Accept the Blessings of Technology and Avoid the Curse – Don’t Forget the Kid

First some blessings…

I have fallen in love with technology. It allows my students  to connect to each other and like-minded people. It’s exciting to “meet” and “talk” to someone who shares your passions, your experiences. My students have connected with other students: blogging, commenting, questioning, sharing. They started with @ErinVarley ‘s class on the other side of the country. They blog and respond to our shared read aloud, Wonder, a precursor to our Global Read Aloud, Out of My Mind. They notice their similarities and ask questions. They comment on personal narratives with “I like your story” and “thank you.”  This has been such a blessing finding students and teachers who are “just like me!”  You share my name… I think so too… I like your writing… thank you… that’s a good idea, here’s mine… me too. Community — what we all seek.

More blessings…

I have found like-minded thinkers, resources, opportunities by the boat load through technology. I thought I was alone, little did I know the world was bursting with these ideas and people, just waiting for me, all I needed to do was “click” and  jump in. There they were, these people boldly sharing ideas and opportunities.

Truthfully it is an addiction. You get a jolt of energy reading blogs and tweets by ubercool, uberpositive, uberconnected educators like @MattBGomez, @PernilleRipp, @Katsok, @PaulSolarz (the list goes on and on). I have grown, I can’t say how many fold, since making this tool a part of my teaching life.  I eagerly awaited the blogs that came out of the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon instigated by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Vicki Vinton’s blog is always filled with meat and potatoes thinking for reading teachers, but served up like a dessert. Then there are the many contributors to Two Writing Teachers and Nerdy Book Club  showcasing tremendous thinking and writing of passionate teachers of writing and reading (love those people). Shannon Clark and her blog-a-day challenge that included thoughts and examples from her 6th graders was inspirational. And at the end of the day, I wonder when do these people sleep?

The curse of technology… unforeseen problems

Technology is a tool, a powerful one. One that we gladly welcome into our world. Integrating it fully. We rush to our computer,  our phone, our iPad, to connect, to learn. How could we live, teach, learn without it? When something doesn’t work or something isn’t completely thought out, then we have to live with the consequences of this dependence.   On a personal level, I had a life-altering technological catastrophe: I lost all my data on my iPhone. It is now a grey, lifeless, machine. Its personality, dare I say soul, that was developed over years, is gone. Why? Long story, I could and did point fingers and raged. I’m still grieving the loss,  but the bottom line, the reason it happened was because I didn’t think something out completely. I moved too fast and made a big mistake.

This leads me to another concern/potential problem of technology: loss of control.  One student in my classroom has, shockingly, not followed the guidelines for iPad usage. Nothing horrible, but clearly not being productive, just playing. Of course others ratted him out. Later, one student came up to me and asked,  “Would you like me to help you with the iPads, Mrs. Harmatz? I know how you can stop kids from messing with things.” This made me think of what Cornelius Minor (I’m paraphrasing here) cited as one of the tools every connected educator needs: someone under the age of 14.  Yep! Got the iPad, all those apps, but  I forgot the kid!  I gratefully accepted this student’s help and learned from him.

The experience in my classroom was minor. But scale that up to the high school level and you get what happened in my school district and other districts, high schoolers getting past the firewalls on their district-purchased iPads. Gasp! Shocking? Not really, I’m actually kinda proud of them. Now I applaud my district for venturing into technology. And I hope this won’t sideline the move to connect our students and equalize the opportunity for learning with 21st century resources. What I wonder about is this: Did they ask any students to give input into the development, adoption, and roll out of the technology? Perhaps they did, but if they didn’t maybe they should consider bringing the most important “stakeholders” into the conversation — the kids.

I learned from my mistake and I’m getting help from my students. We still have the technology, and the blessings that go with it. MIstakes happen the trick is learning from them. I will be more thoughtful. We will work through the bumps and learn to overcome them, to lessen the curse and grow the benefits from the many blessings associated with technology.

