Slice of Life: Five Things I SHOULD Have Said at Work Today


It’s Tuesday and time for Slice of Life. What a gift it is to be able to write and link up with thoughtful bloggers at Two Writing Teachers! Thank you Dana, Tara, Betsy, Stacy, Anna and Beth  for this and all you offer on your blog. Read more slices and share your own here.

Yesterday I started to shift instruction: edging toward a heavier dose of informational reading and writing. Every year this is uncomfortable. Not because I don’t like the work. It’s just moving the ship in a new destination without tossing out all we have done is tricky and makes me a bit uneasy. With a color coded plan in hand, and belief that we can hold tight to what we have done, I enter a grey Monday.

I walked by two colleagues who were immersed in conversation. I didn’t really notice them. I was alone in my thoughts. I didn’t notice until I was in the copy room, punching cards, and I tuned in to the conversation. It was about a book he was writing. The fact that I wasn’t included hurt a bit. The little grey cloud that was hovering over me got a little bigger.

Morning minutes ticked by. The air felt stagnant. Everything that met me seemed a little off.

Students walked by. Not quite the same smiles. Distant?

The day hadn’t even started, and I had a feeling that the direction I was going in wasn’t good.

The day happened. Sort of kind of what I had planned, but not quite right. After a union meeting and a parent conference, I sat in my classroom mulling it over. I try to think in a linear way. But I’m more of a circular thinker, which can make me crazy. You know a what if, then, and what about that thinker. The possibilities are endless.

To blame someone or something for my funk would be easy, if only it worked. My circular logic keeps running through this not quite right, now that I think about it, actually really awful day. I’m irritated with the why and what next feelings,

Home I go. Think. Read. Write. Troll around the internet. I read a few posts, and fell into Kelly Wickham’s post on Five Things I Said At Work Today. Fun stuff. Could be a slice some day.

But today’s slice is five things I should have said (done) at work today.

I should have said, how can I help?

I should have said, here’s this book, I think you’ll love it.

I should have said, read this post, it made me think of you.

I should have smiled, a lot more and a lot bigger than I did.

I should have said something. Caught up in my own world, not wanting to complicate what I was trying to figure out, I realize I didn’t talk to colleagues today. I sort of holed up inside. Ironically, that inward motion magnified the dissonance. Rather than breaking out and letting a little light in, I kept the door closed.

Today made me realize how much I power I have in creating my life.  It made me think of most days when it seems like the whole world just looks me straight in the eye, smiles and offers up possibilities. Today wasn’t one of those days. Lesson learned, at least for now. Tomorrow, I promise I will be looking out not in. And it will be much better.

Celebrate: Endings and Beginnings, Again and Again

Happy Saturday. It’s time to Celebrate with this week with Ruth Ayres. Two wonderful things to look forward to every week. Read more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

This week was full, yet passed in an instant.

Five things –

1.  The return and departure of our eldest. He flew in on Monday from two months in Europe. Happy, exhausted, and full of life. Today he left for Santa Cruz. Our reunion was brief and a bit fractured (time in little pieces, here and there), but good. He seems settled and ready to move into the next phase of his life. With that feeling, it is easier to let him go.

2. The return of my car. Two “kids” home and driving meant that I have been car-less. As much as it really doesn’t matter, and I don’t particularly like or need to drive, something about having my car back gives me a sense of control and order.

3. The homecoming of my parents. Both were in the hospital. Sunday they came home. Fragile, but happy. My dad’s lovely nurse Rayna said it all, “Getting old isn’t easy.” That’s an understatement. They have been married nearly 60 years and are still entertain each other. Lucky them, lucky us.

4.  The end of parent conferences. It was two long weeks of meeting with families, 58 in all. I want to celebrate the dedication of these families. Everyone made time: took time off, did what was necessary and made their child a priority.  Only one parent asked where their child “ranked” in the class and only two asked what their grades would be. Most wanted to hear about how learning was going from their child, not from me. In most cases I felt more like a facilitator not like a validator or judge. In situations where students weren’t meeting expectations yet, we worked on next steps. All worth celebrating.

5.  The beginning of fall. You have to pay attention to notice fall in Southern California. We don’t get the vivid colors. Most trees are evergreen. Air temperatures change subtly.  Darkness sneaks up on us sooner and lasts a bit longer. The fog hangs on the coast. Things seem a bit calmer, quieter, providing a respite from summer.

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Slice of Life: Writing About Reading With Kelly Gallagher

I spent last Saturday learning with Kelly Gallagher, the amazing Clark Kent-like teacher, author, speaker. While his work is geared toward middle and high school students, don’t be afraid elementary folk. Many things make sense for the youngers too.

For years, I have struggled with students’ writing about reading. They have done it because I asked them to. Kicking and screaming.  From the students’ perspective, writing about reading was more about accountability.  I believe them.

On Saturday, Gallagher shared a writing about reading activity that blew me away in terms of my understanding of a text.  We were to read a short text, the poem “Billiards’ by Walker Gibson, three times.  Each time we read, we were to self assess our understanding. After scoring the third read, we were instructed to write about the text’s meaning for three minutes. My understanding dramatically increased by writing my thinking down.  Of the teachers in the room, about 75% reported the same phenomenon. The difference was so clear I thought I had to try this with my students.

I choose a 150-word excerpt from our read aloud. This exercise was presented as an experiment. Something for them to try out to see what they got out of it. I told them I was not collecting it. It was for them. After writing, over half of the readers reported growth in understanding and felt the writing increased their understanding.

Interested in their thinking, I conferred with a dozen readers.

I asked  – What happened as you went through the process? Here are a few responses.

Writing about it after I read really made a difference. It totally changed my thinking since the first read.

I had to really think to write what I thought.

It was completely different than the quick writing I do. It took longer, but I got a whole different idea from it.

It was hard. I understand the text but putting it into words was difficult.

Writing made no difference in understanding, but there was a change in re reading it. I noticed more by the third read.

One partnership reported that writing made no change in their understanding.  I asked them to write again after they had talked the text. After about two minutes, we reconvened. Both reported the writing after talking made a difference.

Some individuals claimed no change in their understanding through out the process which is a red flag for other reasons.

While this isn’t The Solution to my writing about reading issues, it has added a new tool for my students and me.  It’s interesting work worth trying.

A few other thoughts  –

  • Readers saw this process as useful when they were confused or in part they think might matter
  • Readers who struggle writing their thoughts need to be coached.
  • Readers need reading time. Writing about reading should be strategic, purposeful.


Thank you to Dana, Betsy, Anna, Beth, Tara, and Stacey of Two Writing Teachers Blog for Tuesday Slice of Life.

Read more slices and contribute your own here.

Celebrate: Five Things This Week

Celebrating this week with Ruth Ayres is a weekly ritual. Last week I missed it.  So here’s to catching up with five things to celebrate this week. Find more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

ONE — My daughter passed her driving test. This means she is driving me to school, rather than the other way around. Strangely the added bonus here is time to catch up and have time with her. She appreciates the car and I appreciate the time. A good deal for both of us.

TWO — Our classroom Scholastic News magazine has finally come in and we are loving the weekly informational read. I can’t recommend this magazine enough. It does cost, but the high interest content and well designed articles adds up to perfect for informational text reading and mentor text for writing.

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THREEStudent blogging is a huge bonus to our writing workshop. Students reading students’ writing makes the writing real and responsive. My students have been so fortunate to connect to the classroom blogs of teachers Erin Varley, Margaret Simon and Michelle Haseltine. So much learning going on and they love it!

FOUR – Thursday Genius Hour time has become the place we work on passion projects: what we are passionate about or frustrated with. Many students are bothered by people being “mean” or “just not right.” This applies to people, animals, and their community.

One boy, who is usually very social, was sitting by himself during Genius Hour time. I walked over to him and asked what he was working on. He said it really bothered him how people act better than others. “It makes me feel bad.” To fight this he came up with the “Awesome Project” or how to make people feel awesome. He’s not quite sure how to do this but I love the idea.

Another group is writing a play to about bullying. Another group wants to fund a camp for kids who have challenges (they aren’t sure what challenges or how to fund it but that’s part of the process). There are groups that want to improve on Mindcraft, perhaps letters to the developer.

Many thanks to Joy Kirr and her genius hour treasure trove of resources. If you have any interest in doing this kind of work, click here.

FIVEParent conferences are in full swing.   While there is so much to cover and it is stressful, today I want to celebrate the huge value these conferences bring to teachers. Hearing parents’ concerns and students thoughts offer a surprising opportunity for assessment. In one conference I asked,

Me -So tell us about your reading.

S – Half and half.

Me – So what’s one half?

S – I half struggle and half get it.

Me – Say more.

S – In Huck Finn I got it, it was good. But in Tuck Everlasting I struggled.

In the end, we talked about what the struggle was specifically, how often this happens and what to do about this. Just like teaching, I’m realizing my whole positioning on parent conferences need to be reorganized in my brain: less on me telling more on me listening.

Happy weekend!




Slice of Life: Parent Conferences, What’s the Verdict?

It’s Tuesday, time for Slice of Life. Thank you to Dana, Stacey, Betsy, Anna, Tara, and Beth at Two Writing Teachers Blog. Read more slices and contribute your own here.


Today’s slice marks the first day of parent conferences.

To prepare, I pull together a sort of paint by numbers portrait of each child.

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It’s a snapshot of mastery of the standards at this point. Some students are very “photogenic” in the classroom environment. Others, just don’t look good in this light. They need a different space or perhaps time to show their real colors, their true beauty.  This parent conference moment is just that, a moment in time with one set of expectations and measures. Is this measurement what will matter or measure a child’s potential for the world they will soon be participating in?  A world they will contribute children to that may end up in our future classrooms; a world that will support their parents (and us) in old age.

For all this data (and it does provide direction to teach with), it isn’t the picture that parents hold in their hearts. When parents walk in and ask, “How are they doing?” It’s with the child’s yesterday, today and tomorrow swirling around in their heart.  You see it in their eyes. They are looking for confirmation that it’s going to be okay. They don’t want their child to fight the battles and make the mistakes they did. They want their child’s path to be better.

The child sits next to their parent, wanting more than anything to please. Some get teary and you’re not even sure why. Perhaps they are beginning to feel the burden they can’t begin to articulate.

You talk with each parent wrapped up with what matters more than anything to them. I’ve known their child for nine weeks — two hours each school day. I’m just learning who they are and their parents are looking expectantly at me to give them a verdict.  Will they make it?

We talk about growth and goals.

We talk about concerns and next steps.

We talk about student’s dreams, about middle schools to apply to, about times when their child felt proud of an accomplishment, of how to help that child find those moments of pride.

While the mastery of standards matter, when I really think on what matters most, what we want each child to walk out with, is the sense of pride in accomplishment; the knowledge that they can make it and that they matter. As much as they depend on us now, we will soon be depending on them.

So much is at stake. I feel lucky to have families that care so deeply. It is their past, present and our future.


Slice of Life: Thank You Mr. Flagler

It’s Tuesday and time for Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thanks to Dana, Tara, Stacey, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for the wonderful place to meet up. Read more slices and link up with your own here.


A few weekends ago Chris Lehman’s EdCollab Gathering presented an online workshop. How lucky we are to have such access to so many powerful ideas and educators. I watched Sara Ahmed’s session on capturing Middle School hearts and minds. She spent 45 minutes highlighting some wonderful ideas she uses in her San Diego classroom that makes me want to preorder her new book, co-authored with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

In her session, Sara showed how she and her students create a sort of identity chart or “Me” map. I’ve done things like this before, but I wanted to see if it would help me, and maybe my kiddos, find some inspiration for slicing. Sometimes you just need a new tool!

