Slice of Life: Am I asking too much?

Today I had someone observing reading workshop. Afterwards, she said what I’m doing is challenging or maybe she said difficult. This made me wonder, am I asking too much?

Walking out to my car, I’m still thinking about this and start to kick myself for asking too much of students. More than they can do right now.

Then I remember the beginning of the day. “D” in the front looks back at his friend, and then points at the board.

What?  I look at the board.

He smiles and whispers, “Look, Genius Hour.”

“Yes!” whispers “C’ from behind.

I smile.

Genius Hour. They love it. In this one hour, students have the opportunity to create their own learning. The only constraint I give them is that their project needs to make a difference in the world. I tell them that they have an obligation to the world and themselves to give back and this is their time to do this work. That’s the major criteria. And students amaze me.

One group of students have taken up a passion project about bullying. I shared a few things I found on blogs, (thanks Michelle Haseltine and Pernille Ripp) and they were off and running. Kids I’d never imagine working together have become teammates, deciding tasks and carrying them out.

After class, “P” tells me she is writing letters to all the teachers, “Okay, Mrs. Harmatz?” And to think this coming from the girl who hates to write.

Lunchtime rolls around and I have a classroom full of students all working on their projects.  There is the endangered animal project, the Minecraft contingent and a group of passionate artists.  One student is researching why students don’t like to read (she does). I get fed a new fact or strategy on a daily basis. Honestly, she is really making me think.

Students come after school and stay as long as they can. They take the work home to work more on it. They blog about it. They think about it. They don’t forget the work at home. They greet me the next day with their findings and ask my opinion about next steps.

They are reading, writing, speaking, creating things that matter to them. If only every day could be Genius Hour day.

Is that asking too much?  If only school could bring out this passion everyday, then I couldn’t possibly ask too much.

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers Blog for hosting Slice of Life Tuesdays. Submit your own slice or read more slices here.



Celebrate: My OLW, Wonder


celebrate link up

Happy Saturday! Link up with Ruth Ayers and Celebrate this Week. Read other celebrations here.

My one little word. It was something I just had to pick. There were lots of things that might have worked. Wonderful words. But I had to pick this one:


And I waited for it. To guide me, to shine a light on the answer.  I kept looking, but it didn’t show up. Life went on.  No magic.

I felt a bit sad about my OLW. Felt I had let it down. I hadn’t lived up to the potential of it. Perhaps I hadn’t been looking hard enough.

But sometimes things don’t shout.  They sneak up on you.

Last week, wonder, made it’s presence known. I was preparing a presentation for NCTE. (Whoa! Me on a panel at NCTE. That right there is a a wonder!) Listening to student interviews on read aloud work, it dawned on me that all of this would not exist if I had not taken a bit of a risk and wondered, what if?


What if I respond to a blog? Or what if I write a blog? What if I open up to asking students open-ended questions that might not end up being what I want to hear.  What if…


I had not realized how tricky wonder can be. At first glance it’s all shiny and full of possibility. But if you really look, there is a dark underbelly images. What if I don’t see what I want?  The outcomes might be something I’d rather not face. Wonder was and continues to be a little scary, but at the same time exhilarating.

When a student says something that challenges a practice that I hold dear into question, it doesn’t feel so good. I want to discount it, say it ain’t so. Maybe if I ask it in another way? Maybe he didn’t understand the question. But I stop and remind myself, I  got what I asked for, the truth; a not-what-the-teacher-wants response. I have to celebrate that, even if, especially if, closely held beliefs are questioned. Next steps need to be taken:  find out why. That is the power and potential danger of wonder.

I realized all this year I have been living in that space of wonder. Of what if I try this, what if I ask that, what if I put it out there. This has been the wonder effect in my year.

Wonder has thrown a light on my teaching that pushes me to inquiry at many junctures. I have adopted a help-me-figure-this-out teaching stance. Why? What? When? How? By looking a these questions with my students as co researchers, we reflect and refine. By co-authoring the work, we grow together.

Wonder has been there all along. And while it may not continue to be my official OLW in 2015 it will continue to guide me.

I can’t believe 2014 is almost over and NCTE is next week!  Hope I get to see some of you there!

Slice of Life: Teacher Gifts

It’s time of Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thanks to Ana, Betsy, Beth, Dana, Stacey and Tara for a place to share our writing and our lives. Read more slices here.
11454297503_e27946e4ff_hA Monday, that faces a day-off Tuesday, makes students a bit off. I made room for that kind of day, planned for it. But there were some unexpected things.

