Slice of Life: The Power of Questioning

Every Tuesday, Two Writing Teachers blog hosts a place for bloggers to post a slice of their life . It is a wonderful, supportive community. Join in as a contributor or read more slices  here. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth for providing this space for our writing.11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

Today, after testing, we started the read aloud “What Do Fish Have to Do With Anything?” a short  story by Avi. In the story, the main character,Willie, is a sixth grader who asks a lot of questions. His recently single, overworked mother responds to one of his particularly difficult questions with, “Questions that have no answers shouldn’t be asked.”

With that thought in our minds, we move to the idea of questioning:  the who, what, why and how of questioning in school. Guided by Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, we started a new line of thinking: How to ask questions.  As members of the Right Question Institute, the authors’ work is not just about teaching students how to question for academic gains,  but  for social justice and self advocacy purposes.


This is just a step toward teaching the Question Formulation Technique developed in the book. A step toward hearing more student voices, student thinking and creating student agency.

Before we started the work,  students had to be clear on the ground rules.

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Seems simple? Maybe. Would they just look at me when they saw the idea. Would they be able to make questions out of statements. Could they not argue and criticize ideas of their classmates, We talked a little about each rule and students had to be honest about what would be a challenge.

The talkers, the ones who love debate, admitted #2 would be their biggest challenge. Students who tend to be know-it-alls (other students gave them meaningful looks) decided to be the ones to write the questions they heard to keep themselves quiet.

Some didn’t understand the idea of asking questions.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t get it.”

So I modeled a tiny bit.
“Let’s say the topic is shoes. So questions I could ask might be: Why are shoes important? or How are shoes made?” That quick general example gave those who found the idea of coming up with questions completely foreign, a tiny idea of what the heck I was talking about.

My only criteria for each group was that it  have a scribe and contain 3 to 4 students.

Then I gave them the statement to develop questions about:

Our differences separate us.

I hoped the statement showed no bias on my part, was something that could generate interest and open-ended questions. We have been reading books (Wonder, Out of My Mind, The One and Only Ivan, A Long Walk to Water) that highlight the struggles of those who are different, the outcasts. Those who either don’t fit in or aren’t wanted.  This theme runs through our lives and can cause some of our biggest life challenges. So I was hoping the background knowledge was strong enough to make some connections, although not necessarily from the reading.

They looked at the words on the board.


I worry.

S  asks,  “Do you mean in our books?”

I respond, “Your job is to generate as many questions as you can.”

Then talk. Finally.

They were bursting with questions.



How come….

Is it ok if..


I heard a little bit of, “That’s not a good one.” To which I added, “No judgement.”

And a little of, “That’s because…” To which I mentioned, “No discussion.”

I also heard, “How do you do that? You have so many questions!”

Mostly I heard questions that fit the idea.

In about five minutes most had a page of questions.

One group member came to me and admitted they had nothing because two group members “played around.” (classic) The group was dismantled, distributed among the groups with only three and informed of the questions they had come up with.

As we walked to lunch J said to me, “I’m so glad we are asking questions. I am always asking questions.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this from her. She is someone who asks all the time and it shows in her reading and writing.

Questions are the road to thought, to asserting your ideas, to wondering about why things are they way they are, to how they could be better, to change. All students need a healthy dose of why, when, where, how come in their daily school routine. Questions that come from them, not a teacher or a test. Questioning empowers us.

The scribes filed away their questions and saved them for tomorrow’s next steps: improving and and categorizing  them as open- or closed-ended. Just understanding the difference will be huge.

Excited for tomorrow.


Celebrate: Student Explorations and PD with Colleagues

This week felt huge. Was Spring Break only a week ago? 

celebrate link upEvery Saturday, Ruth Ayers hosts a place to celebrate the big and small things in our week.  For me, it is a way to focus on and grow the good work that happens daily. To read more of these celebrations click here.

First – Poetry! My students are in the midst of writing poems of apology. Inspired by William Carlos Williams’ This is Just to Say. Read more about it here...

We also attempted to a Progressive Poem.

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Each student has a number and they were to write a line when their number matched the date of the month. It was an interesting experiment. The poem started to go one way and then another and then back again. Interesting process. Each child trying to make sense of the lines that came before them. Now I’m wondering what will they title it? And now that they see what they did, I wonder what they might come up with next month.

Next:  Owning Vocabulary. We study vocabulary throughout the year based on our read alouds. I try to choose words that are used or are concepts addressed in the text. I try to select words that can be used with a fair amount of frequency in reading, writing and speaking. Over the course of the year we have amassed nearly 100 words.  The trouble is, over time students forget the meaning of words that they don’t use enough.

Looking to engage them in the words we’d accumulated, I took some of the ideas presented in Word Nerds by Brenda J. Overturf, Leslie H. Montgomery, Margot Holmes Smith that make words visible part of the student’s classroom life.  Every day this week each student got a word to wear . If they used it in conversation or in writing they gave themselves a point. If they used another student’s word they would also get a point. They could switch words  once they felt they got it.  The newness and gaming qualities did something to get them going. But, I think by simply putting it up front and visible made it top of mind. It gave permission to ask questions of their peers, to try it out and to try again. They wore their word to read aloud, to reading workshop, writing workshop and recess. I’m looking forward to continuing this practice-working on using what we have and developing some word ownership.

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Next: #WRRDchat: The twitter chat based on the book, What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse, was on Tuesday. Quite simply it rocked. Thanks to  Ryan Scala, