DigiLit Sunday: Earth Day

I’m celebrating Earth Day with Margaret Simon on her DigiLit Sunday link up. Click here to join in and read other thoughts.

“UNLESS  someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
— The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

This quote was rattling around in my brain this morning. The Lorax was published in 1971 one year after the first national day to celebrate and protect our planet. It was followed by the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts.  All are testaments to all the “someones” who cared a whole awful lot.

The work of environmentalists has made a difference. Earth Day marches have effected change.  As does education. Education is one of the best defense mechanisms for our planet and our future. Teachers do this work daily when we ask students to look at the evidence around them and question. We do this when we teach students to think like scientists and historians.  We do this when we share literature and news articles and ask them to wonder and think.

This week, I am pleased to include Scholastic News’ special Earth Day issue in my plans. The issue highlights the effects of global warming in Alaska and on the Great Coral Reef as well as articles about garbage art, banning plastic bags and using recycled toilet water as drinking water.  Newsela’s tremendous text set will add in the history of Earth Day and work of scientists who are passionate protectors of our planet.  Check it out here.

Amy Purdy, para-olympian,  offers an inspiring message as an Athlete for the Earth —
“It’s up to us to take care of our environment it’s not that hard to think on a bigger scale and not just think of ourselves. We need to think of our planet. We need to think of our home.”

The Lorax’s words are as important today as they were in 1971. We are all standing in that UNLESS outpost.  And, we do have the ability to effect change because we see the future every day in our classroom.

Celebrate: Back to Books

Testing is over.
Can you hear the cheers?
And this week, I’m celebrating being in the classroom that reads.

Julio* walked up to me after read aloud and said, “Mrs. Harmatz, I’m sorry, but I have a little complaint.” He went on to explain that while he appreciated me, and didn’t mean to criticize, but he needed to point out that the number of books finished chart had not been updated.

Ah, yes. He was right. I’d forgotten. It’s funny what matters to students. I don’t make a big deal of this chart. It’s meant to make them aware of one aspect of their reading life. The goal is a book a week so the number of books read should match (or exceed) the number of weeks we have finished. And this week, week 34, the chart was inaccurate.

I’m glad Julio cared. He hasn’t. Until now. “I read a lot over the break, and I want my mom to see,” he told me. “She’s coming by on Friday to check the chart.”  Oh, I see. So I asked if he’d like to do the updating. He felt this was an excellent idea.

At lunch recess, he recruited another student to help. They organized the logs. And executed their plan: Julio read the name and number of books finished and Theresa* recorded. Every now and then I’d hear Julio remark on the number of books another student had read.  “Whoa! Carlos* has read 52 books.”  By recording all of the data, he not only noticed his work but the work of others. Maybe for the first time. Maybe he sees them in a new light. Maybe he sees his own possibility as a reader.

The chart hangs. Weeks pass. Numbers change.  I know it matters to competitive students and to those who read a lot. Apparently, it matters to those who those who find a renewed reading life. Maybe because of a new book, a new interest, more time to read, or some parental nudging. Whatever the reason, this week I celebrate a student complaint, a chart that has a new student caretaker, and to a back to books feeling in the classroom.


Slice of Life: When we figure it out

It’s been a week since I’ve visited this page. Just a week and I’m bursting with things to write. Things to think through. Being back at writing and school is good. I’ve missed both.

Last week before Spring Break, my student Callie* asked, “Mrs. Harmatz, now that testing is over, what are we going to do?” The way she said it made me hear, Testing is done. Why are we still here?  So I asked her, “Is that why you think we are here? To take the test?” She looked at me sheepishly, “Well, uh, yeah.”

I can’t blame her for thinking it, and I thanked her for saying it.  I might say, It’s not about the test. But, what Callie* and other students feel is truer than what I want to admit. As painful as it is, I listen.

I assured her that the next eight weeks will be exquisitely focused on the joy of learning, reading, and writing.

Yesterday, we started a reading unit focused on Fantasy. The word fantasy was enough to send students into squeals of delight. But as I started our read aloud, The Thief of Always by Clive Barker, I was concerned.  Last year I tried it out with my students and stopped. It seemed to be too much for them. But this year, buoyed by Vicki Vinton’s new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, and the pure strength of Barker’s story, I decided it give it another try. I knew if we had the strength to get through the tough spots, students would love this story and with that have moments of loving the work they would have to do to understand.