I walked into the office, to distribute paperwork to boxes and desks, to pick up post its and pens; and in the small reception area, usually filled parents and student in transit, are a group of teachers.  I remember hearing something about being observed, but I guess it didn’t process as happening today.

I’m introduced as a “guru” of reading/writing workshop. Uh oh. Gulp. Good thing I didn’t know they were coming. I would have stressed. Now I’m just stressed in the moment, which is the good kind of stress. The stress that you don’t over think. The stress that helps in the moment and you just do.

The day was filled with the usual:


read aloud, amazing thoughts,

readers workshop, small groups,

writing, reflections, one-on-one conferring,


whole group,


lack of tech,



social studies,

good independent decisions,

bad behavior



in between.

The classroom just kind of moves from one thing to the next. Not perfect, ever. There are bumps. We got off course, maneuvered back. Some good moments, some things that didn’t work.  The students were who they are everyday. The thing that amazed me were how perceptive these teachers were. They “got” my students. They conferred, took notes, took pictures, listened in.

At recess we talked a bit.  And then back to the classroom, for my second group.

At the end of the day,

I found an envelope in my box,

and a purple Uniball pen.

After cleaning the room,

charging the iPads,

collecting some notebooks,

bags packed,

I opened

the note.

I was speechless.

What she said in her lovely hand written not hit on what mattered most to me.  She saw the work, the content sure, but she also saw all the rough edges. The reality of getting students to do the work of reading and writing. It is not Pinterest perfect. It’s real and messy. She saw work that was not complete, that was in process as valuable.  She saw students being pushed to independence. Really? You noticed? .

Teachers who notice the stuff that matters, and say so.

What a gift to have and to give.

Thank you.


Celebrate: Fridays, Fresh and Clean, and a Bit of Nudging

A few quick celebrations today with Ruth Ayers and friends. Find more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

1. Friday Netflix.

We don’t have television, only online streaming and videos. Shamefully, I love binging on a good series or several movies on a Friday night. I came home after a week of very long days and fell on the couch.  My husband is in charge of finding the entertainment. I watched/dozed through two dystopian movies and woke up for the romantic comedy.  A good way to end the night and start the weekend.

2. Clean2014-11-08 09.08.24 car.

We had a smattering of rain recently. This combined with parking outside made for a very dirty car. I normally don’t notice or really care too much about this kind of thing, but when I am afraid to brush against it for fear of getting my clothes dirty, it’s time. Now it sits, bright and shinny in the garage.

3. Blue skies. See the blue reflecting in the window? Los Angeles is hot and desert-like these days. That is our reality. But sometimes we get very blue skies. Something to notice and celebrate.

4. New notebooks.

2014-11-08 09.05.00-1Our first semester ended yesterday.  The majority of students have almost filled the Reader’s Notebooks they got fifteen weeks ago. That in and of itself is worth celebrating. I used to give students new notebooks as they filled them, but this year so many are almost filled and most are really, really worn/torn, I figured let’s start out the new semester fresh with clean slates, new goals and beautiful notebooks.

5. Focused Genius Hour projects.

This is my second year of genius hour and I have learned a bit about nudging students in their work. Some students have problems finding ideas, others give up on ideas. While I don’t/can’t direct their work I try to steer it in ways I hope will work out for them. This year I wanted it to be passion based but directed at making the world a better place.  This has focused a lot of the work. When they come to me with their ideas I say, great. Now how will this help the world.  They have to think about that. How can their passion, be it video games, art, reading, or gymnastics, help someone other than themselves. Makes them think, research and plan.

Here’s one example of a2014-11-07 15.20.56 group of Minecrafting students who are looking to teach us teachers how we can use it in our classrooms to help students learn. Really cool. Not sure what will come of it, but we all will be learning.

Happy weekend and to finding celebrations.

Slice of Life: First Language Learning

Fall hides in Los Angeles, showing up in small moments. If you are paying attention you’ll feel it in the early morning chill and the dark 4:30s. A smattering of rain cleans the air; a cool breeze pulls in puffy white clouds and a crystal blue sky. The light changes slightly and the sun filters through the window at a lower, less aggressive angle. Mid day is still warm. I revel in cooler moments and bits of color that hint at autumn and the winter to come.

