Slice of Life: Just a Sentence

This weekend, Margaret Simon read this excerpt from Elizabeth Strout’s book, My Name is Lucy Barton:

At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn. A view of tne horizon, the whole entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quitet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.

Afterward, she said, “I’ve got a writing assignment for you. Take the first line, ‘At times these days I think of the way…’ and write your really long sentence. I think you can handle that.”

And then she said, “Here’s mine.”

She proceeded to read. Beautiful. Poetic. A reflection on her world inside and out, offering a vision I could see and feel.

Sure. I can handle that. One long sentence. I grabbed my notebook and wrote. And revised. Couldn’t read my writing. Tore out the page. Tried again. Interesting parts but still not what I wanted. The writing was clumsy, forced.  I wanted my computer but wasn’t sure if that was ok. Was I cheating? I re-listened to the assignment. Nothing said about how I write, just that I write. I thought of asking, but knowing Margaret, I turned to what works for me.

My computer. Opened a doc and typed. It flowed. I could see it; hold on to some parts and let go of others. Revision (was that ok?) was possible. The keyboard is my writing space. I can’t compose or think in longhand. I’ve lost that ability.

After a few minutes, I looked at my sentence. Was it long enough? Good enough? I studied the mentors. Mine was less than, but it is me, now.

Sharing writing is scary. Always. Scary.

But, I felt I was in a caring space. Fear diminished just enough to get me to post this:

At times these days I think about the ways the ocean invites my attention, as the cliff rises up to meet the road, looking down I feel as if I could reach out and touch the blue stillness, and yet below the surface the cold Pacific digs and pulls showing an endless uncontrollable power calling me towards its vast space that was, is, and will be, long after I am gone.

After, I thought about my process.

I was worried. Was I following the assignment correctly?

I wasn’t good enough.

I was expected to try. I needed to show up.

But, now they’d know.

Still, my teacher believed in me.

I felt, whatever I offered would meet caring hearts.

It was just a sentence. Shared among friends. Still I was nervous.  Exposed.

In the end, the rewards were huge. Shared writing brought us closer. It grew trust and opened the door for more. But it took a teacher who believed I could and other contributors who cared.

I wasn’t much of a prompt fan before this experience. Perhaps because I’ve never had the right prompt or the right teacher or the right community.

Now, I’m looking for prompts for my students, imagining how we can experience this work together. And build on it.

What fascinates me is not the result, but the process. The conditions necessary for meaningful writing work.

This is why teachers need to write. Together. For ourselves. For our students.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog Slice of Life Tuesdays. For providing and supporting a community of caring writers. Read more slices here.



Celebrate: Values vs. Practice

This week I got interim scores from a district assessment. The unstated but very real message in this was: where do you rank and what can you do to pull up those scores. That evening I looked at questions on the test. I thought about them. I spent time and energy in that direction. And then I stopped. And asked, what is best for my students right now? And, how do I want them to leave my classroom in June?

That same evening, I picked up Katherine Bomer’s essay in The Teacher You Want to Be titled, “With and Air of Expectancy.” In it, she compares the word expectant, as in an expectant mother, to expectations, as in what students are to meet in the form of standards.

img_3100-1The word expectant connotes all of the wonderful possible that can be; it celebrates the impending joy. Expectant has an I-can’t-wait-till-you-get-there feeling, and it embraces the I-know-you-will-get-there belief.

Bomer reminded me of what I value, of why I spend so many of my waking moments caught up in my profession, of what I need to do tomorrow and every day after that.

I believe that learning is rooted in engagement and that engagement can only flourish in an environment that is joyful and responsive to the learner’s interest.

Now for the hard part. Where does that value exist in my daily practice?

Today, I’m looking back on the week to celebrate the places where my values showed up. The moments where I practice what I preach.