The story starts strangely as the “gray beast of February” threatens to swallow our hero ten-year-old, Harvey.  I stopped at the moment when Harvey feels like life might be over.

It was a monstrous month, that was for sure; a dire and dreary month. The pleasures of Christmas, both sharp and sweet, were already dimming in Harvey’s memory, and the promise of summer was so remote as to be mythical….He simply knew that long before the sun came to save him he wold have withered away in the belly of the beast.

I asked students to talk with their partners about what they were noticing and what they were wondering about.

Many took it literally: February was the name of the beast that was about to kill Harvey. Others were thoroughly confused and irritated. “I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense!” Meanwhile, one student murmured to her partner that perhaps this was figurative language.

I charted their thoughts and said, “This is a complicated book, isn’t it? That is how fantasy can be. Particularly in the beginning. It’s our job to figure it out. We have to trust the writer and ourselves as readers. So let’s read on.”

It soon became apparent after a conversation with his mother, that Harvey was very much alive. Now students knew, that Harvey is just “lazy” and “kind of a brat,” and the gray beast February was not a real beast. It was figurative language. They figured it out not because I highlighted the one student who got it, but because they wrestled through it.

The confused and irritated relaxed in their seats. Yes, they could do this.

It doesn’t get better than that kind of read aloud experience.  Not just because the story brings us together, Not just because the story transports us to places far away. But because it gives all readers the opportunity to figure it out. There is nothing better than that.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. I am grateful for the community you have created and sustain. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Things Get Rearranged

I have things I don’t use, but can’t bear to give away. They accumulate and don’t bother me. Occasionally they come to mind.  Usually due to an acquaintance or memory.
This happened recently.  A side table,  I’d stored away. I knew exactly where it was, beside my desk. But when I looked it wasn’t there. Things get rearranged, so I look in the second bedroom.  No. The garage… No.  I look again. And again.

“Have you seen that side table I used at my desk?” I ask. Blank stares. My husband has no idea what I’m talking about.

I look again. And again.

The promised item is missing, and I feel a bit crazy when I tell my friend this news. But, I let it go.  I don’t hold on to that sort of thing. Perhaps that’s what happened to the table.  I let it go.

A month, maybe two passes. My husband sells his business, and the garage becomes the target of his new found time.  I stay away from the noise that emanates from the front of the house.  Garbage cans fill.  Things get rearranged.

After a week, maybe two the dust settles,  space has been cleared for me to park my car. Then one day, just before I leave for a three-day field trip,  I look on the second shelf, for one of the three sleeping bags we store in the garage. Missing.

I walk in the house, thinking it must be in the hall closet. Soon I come to find out, the sleeping bags, have been given away.  The moment of irritation passes;  I pack sheets and a blanket. Like the side table,  I let it go, and leave for the field trip.

Days later, I walk in and find the side table. Resurrected in the office.

Things get rearranged.

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




Celebrate: Following Wonder

For some time I’ve felt the need to adventure outside and read more. To refill with words, ideas, and experiences. The need to walk, to look, to experience was met last week when I had the privilege to travel over ocean waters, to nighttime trails, and rocky beaches. To adventure on Catalina Island with 102 fifth graders.

The first day, I walked with a few students who lagged behind. Those who were attracted to that rock, that rounded piece of discarded brick, that piece of drying kelp.

One student walked purposely, attempting to save every tiny pelagic red crab who had unintentionally washed up on the rocky shore. She would gently pick one up. Walk as close as she could to the water and attempt to throw it back. Too often the tide was no match for her arm, and the crab would come rushing back. She kept trying. Crab after, crab.

We got to the pier, she paused, looked up and said, “This would make a great picture.”  And walked on head down searching for stranded crabs. Following her lead,  I looked up.

She continued. I followed her up the rocky beach to join the others.

Later we saw birds. Seagulls drifting magically overhead. Idyllic blue skies.  Once again, picture perfect. With those helpless red crabs, below.  Unseen.

Above the beach, high in the eucalyptus tree sat a bald eagle. White-headed, gazing out over the coastline.  Then he took flight. We watch him soar. Kids chanted, “USA! USA!” as they have been coached to do to alerting others that there is a bald eagle in flight. He is beautiful. Until he snags a seagull takes his meal on the beach amongst the dying crabs.

