Honoring Those Who Are “Just Doing Their Job”

I walked into the office at 7:30 am and saw the usual pandemonium. In the midst of it was our nurse, Lucia.

Lucia is only at our school two days a week, but her presence is huge. She KNOWS our students and is AWARE of their health issues. If there is anything of concern, from eye sight to allergy, she lets us know.  She is relentless when it comes to a student’s health needs. She follows up on things. She a true professional, committed to our kids. When we go on over night field trips, meds and medical conditions are gone over with a fine-toothed comb, by Lucia.

I love her no-nonsense manner and true sense of purpose.

At lunch, I handed her a card from the 5th grade team. A gift card to the local health food store was enclosed. Lucia practices what she preaches.

At the end of the day she walked into my room and said, “I just want to thank you so much for this.”

“Oh, your welcome, we really appreciate you.” I replied.

She continued, “I can’t tell you how much that means to me, really, you have no idea. I was just doing my job..”

I can honestly say I have never received such a heart-felt thank you. We simply said thanks for what she does for our students. What she does well. Her reaction said it mattered that we noticed and took the time to remember her during the holidays. .

Some may think that this isn’t necessary. She was just doing her job. But her thank you told me that it is necessary to acknowledge people who show passion for and commitment to their work.  It is important to let people know you value what they bring to you. That they matter, and you are grateful.

Thank you Lucia, what you do matters. Thank you.nerdlution-button-tiny-01-1

#nerdlution continues.

Daring Myself: Be Too Happy

I have a superstitious thing about being too happy because if I am, that will surely tempt the demons lurking and show me. On the other hand what good is it to live that way. Why not be joyful when it is so obviously present.

So here’s to a whole lot of good showing up this week.

First – The community of writers at Slice of Life (SOL)  sponsored by Two Writing Teachers is simply beautiful. This group has given me a space to share my family, my work, and my thoughts. To be something I didn’t really feel I could be, a writer.  And they in turn share things that add so much to my life. I use to go workout or sleep in on Tuesday mornings. Now my Tuesday mornings are spent reading and often crying over pieces written by the lovely people who contribute to SOL.  Thank you, thank you Slicers. I you have added so much to my life.

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Second – The Nerdy Book Club’s 2013 nominations inspired me to spend some time and money ordering books this weekend. They are trickling in now thanks to Amazon Prime. Every night I come home to packages. Yesterday it was God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant and Marla Frazee and My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O’Hara.

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Today Stitches by Ann Lamott and Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo showed up. These books are like chocolate cove2013-12-17 20.38.28red carmel. Absolutely perfect. The thing is, as I open each book to give it a look see, read the first or first several chapters, I think, “I must give this to…” I then wrap it  and make a note to reorder another copy for me.

Third  – My students did a post assessment in information writing today. We have been working on the report writing unit from TCRWP’s Units of Study. These post assessments fill me with a combination of excitement and dread. Excitement: I want to know what they can do, but also dread: oh no what if they haven’t grown.

I read through them just to get an initial feeling for the work, and for the most part, it is good. I’ll slice and dice them over break with the TCRWP’s exquisitely designed rubric, but the overall verdict is thumbs up.

Fourth –  A skype with Ryan Scala and his third grade writers about information writing was the high point for my students’ Tuesday. My season starved kiddos were so excited to hear that there was snow falling in New York. They still are boggled by the time difference.

It was also a treat to talk with Ryan about all things literary as we prepared for our classrooms’ first meeting. The technology is great but it is nothing without the human elements attached. Connecting with passionate students and teachers is simply wonderful.

Fifth – Nerdlution continues.nerdlution-button-tiny-01-1

All this and it’s only Tuesday.

Slice of Life: Handing Over Traditions


sols_6We got the tree on Saturday night.

My daughter had been on me about getting the tree and outside decorations. For years she has wanted lights on the house. The problem was after we re modeled our house nearly 10 years ago those little hook thingies have never been replaced. Every year she begs for Christmas lights. Every year I say ok and every year I get to the store too late. All of those hook thingies are gone.

On Saturday, she gets up at 1:00 pm (normal for a teenager)  and comes out to the kitchen.

“Let’s go Christmas shopping.”

We’re out the door by 2:00 pm.

One of the great things about my daughter is her incredible sense of style and ability to figure out the perfect gift for others. She is a born shopper. When she was four she helped me pick out hardware for the kitchen cabinets.

At our first stop we manage to get 80% of the family shopping done in about one hour. Travel time included we are leaving the store by 3:30 pm.

We run two more errands, 4:00 pm.

Next stop: Home Depot for decorations. The girl is determined to have the house lit up this year.

