Thanksgiving Lessons

celebrate link up

The best part of my  Thanksgiving celebration was listening to siblings and cousins, aged 15 to 20, talking about what they had in common, the focus of their lives, school.  They are what the world would consider successful students. Good grades, ya da, ya da. I just listened and learned.

I got in trouble. I was always talking back. Don’t know why I did that.  It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.

This comment was from my son. Now he never got any real trouble in school. Never a trip to the principal’s office. Teachers consistently put that comment on his report cards, “Pleasure to have in class.” Yet what stuck out for him was how he got in trouble in kindergarten. I know for a fact that the majority of kindergarten was a good experience. But what this 19-year old held on to was how he got in trouble.

Wow. A tiny bit of negative is so powerful. Powerful and kinda scary.  I don’t blame the teacher at all. He probably did something wrong and needed to be held accountable.

Thinking about the second part of his comment is interesting. Don’t know why I did that. He wasn’t sure why he kept talking back. Students aren’t always aware or mindful of their actions we are holding them accountable for.

This brings me to the third part. It wasn’t what she said, it was how she said it.  Ah, there is the crafty part. How we say it. The outcome can seem to be the same, yet the means to getting there so very different. How we get there may matter more than what we get our students to do.

This brings me to another bit of conversation about a teacher:

She shared the perfect amount of stories and she’d listen to our stories.  I learned a lot in that class, but I didn’t really appreciate it till later.   

Wow. Stories matter, what we share and how we listen matter. And  sometimes that learning isn’t realized till later.

My children and nieces are those successful students. They didn’t give up or as “get off the bus as @teachkate and @MaggieBRoberts share in their blog. But what about those fragile, for whatever reason, students that look like they are on the edge, how we say it, how we get there matters. That may just keep them on that bus. We are not “just teachers.” We have a tremendous responsibility to keep students present and engaged in their process.

Here are some lessons I’m taking away from my 2013 Thanksgiving table:

The process creates outcomes.

Stories help us along our path.

Outcomes are not always apparent.

Most of all, listening matters.2013-11-28 14.58.10

Solitude and Presence

ImageNo school this week.

My 15-year old is sleeping the morning away.

Husband’s at work.

Nothing to distract me from my inwardness.

I wander through blogs, adult and kid. Responding, leisurely. I get comfortable in aloneness.

Time for coffee.

Check the email.

Start a load of laundry.

Irritated by a phone call.

A book distracts me.

There went an hour.

A pile of files and a wet load of laundry, unmade bed and to be made Thanksgiving plans are tugging at me, telling me to hurry up and get to it.  But the November sunlight is streaming through my window, and that seat in the corner is calling.

Just a little longer, 30 minutes I tell myself, then I’ll get to work.

I wonder if this is how I should be spending my time. There is only so much of it. The comfort of aloneness is so attractive. When given the choice, I often take that road. Is because the school days are so full of humanity that I just need silence, or is this is my natural state?

When school is in session, my family respects my need to assess, realign and recharge, by leaving me alone, and going into their worlds.  All find it easy to slip into their separate virtual spaces.  We reconnect with food, entertainment, and technology — my daughter “stalking” her brothers on Facebook,  a stupid cat video.

Technology has pulled us towards those who share our passions, but at the same time pulled us away from those who are physically there and precious — our families. The lack of dependency of and on family and the hyper presence of our virtual community is the proverbial blessing and curse. Personally I have been blessed with support that has offered me so much as a teacher, a reader and — dare I say — writer. This was unimaginable less than a year ago. But time is finite, and therein lies the sneaky curse.  I watched a family at dinner. (I’m sure you have seen this same scene.) The two children with their iPads, adults checking their phones.  All in their own worlds, together.  We’re there physically, but not present. We’re connected elsewhere. Worrisome.

Time’s up.

Time to wake up my daughter.

She’ll probably scowl at me, but maybe I’ll get a hug. That sensory element is in short supply. It shakes me out of my solitude.

Time to be present.

I’m looking forward to eating with and hugging my family at Thanksgiving. One won’t be home, but we can connect virtually.

The blessings and curses of technology.

Blessings and virtual hugs to you SOLers. May you give yourself the time to hug and be present with those closest to you.

