Slice of Life: Courageous Conversations

“When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world, and you’re not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” –Adrienne Rich.

Sometimes it takes miles, special places, and special people to see what is right in front of us.

It took NCTE in St. Louis to talk with Courtney Kinney.
It took her caring responsiveness and commitment.
It took the resources provided by my own district to start my education towards creating courageous conversations (Courtney’s words) in my classroom.

Seeing around the majority requires a heightened sense of awareness. No matter the circumstance, there is always someone who does not fit. And our kids engage with these differences unacknowledged and unseen. I’ve had several conversations with students about the holidays. Both student-initiated. Both students felt as outsiders.  One told me not to tell anyone. It began with, “Please don’t tell anyone but…” What does a discussion about faith indicate about the other things our children harbor. Things that make them an outsider. Acknowledging the difference that surrounds us directly, courageously is the work we are supposed to be dong. But to do this work takes overcoming fear. Fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Fortunately, there are so many resources and books to enrich and support us as educators so that fear is supplanted with belief and mission.

Andrew Soloman’s TED talk, Love No Matter What is well worth the twenty-three minutes.  So far I’ve watched it three times. I laughed and cried the first time; the second and third time I took notes.  He quietly touches you on so many levels. As a teacher, a parent a person.

I’m reading up on books to get ready for #ReadYourWorld. Find lists and more here. Reading aloud books is one way to start opening the windows and seeing ourselves in the mirror.cropped-banner2018.jpg

And more books from The Journey Project.

These books along with the Gender Inclusive Schools Toolkit provided by offer the beginnings of my journey towards a more courageous classroom.

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


Celebrating Hope

“Hope is thing with feathers”

Last Thursday, our entire fourth-grade class lined up to perform for their parents. Alongside the excitement and carefully styled hair and immaculate clothing was hurt feelings. Things were said in that line.  Unkind words. Fortunately, children are less skilled at hiding their emotions. If you watch and listen in the midst of merry sadness stands out. Then a student pulls you aside to say, “Can I tell you what happened?”

The doors to the auditorium opened. It was our turn. They filed in. Shoulders back, tears dried and recited Emily Dickenson’s “Hope” alongside their own metaphors for hope.  One student stood and said nothing. The words of hope ring around her, but at this point, she refused.

Words can break us down.

In between performances, there was time for private conversations. Still no smiles from that hurt child.

After the last performance, they ran to the playground equipment. I walked over and saw two kiddos, the cause and the effect of the sadness side by side smiling. I commented on their change, and the cause said, “I kept thinking of a way to apologize, and I finally came up with this — hope is a simple sorry and makes people open.”

Ah, the power of words.

The next day, we walk out to lunch to screams and cries, “Hope is in the sky!”

They were right. There it was. Skywritten above us:  H O P E.

“It’s there for us!”

“It’s fading.”

“It’s so cool. Someone did that for us.”

Watching these young souls fills me up and pushes me not give in to the incessant newsfeed that counters their future.

Our children, these kids right here and now, are the antidote to the unbelievable world events and dangerous words that have the potential to us beat down. They are the reason to act on and act up. We can not fail the gorgeous creatures before us.

Hope is the thing with jingles
That sings around on trees
And spreads the joy that people need
And never breaks nor quits

Hope is the thing with wishes
That makes you wander far
And takes you on a journey
And never escapes your heart

© Room 32,  December 2017.

Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for your weekly call to celebrate. Read more here.



Slice of Life: I’m missing the big idea

Teaching summary feels like hitting my head against a wall. I have made the argument for it. But today I’m wondering, why. Does directly teaching and expecting kids to summarize, prove or improve comprehension?

Consider what nonfiction reading looks like in my world.  I question, mark pages, underline words.’I’ve been inspired to find out more about a subject, talked to someone as a result of reading. I have blogged about texts I’ve read. I’ve taken action as a result of reading. But what I’ve dissected, analyzed, discussed, and written about after reading was not a summary. I siphoned off what was meaningful to me at the time of reading.