We could all learn a thing or two from out students. With all the bright, shinny, exciting technology, don’t forget the other “must have” tool: someone under 14.

Power of Tangible, Visible Goals: So Much More Than a Grade

Writing shows who we are, what we know, how we think, and what we want. Writing is learning about ourselves and putting it out for the world to see. Writing is a brave act.

I have the privilege to teach my students writing. I get to see into their hearts and minds. Their writing shows their passions and their worries, their triumphs and failures.

Now think grades, specifically evaluating writing for a grade. As I celebrate what my students do and look to what they need to do next, the concept of a grade makes me — uncomfortable. What does that do for a writer? How does this grow a writer, a learner, a thinker?  On the other hand, we crave feedback. Parents want to know how their child is doing and students want to know how they did. And yes, we need assessment and standards to form this feedback fairly and consistently. The challenge is doing this in a way that develops writers, celebrating their brave act of putting themselves out there for all to see. This requires so much more than a grade.

Assessment should be a living document that student  and teacher can take and grow from.  Thanks to the work of Lucy Calkins and Teachers College Reading Writing Project’s Units of Study, we now have common core standards-based checklists by grade level.  This kid- and teacher- friendly tool sets forth a continuum with clear expectations and next steps, one that can be embraced by an entire school community providing a clear “pathway” to develop writers.

What follows is work of a student who is a passionate writer, writes on her own all the time. She is an English language learner and has learning disabilities that show up in her writing.

One day my mom told me lets go to the mall okay so I told my mom can I bring phone  she said no but mom I thought you said I could use it well I change my mind mom said I don’t  want to listen to her so I hide it in my sister bag I told her to not tell mom why she said because mom doesn’t  want me to bring it  well she said fine I was so happy so I could show off my phone so  we went to the mall  when we went to Hollister it was so.Dark  so I told my sister  to give me  it please so she give it to me I was so happy everyone told me I like your phone I said.Thanks  a lot of strangers said I love it I said …thanks   so I was using it my mom looked at me she was like what was that nothing she told me  give me your hands I left  it right  there   I was looking to find my phone  but it was all dark so I felt like crying  I said to my mind stop why did I I had to bring it just to show off  UGGG  I stomp my I feet NO NO well I learned so much to never show off and always say the truth to your mom even the worst ones.

Knowing this writer and her passion for writing, it is so important to approach her acknowledging all she has done well. Using the TCRWP narrative checklist we can name her strengths. She’s told a story that had tension and a lesson learned. She elaborated with her thoughts, feelings, dialogue and action. She  provided some craft elements, specifically sensory details — Hollister so Dark — that were a crucial to her story. The criteria of craft, elaboration, and story are all elements this student wrote toward using the checklist. But it is also so important not to stop there.  A crucial part of writing is writing so others can understand your thoughts. Using the checklist,  we look to aspects she has not met such as structure and language conventions. Now, she has concrete feedback and clear next steps for her work. She knows where she sits on the continuum. She knows where she needs to work.  We  have clear goals to work toward. It is tangible, visible — so much more than a grade.IMG_1063

Conjoined Twins: Read’n and Writ’n

I have a language arts classroom  where  siblings Read’n and Writ’n are in a constant battle for attention. Historically Read’n has been the favored child, in terms of time and focus.  As much as I tell Writ’n he’s just as loved as his sister Read’n, he knows who I always put first, who always gets the shot gun seat. He knows. Actions speak louder than words. I have promised to give him more time with the kids but in the end, at best he gets half as much time, at worst he’s ignored or assigned as homework.

Lack of time, we all have it. So we prioritize. Which should come first? What’s more important? In the end these siblings are actually conjoined twins, inseparable. They are each other’s lifeblood. I’ve always known this but haven’t acted as if I believe it.

This year they are getting equal time, really, I’m not just saying it. I’m doing it by putting one upfront, letting one area have priority two days a week. Whatever has priority that day, starts the day, that one gets our energy and our focus. That’s the day for the other sibling to take the back seat and go along for the ride, being supportive along the way. While I’d like to give them equal time every day, I feel it would just short change them both with not enough time to do either one well. (If you are wondering about the fifth day, it is often shared with a cousin, Assess’n, sort of a play date.)