First: Daily commitment to 15 minutes of choice reading, writing, blogging, commenting, or wondering on Wonderopolis

Second: Daily blogging requirement none; daily average of 20 posts and 50 comments

Third: Twice daily book club talks before and after reading

Fourth: Daily commitment to Read Aloud with the focus on growing our community’s thinking and building the joy of reading

Fifth: Student choice of research topics, books, and partnerships

I believe these moments, these structures put learner interests alongside literacy practice. Each brings a bit of joy, a bit of engagement, and a bit of silly into the classroom. Each puts me on the sidelines, coaching in towards literacy expectations, on their terms. Each has me meeting them where they are. Each provides an opportunity to learn through reading and writing.

At the end of the day, the end of the year, students exceed, meet and approximate the expectations. Bit by bit, each student edges forward. 

The worry I have is not the percentage that will meet the expectation this year. The worry I have is the learner who looks at coming up short as a reason to think they can’t or they won’t. The worry I have is that it’s not about this year. It’s about all that is to come.

Next week, I’ll sit down with families to look at student progress. If a student is less than, it could quite naturally slip into feelings of panic, judgment, failure.

These conferences will be an exercise in expectancy: of what is possible and how we can build towards that goal.  It will be a reminder that learning is a constant state; that the future is full of possibility, that we are expectant. We know you will get there and beyond.

Thank you, Ruth, for your Celebration link up. Read more celebrations and post your own here.





Slice of Life: Book Love

About 15 years ago, I said goodbye to my personal reading life. Consumed by middle-grade fiction and professional teaching books, there just wasn’t any time. The teaching texts became my best friends, holding my hand through lessons. The satisfaction of reading a middle-grade fiction in a day filled my need for story. I came to believe I was doing my best thinking work in the UVW band of text complexity.

I was busy and happy in my new reading space.

This summer, my old reading life snuck up on me with one short read. I didn’t plan for it to stay. I thought it just came for the summer and would go back to where it came from once the school year began. But just this week, I’ve noticed it’s put down roots on my nightstand, in my book bag and in the back seat of my car. Tugging at me to give it just a little more time. Pulling me away from what I should be doing. Saying, take a break, just a few pages.  Distracting me from the papers I need to grade, the phone calls I need to make, the dishes I need to load, the sleep I need to get.

It’s got me in its clutches.  As I finish one book, the next Amazon box appears on the porch.  The beautiful covers suck me in and pull me under another’s spell, speaking just to me. Tailor-made, refusing to let go.

It’s luscious.

Thank you, Two Writing Teacher Blog for Slice of Life Tuesdays. A day to write and share the bits of our lives. Read more slices here.





DigiLit Sunday: Pitfalls and Possibilities of Google Docs

slide11Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday link up is a place to find thoughts and ideas on learning and teaching in the digital world.

Today, Margaret called for reflections on balance in our digital spaces.  Technology can present overwhelming and exciting possibilities, but I need to filter my use of all digital tools through a lens of literacy. I try to find balance by asking, How does this tool enhance or build on students’ abilities as readers and writers?  Today’s reflection allowed me to regain balance. Thank you, Margaret. I needed this.

I love using Google Docs in my writing life and was thrilled to get them in the hands of my students.

The first docs came into my email, and the ease of reading was wonderful. I could see teaching points readily: whole group needs to individual ones. I could check histories to see their process.

I started to comment.

And then, I stopped and wondered,

  • Should I comment at all?
  • Will this writer understand?
  • How should I follow up?
  • Am I teaching the writer, not the writing?

That last point is THE one that matters. When I look at student work, I must be vigilant in looking for the gold, the gems that I can build on. And, I must be looking to teach the writer, not THIS piece. IF I comment digitally, I must filter each thought through that lens.

With those thoughts in mind, I started.

Today I looked back at my comments and I did exactly what I feared. I taught the writing. (UGH!) And, when I gave a compliment, I said nothing about how this is something that writers do. It was just specific to the piece of writing. (DOUBLE UGH!)  And, here’s my ugly question to myself:  Have I made Google Doc comments a digital red pen?


But wait. Kids loved the immediacy of the feedback. Can I make this work?

Thinking it through…

A compliment like: “Love your introduction!” is simple and essentially wasted words. It could become: “Your introduction really sets the tone of your piece. Writers use tone to give the reader an emotional connection to the topic. When I read your piece I feel as sense of amazement and wonder.”