Embedding Celebration

celebrate link upToday is the first day of Thanksgiving Break. Lots of extra time to relax and reflect as I look toward the crazy month ahead.  Students will be just a little “off” from now till the New Year, and who can blame them. Rather than be a bit frustrated with this phenomenon, this year I’m embracing the celebration. In fact mindfully embedding it. Not just during the holidays, but throughout the year.  And I don’t mean I’ll be throwing parties all year. 

Inspired by  Ruth Ayers’  Celebrating Writers, it seems that a healthy dose of celebration needs  to be added to the mix of choice, collaboration and creation in the classroom, and not just in writing. Inherent in celebration is a break, a breather. Breaks are good. We recharge. Things seem possible. The task ahead looks doable. Breaks can propel us into our the next learning cycle.

Celebration needs to be  embedded – present every step of the way. Learning is messy and often difficult. In light of the elevated expectations of Common Core, students and teachers could feel like they are going backwards rather than forwards. The more fragile the learner,  the more challenging the learning, the more frequent the celebration.

Celebration could start with a complement or reflection on previous learning. Then continue throughout the lesson, conferring and student work time. Masterful teachers instinctively seem to know when to celebrate learning. Perhaps we should mindfully plan celebrations at points in the learning work  that we know will be challenging.

Take time to notice and name what is accomplished, take a breath and celebrate. With each celebration comes a embedded boost of encouragement, a reflection on what’s done and the implied belief that the next step is possible.

So here’s my new teaching template that not only names what I teach, but asks me to plan celebrations. A reminder that celebrations need to be embedded, daily to keep the learning going.

Who’s the Learner?

sols_6I face this very blank screen and very large pile of student papers. Am I stressing? Yes, but no. Some how this writing, my commitment to me, is a comfort. This is a space for me to sift though the tangled mess of my own making.

I’m trying to balance what I teach directly to students and students’ active learning work.  Sounds good but difficult to do.

Real learning comes from actively doing, discovering of your process, and believing that you can do it. This is how I’ve learned. No one ever told me anything that I didn’t have to do first, to truly “get.” So my job is to facilitate that process — to push the thinking and doing switch to active, not passive. It is messy and difficult to monitor. How much struggle is too much/not enough? Frustration for students needs to be regulated with a good measure of success so they keep going. Different lines need to be drawn for different students. Some degree of floundering is required. But time is limited.

As the holidays get closer my patience is tested. I worry about their growth.  I only have these students for about six more months. When accountability measures don’t show what I expect, my frustrations start to show and that bottom line is toxic.

The students are great, their attitudes tremendous. But Friday’s results–not good. I was disappointed in myself. What am I doing to help each one?  Where are they? Where do they need to be?  How much time do I have?  By the end of the weekend, I had a map of a kind, a re-organization of student needs to help find our way though the mess.

Plans made. Organization re-designed –  new purple and red composition books and lots of post its. (I love office supplies!)

Today was good. Student work created; awaiting me to sift through, looking for strengths and next steps.  I’m struggling, but I know I can do this. Makes me wonder, who’s the learner?

Celebrating Our Writing AND the Process of Learning

celebrate link up

This week has been a typical teaching week: up and down. The beauty of this celebration blog is that it forces me to orient myself to a place I don’t go naturally. It is my tendency to obsess on the student I didn’t get to or the lesson that fell short. Reflecting on these moments are essential but the celebration of the successes is at least equally important for growth. Looking at what did work in a balance with what didn’t, makes for positive moves. Bless you Ruth Ayers for starting this ritual and pushing me to this realization.

A Little Background….Students have been working on researching the Western Expansion of the US, developing ideas from this research, and then writing thoughtfully about it. Anyone who does this work knows it is challenging. Students want to do the right thing, they want to please, they want to know the formula. I nudge them to read, think. I give them examples, mentors, and lots and lots of modeling. They are looking for the answer and ultimately, my approval.  I am looking for their decisions and their thinking about it.  We are often at opposing ends of the spectrum.

On Friday, we reached the end of a “bend” in TCRWP’s Writing Unit of Study on Research Reports.  After lots of (sometimes) painful work, a celebration was in order and we did it in a way that was instructional and just plain fun — we blogged a section of our reports. In the process of celebration we learned how to upload media and how to link websites to words in our text in the blog. We celebrated by spending over an hour blogging and learning. This was by far the best writing celebration ever.