My red crab rescuer looks at me. Pained. Her expression says this is not right. The circle of life or food chain reasoning doesn’t satisfy her. I can’t blame her.

We go on. We study. We humans.   
She sits. Head resting on her hands.

Looking back over the week, I wonder what students brought home. Along with a smuggled rock or two, I hope students have learned. I hope they hold onto the feeling of being outside. I hope they did something that challenged them. The learning, the experience matters. But mostly I hope they brought back a wondering. Something that makes them want to do something. About something. For their future. Maybe for all our futures.

When we return from Spring Break, we will venture into our wonderings for the last few months of the school year. This week I celebrate following fifth graders into learning and wonder.

Find more Celebration posts here at Ruth Ayers Writes.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: A Room Made New

Recently, I had to change the desk arrangement in my room to accommodate testing requirements.
It hid the rug and broke up students seating.
It limited access to the library.
All charts came down.
All personality was removed from the space.

Afterward, the room space needed to be recreated.
I hated the rows.
I wanted large spaces with meeting areas.
But what would the kids want? They see things differently. Knowing this is their space as much as it is mine, I gave them the opportunity to the students. Just bringing them the opportunity brought fresh air into the room blowing out the stress of testing.

I told students they could submit plans as long as they took into account a few requirements:
there had to be access to books,
there had to be a central meeting area,
there had to be room to accommodate 31 students and 1 teacher.

Makeshift groups came together.
Can we look up ideas?
What if …
How big is …
Where would you like …

Designs came in.




Students voted.
The “L pattern” (middle design above) won.

After school, I tried to make it a reality

The end result looked a little more like a cross between pods and the U-shape, but my kiddos didn’t seem to notice. They were thrilled to see the change that they had something to do with it.

Room to book shop and read, read, read.

Bare walls to be used.

Room in the middle.

Room in the back.

Change gives us room. To see things differently. To make new. To rethink. With the end of the year in sight, my fifth graders need this new space. To grow.

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

Day 31: The Journey

This March, writing daily became like breathing.
While running.
A marathon.
The terrain varied.
Downhill and uphill.

Some days took more out of me than others.
Some were worth it.
not so much.

My writing journey mirrors my teaching practice.
Both are challenges.
Writing about teaching helps keep both alive.
I suppose if I were to journal daily,
I would have a similar response.
But, writing in the company of others provides a dimension
that keeps me coming back
to write
again and again.
On difficult days.
On days when I think I have nothing to say. The community calls and welcomes all.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers. And thank you, fellow Slicers, for the community and for journeying with me. Read more slices here.

A Journey

By Nikki Giovanni

It’s a journey . . . that I propose . . . I am not the guide . . . nor technical assistant . . . I will be your fellow passenger . . .

Though the rail has been ridden . . . winter clouds cover . . . autumn’s exuberant quilt . . . we must provide our own guide-posts . . .

I have heard . . . from previous visitors . . . the road washes out sometimes . . . and passengers are compelled . . . to continue groping . . . or turn back . . . I am not afraid . . .

I am not afraid . . . of rough spots . . . or lonely times . . . I don’t fear . . . the success of this endeavor . . . I am Ra . . . in a space . . . not to be discovered . . . but invented . . .

I promise you nothing . . . I accept your promise . . . of the same we are simply riding . . . a wave . . . that may carry . . . or crash . . .

It’s a journey . . . and I want . . . to go . . .


Poetry Friday is hosted at Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s blog The Poem Farm,

Day 30: The beauty of the end

There is this in-between time when students have finished one test but have more testing to do, that’s uncomfortable. They need to recover and there is not much to do. We’re in a holding pattern till the next test.  I want to let them go and play. And I did that as best I could with read aloud.

We’re at the end of The Wild Robot, and they’re captivated. Begging for one more chapter.  It’s that rush you get at the end of a book. The anticipation of the end is killing you, and we feel it as a community. It’s the best feeling times 30.

I’m holding them off. I want to squeeze and stretch it out. I want students to enjoy the drama of the story. The cliffhanger and emotional moments have students gasping and teary-eyed. Yes, I’m milking it. “Why do teachers always stop at the good part,” I hear one student stay when I close the book for the day.