A comment like: “I’m wondering what causes a Tsunami? Check out Seymour Simon’s book” could become, “Writers of informational text give readers answers to wonderings to teach readers. Read through your piece with a wondering mind or even better, ask your writing partner to read and wonder. Then ask yourself, can I answer those wonderings? Do I need to do research?”

Hmm.  It’s better.

I am on a learning curve of how to use Google Docs, right alongside my students. At the very least, having their work on Docs lets me keep abreast of where they are and what to teach.

I am playing with it. Trying to be aware of the pitfalls and possibilities. For some students, it may work, for others, it may have no effect.  It’s a balancing act.

Digital comments should never replace one-on-one conferring. But, if done carefully, could they be a bridge to or from conferring? Could they provide that immediate feedback we all want for our students? In middle grade and above classrooms where class sizes are large, is it a viable option?

For those of you using Google Docs with your student writers, how do you approach the work?





Celebrate: Challenging Presumptions

This week I chose the last read aloud of our nonfiction unit. I wanted it to showcase the genre and lead into the next unit on advocacy. I wanted a book with a strong narrative and a supporting expository text. I wanted a book that could foster an understanding of advocacy. Nonfiction reading lends itself to advocacy thinking. It’s natural to read about an issue or an event and react. Thoughts of “that’s not right” are the immediate response to mistreatment or abuse.

Looking through my pile of books I chose this:


Many of my students had The One and Only Ivan as a read aloud in third grade so I thought the “true story” would be an interesting choice. We could look at the narrative portion of the picture book and then compare it with the expository article in the back of the book. A perfect pairing of the ways nonfiction can go.

But an interesting thing happened on the way. During the narrative portion, students who knew The One and Only Ivan story stopped me saying, “Wait, you left something out,” and ” Yeah, that’s not the way it goes.”  Those comments led to an explanation of true versus real versus imagined.

Ok, that’s solved I thought. Nice that we clarified that.

We started reading again. Then we got to the page that showed the two baby gorillas in the dark, damp crate, and they stopped me again.

T: How could the writer know how it looked?

Me: She imagined how it might have looked and felt and then she wrote it, and the illustrator drew it.

S: Wait, I thought this was true.

J: How could the writer say this is the true story?

Ah, what a slippery slope the nonfiction world presents. They are entirely correct. Nonfiction doesn’t always mean “true.”

With that, I handed it back to them asking, “What do you think? Should this be called the true story?” Better them debating than me explaining. They wrote in their notebooks and then turned to their reading group to discuss.

I thought the text would be a good ending to nonfiction. I thought it would be a good segway to advocacy because of the people who protested Ivan’s situation in the mall. Little did I know that it would get us to reexamine the very nature of nonfiction and introduce our argument writing unit.

It’s remarkable. What we don’t see. What we don’t know. The unpredictable outcomes students offer us.

This week I celebrate the power of read aloud, writers like Katherine Applegate, and students who challenge what I presume.

Thank you to Ruth Ayers, who asks us to celebrate each week. Connect with others who celebrate here.

Slice of Life: My First Writing Lesson

When I was ten, I was assigned a state report.

I picked the state of Mississippi because I thought that was where my grandmother grew up. My grandma’s family was legendary, mainly because we didn’t discuss the other side. Family stories were my momma and my grandma’s specialty.  So I chose Mississippi for my state report, thinking it would be exciting. Something that would make them all proud of me.

My research began with the Encyclopedia Britannica that my dad bought at the local used bookstore.  Always useful for those assigned reports, I looked up Mississippi and read. Looking back, I suspect I had a slim grasp of the text,  probably just copied it all onto my 3 x 5 notecards., the way the teacher taught us.

A day or two before the report was due; I sat down to write my paper. I had drawn and colored the state flower, the magnolia, I had a stack of notecards. I had a green plastic cover. I was ready for the finishing touches, the report writing.

I sat on my blue and green shag carpet after school, leaning against my double bed, staring at the white lined paper, sifting through my notecards, thinking, “What next?” I hadn’t a clue.

I must have sat there long enough for my momma to come looking. At some point before dinner, I heard a knock and a, “Can I come in?”