Prior to the celebration, a couple of things happened.

The First Thing:  Results from a survey of students on writing showed one of the biggest problems/concerns they had with writing was not enough time. They worried about how they could get so much done in a short period of time. At first I thought, welcome to the world. But I also get this. I need time, space and quiet to do thinking work. I always marvel at the ability of students to work in classroom spaces. Time is limited and on demand work is tough.  So I resolved to give them time. No pressures, just process in this celebration.

The Second Thing:  I prepped a few students to be tech teachers. I have a group of students who come voluntarily to work with me once a week at lunch recess on tech issues. Most of the time we are learning together. This Thursday we learned how to link and upload media to the blog. They learned quickly and as usual, added to my knowledge in the process. Friday morning, they became classroom experts and teachers during our celebration. This made it possible for me to have my teaching base grow geometrically as the more and more students learned. I could readily team up students who didn’t know with one who did. Most had one on one teaching. As they learned, we found ways to make the process better and easier. Working with one student, we came upon a problem I had no idea of how to conquer. He did. Genius.  It was collaboration at its best.

Encountering problems is standard operating procedure with anything that is technology related. The beauty of this is the process. Students and I know there is a way and an answer and if we work toward solving it, we can. What a powerful lesson. That is the reason I love technology. It promotes problem solving, thinking, persistence and success.

I celebrate my students’ process of working towards what we know we can do.

Walking in Her Shoes


I’m trying to walk in her shoes, but they are a tad high and a bit uncomfortable.  Very uncomfortable in fact and not just for my feet, but for my heart.

Saturday night was Homecoming for my daughter.  She is my baby, my love, but she’s 15 and I’m trying really hard to understand.

The afternoon started with a trek to Sephora for makeup. I leave her there with a 20-something makeup artist named Amy.  I come back 30 minutes later, and Amy is working intently on her sparkly green eyeshadow. It’s time to find a cup a tea and a quiet spot in the mall.  Another 30 minutes go by, and still no text. Perhaps someone has kidnapped her! Old habits die slowly. Nope, she’ll still there, the finishing touches are being put on her lips. She looks like everyone in Sephora, which is ok if you work there or in a Broadway show. As we leave, Amy tells her to be safe.  The 20-something tells her to be safe! Eeek, I’m a complete fool to allow this, I think, but I don’t say anything.

When we get in the car, she looks in the mirror and wonders aloud if it’s too much. I say…nothing. She sends pictures to all of her friends. They send pictures. They all look the same: eye shadow, cat eye liner, lipstick. She’s relieved. And in a strange way I start to fit a little more comfortably in her shoes.

I remember calling my friends, talking on a phone that was attached to a cord, having intense conversations about what to wear, and attempting to look pretty much like everyone else. I surely didn’t have the courage to break away from the crowd when I was 15. Looking at her doing pretty much the same thing, I get it.

She went with her three friends. The shoes were identical, the dresses equally short, the hair, long and curled. While shocking in isolation, it was monochromatic in a group.

I’m still uncomfortable. I hold my breath and say silent prayers. I tell her to be safe, to text me at various points in the night.

Is it the same as when I was 15? Yes and no. And does it really matter? Growing up has always been perilous and uncomfortable.

I can’t buckle her up and tuck her in any more. Now, I wait for the text, for her to get home, lock the door, and get to bed.

1:00 am. She’s home.  One day closer to growing up and out of this danger zone, teetering on high platform shoes, hoping not to fall.

The Power of Words: An Epiphany and an Apology

Coaches and mentors are a god spend. Literally. When we’re lost and despondent in the trees, they come in and help us see the beauty of the forest,  and give us guidance to make our way to a new vista.

But sometimes, when facing semester grading, on top of changing out the library, rethinking the writing lesson that bombed on Friday, along with the usual planning over the weekend, a teacher can look at that same coach and be a little resentful. Kinda like when grandparents come, play with the kids, and leave the parent stuck with the dirty diapers and messy house.

Saturday morning, my friend, former teaching colleague, now mentor coach, asked me if I wanted to go shopping this weekend,  I replied, I’d love to but some of us have grades to input. Oooo. I felt bad the second it came out of my mouth. She literally hung her head. I have been feeling bad ever since. As I write this I feel even worse. No excuses. Yeah, I hate report cards but my words were inexcusable.

