Studying Primary Documents in the Elementary School Classroom

Last week my class and I had a special treat.  Dayna Wells (@daywells), visited my classroom with at social studies lesson — how to read like a historian using primary documents on the battle of Lexington.

Her lesson was developed in collaboration with the Stanford History Education Group‘s reading like a historian program. This curriculum was designed for high schoolers, but Dayna thought she could bring it to the elementary level. Reading primary documents presents many barriers for young students, I couldn’t wait to see what she had in mind.

She shared some pictures of the battle of Lexington. One done by a craftsmen of the time, the other done nearly 100 years after the battle. Then she shared two accounts of the battle: one from a British officer’s journal and one that was a sworn statement of 34 minutemen.  Students were to study the documents and then determine which document they felt was the most “trustworthy.”

1. Consider the source.
 One of the big objectives of the lesson was to teach students to look at the source first.  This is huge. Reading top to bottom, the last thing a student encounters is the source. Dayna taught students to read like a historian by looking at the source first.  Brilliant, and a huge aha for me. The source helps us determine a point of view and allows us to be critical readers. Knowing the author colors our thinking and provides a hint as to its potential bias.  

2. Read modified documents that approximate students’ reading level. One of the big hurdles for elementary students when studying primary document is the language of the time. Dayna accommodated the students by modifying the language, making the task more appropriate. For example, one document was sourced “a sworn statement in front of the Justice of the Peace.” Knowing our students wouldn’t know what a Justice of the Peace did at the time she changed it to “a court.” 

3. Ferret out the facts by comparing the documents. After studying and discussing the documents, students were asked to consider the facts. Distinguishing fact from opinion is hard for 5th graders. What they found == what the documents had in common, the date, the place, the time and who was there, should be considered facts. Other details in the documents conflicted, hence they must be opinion.

4. Determine which document is most “trustworthy.” This took some discussion and judgement on their part. The key issue was who fired the first shot.  After examining the documents and the paintings students determined the most trustworthy source was the sworn statement of 34 minutemen.

5. What we learned. The following day students explained in a quick write what they learned and what document they felt was most trustworthy.

I always use the source first and that I should always make notes whenever I read anything.

I learned about how to use sources, how to see pictures in a way of an artist and that is how you can be an historian.

Read the source before the text to find out who wrote it and the date.

The Lexington battle was at 5 o’clock in the morning. British say the minutemen fired the first shot. The minutemen say the British shot first. I believe that Document B was more trustworthy because it was sworn by 34 minutemen in front of court judges . . . it also says that the minutemen ran away and that was also in a picture.

I was bowled over by the power of this work. It provided great engagement in a content area, inquiry-based lesson. It taught a transferable skill for any document. But the most powerful part of this work was teaching students to be critical readers and thinkers. Students had to read closely. Determine facts, opinions. Compare multiple documents and points of view and then determine the value of the documents in terms of trustworthiness.  This type of thinking leads students to not only meet Common Core objectives, but creates critical thinkers and responsible citizens. 

History rocks! So do you Dayna.  Thank you for making my classroom a test kitchen.

Slice of Life: Unexpected Sunshine

I left school early. Had to get my daughter to a physical therapy appointment, I text her. No response. I call. No response. I’m hoping she’s home because school is in the opposite direction. I pull up, she’s sitting outside with friends chatting.

“Get in I call out, you have physical therapy at 4:30.”

“No I don’t. I’m not scheduled.”

“Get in, I’ll call.” The beauty of cell phones and information. In less than 60 seconds it’s confirmed. Yes in fact she is scheduled.

“I’m not going,” she says.

“Get in the car.”

“I don’t have an appointment.”

“They think you do.”

This continues in the yes you do, no I don’t fashion.

“I have to go to an event on Saturday, ” she informs me as we drive to the appointment.

So what does this have to do with now, I think.

“It’s a Great Gatsby theme. I have to go if I want to be an officer next year. They are going shopping,” she explains.

“They” are the friends outside my house. Now I get it.

“They can pick me up from physical therapy. Don’t worry we’re going to thrift stores. We won’t spend a lot. Can I have your ATM?”

Geeesh, I think. While this is annoying on one level, I get to drop her off and it is still light out. This NEVER happens. On the way home I take a few pics to commemorate the occasion..