The selection is limited. She just looks at me.

“Mom, every year it’s like this. Why don’t you start earlier?”

I hang my head in shame. She’s right I don’t focus on the holiday until it is right upon us. She searches the shelves until she finds tiny multi-colored lights for the tree and some outdoor decorations.

In the past, I have protested outside decorations such as the lit up reindeer and sleigh. I favor the subtle evergreen wreath on the door and perhaps a welcome mat in red.  This year I offered no objection to anything she considered.  I figured I owe her, and how many more years will I have her at home to do this with me. We walked out of Hope Depot with exterior white lights and tiny lighted Christmas trees to line a walkway.

Next stop a tree. It’s getting dark. But we are committed. Two possible stops: the YMCA where she volunteers or the Beacon House, an alcohol recovery program that we support. We chose the Beacon House.

We pull up. It’s dark and not in the best part of town.

“No Mom, they are scary.”

The “they” she is referring to are the men in the program. I know these guys and the program. The Beacon House has one of the highest rates of success for recovery programs in the nation. The program is solid, the men are solid. There is nothing to fear, but in her mind it looks different, and from that point of view, it’s scary.

I park and tell her I wouldn’t take her anywhere that wasn’t safe.

We walk out.

I say hello to the guys, and introduce her. She’s a little hesitant, but smiles.

There are three trees left and only one that would fit in our house. It isn’t the best looking tree. I know this is a problem for her, but she says nothing. I pay. We get in the car and I wait for her comments.

“It’s kinda lame,” she says.

“Yeah,” I respond.

“But that’s ok.”


On the way home she asks me about the Beacon House and the men who go through the program. How it works, why they are there, what happens to them after the program. A good conversation about something that matters.

We get home and she takes to constructing and cursing at the outside tree decorations we bought. I stay clear.

The spot for the tree is ready and in about 10 minutes it is delivered and up.

I pull out the lights. After about a minute, she is clearly irritated with my progress and takes them from me. In the not so distant past, I would have been insulted by her attitude. Now, I gladly surrender the  lights to her.

Next the ornaments.   She’s ferrets through the boxes, clearly displeased with their organization.2013-12-14 18.43.04

“Where are the good ornaments? I need the ones we put on first,” she tells me.

Finally, she finds the ornament she looking for and puts it on the tree. It’s the one that shows our whole nuclear family, all three kids. It is special. It is her first one, purchased for her first Christmas. This is the one that goes on first.

I’m banished to the kitchen.

Tree trimming is something that I cherish.  This year, I cherished watching her. I watched as she took this tradition to her heart. It matters to her and this matters to me. It is our history. One I am honored to be a part of.

The tree may have started out a little lame, but now it is lovely. It’s ours.

Sunday Night Thoughts

The nerdlution thing has got me cornered here.  So many ideas lurking in my head and the week hasn’t even started.

More often than not, my Sunday nights are bursting with ideas, worries, and theories. My challenge right now in this post is to focus my thinking into something hat will make sense for me and my students.

I’m processing a conversation I had with my husband about a student’s writing. This student’s manuscript is extremely difficult to read. He looked at it, read it aloud slowly. He kept looking at it, processing it. He said, “You know this is actually quite beautiful, visually. Impossible to read, but beautiful.” After bit more examination he said, “his thoughts are really good, interesting.”  I had never thought student’s manuscript as beautiful. My husband went on to say, “He’s very creative, an artist, sort of an impressionist.” Coming from my husband, a bottom line kind of guy, I was a little surprised. He saw an artist in this boy. Surprised but grateful for that new perspective on this student. So I’m seeing this child through new impressionistic eyes. He is doing the writing work in a joyful manner. The conventions of form are not his concern.

I’m processing the #caedchat on great teachers. Great teachers empower, inspire, are passionate about learning, have high expectations, experiment, ask why, listen.  These are just a few of the comments I favorited.

Ask why and then listen stand out for me. Too much of the time i’m so concerned about getting our message across, I forget or don’t give the time to stop and listen.

  • Lessons need to be made with a questioning heart.
  • Leave a big space for why in every lesson.
  • Enter every conversation knowing students have a reason for their actions or inactions. It is my job to figure out why by asking and listening.

Tomorrow starts a week of festivities. Practices, performances and celebrations will be the focus from Wednesday through Friday. So what do I want my students to hold on to as they leave for a three week break?

  •  to enjoy their families as I plan to enjoy mine
  •  to rest and grow
  •  to want to read
  •  to want to write
  •  to miss their friends and routine by week two
  •  to want to get back to school before they come back

Still sorting out these ideas along with the nuts and bolts of tomorrow.