I walk by this tree daily and think, I must take a picture. I walk by, yes I will do that, but then all of a sudden, it’s dark. Last Sunday I walked by, focused on to do lists rattling around in my head, arms loaded. But this time I set the pile down and looked up. Light streamed down. The air was perfect and I catch it. The picture on my phone disappointed me. It never comes out the way I see it real time. I shot few more and walked on. Looking at it now, I see the beauty that would not have been remembered. The comparison to the original moment is long gone.

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I took pictures constantly when my kids were little. I remember getting them developed in an hour (dark ages of image making), anxiously waiting to see them. At the time I thought I was a bit nuts. They were right there. Why the pictures. Why the urgency.  I look at them now and my heart sings, so grateful I was crazy, or maybe not so crazy. I have memories I wouldn’t have held on to without the image.

2014-11-03 23.35.39

Images dominate our world for good reason. They work. Ideas are absorbed readily with images. I think of this as I transcribe words of a presentation to images. It’s the same exercise my brain goes through when I make a chart for students with icons that convey concepts rather than words. To be honest, it is a struggle at times finding images for words. I feel strangely disadvantaged, disassociated from images. Almost debilitated by my world of words. The language we are born with is set aside for the world of words.

I’m reminded of the Opal School and their work that uses the visual arts to activate deep thinking in students; the power of wordless picture books; of studying art to learn history and to activate writing; and the many technologies that marry words and images into powerful messages.

Images, so easy to digest, stir the heart, activate the mind and preserve memory. I have never been so aware of the need to reacquaint myself with my first language. It’s an adventure and a lot of fun!

Thank you Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara for Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life.  Read more and post your own here.


Celebrate: Possiblities

celebrate link up

Celebrate this Week with Ruth Ayers is a ritual that I look forward to and for all week.  This process didn’t come naturally. I am one who tends to focus on the student I don’t reach, rather than the student I do.  So thank you Ruth for making me more attuned to celebrations, big and small. Read more celebrations here.

Today I celebrate possibilities.


“B” loves to read. It’s her passion. Her Genius Hour project is a to find out why do some kids not like to read. She researches, reads and takes notes. With each new finding she reports to me:

Mrs. Harmatz did you know…

…some kids’ brains develop differently and they have learning disabiiities

…40% of students struggle to read

…if a student is not reading on grade level by third grade, they may never catch up.  Mrs. Harmatz my brother is in 3rd grade!

But Mrs. Harmatz there are strategies I’ve found strategies!

…if you read aloud to your child

…if you have them write emails

…if you have them read books they love and then talk about the characters and their motivations

I have strategies Mrs. Harmatz!

Her passion is huge.

She tells me, I love to read about strategies to help kids learn to read.

I tell her, you love to read anything and everything.

I tell her, you need to share your learning.

She tells me, I want to be a teacher, Mrs. Harmatz.

It’s not hard to celebrate this student and her passion and hope she brings.


Kind, hard working, inquisitive, and the ability to do the right thing when it wasn’t an easy choice are the qualities that come to mind when I think of this former student. He was in the 60%, a reader. I was not surprised to hear this week he is applying to college, and seeking a recommendation for his application to Harvard. Regardless of whether or not he gets accepted, this is huge. I celebrate this student who goes big.  Who reaches to places that I would not have dared as a 17-year old. For him there are no limits.


“S” is struggling. His life is difficult. He has failed academically his entire life. He’s in that 40% that “B” is trying to understand. If I was to put a label on his disability I’d say dyslexic. But it’s not just that, there are other things that are in his way. Not sure what exactly, but we keep trying to find a way, “a strategy” to reach him. If I were to label the other part of his problem I’d say fear. Trying is scary. Why try and fail, again. He’s become an expert at trying for a little while and then giving up. Teachers get worn out, they have a whole classroom other than him. He’s learned that. A neat way to get around the painful process of trying. On Thursday we tried again. We created a plan and got what I thought was buy in.  He seemed excited, but the day one results were far less than I’d hoped for. Day two, I prompted a bit more and there was some improvement. While it is still far from what I know he can do, the improvement is there.  I celebrate this student’s tiny step towards trying.