Once home I make a cup of coffee, sit down and think, I can actually get a slice done and get to other work before a crazy hour. Maybe even make dinner.

5:15. I get a text: “Can you get me.”

So much for time. I pick her up.  As we drive home, I am informed we have “nothing” to eat. (My meals aren’t to her liking.) We stop at the store, buy salads and load up the car. A homeless man sits at the exit with a sign reading, “Hungry — Please Help –Thank you.”

“We should give him some food,” she says.

“Sure, give him one of the salads.”

“That’s not something to give someone who is hungry. Next time I’ll think of something good to get him,” she tells me.

“Assuming he’s there next time.”

“Oh he’s always there, or someone else,” she says

I’ve never noticed that.

As we pull up to our house she says, “We should have offered to pay for that woman’s bags.”

“What bags?” I ask.

“The woman in front of us in line had to carry all of her stuff out without bags because she didn’t have a bag and didn’t want to pay for a bag,” she tells me.

I had no idea this was going on. But my daughter noticed. “Next time offer help, don’t hesitate,” I say.

“But it’s not my money to offer,” she says.

“You see what needs to be done. You know I’ll agree with you.”

She notices. When she was a little bit, I would watch her noticing. She studies her environment. She pays attention. This has led to an extreme sense of style, but also an awareness of humanity around her. Today the teenager self receded and the person, the whole person, surfaced, shined, and offered up what she noticed.

So happy to see the sun shine today.

Celebrating Connections

celebrate link upThanks to  Ruth Ayers and all who contribute to #celebratelu. I am thankful for the opportunity to think back on the week and find the gems worth holding on to.

1. I’m celebrating connections with my “family” community. I am lucky to have three kids who have friends that feel comfortable being in our house.   Last night neighbor kids, old friends of our oldest, my daughter and a few of her friends hung out and talked — about sports, local gossip, and college aspirations. We’ve known some of these kids since they were in preschool. They are like an extended family. They walk in, often without knocking, because they know they are always invited.

2. I’m celebrating connections with former students. Being a fifth grade teacher, I’m the end of the road for elementary school. I always wonder what happens in their lives.  Friday, a young man walked up to me, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and asked me how I was doing. He told me his plans of going on to college and perhaps medical school. This may not seem earth shattering, but this young man was a struggling elementary student. He had significant learning disabilities and was multi-lingual, the combination of which made understanding English extremely difficult. I was beyond impressed, not just for his academic goals but for his poise and presence. Everything and anything is possible, don’t count anyone out.

3. I’m celebrating connections to my students through writing.  Reading their memoirs yesterday I was struck by my students’ resilience and honesty.  Many told of times when they had disappointed someone, got angry with a friend, or got in trouble. Quite a few recounted getting in trouble with a teacher.

One of my new students (he’s been with me for three weeks) wrote how a teacher mistakenly thought he was doing something wrong; how teachers don’t understand him and  “that’s why I hate school.” Never would have known this if we didn’t write.

Another wrote of a time he had to do homework, but he didn’t want to because his whole family was doing something else, so he didn’t. He then told how the teacher had screamed at him and he cried as his mom watched. A bit melodramatic perhaps, but his perspective is his reality.

Another told the tale of her dad’s struggle with alcoholism. This isn’t easy stuff.

They felt safe enough to share. I am honored, and I celebrate the power of writing.

4. I am celebrating connections with my colleagues.  I work with amazing teachers. We are a team and work to meet the needs of our students daily on all grade levels. I am proud to be a member of this group.  Today, I want to thank Dayna Wells (@daywells) who taught a social studies lesson to my students. WOW. I learned so much that I will attempt to capture in another post. I celebrate Dayna for her curiosity, energy and risk taking moves that has allowed her to bring this work to me and my students.

5. I am celebrating connections with you all who contribute to #celebratelu. Reading your posts is a joy. I always smile and sometimes cry.  Happy Saturday.

Slice of Life: A Time-Warped Weekend

This 24-hour slice included over 300 miles of driving (one way), but the important middle, 10 hours worth was slow and easy, an on foot existence. Join us here at Two Writing Teachers each week and write your slice.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hWe left at 5 am Saturday morning. Darkness surrounded us as we drove through Los Angeles.  Sunlight hit as we entered green open land. It was like LA didn’t exist.