Looking forward to it.

Three Reasons Why My Classroom is Joyful

celebrate link up

My class of fifth graders are a true joy. I celebrate them daily. I mentioned this to my former principal and friend and she asked me why this class is special.

I came up with three reasons.

Reason One: I think classrooms are a chemistry of personalities. When it’s right, it’s sort of a Goldilocks occurrence. The just right mix of leaders, followers, givers, takers, tolerance, forgiveness and caring that allow people to live together. To share space and understand everyone’s little differences; to pick up something without being asked;  to say thank you or I’m sorry all because that is just what we do. This isn’t a perfect group of kids, but they are kind in their core. There are learning disabilities that can lead to tension, but in the end, students ability to reflect on behavior and what matters has led to general peace.

Reason Two: Stress levels are currently at an all time low.  Historically, my students’ idea of school has been mixed in with the need to perform on a test, and it showed.  As a class, they were noticeably anxious. I made it a point to get them to relax, take a breath and just be aware of where they are as learners. I want them to learn it is ok, in fact necessary, to make mistakes.

Why so relaxed? It all started because the test isn’t happening till 2014-15 school year. That gave me the courage to simply teach towards the spirit of the common core. While we have discussed the new expectations as a class, nothing has been done because it will be on the test.  I have been able to simply teach; looking at where students are as learners now, and moving towards where they need to be. I have been able to allow for growth and set backs without worrying about the test. I just worry about instigating learning, figuring out how learning occurs and fostering a positive self-aware attitude toward learning.

The final reason: In a word twitter.  Because of twitter I have discovered things that have had immediate impact on my class: Genius Hour, the Global Read Aloud, Skype, and kidblog. These new projects have changed the fabric and flow of my classroom.  Aside from these very tangible things, there are countless strategies, ideas, charts, lessons that have originated from twitter, twitter chats, blogs and follow-up emails.

The most important impact of twitter has been relationships: the giving group of educators who make the difference in my psyche as I enter the classroom. The positive vibe emanating from the twitterverse is formidable. Bad days occur. I have moments of feeling like I am the worst teacher in the world. Before twitter, those dark pits took time and a lot of energy to get out of. The encouraging voices on twitter and relationships I have built because of twitter have pulled me out of those funks quickly. Twitter has changed me. It doesn’t allow me to wallow in that dark place. It reflects hope and possibility on me and in turn I reflect it on my students. It’s no surprise they are a joyful bunch.

Student Generated Questions Provide a Quick Assessment

I am planning a Skype next week (hopefully) with Ryan Scala’s third grade students on writing. Both classes have just completed TCRWP informational writing Unit of Study.

To prepare, I asked my students what they would like to ask about informational writing. The minute they started talking I realized this was a giving me much more than I expected.

The “get to know you” questions showed what matters to students as writers. Fun and favorites came up a lot.

  • What’s your favorite writing topic?
  • What is the number one thing you like about writing?
  • What’s your favorite piece?
  • How many things have you written?
  • How do you make your writing fun?
  • Do you like writing?
  • What new things did you learn?
  • Was it fun learning about what you wrote about?  Did you find it interesting and cool?
  • Would you have chosen another topic now that you finished writing?

Getting ideas and getting started is a major concern for my students.  (But isn’t this true for all writers?)

  • How do you get an idea of what you’re going to write?
  • How do you get started to write?
  • How do you gather your information?
  • Why did you pick your topic?
  • How long did it take to write your last piece?

I was excited to see questions that showed their awarenesses of narrative informational writing. I’ll look for approximation of this in their writing.

  • How do you make your writing sound like your were really there?
  • How did you make your story come alive?

Some questions revealed knowledge, in this case around organization of a text. Students have co-authored a piece with each contributor taking responsibility for a section. This could have caused their hyper awareness of structure. I’ll be looking for this to come through in their on demands.

  • How do you structure your informational writing?
  • What did you put as your sections?
  • Why did you organize it that way?
  • Did you add a table of contents?
  • How will your organize your next topic?

Some questions revealed writer’s concerns. Conferences are needed around these issues.

  • Have you ever messed up a story and had to do it again?
  • How do you get your sentence to make sense?

Audience and form matters — always. Had I asked them to tell me what they had learned in this unit, they probably would have written what was on my charts. But asking them to create questions for other students put this in an entirely different light.  This five minute exercise gave me a quick look at my students’ understanding of and attitude toward informational writing. Giving students the opportunity to create questions for an audience that matters turned out to be an interesting assessment tool.

A Snapshot of a Picture Perfect Day


One hundred eighteen fifth graders, lined up in the correct order, walked on stage (without any pushing or complaining) practiced their holiday performance of the Preamble and Wacko’s 50 States, walked off perfectly and then did it again. Perfectly.