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I let my map sit for a while.

Then up popped that midnight wakeup call.

It was Wednesday, actually Thursday morning, and my daughter woke me up in a panic.

“Mom, I have to write a five-paragraph essay on Emerson and transcendentalism.”

I kid you not.

Ok, how hard can this be. I weave into her room heart pounding from the adrenaline surge still coursing through me. I pull out the text book. Oh my. An excerpt from Emerson’s Nature is three pages amidst this massive 600 page, 10 pound text that covers all of American Literature in tiny pieces.

My reaction: Can we Google it? Seriously isn’t that what any resourceful person does?

Googling was forbidden.

Ok. I try to read the text and make sense of the rubric. It was way above my reading level, at least at 1 am.

I don’t think I could pass 11th grade AP English.

Certain that all her hopes and dreams were destroyed, she dissolved into tears, cursed my ineptitude and wished her brother was home to help.

I went to bed.

The next evening, she presented me with a well-written piece. But how?

“I just talked to my friends. Each told me their interpretation of the text. I thought the text through with that in mind  and wrote it.”

Brilliant. She has her own PLN.  This girl will survive.

The happy ending was filed away.

Meanwhile, my reader self and my teacher self all coalesced with Sunday’s #titletalk chat on reading levels; triggering some older memories.

When I was 10 years old, I wasn’t much of a reader and not much of a test taker. By today’s standards, I would not have met Common Core expectations.  If I was a young person today, my very literate, educated parents would have worried about low scores (because I probably would have had them), blamed it on the media or maybe the teacher.  I wouldn’t have measured up.  Had I been given my daughter’s English assignment at 16, I mostly likely would have failed and had another reason not to like reading.

Fortunately I didn’t have that text as an 11th grader. I had a teacher who read short story with us: complete, unabridged stories by Hemingway. We read and discussed as a class. We wrote. We were taught as long as we had support for our theories in the text, our point of view would be considered. It was a community of readers, talkers, and thinkers. It was fun. This class made me want to pursue literature classes in college.  Mr. Flagler changed my reading path.

As parent conferences and the grading period approaches, I will tell my students and their parents the story of my 10-year old self. That we measure student’s reading level only as a tool to understand how to help them become better reader; not to measure their worth or their future success. That we spend our year focused on growing their love of reading while working on their reading skills, so they want to do and can do more of it as they go through their school years and beyond.

I am grateful for my 11th grade literature teacher and will keep him and my experience close as I confer with my students. Thank you so much Mr. Flagler. For allowing me to fall in love reading and the possibility it holds out for all of us. I hope I can measure up.

Celebrating: Technology in Writing Workshop, Year Two

This week I am celebrating technology in the Writing Workshop.

celebrate link up

We just finished our first writing unit: Personal Narrative.  It may seem like the most natural thing to write about oneself.  But, to write in a way that shows who we are is not an easy thing for anyone let alone a fifth grader. If  you don’t believe me, try it. It takes courage, self reflection, and a lot revision.

Last year, I started writing weekly with two writing communities. First with Ruth Ayers’ Celebration link up. The weekly practice of celebrating the past week was and is a perfect place for reflection on my teaching. Not too long after that jump, I added a “Slice of Life” weekly post with Two Writing Teachers to my writing life. With these weekly posts, my perception of myself as a writer changed dramatically. These writing communities offered models and support for my writing and pushed me quite naturally towards a new understanding of reflection, “small moment” writing, and myself as a writer and a teacher of writing. I knew I wanted this community experience for my students, but by the time I figured this out I wasn’t sure where or how to fit it into Writer’s Workshop.