We got to the Grapevine, a long uphill climb that lifts you out of Southern California into the central part of the state, in less than two hours. I always felt like north should be uphill. In this case it is.

Descending into the Central Valley you see nothing but vast, continuous acreage.  I couldn’t help but think of the water shortage, water politics and the amount of produce this place generates.

After endless land, the GPS led us off highway 5 onto strange routes that cut through little towns, strawberry fields, and green rolling hills over to the Santa Cruz mountains.

Fog and cooler temps met us as we wound up to the pine-decorated northern California coastal town of Santa Cruz: a town of college students, older hippies, surfers, homeless and a few affluent folks. Average California town?  Just one of the many archetypes that exist in this diverse state.

We pulled up to our 23-year old’s place and it looked good, clean and put together, as did he. When your kids go away, you don’t know what to expect. Knowing the kid I knew at home, this was a surprise..

We spent the day, with our first born, our oldest, eating, talking about politics, his studies, his work, reading, Shakespeare. We walked around town. Spent and inordinate amount of time in a used book store.  Stopped for another cup of coffee. Purchased some shoes, for him for me, socks for Dad. Walked some more. Hmm. Time for dinner? Had an amazing meal featuring fantastic pesto sauce at a very hip place showing a continuous loop of Coffee and Cigarettes, a bizarre but at the same time fascinating movie, as we ate.  After dinner we talked and walked some more. Got some ice cream. Finally, time to call it a night.

Dropped him off with a promise to get him for coffee at 6 am. Amazingly he calmly agreed. Next morning we pick him up for coffee and pastry and then after a hug and goodbyes, start the drive home.

Even though the drive was crazy fast, it seemed to be a leisurely time-warp like experience. Just being together for about ten hours. Enjoying each other’s company. These moments will stick with me — just like photographs that line our walls, tables and desks of them when they were little ones, bigger ones and graduates. Unbelievable. Exhausting. But good.

So good to see him.

Assessment: Letting the Students Drive the Data

After reading Jennifer Brittin’s great post on the NCTE’s position paper on formative assessment and her struggles with data, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring and fess up: I am drowning in data. Post its trail me. I find them in bags and books. Notebooks are filled with data creation, collection and interpretation that leads hopefully to next steps for nearly 60 students. Frankly even when I analyze and categorize the data, then group students, feedback seems no where near what John Hattie calls “timely.”  Superhuman powers seem necessary. An all-knowing great and powerful Oz of a teacher…or is that just that man behind the curtain?

Due to my lack of super powers, I am looking to students to learn what they need to do and then approximate their success along the way. Their approximations of success may be slightly off, but their misinterpretations of the expectation is easier for me to lean into than me  letting them know “where they stand.” It is a work in progress, but so far this is how reading is looking. I have based these “ladders” on Jennifer Serravallo’s work with an eye toward growing student thinking and writing about reading in the areas of setting, plot and character.

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Setting: Writing about Reading Using Ladder to Grow Thinking
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Plot – Writing About Reading Addressing Character’s Problems
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Character: Writing About Reading Using a Post it Ladder

I have students use their self-selected club books and write about their reading (click here for sheet)  weekly using the ladders to assess their thinking. They work independently, then go to their groups to revise and hopefully refine/upgrade their thinking during club talk. Each week I look at their assessment of their work. and then group for instruction the following week. Needs fluctuate based on the type and level book.

A group of readers who tested out as “T/U” did exceptional work in Tale of Desperaux a “Q” level book that had been read aloud to them in third grade. It was some of the best work I’d seen. They got it!  And more importantly, they know how it feels to get it. As they move on, they should have a model of success to work from.  

I’ve also seen the opposite. Students not being able to do the work, and more importantly they are starting to see where they are. I’m hearing more, “Ohhh that’s what that means,” versus, me saying this is what it means. Shockingly some are still discovering that setting refers to a place and or time not a character’s clothing. Shocking that I thought they knew what setting was, after all, hadn’t I told them many times.

I’m so thankful for the voices such as those in the NCTE twitter chat on Sunday night (read the Storify here) that are solidly behind the work of goal-oriented, student-driven assessment or as Kristi Mraz (@mrazkristine)  termed “successment!”  Here’s to a lot more of doing that work together.