This same coach on Friday led one of our new teachers to an epiphany that reached me.  This new teacher has been complaining for weeks that her students weren’t doing enough in writing. She’d come to the lunch room saying, I just don’t know what to do, he just sat there and did nothing! I ‘d say something like, hmmm, and think, yeah that’s how it goes sometimes. No sage words came to mind. But my friend, her coach came to her with these words – it’s not what they are doing right now, it’s what they are going to do. Words that lifted this new teacher to hope and understanding. Words that helped me see a little light in the writing work I was trying to accomplish with my students. These words lifted. Oh the power of words.

I am sorry, my friend.  Your work is powerful and important.  It’s work that helps our most fragile teachers in ways that are immeasurable. Work that reaches beyond those new teachers as they share their insights and successes with us who have been around a little longer, but still have those same problems.

The Dance of Reading Assessment

For the past two weeks I have been consumed by assessment.  For me this means a roller coaster of emotions: overwhelmed at first, elated at some points, hit by an oh no, what do I now feeling at other moments, and then coming to terms with the realities of what my students can do and where we need to work. Assessment is uncomfortable, so is growth. This is good I tell myself.

Assessing readers has been a dance revolving around student work in small group, independent reading, as well as Running Records and SRI assessments. Students’ Fountas & Pinnell and lexile levels gives an indication as to where a student’s “just right” reading exists, but it isn’t perfect. Students will sometimes be able to work well in books above their assessed levels and sometimes won’t be able to understand a book leveled where they were suppose to fit.  Writers’ work is as varied as are students’ abilities. A level on a book or a student doesn’t say it all. Figuring out what the barriers are for a student in a particular text, and how to overcome them, is the daunting task teachers face. A reading level is a starting point.

Two weekends ago, I rediscovered Jennifer Seravallo’s comprehensive book on assessing readers in fiction. The concept of this work is to assess students’ understanding of an entire book across major literature components: Plot/Setting, Character, Language and Theme/Symbolism.  Two texts, per Fountas & Pinnell level are available giving students choice — I need to add the texts are excellent, high quality, engaging reads. The intent is to assess what readers do and think as they read a text unassisted. Approximately 12-15 questions are placed throughout the text. The end result is an assessment of where the student has understanding by component and to what extent: exceptional, proficient, or approaching.

I jumped into this task wanting to know what my students could do. The results were sobering, and they made sense. Most students did well in character analysis. No surprise. Our school has spent an inordinate amount of effort working on understanding character, and the results showed. This is good news. Now the flip side: where we need to work. Across the grade level, regardless of ability, we saw a weakness in understanding the importance of setting and theme, particularly determining symbolic meanings. Here’s me thinking… Come on why don’t they see the deeper meaning here? Then I stop myself, wait they are ten. So for some, understanding themes may be developmental, but setting? I’m betting that if we focus on this aspect we’ll see results. Students have not been paying much attention to the impact of setting on characters and the problems they face largely because teachers weren’t focusing as much on it. This is a huge aha, and it sends not only a message to the 5th grade teachers but all teachers at our school. And maybe, with a better understanding of setting and how it ties to character, the themes/symbols will be more apparent. Hope springs eternal.

When the results of this assessment first started trickling in, I had to do some adjustment in my thinking. Initially, my reaction was oh no what do I do now?! I’ve overestimated their abilities. I had to resist the desire to take the books they were loving, but not really understanding, out of their hands. So, I talked myself off that cliff and realized something big:  I now have a clear direction as to what students need, individually and as a group. While they won’t read everything with complete understanding across every literature component, they will be moving toward it. And honestly, do I always read everything with complete understanding? Absolutely not. Sometimes I pick up a book, and I know I’m not working hard enough. Then I make the choice to either be satisfied with a limited understanding, or I set that book down and pick it back up when I’m ready to do the work. With this in mind, I’m hoping to teach my students not only the skills and strategies they need for understanding text, but also the knowledge of when they are really understanding and when they are not ready to do that work.

I celebrate this tool that moves us closer to understanding our students (what they do and what they don’t  do as readers), and how to move them closer to what they need to do. Thank you Jennifer Serravallo.