Turning the handle, she shoved the door open just missing me on the floor, spread out in my sorry mess.

“How’s it going?” she asked.

I looked up and confessed. I had no idea of how to even try.

I was found out. I wasn’t very smart.

My momma sat beside me and said, “Don’t worry about what you write. Just get it out on the page. Don’t worry about how or even what you say, just get it on the page. Then we’ll go from there.”

At that moment, I was released and supported. Freed, with a safety net, my mom.

Just get it down on the page.

To have the permission to be imperfect.

To not worry about the spelling (I was and still am a terrible speller, which drove my mom nuts) or “run-on” sentences whatever that was.

To just get it down and know my mom had my back.

Thinking back, this was my first and best writing lesson.

To this day as a teacher of writing, this will always be the best first writing lesson.

Just get it on paper; then we’ll go from there.

Can’t say I remember much about the content of that report, beyond the state flower, and that my family wasn’t from Mississippi. It was Missouri.

To Two Writing Teachers Blog, for the place to get just get it down; to the Slice of Life community for being a present day safety net; to my mom, my first and best writing teacher, thank you.

Happy Slice of Life Tuesday read more slices here.



Celebrate Digital Learning: The Joy of “I’ve got it!”

This week I was reminded of how much I love learning with my students.

When they teach me.

When they teach each other.

When we learn together.

This week I wanted my kiddos to read an article I had found on Newsela. It was a perfect text to compare to another article we had read on Syrian refugees.

Standing at the copier, I realized I didn’t have the last page. Rats! Back to my classroom to print out the last page. And then the bell rang. No text.

Walking to pick up the kids on the playground I think, why not go digital? Seriously. They all have their emails (finally). We could get the devices (amazing).

We can do this.

The only problem was, I didn’t know the nuts and bolts of “how to” sign up as a student. We would have to try together. It could be a total disaster. But, it could work with a “what’s-the-worst-thing-that-could-happen” attitude.

Reader’s workshop.

I asked students to come to the carpet with their devices.

And we started.

Our objective: to sign in as students on Newsela and read an article. The mission was to figure out the steps. I told them, I’d never done it before, and we needed to figure this out together.

With this challenge came the confusion, “What are we doing?,” the questions, “What’s the username?” and squeals, “I’ve got it!”

With every, “I got it!” I’d get the student’s attention and ask, “How did you get it?”

Slowly, we developed a protocol to sign in.

Slowly, experts in how to sign in popped up who then crawled around the carpet helping others sign in.

Soon they were all at their desks reading, finding the writing tool to take notes in the margins, showing others how to, and asking, “Can we take a quiz?” and “Can we do this at home?”

I’m not saying every day should go this way, but there is something wonderful about students doing the work of how to. It’s messy but so empowering to have that moment of “I got it!”

This week I have to sit back and admire my student’s enthusiasm for learning, ability to work together, to rise to challenges, and to want to read more.

This week I celebrate Newsela, my school that has provided access to devices for all students and student emails, moments of  “I’ve got it!” and the fact that I didn’t have the last page of the article to copy.

This post serves double duty this week. One for Ruth Ayers Celebrate This Week link up and one for Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections on the Teche. Check out Margaret’s DigiLit Sunday link up tomorrow for more posts on digital learning. Thank you, ladies, for providing the space to share.

celebrate link up





Being Present

IMG_2236In the spirit of literacy and to ground my thinking in what matters. I join Holly Mueller’s Spiritual Journey Thursday link up.   To reflect on what centers me; on what effects and powers my sense of being.

Holly asked contributors to blog about their one little word. This week it’s  Margaret Simon’s OLW, present,

I find living in the present difficult. I look at what might be, what I want to be, what I’m afraid will be; what I need to do to make sure something does or does not happen. And in all that, I miss out on what’s right in front of me; losing what could be.

I’ve been worried about a possibility. If it happens, and it could happen, it would leave a big hole in my life. With this “maybe”  looming, my mind has been doing a number on my spirit. Thinking about what I could lose, what might be, instead of what is right now.