(Just?!) Focus — Celebrating the Struggle We All Face

celebrate link upThis may seem to be an odd type of celebration post. But, I’m looking to the possibility in celebrating this point of view. Thank you to all who participate in #celebratelu on Saturdays and to Ruth Ayers as creator and host. Join us here.

Picture this: The job isn’t getting done. The paper is blank, the book is open to page two. The only thing happening is time passing. This might look like someone who is lazy or just doesn’t care.

Sound familiar?

Any student you know? But this isn’t a student I’m describing. This is me.

I don’t normally operate like this and I hate it (and myself) when I do. I question my ability and my purpose. Sometimes I get dramatic and question my right to take up space.  Most days aren’t like this.  Most days are so full that they could fill three days. But today is this way. At this moment, I’m extremely uncomfortable and unmotivated.

Strangely I’m treasuring this discomfort. I’m trying to soak it up and not forget it. I’m trying to figure out why I got here and what I do to get out of this messy place. I am the inattentive and/or struggling student right now, confused, distracted and unsuccessful —  I have to (fill in the blank), and  I don’t want to.

This lack of motivation and lack of success happens to us all. And for those periods of unease, life is not good. Life is unfocused and without purpose. You don’t like yourself.

As an adult, I know, based on previous success, that I will get out of this slump. But for a young person who has never found their way out of this kind of feeling, it is a how life goes. They are lost and they have been lost for a long time. What does that do to them?  What do we educators do for them?

Every year I have “those” students. Getting them to succeed takes a lot of work on their part. Their mindset needs a huge shift, and it starts with me. Sitting in their shoes is a good first step. That’s why I am holding on to my uncomfortable lack of progress on assigned tasks and asking myself — what might help me right now so I can help my students.  I’m looking to establish a stance, a mindset that approaches students with some basic assumptions, feedback and modeling. Here are a few ideas I’m holding on to when I work with those who struggle: 

1. Acknowledge the confusion and let students know you face it too.

2. Know and let students know that there is a way to succeed. It just takes time to figure out. Some need more time.

3. Be patient with students and by example, teach them how to be patient with themselves.

4. Model persistence, don’t give up on them just because it is hard and seemingly hopeless. (How must they feel if that’s how you feel?)  

5. Assume students have good intent and want to learn, they have just lost faith. It’s your job to show that you have faith in them.

6. Capitalize on their gifts. Notice and name the gems you see in them. Make sure they know you see their value.

And speaking of gifts check out this TED talk by a student who clearly was/is one of those kids,

Any other thoughts on shifting the discussion from “just focus” to positive feedback and modeling?

Here’s to a embracing the confusion.

Slice of Life: To Err is Human…

11454297503_e27946e4ff_h“So C what are you up to?” I asked a student council member as he rifled through a shinny pencil case in the lost and found box.

“Oh nothing, just looking. Nothing I want,” he said casually.

I let it slide. Writer’s Workshop was in full swing. The incident goes to that place in my mind that wakes me up in the middle of the night.

Recess came and went.

Classes change. My homeroom moves to their math and science teacher, and in comes my second group, noisy and sweaty from recess.

Amid the movement, D walks up to me. holding the shinny pencil case. “Mrs. Harmatz my pens are missing. B said the A took them.”

Perhaps A got the good things before C.

“Don’t worry, I’ll look into it,” I tell D.

This is the first incident of its kind this year. The dreaded he-took-my-pen accusation. Considering we are just past the mid-point in the year it isn’t surprising. Students are comfortable and start to push limits. I’m sad that these generally good kids did the wrong thing, but I’m not surprised. That shinny pencil case harbored untold treasure. Temptation got the better of them.

After lunch, I greet my homeroom class containing the suspects. I hold the empty case and ask, “Does anyone know about this?”


“I have her red pen,” said N. .

Gasps, jaws drop. N? No way I hear whispered. I have to agree. He’d be the last one I’d suspect. Interestingly he is A’s best friend.

“Thanks for stepping up. Anyone else?”

No one moves.

Amazing, they’re going to let him take the fall.

Finally, Z pipes up, “I saw A, C and E with the pens.”