As a post script, the Independent Reading Assessment for non fiction is on order. Can’t wait for that ride!

Am I Crazy?

Yes, just a little.  I’m one of those crazy people who once they commit to something, nothing  will stop them.

This is hard. My brain is rebelling at the thought of it — just like my students.

I have nothing to say — just like my students.

You have so much to say, I tell my students and so I tell myself. HA! I think.

I write, but not this kind of writing. THIS KIND OF WRITING SCARY.  It is the kind that uncovers. Not completely, that would be too scary. But just a bit more.

Part of my attraction to commitments and challenges is my love of rituals. Rituals rule my life. They are like dessert, something to look forward to.  I’m looking to make Slice of Life writing a ritual. Something that I will savor and perhaps hate at times. Unfortunately the love of ritual has a dark side to it that can be painful.  So here’s to a new ritual and a community of slicers that provide a place for this kind of pursuit.

One of my loved, most important rituals is a hot drink, quiet space, and words. Words that I write or read. Everything is quiet. No one to interrupt me but my cat stealing up behind me, wrapping himself around me, nestling on my lap, reaching up for my inattentive hand. The hot drink sits beside me. The quiet stretches before me, and I refuse to look at the clock. That would break the spell of the ritual.

But soon it’s late. I should be doing. Life is calling. I’ll pay big time later for this. Think unfinished laundry, empty refrigerator, lost sleep.  I’ll wish I hadn’t read one more chapter, re wrote one more line, read one more paper. Yet I’ll do it again.

Computer’s about to die, only 8% left. My only time management tool, no charger. 7%….Count down till I must turn off. Power warning light went on. Time is closing in. Quick save the post, till it goes …zippp….

Celebrating Genius Hour’s Pure Genius

Picture this: Halloween, festival games at lunch recess. It’s 1:20 and students are back in class for an hour and 15 minutes. Hmm.  Do you really expect students to want to sit down and learn? Not a problem! It’s Thursday, 1:30 our regularly scheduled Genius Hour time, when students take over their learning.

We started with a tour of a paper city created by Jaden. Each part of the town was described in detail as others sat completely engaged, asking questions.

2013-10-31 13.31.40The forest featured two boys facing a grizzly bear, See that yellow circle on his stomach? That’s the beam of the flash light! he explained.  Oh wow! That is so cool,  Anthony and Damien responded. See this house here? Jaden continued. That’s my brother. He saw me working on it and of course he had to be in it. Wouldn’t you if you were my brother? The town was complete with a baseball stadium, the White House, wood shop and arcade. What more would a boy want?

After the presentation, the call came out for tape, paper, and cardboard.   Two teams of boys continued their work, started the previous week, on a World War II battle scene. One had assigned himself the job of determining the cause of the war. Internet was off, so books met his current needs. Another student’s game board was under development.

2013-10-31 14.25.00Many were creating/designing arcade games. Can you help me measure this? It must be precise. Precise? I think, we’re talking about cardboard, tape and a balled up piece of paper. It needs to stay in the pocket he informed me. Oh.

Play or Learning?

  • Jadenwood was a narrative with elaboration and craft moves through out.
  •  The causes of World War II require research and reading.
  • Arcade and board games are design, engineering and problem solving — creating something that matches your vision. 
  • Articulating a vision and the problems encountered in executing that vision can be challenging for anyone particularly English language learners. Having the idea is one thing but being able to describe it so others can help and understand your thinking is essential no matter what your perspective.

The work is completely directed by students. I help with materials and sometimes technical assistance, such as cutting cardboard. They often start their projects in class and work on them at home. No one is reminded that Genius Hour is on Thursday. Mostly they want me to know what they are up to and schedule their presentations.

This is our first year doing Genius Hour. A year ago, this work was unknown and unimaginable to me. At this point it is decidedly low tech. I love the power of a cardboard box.

Given a little time, and many failed attempts, something quite amazing can come out of Genius Hour. The process is evolving. My challenge is to become a better facilitator of their pursuits. Bottom line, I believe all students have hidden super powers. It’s my job to help them find them. Genius Hour is a very good start.

Thank you to Joy Kirr, Hugh Mc Donald, Gallit Zvi and Angela Maiers for all of your work and genius inspiring teachers like me to take a leap for our students.