Fifty-six fifth graders blogged, blogged, and blogged on the Transcontinental Railroad, the Gold Rush, the Pony Express and the Donner Party.

Twenty-six fifth graders groaned NOOOOOO when we had to stop reading about the American Revolution.

Twelve fifth graders invited forty kindergarteners to play in their Genius Hour cardboard arcade. One fifth grader reported it was a “festival of cuteness.”

Ten fifth graders spent their lunch learning to link their blogs, creating mini websites on Westward Expansion.

Seven fifth graders stayed after school to write, read and be a little silly.

Four fifth graders said they were rereading because they disagreed on the meaning of a scene of a story.

Two fifth graders shared how it’s so weird to have a mom who doesn’t speak Spanish.

One former fifth grade student returned to report she ran the mile in six minutes.

One parent told me her twins call her Mrs. Harmatz for about a half-hour after they get home from school.

One son called from college to say he got an A+ in his Calculus class.

One grateful teacher/mom has completed her post and is going home.

Long live #nerdlution.

Today I Questioned What Matters: Conventions, Really?

Professional development sometimes upsets my focus. Tuesday’s PD was on the conventions portion of the language standards. I looked at them all split up. A puzzle to solve. Which standard went in which grade level was the challenge.

Confession: I have not focused on the conventions portion of the language standard this year. Reading, writing and speaking and listening and vocabulary standards felt like quite enough.

Confession: I really like teaching reading and writing, speaking, listening and vocabulary.

Confession: Not a fan of conventions.

Justification: Teaching when to use the future perfect tense seems quite pointless if my students are still trying to get subject verb agreement. Teaching proper use of “whom” when we are still struggling with me versus I. Please!

Me thinking: Attempting these “grade level” standards would be an exercise in frustration and a waste of time, students’ time.

So today I questioned

How am I using my time?   Rephrase, their time.

Is it adding up? For them.

Is it making a difference?  In their learning.

What makes real learning? That sticks.

What will matter for this student? Now.

Working Answer/Philosophy: I must trust in what matters for this student now. The rest will come in time. Maybe not in my time, but in their time. I must believe in the process of learners owning their learning with an eye toward a goal that is visible, to them. The path might not be clear. Things might get in the way. Detours and adjustments are my job. My time with this student is limited, but their time learning is not.

IMG_0730Learning moments that will build to more learning matter. That’s all.

Me still troubled:  I look at the conventions standards in Appendix C and find this,

“Grammar and usage development in children and adults rarely follows a linear path. Native speakers and language learners often begin making new errors and seem to lose their mastery of particular grammatical structures or print conventions as they learn new, more complex grammatical structures or new usages of English…These errors are often signs of language development as learners synthesize new…knowledge…students often need to return to the same grammar topic …as they move through k-12 schooling.”

This and the accompanying table that shows a progression of when basic skills need to be retaught starts to fit with my thinking of how learning goes, the need to be re taught and for teachers to meet students where they are. These things take time to master and the growth that may feel like a step backward is a step forward.

This thinking and writing is due nerdlution-button-tiny-01-1to the #nerdlution challenge.  Thanks be to #nerdlution.

Slice of Life: A Cat Tale

sols_6This slice is about my cat. Thanks to the Slice of Life community for putting up with slices such as these, because they are a part of life. New rules about slices may have to be made.

I love my cat. Never thought I would be a self-proclaimed cat lover. This was an unexpected conversion. We are not cat people. We are dog people. But the busy nature of our lives and a dog’s needs just don’t mix. The self-reliant cat really seemed to fit our life style, so when a litter of kittens was abandoned near our home, we kept one.

In many ways I admire my cat. He is beautiful. He moves with power and grace. Sleep never evades him.  He oozes confidence.  He really doesn’t care what others think of him. And, he always gets his way. No one can say no to a cat. They torture you until they get what they want. You got to hand it to cats.

I spent the weekend with my cat, but not in the typical non obtrusive, just lie around and add to the furniture kind of way.

I got home on Saturday morning after a swim, just a quick stop before I go shopping, and hmm. There’s a smell. Must be the trash, I think. I grab some bags and off to the store.

About a half hour later. I walk in, bags full of groceries. Still the smell. Hmm. Check the trash, nothing there, empty.

I start unloading.

My daughter walks in and screams, “Oh my God Mom look what Chubby did!”

Yes, his name is Chubby.

I come running. What is left of a bird, is scattered down my hallway. The heat is on; the fan is blowing; feathers are floating, clinging to the walls. Yuck.