A former student, now a seventh grader, stopped by on Wednesday. In fifth grade she was the poster girl for “YET.” Smart, sensitive, and learning disabled. She is in the 40% who struggle. I remember her saying, “reading is so hard, Mrs. Harmatz.” And it wasn’t just reading. Writing, and math were very hard. But she worked and she improved, but by the end of fifth grade she wasn’t there, yet. She gave one of our culmination speeches that year and in it she said, “reading is like a puzzle — you just have to put the pieces together.” This former student handed us a piece of writing on Wednesday that was shattering in content and form.Those pieces are clearly coming together, beautifully. Her YET is becoming NOW. I celebrate this student who has worked hard, been brave, and beaten the odds. She gives me hope for “S.”

It’s easy to see the bright futures for those in the 60%. But what about the 40%. The ones that might not catch up. There are times when it doesn’t seem possible. The road blocks are too big, too difficult to overcome. But when a former student comes back and shows you that yes it can be done, how can I doubt, or stop believing in possibilities, or stop trying. Today I’m learning from and looking up to my students who take take scary steps, have passion and belief, work hard against the odds, and dream big.

Slice of Life: The Trials and Tribulations of Animal Love

In the car on Saturday morning, I turned on my local NPR station. Animal House was on.  I can listen to almost anything on NPR, but calm animal behavior advice at 5 am kind of lulls me back to sleep, so usually turn it off. This segment, titled “Is There a ‘Chill Pill’ For My Cat?” got my attention. The soft spoken Dr. Katy Nelson talked to a beleaguered 90-year old Florida woman about her misbehaving kitty. She spoke of bottle-fed cats (wait, my cat was bottle fed) and how they don’t learn their manners from a momma cat (oh no!) and how that could lead to bad behavior. She suggested a cat behaviorist, or cat whisperer. I can’t believe I am actually thinking about this as possibility; I am identifying with a 90-year old cat lady.

Our cat does what he wants. Most of the time he sleeps. Occasionally he looks at us. Sometimes he walks in front of us. He puts up with our need to hold and pet him. At times he even seeks out our attentions. We have a live and let live relationship. Until recently. Now due to a change in his access to the outside, his in and out privileges have been limited.  Come to find out he is easy going when he gets his way, obnoxious when his desires are less than fulfilled. Now he demands in or out, and he gets it, because you can not ignore his crazy making and unrelenting meows. After listening to Dr. Nelson, I feel like an inadequate cat parent.

This behavior has been created by a change in our behavior, not the cat’s. We have two doors off the back of the house. Both have screens that have been custom sliced (by the cat), just enough to allow him entrance in to and out of the house. My husband dubbed them cat doors, the perfect accommodation for cat and human biorhythms.

One evening I sat at the dining room table reading and I hear, crunch, crunch. Not an unusual sound, but a little louder. I look up and a raccoon is chomping down cat food, right next to me. Unbelievable. I chase the critter out; then he stood on the other side of the glass sliding door eyeing me and the food. Disgusted, I secure the door and wash the cat dish.

The cat doors are now sealed, the cat’s desire to venture at will hasn’t changed, and our sleep cycle is interrupted.

Why do we put up with this and still greet our cat with love. Why do shows like Animal House exist. Crazy or typical?

When I looked up the Animal House segment, I found a Fresh Air podcast with Vint Virga, veterinarian and author of The Soul of All Living Creatures, What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human. An interesting excerpt can be found at the link. This quote struck a chord as a slicer and an animal lover:

We reach out to people as well as animals out of a longing we hold deep within to not be alone, to share what we feel, to relate in some way to the world around us. We yearn to be accepted for who we are, warts and all. We spend much of our lives in an unfolding saga, sorting among all the others we meet to find those who we believe best understand us, with whom we can feel free to just be ourselves. Yet with animals, I find, we do so quite differently.

By their sides we let down our guard and show them more of who we are.

Within the shelter of our own homes, one-­half to two-­thirds of us look on our pets as full-fledged family members. We speak of our pets as if they’re our children, invite them into our beds with us . . . While we all talk to animals in one way or other, an astounding 94 percent of us speak to them as if they were human. And more than 90 percent affirm that our pets indeed respond in turn to our human fancies, emotions, and moods. By the same token, just as many believe our pets share human personality traits, such as being inquisitive, outgoing, or shy. Considering how we regard our connection with them, perhaps it’s not surprising at all that slightly more than half of us would willingly risk our lives for our pets, and even more believe that our pets would devotedly rescue us.

Apparently this thing we do with animals is a part of being human.

2014-10-18 09.31.37Thank you Tara, Dana, Anna, Betsy, Stacey and Beth for Two Writing Teachers blog and Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices and post your own here.