Stepping on the treadmill this morning, I decided to be “present” in my run. I love running, but I often look at it as a task to be completed. So, as time closed in on the 30-minute mark, I decided to pay attention and appreciate each tenth of a mile.

Each tenth of a mile I ran, I made a decision whether or not to “give myself” another minute of running.  For those of you who hate the whole idea of running,  this may seem crazy, but every extra minute was a tiny gift. Every minute I was in the moment.

Writing this, I realize, that when I enter a classroom, I am in the moment. I am intensely present. I can’t be anywhere else. I am with this child, this group, this class.

100%. Entirely engaged.


Perhaps that’s one reason I love teaching.

Slice of Life: Self Talk

I don’t know; I said when asked where I wanted my daughter to go to college.

Taken aback, my mom said, “I always had an opinion on what I wanted for you kids.”

I know what she meant, she wanted us close and safe and happy. And of course, I want all of that for my daughter.

“Every college is a plane trip and time zones away. So close isn’t possible.”

“So location aside, where do you want her to go?”

I don’t know; I say again. My ideas might be entirely wrong, so I have to go with what and where she feels is best.

My mom looks at me and shakes her head, wondering how in the world I could be her child.  She has adhered to the belief that if a parent sets up expectations and provides consistent support towards those expectations, then the outcome will be the expectation. This philosophy has merit, and I’ve attempted it.

One clear expectation was to become an independent thinker. I’m afraid my daughter took to that idea. She’s reaching to places that are far from home. And that’s good. I keep telling myself.

It’s her life; she needs to make choices and create her expectations and failures. And that’s good. I keep telling myself.

She knows she has support at home if needed. That allows her to reach beyond. I am thankful she can and has the bravery to try. And that’s good. I keep telling myself.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Find more slices here.





DigiLit Sunday: Digital vs. Non-Digital? It depends…

Margaret Simon put out a call, a proposition for her DigiLit link up: Digital versus Non-Digital?  


Like all things in teaching and most things in life, there is not one answer. Thank you, Margaret, for putting out the call to share our experiences around this ever-changing proposition. From what I can see after four years of teaching, reading and writing in digital environments, I’d have to say, that what works best all depends. 

It depends on the person. There are a fair number of students who process better in a digital environment. A keyboard is a place their fingers move readily. The pen is their enemy. Those students who have difficulty forming letters can show their thinking when given a device. It could be the pure physicality of it, but I suspect it also is an enormous benefit of seeing your words appear in a clear context.   

Some students who process best on paper. I was one of those people for a long time. I could not think on a keyboard. Now, the majority of my writing is done in a digital space. For students with limited access to technology, and relative success with paper and pen, when given a choice, they choose paper.

It depends on the task Digital tools are just that, a tool. They provide an access point for communication. 

To make the best choice, I ask my students (and myself) three questions.

  1. What is my purpose/desired outcome?
  2. Where do I do my best work?
  3. How much time do I have?

Recently, my students had to do a research project on a topic of their choice. How to go about their research and writing depended on the answers to those questions. And it changed throughout their project.

It depends on aesthetics. For myself, I’ve seen aesthetics play a large role. As a teen, I loved paperback books. Hardcover books were not comfortable in my hands. My first Kindle device took some getting used to, and I disliked it for anything that required my full attention; it seemed less satisfying.  I wanted to touch pages, feel the weight of a book in my hands. See how many pages I had gotten through, had to go. But when I did not have a book in my bag, I had my phone. And slowly, electronic reading became a habit of convenience, and I let go of my old ideas of what reading should feel like. This summer I returned to the pleasure in paper bound books. I read blogs and news digitally. The immediacy and visuals often connected to this type of literature seem best fitted for digital consumption. But books and bookmarks are back in my life, and it feels good.

Some students, report digital reading is easier. Their eyes to run down a page at a quicker rate. Students love digital spaces they can access quickly and can understand readily. In these cases, digital reading results in a higher “joy” factor.

Bottom line in my view: It is vital that we provide digital opportunities alongside book-filled libraries, notebooks, stacks of paper and vibrant pens and pencils because it all depends.

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