-wrenching feeling of writer’s block/loneliness happens.  I went on. Talking about how writing is the decision to make something inside visible. How it is the product of personal thoughts, opinions, and imagination.  And because of that, writers are risk-takers. Putting yourself out there is scary. Someone might not like it and say so. Or worse. Not say anything at all.  To write is to be brave. And sometimes it is too hard.

He sat and stared.

I told him that maybe it’s time to collect ideas in his notebook.

“But I have no ideas.”

“Write about your life.”

“My life is boring.”

“That depends.”

“What exactly do you mean, Mrs. Harmatz?”

“Get your notebook.”

We sat and looked. We noticed. And jotted a few things.

Paper, pillows, people.  Perhaps paper was more than something to write on.

Words were written in his notebook. And in mine. Perhaps to surface on another day.

Planning our units of study rarely signal us to commit time to notice. The idea of keeping a notebook with noticings is what writers do. It goes back to the old school version of writing workshop. One that collects ideas. In the wake of ever-escalating expectations that children are subjected to, we must instill balance. One way is to cultivate a practice of noticing.

Tomorrow is a busy day. We will be pressed for time. All the more reason to stop and notice.

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


What we say still matters

√I set my book down. Only a few pages until the end.  I thought I’d save it for tonight. But as I waited for the water to boil, I came to the final page. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett, is the kind of story that transports the reader to another world. And as in every good story, moments arise that one recognizes.

When Holly remembered her life in California, she remembered seeing everything in terms of who had less than she did and who had more, who was prettier, smarter… She was constantly trying to figure out how to do it better, how to get it right…

This line, toward the end of the book, made me think of a conversation I had with a student this week. It was after school and the student wasn’t one I knew more than to say hello to. I have no recollection as to how it started, but this is where it went.

Student: I’m terrible at writing.

Me (shocked and saddened): How do you know?
Now I wonder why I asked how and not why. I guess I wanted a specific example like I don’t know how to …

Student; My teacher told us.

This statement was soon followed by I’m not good at writing.
I knew her teacher to be a kind person. A good teacher with no intention of making a student feel less than. And who knows what was actually said. But that doesn’t matter as much as what was heard.

I can only theorize as to why this student felt this way. I’m guessing that most of her writing has a grade attached to it. Derived from a well thought out, common core aligned rubric. That was based on beautiful lessons. All best practices intended to get students ready for career and college. While this is just my theory for this student, it also pinpoints a fear I have about the work. To get students to get smarter, “to figure out how to do it better, how to get it right…” students feel that underlying urgency to perform and take it to heart and if they fall short, they are failures.

Setting standards and expectations can prove debilitating for some, empowering for others. Knowing the different needs of students and giving a liberal dose of individualized acknowledgment of personal strength could make a difference. The teacher who told my daughter she was good at math didn’t change her abilities, he changed her perception of them. By giving her with an honest compliment, she believed and grew as a mathematician.

What we say matters.  A lot. Not a new thought, but in the middle of the school year, it’s an idea to remember, and I remind myself of regularly as the pressures of testing start to weigh me down.

What we give time for in our classrooms matters. Allowing students time to read what they want or write for themselves, not for an assignment or a grade, will promote both. Just because they do it more and by choice.

This week students had time to read or write while others finished an assessment.  Two students were co-writing a song. One that was not for my eyes. While it made me wonder what was floating around in their nine-year-old brains, the fact that it was writing without strings was something to celebrate.

This week, I asked students to leave their writing notebooks for me to look at. I wanted to see how they were developing their thesis statements for a literary essay.  Many gasped at the thought.  Grudgingly, they turned them over many with Post-its saying “look here only.” Again I wondered what in the world they were writing, but the fact that their writing notebook had things in it that were not for my eyes was something to celebrate.

This week I celebrate the difference our words and actions make. A small noticing, an honest appraisal of abilities can change a student’s perception. The time allowed for reading or writing without constraint promotes agency and potential passion for both.

Read more celebrations here at Ruth Ayers Writes.






Slice of Life: Supporting Students by Letting them Lead

Years ago, at the beginning of my teaching life, I went to a conference that featured student-led conferences. The idea seemed great. I took notes. Imagined how it could go in my classroom. And then. It got buried under a pile of everything else I had to do.

Years later, I read a post by Pernille Ripp that detailed how she did student-led conferences. Just as she guided me in my first blogging work with my students, and the global read aloud, her generosity in sharing simple steps and documents reminded me of those notes and led me towards action. And, I am grateful.

For the past five years, my students begin and end their conferences with their families. I believe this is the most positive and productive work I do to connect with students and their families. This year was no different.

It begins in the positive. It is a conference of discovery, not a gotcha. It is a time to share how students see themselves. I start them off with this form a week before the conference. It is purposefully open-ended with suggestions as to what they might include. There is ample and equal room for strengths and challenges. Just reading the forms prior conferences gives me a quick snapshot of the good and the not so good.

The form begins the conversation. It is a starting point for the real data.  Students share what was on their minds and for the most part what they said was what I was thinking. My observations and assessments mirror their words.

But the beauty of this work happens because this conversation, with a family member, allows the child to present themselves as a learner.

Concerns like, “I’m a slow reader.” Led to a home investigation of how many pages that student could read in twenty minutes at home. And while he is an excellent reader, he’s right. He reads at a slower pace than he should. I had thought his slower movement through books was a function of his social nature. But even at home, reading side by side with his mom, he was, in fact, slower than the rest. His insight and his family’s follow-through will make a difference in his reading life.

Conversations about attentiveness in lessons or during independent work time have instigated students to make the better decision about where they sit and how they get ready for the work of the classroom.

Another critical element to the success of this kind of conference is that it is scheduled well before a grading period. Because of that, the discussion is not about grades; it is a celebration of where a student is, how they have grown, and what we as a cohort of invested adults need to do next to support the child.

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


Celebrating: Our Caldecott Writing Journey

This week I’m celebrating my fourth graders’ four-week study of potential Caldecott Medal winners. While the work was fun and accessible, it required complex thinking. It is literary analysis with a purpose, a medal.

For the first two weeks, my kiddos analyzed the books in small groups featuring the child-friendly Caldecott criteria shared by Jess Lifshitz. The beauty of the criteria is that it sets up the “reason” or “supporting idea” for students to be proven with evidence.  By week three, each student was asked to choose one book they felt should win. It was difficult. Many had rated all books as their favorite. Using the criteria as their reasons for selection, each student had to defend their choice using the evidence to debate another student. The result, deafening noise, and a few changed opinions.

This week, I wanted students to write their thinking citing the evidence. To do this well,  every child had to have access to every picture of the book they selected. I wanted them to be able to point out, in writing, exactly what they saw in the pictures and explain how that connected to the criteria.  With a Google Doc of pictures from each book, they could do it. Their task was to choose the pictures that provided the evidence for their beliefs and explain it in writing.

There were, as always with technology, issues. My conferences often began with how to do something technical and then moved into writing craft. (Find my mentor text here.) The time spent on how to do tech always worries me. How much is about the writing when we leave pens and paper for the digital world? In this, our first attempt at using pictures with writing, students learned as much about how to write around pictures as they did about introductory phrases.

There were, as always with technology, mistakes. Pictures were deleted inadvertently. Work was lost. But they kept on.   I was amazed at their perseverance and stamina. And in the end the joy around the work.

Now we wait for the actual Caldecott Medal winner’s announcement and begin reading short stories for their literary craft. Hoping for transfer of technology and writing skills.