“Get a plastic bag,” I tell my daughter.

“I’m not touching that,” she replies.

“Just get it,” me disgusted with everything.

I know this is the way they say I love you (not the daughter, the cat). Great. Love me less.

After the mess is cleaned up, I go looking for him.

Vicious, evil, carnivore. Where’s that demon.

Yep, usual spot. Basket of clean clothes.

I pick him up. “Oh… Claire, come here.” I yell.

Daughter comes running.

The tip of his ear has a piece taken out of it.

I’m thinking was this after or before the bird.

He regularly comes home with scratches and I hope he’s learning not to pick fights. This is a little more that a scratch.

I call the vet.

Get him into the carrier and obtain a few scratches in the process.

I sit at the vet’s.

The gentle female vet walks in, full of love for all creatures great and small. She examines my cat.

“Hmm. Well, we’ll have to clean this,” she says. “Looks a little too late to sew it up.” She whisks him off.

In about 10 minutes and $295 dollars later, I’m in the car with cat and liquid antibiotics. Is she kidding? Me get this liquid down my cat’s throat. I have a hard enough time getting him in the cat carrier. There is no way.

That night, I dutifully try to get those antibiotics down. Not. Cats don’t do what they don’t want to do. I can’t fathom how the vet can do anything with him. (This might be how some parents view my ability to deal with a classroom full of students.)   He will just have to be ok with the antibiotic she gave him. Ugh.

Next day. He sleeps peacefully on my desk, beside my books. As if he has done no wrong to nature or my pocketbook.  2013-10-25 21.55.40

Inquiry Work: Read Aloud vs. Independent Reading

My students came in today so excited you’d think it was the day before Winter Break. I couldn’t figure out why they were so amped. So I asked.

“What is our new read aloud?!” they shouted.

We have read two wonderful books this year: Wonder and Out of My Mind. With the end of one, they can’t wait for the next one. I love this, but they don’t come in that way after they finish their own books. This behavior coupled with some seeds planted in my head by Steve Peterson, pushed me to do a little inquiry.

Exactly how different is the read aloud experience compared to the experience students have when they read independently? How far a part are they? How different? Is it like apples and oranges or more like tangerines and oranges?

There is a difference, even for me. When I prepare for a read aloud, I have probably read the text at least five times, with many lenses. The multiple reads help as does the multiple ideas I get from student input during read aloud. In the end, my understanding is far deeper than what it was the first time I read the text.

I know students are not doing the deep processing in their independent reading like they do during read aloud — there is no way they could. My wondering is: How can the gap between the two become smaller?

I wondered what students thought the difference was and how they thought they could make their independent reading experience more like read aloud. So in small groups, I asked:  How is read aloud different than reading independently?

Each student identified about two issues. Top mentions included…

  • I jot more.
  • I know when to jot.
  • Hearing and seeing the words help me.
  • I have someone near me to ask when I don’t understand.
  • Group discussions help me understand.
  • You are reading, so it’s easier to think.

Then I asked a follow up …

  • How could you know when to jot?
  • How could you hear the story?
  • How could you get group input about your book?
  • How could you make the reading easier?

Here are some of their responses…

  • I could put post its on pages I’m have problems/wonderings about and bring it to my group for discussion.
  • I could use a whisperphone to hear my story.
  • I could use the signposts (Notice and Note) to tell me when to jot.
  • I could jot when I have a wondering.
  • I could jot when I notice a pattern.

Mind you these are all suggestions and teaching points I have given them in the past, but I acted like it was a huge aha for me.

The most interesting and most difficult comment to address was this:You are reading, so it’s easier to think.

Ideally reading is thinking, but for a struggling reader or the reader who is trying to dig deeper, the thinking work is a second step (or maybe even a third step). So we talked about how we could make the reading work easier so it would be easier to think.

Our discussion went like this:

Me: How could you make the reading easier, so you could think?
Student: Read an easier book.
Me: Yes, that’s an option. What else could you do?
Student: Read a book I read before.
Me: Ok. What else could you do?
Student: I could reread.
Me: Do you have to reread everything?
Student: No, only the important parts and when I’m confused.
Me: So how do you know when it’s important?
Student: (He pointed to the charts with Notice and Note signposts), or when I see a pattern.
Me: Ok. So what could be your goal? How are you gonna make your independent reading more like read aloud?
Student: Re read important parts so I can think about it.

Cool I think. Organic close reading.

I know that they won’t necessarily do this every time they pick up a book, but the goals are written. That’s step one.

It is up to both of us now.

They try. I check. We adjust and try again.

It’s not perfect, but perhaps the gap got a little smaller today and the expectation a little clearer.