For them, Roz is real. She’s a loving mother. Who selflessly protects her son. That is the power of story. Words that can bring an imaginary robot to life for a room of squirmy fifth graders.

The ending of any story is a reflection opportunity. We have gone on a journey that’s had it’s ups and downs. Tears and laughs. The end must leave us with a satisfied sense of learning, of self, of the world.

Day 30 of the Slice of Life March Challenge has that end of book feeling. We have been rushing to see what is next and now that we are just a page away from the end, we hesitate and take the journey in.

I fear, this month,  I have traveled the road too quickly, missing so much in the day to day rush. That said, it’s been a joyous journey. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for the amazing journey offered by the March Slice of Life Challenge. Thanks to all.

Day 29: The Hidden Rug

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my teaching day every day with the Two Writing Teachers community.11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

The rug is a the center of my classroom.

It’s a book shopping area as well as a read aloud and instructional meeting place.
It’s a place to confer with readers and writers.
It’s a place I can pull students close to instruct and to listen.
It’s where I can see them, and they can see me.
It’s a place to stretch out to read or write.
It’s essential.

To accommodate testing, desks now sit on the carpet; the bookshelves are inaccessible. There is no room to confer or talk. Instead of carpet space, there are aisles and lots of desks. The carpet is hidden. I hate this setup.

Students walked in and asked, “Where do we do read aloud?”

I love the fact that that was the first thing out of their mouths. No carpet, no read aloud. What will we do? I assured them we would find a way. They settled into their desks all facing the same way, and I looked out toward the back of the room, far, far away from me. I stood there and thought, Hello, out there! You in the back of the room, can you hear me?

On my left, I heard one student say, “I like it this way.”  His comment made me think. What is best for students? Pod seating is best for collaboration, but I can understand how it might not be best for singular activities, like reading.

Years past, I’ve had options. Some kiddos face forward. Others are in pods. And the carpet is there for all to use. Funny how we forget, what worked before, might need to be pulled out again. Funny how being forced to look at something you thought wouldn’t work could enhance your perspective.

Before I move everything back, I’ll see what kids think and perhaps, have them come up with a design that combines everything we need. Rug and all.

Day 28: What would you rather write?

This March I’m “slicing” a piece of my teaching day every day with the Two Writing Teachers community.11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

I polled my students today as they wrote their opinions on space exploration.

If you could choose, what would you rather write, a narrative, an informational piece or an opinion?

Approximately half of the students would rather write narrative and half preferred opinion writing. Only two students choose informational as an equal to story or argument writing. My next question was, why?

Narrative lovers said:

  • you get to think of what you want characters to do
  • you can plan out how you want it to be
  • it feels like you are in the story and you have to find the solution
  • you don’t have to do as much research
  • it’s fun!

Students want to dive into stories. Create the problem, find the solution. They are only limited by what they can imagine. That’s why fantasy is a blast. It not only allows them to create characters but also make impossible beings and situations. Why don’t I do more of this?

Argument lovers said:

  • you can write about what you think
  • my opinion matters
  • you can choose your side
  • research is fun

Students have opinions about all kinds of things and having the opportunity to put those feelings out in the world is an incredible feeling. What I heard again, and again was, “I can choose what I think!” Power for those who might feel powerless from time to time is intoxicating.

The few informational lovers said:

  • it tells what is true
  • research is fun

For this group of kiddos, informational writing is a difficult sell. Maybe it minimizes them. Maybe their research skills are underdeveloped and they find the facts boring to retell. Perhaps when they are more adept in research techniques they will be able to see that “facts” aren’t always simple and the “truth,” according to them, needs to be told.

This informal survey of sixty shows me a few things about the writing lives of my kiddos.

First, students love control.
Second, choice and voice are premium commodities.
Third, they want to play and have fun with writing.

A simple question offers  a lot of insight. It tells me where joy lies and what needs to be supported.

I want students to write. And write.

I want to see them light up when it’s time to write and complain when we have to put it away.

I want them to ask if they can work on it at home.

Every group of students tells a different story. And the story changes throughout the year. It’s important to remind myself that within all of the complicated work we do, with all the high expectations, to remember to ask the simple questions that can drive what comes next.