One of the delights of a well-written text is that it meets you where you are.  I had a student who was a football fanatic. He read a text that was “mostly about” the risk young people take when they play competitive sports, but what he saw as important was about football. And while that wasn’t the “main idea” of the text, it was what mattered to him at that point in his life. I contend he was doing exactly what readers do: pulling information that mattered and connected to him. Did he get the whole message? No. But he did get what intrigued him. He noticed, questioned, and read more. That is in fact what readers really do. But his summary did not score well on the rubric.

Rereading a text after a year or two, I’ve seen entirely different things. Did I not comprehend the text in my first read? Am I, a few years later a better reader? I’m a different reader bringing different experiences and needs to the text.  And, I am no different than my football loving student.

I struggle with the idea of summarizing. Students struggle doing it.

If students don’t see “the main idea,” they aren’t ready to see it and by not acknowledging what students do see as valuable I’m not valuing where they are as readers and thinkers. We see texts differently based on who we are and what we are ready to access.

By measuring students’ reading abilities with the summary alone, we take the reader’s interests and needs out of the text. And that bothers me. Because after all, that is the most important part.

English teachers, push back on my thinking. I’d love to see summary in a positive, authentic light. Perhaps I’m missing the big idea.

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


Celebrate: Access and Permission

Wednesday the wind kicked up and dislodged dried flowers from trees surrounding my classroom. They floated onto the playground and children lifted their arms and spun around.  It was “the funniest thing ever” according to the three who took the longest to get back into the classroom. Wilder winds caused havoc to the north and south of us, but for my kiddos the wind is magical.

Wind, the impending winter holiday break, Christmas decorations on everything from sweaters to classrooms has heightened emotions and not surprisingly led to frustration and tears. This is a difficult time for students and teachers. Hurt feelings and worry bubble up in unexpected ways.  To counter these effects, I have focused on keeping the classroom inviting and low pressure by celebrating picture books and student writing.

This week students scoured potential Caldecott Medal winners. Every day my kiddos get a new book to read and evaluate. We are so fortunate to have a public library with access to these beautiful books.  I love this work not just for the conversations it inspires but for the discoveries. The selection of books are so diverse, students are engaged in many ways. World War I ships, Muddy Waters, poetry, the study of elephants, a bathtub version of Moby Dick are just some of the topics covered by this wide array of books. The stories are sweet and funny. A perfect way to celebrate books.

I gave my students spirals for poetry. My intent was to start a weekly collection of poems, but my students had other ideas.
“Can we write poetry?”
“Can we look at the poetry books?”
I had no idea they thought they needed permission or a notebook to read or write poetry.

I set aside thirty minutes a day to introduce and promote our new blog.  It has taken very little effort on my part to get the blog going.  I set up categories of narrative, informational, book reviews, poetry, and opinion. With those simple descriptors, students got the idea. After one week we have 48 published posts and nearly 200 comments. It never fails: giving students a way to write for each other is a way to get students to write.

This week I celebrate access and permission. A simple and often overlooked formula for engagement in literacy.

Read more celebration posts here, on Ruth Ayers Writes.


Slice of Life: This is just for fun

“So this is just for fun? We can write whenever we want?”

That’s what T* asked me about our classroom blog launched on Friday.


Her questions surprised me. The purpose of student blogging had become so second nature, I’d forgotten the liberation it offers.  I forgot my intent.

I started blogging with students over five years ago because I was worried about the unit by unit workshop standards-based writing I was offering. I worried it sucked the love out of what writing could be.

Writing attached to a grade no matter how constructive, seemed to move counter to all that a writer needs to keep writing. Comments, compliments, suggestions yes, but a rubric and points assigned to every piece of writing bred a feeling a dread and nudged me to create writers as defined by standards rather than engaged writers.

This is not to say that the units of study are unnecessary. On the contrary, they are the rock on which my students stand. They have had years of explicit lessons on how and why. But just like the explicit teaching of reading, students need lots of time to practice.   Blogging offers students the freedom to write what they want for their classmates and a teaching window into their writing.

Today, E* posted a humorous slice of life. Full of voice. One that only capitalized my name and the word washer. I asked him, what was his intent.

His response, “I was lazy.”

My response, “Oh, I thought the lack of capitals had a meaning. You see, writers do that. They use capitalization to show things. I thought there was something you were showing me.”