Called out, they stand outside the line, ready for punishment.

It’s Friday afternoon drama. Dismissal is in 30 minutes. A quick check of the backpacks turns up one pencil. Quite a bit short of the reported loss.

Kids go home.

I think about it.

Saturday, I get an email from my colleague.  “How do you want to handle it? Should we call their parents?”

I am disappointed. I think about trust, about being able to turn my back and wanting to believe that they will do the right thing.  Am I upset about students making a bad choice, or about my classroom being less than what I want it to be? A little of both I suppose. To err is human.  Ah yes, all the times I have done less than I should have. 

Monday recess. All involved are present in my colleague’s classroom.

“Do you know why you’re here?” I ask.

C, the student council member, explains.  I tell them what great students they are. How people make mistakes, and when great people make mistakes they make sure they admit it. They don’t hide it, they face it.  They take responsibility.

All acknowledge their wrongdoing.

I thank them, and go on to say that we expect them to live up to their greatness by telling their parents.  The apparent instigator says he already told his dad.

Wow, I think. He was worried, and smart, and perhaps, his greatness showed through in the end. “How did you feel when you told him?” I asked.

“Scared,” he said.

At this point I wonder what the others are thinking.

I thought it would be worse —
I won’t do that again —
I’m great?
My parents?
Being great isn’t easy–

Maybe all of the above and a little more.

Ah, teaching. So much more.

Celebrating Randomness

Every Saturday Ruth Ayers hosts bloggers who look back on their week with an eye for moments to celebrate. It is a wonderful way to honor, to notice and celebrate all the good things that happen. Click here and find out how you can start this practice. 
celebrate link up

This week’s list seems random. No real theme here. Just life. Kinda nice.

1. Parent Conferences are almost over and, in my opinion, overwhelmingly successful. Students led their conference by talking about their progress and their work to date. Students worked in front of their parents, evaluating their work right there on the spot. Goals were stated relative to Common Core expectations and in most cases the next steps involved in meeting the goal was discussed in a “how do you think you could achieve this goal” and “what can we do on Monday to start reaching this goal”  manner.

This was a one-on-one conference my students with parents listening intently. Data was gathered for teaching, parents attentiveness was clear and if nothing else this spotlight on their child was appreciated by both parents and students. The level of anxiety was apparent with some of the students, but most parents felt it was important for them to be able to talk about their work.

Only a few parents asked what grade their child would be receiving.  The focus was on the work and the process of learning. What could be a better thing to celebrate in education.

So much of this work was aided by a questionnaire the student’s filled out prior to the conference. It got them thinking and was used by some to talk from during the conference. I developed my conference  forms from the forms provided by Pernille Ripp in her post on how to do parent conferences. Thanks again Pernille and Leigh Ann for pointing me in the right direction.

2. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project released their Summer Institute Brochure  and videos of their work aligned with the Charlotte Danielson framework for teaching. Wow on both counts. Here’s to celebrating the continuing work of TCRWP and Lucy Calkins. Always challenging themselves and reaching for more. Now the tough work of choosing which institute.

3. My colleague Cathy started a blog. I’m so proud of her for jumping in and doing something for herself and the education community. I celebrate Cathy who is now a creator not just a consumer of media. Check out her blog here. Hopefully she’ll join us at #celebratelu soon.

4. Rain came to Southern California. I heard it the other night. It sounded strange, foreign. I thought, rain… but no, couldn’t be. I looked out and sure enough the ground is wet. Yeah! Our record low rainfall has those who keep track of these things all in a tizzy. While this short burst won’t fix the drought, it was nice to have a little winter-like weather.

5. My daughter’s brace is off and she’s in the pool. Thankfully she’s healing nicely. The surgeon is pleased. While she’s still in physical therapy and has limitations, the first part of this recovery is over. Her  return to the pool was exhausting. I came home to find her in bed at 6:30. She says she’s slow and it’s hard. Hopefully her desire to return to her former swimming self will be rekindled. No matter what she pursues, I’m grateful she is becoming whole again.

6. Next week will be normal, at least in terms of school hours. While conferences were good, teaching time was limited. I celebrate our return to normal school hours and predictability for our students.

Here’s to random celebrations, a wonderful weekend and more for the week ahead.