You might say, why not just spilt your time down the middle. I’ve considered that, but this is what I’ve come to believe: reading and writing require dedicated time spent.  Each segment of workshop — directed lesson, student time to do, and social interaction with others about what was done — is crucial. To eliminate or minimize a part, severely limits its effectiveness. I believe that the time we spend is better spent in a concentrated orchestrated fashion. Where all the pieces build into and support each other. A lIttle bit is better than nothing, but a daily “fair spilt”  would result in doing neither well. Reading and writing workshop need all of its parts in tact to be a working whole.




This is how it’s morphed. While I still have guilt, it has allowed writing to have a real role in our classroom, get’n a little love for once. Just look at the mess it’s making!



I would love to know your thoughts on this. Am I being fair?  Am I doing the right thing by my students?

Fact that Feels Like Fiction: Personal Narrative Journey

Writing, the process, purpose and place in my classroom, has dominated my thinking the past few weeks. My fifth grade students did not want to write. I knew  (hoped) they knew what to do from previous years of teaching, but they didn’t want to, and that broke my heart. So many balked at the idea of the telling a true story.  I needed to change up my approach.  They needed to see this kind of writing as something they could do and dare I say, have fun doing.

FINDING THE FUN FACTOR: Last Tuesday, I pledged to my students/challenged myself to tell a true story a day for the month of September.  I’ve done this in part to show that story exists all around us, but most of all to see it as a fun thing to do. While it is early in the month, I already feel this challenge is pushing me to think and pay close attention to my surroundings. Feels like Common Core work, a la Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading, Lessons for Analyzing Texts and Life.

The first three stories I told were about my cat, raccoons getting into my house and a fear-factor diving board experience from my deep dark past. Now my storytelling starts out our Writing Workshop much as  read aloud starts our Reading Workshop. And just like read aloud, they love it. It’s fun. It’s story. In fact a student asked if she could be the storyteller on Monday. Yes, yes, and yes!

FINDING SUCCESS: Now it was their turn to story tell in the air and on the page. I wanted them to be successful, but not with morphed  cat/raccoon/diving board stories.  So I launched them into a lesson where I gave them five plot points with an “every kid” story line that could be developed in many ways. The plot points stayed the same but it was their job to story tell “their” details,  in between the plot points. They told and listened to stories with two different partners and then they wrote. We did this with two story lines over two days. By the end of the second round, their pens were flying across the page. Paragraph after paragraph. It was one of those amazing teacher moments.  Students actually groaned nooo when I asked them to stop after 35 minutes of writing. This was a class that two weeks earlier were groaning, “do we have to write?”

I spoke to one student after, and asked her what made the difference for her with this strategy. She said, “It was easy because I was making it up. When I tell about what happens to me it just happens that’s all.”  Interestingly all of the things she wrote to develop the plot points were really about her, her personal experience, it just felt like fiction, or maybe storytelling felt like fiction.


MAKING IT OUR OWN: In the next lesson I wanted students to create their own plot points as well as story. I was worried. Would I hear the moan, I don’t know what to write or does it have to be true, or would they lapse back into their bed-to-bed theme park stories.

POWER OF POST ITS AND PARTNERS: This time I set them up with little post its for their notebook’s story arc (bright small post its always increase the fun factor). First they were invited to choose a partner to work out the post it points with.  This partnership was followed up with a second partnership of their choice.  After about 10 minutes of talk, students moved to their desks, notebooks open, post its displayed, pens poised. I pretty much held my breath. Could they do it?  A handful needed support, but the majority had worked through much of their thinking with another student.

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WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND OURSELVES AS WRITERS: The most powerful part of the day was the share at the end.  Students named what they learned:

1) Talking about my story helps

2) Having a structure helps

3) Planning helps

4) Knowing a lot about the story helps

5) Using elaboration tools really helps me write more

Out of the the mouths of babes!