His response, “Oh.”

Next thing I know, “Would you look at my post again?”

Amazing, capital letters. I resisted my desire to ask about the one lower case “i.” Perhaps capitalization holds a little more meaning for E.

Passion breeds practice and with practice comes proficiency. With that, skills and strategies have a purpose.

After one day of blogging, I have seen a half dozen completed posts and nearly 20 comments. How to make slime, how much I love my cat, why the guitar is an amazing instrument, and small silly moments are just a few of what is being published. A constant flow of writing, just for fun.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. So we can write. Just for fun. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: Facing a dilemma

At recess L* said, “I have a dilemma. Do you know what a dilemma is?”

“Hmm. Yes, I know what you mean. What’s your dilemma?”

He was worried about participating in an academic competition. A math competition. I understood his fear.  No way would I have considered such a thing at his age.

I assured him that this competition was about being able to work as a team. Only students who could explain their thinking, listen and then rethink their ideas would be successful. Those who were all about speed, no matter how “smart” would be wouldn’t make it if they didn’t listen and consider other’s thinking.

T* overheard.

T is the type of kid L is worried about. The speedy quick kiddo who always has the answer. The kid who prides himself on it. The kid that says, this is so easy.

I looked at T.

“I heard you,” T said.

“I know you did. You listen.”

During PE we ran. Short sprints. They are exciting. Students cheer.

Every year at some point, students make this decision about who to root for, and they start to chant that student’s name. It breaks my heart for those kiddos running so hard and not being cheered for.

It happened yesterday.

After the race, I had everyone sit. Close. I say that type of cheering is unacceptable. We cheer for everyone. Because that is who we are.

They listened.

Last week, Jason Reynolds’and Jacqueline Woodson’s thoughts led me to this podcast featuring the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and to this podcast with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I listened. And was left unexempt and uncomfortable. Owning racism.

I have been afraid to face racism straight on in the classroom. Fearful of being wrong. The thing is, it’s a done deal. I am wrong. I had manufactured a dilemma to hide in.

My slice of life is small. It’s one group of kids. Yesterday was one conversation. One race. But. This group of kids will not go on without experiencing intolerance to arrogance and exclusion of others in teachable moments and explicit lessons around race and equality. We are different. None of us fit. And in that way, we are one. That is the beauty of it.

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




NCTE17: Beginning and Ending with Our Assets

“Resources tend to dictate practice.” So began my last section at NCTE.

Over the course of the next 75 minutes, Vicki Vinton, Donna Santman, and Ellin Keene took us on a reflective journey turning that idea on its head. If resources dictate our actions, we will always fall short.

Vicki, in her quiet but brilliant way, asked us to articulate our beliefs by pondering these questions:
What is the purpose of education?
What do you want for children?
How do you see children?
And finally-
Do your actions line up with your beliefs?

Of course, she gave us ideas to consider.
This one sticks.


The only way I own my learning is when I create it. This is real. And I’d venture that the majority of the teachers I work with and those at NCTE believe this.

But. Does this belief drive our instruction?
Does it show up in practice?
Perhaps, in the beginning, it is acknowledged. But in practice, is it supported or measured?

Donna Santman shared her journey over the past year and asked us to consider these questions:

How do beliefs and practices live in school?
What made your current school and position a match for you?
Does the match live on?

The answers to these questions lead to more.

How do you reconcile the realities of your school with your beliefs?
Do practices support or corrupt beliefs?
Is there a point when we say no?

Where is your line?

I believe part of the answer is how we monitor and support children.
How do we define growth?
What is learning?
It should go back our beliefs and what we want for our children.

Ellin Keene ended the session saying something that hit me hard.

“We are in a self-deprecating profession. We are humbled by our responsibility for children.”

This should not disable us.

Keene asked us to consider:


Defining our work in these terms would allow so much more. I can’t but wonder why this stance isn’t a natural one. One that allows the alignment of belief with practice.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. It is wonderful to see you here.

NCTE17: Seeing the unseen, opening the gate

Five years ago I read a blog post about NCTE in Boston. That post got me to commit to my first NCTE conference in Washington, DC.  I haven’t missed one since. It has been and continues to be a place for inspiration and hope.