Week 2, Nerdlution: A Failure and an Aha

nerdlution-button-tiny-01-1This week has fallen a little short in terms of meeting nerdlution expectations.

Excuse number one and only: Parent conferences.
I just don’t have the same time with my students and we have been letting the classroom tweeting slip. Conferences start at 7:30 am and resume at 1:00 pm once the students leave. They continue till about 6:00 pm.  At that point I clean up and organize for the next day of conferences and teaching.

Home by 7:30 to read a few posts, emails and tweets.   I see the #nerdlution stream on tweetdeck.

Oops. Tomorrow I think,  we will tweet.

There has been lots of things to tweet about, but when my student came up to me today ask me about tweeting she wasn’t sure what to say. I told her think about it and come back, we’ll tweet later. She forgot. I forgot. But the thing that sticks with me is she didn’t have anything to say. Hmm.

Note to self. If she wasn’t sure what to say, what did she realize, learn, or do in my class for the last two hours?  Hmmm.

We wrote, read, discussed poetry. BUT she didn’t have anything to say. That said volumes. Hmmmm.

Got to get on this tweeting thing a little more.

Here’s me with an aha a little late in the game: tweeting classrooms are a little more accountable for their learning. AND tweeting classroom teachers are a little more accountable for their teaching.

Thank you #nerdlution 2 for pushing me. Thank your Michelle Haseltine for hosting our thoughts. Check here for more information about nerdlution.

Slice of Life: Getting Un-Stuck

One of my colleagues asked me if you had to be invited to join in the Slice of Life. That made me realize, once again, what a gift this community is. No invitations, just show up on the page with others who are willing to put it out there.  Gifts abound here at Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesdays. One of the newest gifts is the juicy, sunny Slice of Life button. Check it out and join in the slicing.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hHere’s a slice of parenting mixed up in a slice of teaching. Where one begins and the other ends is sometimes a murky thing. People get stuck, and we don’t know how to get out. We feel like we don’t fit or we can’t do it. When this happens to our children we try to help, to impart our hard-earned knowledge. But our advice seems float out and away, while they struggle through. Are they paying attention?  We talk, they listen, and then we worry when we say good bye.

I see kids stuck every day, not knowing how to get unstuck.  As teachers I work to get them to the next step. Growing takes time and it is uncomfortable at the very least. …we try to help…they struggle through. Are they paying attention?  We talk, they listen, and then we worry… We ask questions. Students sit and shrug their shoulders. They don’t know. They just know they don’t fit in this space at this point. We push. We prod. We try another angle. Maybe this will work. And they struggle. We struggle alongside them.

I have a new student. He is a writer. He is a reader. You’d think he’d fit beautifully into our reading and writing classroom. But he doesn’t yet. He is a truly wild reader and writer: reading and writing to his own drummer. He loves fantasy and he is writing his own. Pages and pages. At home. And no one can look at it. He is hugely creative. He is infinitely private.

His writing inventory reveals he DOES NOT LIKE writing memoir. He DOES NOT LIKE reading historical fiction or realistic fiction for that matter. He wants adventure, fantasy and can consume it in vast quantities. There is no way I can keep him in books. When we confer he mostly shrugs his shoulders. Any work I ask him to do he does as quickly as possible in order to get back to HIS book..

We talk about school and how it is a place where we have to fit in to a degree. And sometimes it does us good to try. To fit in. To read something a little different. To expand our horizons, to see the world a little differently. He sits and shrugs in his parent conference. And puts his head down, A hint of a tear is there.

It seems wrong to make this creative soul conform. To fit. He’ll just go through the motions because he is compliant. But then I move to the inventory’s questions on work habits, and I see one thing thing he wants:

I‘d like you to teach me how to talk. I don’t know what to say. I get confused and it doesn’t make sense.

Eureka! To talk. I know what to teach. For most of my students, talking is the easier part. For this student, who is quite frankly lightyears ahead of the others in reading and writing abilities — the job is different. It won’t be easy. Success may be partial, but I know what to teach and he as the learner knows his job. The relationship is clear.

For our own children, while we were their first teacher, our ability to influence seems to recede as they reach out to adulthood. That’s their job I suppose to seek independence.  So we sit and wait for them to get un-stuck.