Making a Safe Place for Risky Thinking

I was a quiet and cautious kid.  I did not take risks. Share my ideas, not likely. i’d much rather play it safe.  I was the last kid in  swim class to jump off the high dive. To this day I remember the paralyzing fear. I was hanging in space alone, on a bouncy board, the pool so far away. Why did I jump? There was no other way out. I couldn’t turn back. I’d be lying if I told you I loved it. I didn’t. I still hate that hanging in space feeling. I was forced to do this. It was a requirement of the class.

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Over time, my risk-taking quotient increased. This year in teaching I’ve taken the biggest risks, made the biggest changes. So much of this change has been because of the network of teacher/learners on twitter, their blogs and their always supportive stance.  

It’s scary…

I regularly see the tweets: How to Get Teachers Over the Fear of Tweeting. I “get” that fear. At first I lurked, unseen no one would know. Then my big mouth got the better of my fear and I finally tweeted. Pushing the tweet button was a jump. For days I worried about tweet I’d made. I survived and unlike the high dive, no one made me. I did it on my own. Then I got support. I was retweeted. Oh my gosh, someone agrees! Maybe I’m worthy?

Once someone followed me, I was hooked. I belong! Now tweeting is as easy as breathing and as gratifying as eating ice cream.  I rush home to get to chats, and I’m extremely upset if I miss them. I was on a mission to get others at my school involved. A few adventurous souls do. They tell me they enjoy what I tweet, and I retweet them. I figure if I can get a few to put their toe in the water, maybe they will jump in.  As each one gets support, starts to belong,  they will spread the word to at least one other person. 

Responding to blogs was the next scary thing. Again I worried about what I said. But the responses I got back from the bloggers made it not only ok, but welcome. After all these are teachers, of course they were encouraging. 

With success, all of a sudden you crave it

So with all this encouragement, how about a blog? From the kid who wouldn’t raise her hand in class. Why? In large part because of the generous and supportive spirit of the twitter teacher community. While it was scary,  I felt safe, safe enough to try. 

My most recent jump, direct messaging. That may sound strange as another step, but it is personal. A reaching out to one person, no hiding. I worried: am I being presumptuous? Asking too much?  I was really concerned about something in my classroom and one person jumped into my mind. One person who would take the time and have the resources to help. So I direct messaged  Fran McVeigh. What followed was a long conversation about my writer’s workshop. Strategies were developed. My next steps clear, and a reminder to stay calm, take a breath. Thank you Fran, you’ve never met me but you know me!

Bringing my personal learning back to the classroom space

It’s week three and lots of parent questionnaires are rolling in. Another first this year, thank you Pernille Ripp for the generous sharing of your questionnaire. The responses are beautiful. I immediately felt that tremendous love and concern parents have for their kids. I felt honored to be let into their lives and obligated to foster these fragile beings. Amy Smith’s eloquent blog sends a message we all need to keep in our forethoughts when we invite our students in to class. All have their strengths and their fears.

They are me. Afraid to jump, share, speak, be. So what does it take to feel safe enough to  jump, to take risks with ideas, to put your thoughts in the air, on paper, on a blog? Here are some things I learned about risk taking and learning during my summer of lurking, tweeting, commenting and blogging. I think it applies very nicely to our classroom spaces.

Requirements for a Safe Place for Fragile Thoughts and Almost There Ideas

Where Risk Taking to Learn is Encouraged

1. There must be free will. It is not forced. There is a choice.

2. You are allowed to watch, to lurk.

3. There are baby steps that are supported: I agree!

4. There is a cheering section: Thank you, your thoughts matter.

5. There is a chance to lead other learners: You are the expert, show us.

6. There are experts to lean on, to help us through our tough moments:

Who can help me?

7. There are open spaces without judgement to express and discover

who you are,  and what you believe.

 As always, feel free to share your thoughts.