This week I’ll unpack the experience, bit by bit.

The books are piled on my dining room table.
Books signed by authors.
There is something about having a stack of new books.
One done. One started. One settling in my brain waiting to be reread.
There’s safety in it.
A sense of calm.
It is an entitlement to have access and ability to find books I want to read.
Ones that speak to me.

This week I heard writers share.
How they write.
Why they write.

Jason Reynold’s words dug deep. Demanding attention and action.

I’m trying to write books that are protecting young people from invisibility of their personhood. You’re not just a problem, you’re not just an issue or a disenfranchised child….I refuse to let you be discarded.

We need to bolster humanity in the kids that we pity. They don’t need pity. We need to see them as people, not pitiful.

Kids are just like us. Books that speak to them will be picked up and read. They are not the problem. We are when we don’t see or hear our students.

This demands we look closely at our books and our practices around books.
If those books do not fit a child, that child does not fit in our classroom, and that child is unseen. Why should they want to read?

We might start out our school year with a reading inventory.
With questions like, what books do you love?
But how many of those books are on our shelves?
How and how often do we explore what our kids want to read?
It’s there to be seen. But do we look?
How many students don’t know there could be books to love?

What are we doing to see our young people?  What are we doing to protect them?
We need to ask and listen.
Provide some white space as Jacqueline Woodson does in her books.

Woodson’s words ring in my ears.

…not only do you have a right to be here you have right to be here fabulously…

I want to stay visible… the people I love to stay visible. I want people to be seen. I want their lives to matter

And these words:

The DNA we are walking through this world with is complicated. How do we teach people we consider as ‘others’ when we are the gatekeepers?

Time to look and listen deeply.
Think about the time we have with children.
Commit to our beliefs and figure out how to open the gates and let them in.



Slice of Life: We choose to write


Every morning, students can choose to read, write, or shop for books. At the beginning of the year, students read. Mostly graphic novels. It was a lovely prelude to read aloud.

Yesterday, I noticed a shift. Students were writing. Students who a few weeks ago struggled to type in their emails were at it deep into their stories on Chrome books.

Last night I read their writing and noticed my own shift as a teacher.
I noticed my first read has fundamentally changed.

At the beginning of my teaching life,  the first read was painful. I had to work hard to see beyond the errors. The change in my vision started years ago at a TCRWP summer institute in a session with Katherine Bomer where she had us dig for the “hidden gems” in our student’s writing. That summer work marked the beginning of how I saw student writing. I had to consciously stop my problem focused thinking to see the hidden writer.

Last night, I noticed the joy reading student brings. It always makes me smile because it shows me who they are and what they could be. What they value, what worries them.
Bad report cards, popularity wars, Minecraft disasters, lost best friends, after-school drama, trouble with the principal. Cars they want to drive, people they want to be.
The games they play. The stories they read. The lines they hear.
This all shows up in their writing.

Their writing is a window. It helps us see our students and more importantly allows students know themselves. This is why writing matters. Why students choose to write. Why our children must write, and we must allow for it. Writing sifts through our problems and helps us recognize our dreams. Writing shows us who we are and who we could become.

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


Slice of Life: What scares you?

Two statements haunt me tonight.

One from a student when asked what scares you, he replied, “No Wifi.”

The second from my husband quoting the shocking number of times “we” touch our smartphones daily. Suffice it to say, too much. We adults who grew up without these devices are addicted. Just look around  Everywhere, people of all ages holding, scrolling, gazing at the glowing object in their hand.

The nine-year-olds are in my classroom on the cusp of smartphone ownership. Most don’t have one, yet. But based on my anecdotal research, and this article, ten is the magic age. By next year, most of my current students will have one.

It breaks my heart. My joy filled students who play with each other will become less and less in the moment of observation, of curiosity, of learning, of conversation, of human interaction. Smartphones will own them.

I’ve been a proponent of using technology in school. For communication and learning.  And I still am. But with controls. With limits.  I believe we need more time to observe, to play, to be without a device. We need to promote and model a balance of paper, crayons, and books with pages.  They are too young to have this taken away from them.  To be taken over. Heck, we all are.  We have willingly given away so much for so little.

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