This year, with our narrative unit of study sitting behind us, in fact beside us as a tool, “slicing” bits of our life seems to be a natural next step. All of what we learned or started to learn can now be practiced and supported by our community of bloggers. We have a toolbox of strategies, models and checklists. And as our “slices” accumulate, we will have home-grown models to reflect on, a community to learn from. This week I celebrate our new writing unit:  Slice of Life writing on our blog. Other teachers have done this work with their students, most notably Tara Smith who is guiding a lot of my work through her posts here and here.

Last year, one of the biggest benefits of blogging was the feedback kids got from each other. Kids wrote for other kids. This made blogging like no kind of writing they had ever experienced. Many didn’t consider it writing. It was more like a conversation. It was fun! My concern was while blogging and iPads are engaging, and students were writing more, does the blogging environment and iPad technology make better writers.

This week, I’m happy to report a few ahas about technology.

1) Viewing the blog as a publishing tool limited its power. This year, students put their writing on the blog during their revision stages. That move alone has opened doors. Things I didn’t anticipate.

2)  The power of “pinch and pull” typed text. Typed text, even in an approximated form, is easier for students to see what has and has not been done. We can look at mentor text and then at our own writing. It is there in a typed format. Not a crossed out, whited out, taped over, hand written form but typed text that can be enlarged by a pinch and pull on the screen making it easier for students to see what they have written and compare it to mentor text.

“S” had written three simple sentences: “We went to the park. It was warm. I wanted to swim.”  He writes simply throughout his piece.  His thoughts are there. I wanted to teach him to vary his sentence length to develop a more complex writing style. A quick “I-do, we-do, you-do” move in a conference got him to revise his work easily and teach into this skill for all of his writing, not just this piece. With the iPad “S” can play with different sentence structure possibilities without being frustrated.

Another group of students were approximating dialogue and we celebrated. Their next steps were to tag, punctuate and paragraph so readers can understand who is saying what. This is difficult to teach with hand written documents. But with typed text the differences and similarities between student and mentor text become more apparent. The leap is less and the approximation closer still.

3) Emojis can provide a bridge to elaboration and craft moves. Some students found the emoji keyboard and “secretively” started to play with it. My first reaction was ok, just don’t over do it. But then I saw the power in it. One English Language Learner put an image of a rocket into his text. “I ran fast (rocket image) to the park.” He had done the thinking work towards figurative language with an image naturally. He understood the move but not how words could give him the same image. It was an obvious leap for me, but it took some coaching for him to “see” this. The leap wasn’t vocabulary, he knew the word rocket; it was how to use the word like an image. Other students who understood similes had already written the words, and then found the image to enhance their words.

Showing not telling emotions is still a struggle and emojis created a perfect bridge for some students. Students looked for the emotion they felt with the emojis and inserted it into their text. Then we worked together to describe the way the eyes and mouth looked in the text. Mind you, I had taught this lesson explicitly earlier, and some got the idea. The emojis helped others see how to show not just tell their emotions.

4) Editing with typed text makes the tricky stuff teachable. The issues surrounding editing when keyboarding is involved are interesting. Some of the work requires typing lessons:  how to shift so capitals are created and where spaces need to be placed. This is something you don’t know until you start to type. Tricky but very teachable when text can be enlarged with a simple pinch and pull and then compared to a mentor.

5) There are limitations to technology access, and that’s good because it pushes use of all of our writing tools. I have one iPad for every two students. That means all can’t be blogging at the same time. This limitation allows for continued use  of “old school” tools. When one partner is blogging, reading blogs or commenting on blogs, the other partner is in their notebook, ruminating in that space, drawing on old entries, lists, heart maps, stored strategies — using the pen and notebook to craft. This isn’t bad, in fact it is good.  Sort of cross training for writing muscles.

Year two of blogging with iPad technology in Writing Workshop has just begun.  Today I celebrate the writing  we have done and the learning how, why and when to use our our tools, new and old.  We are grateful for all of it: notebooks, looseleaf paper, Flair pens, Kidblog and iPads. These tools grow us as writers.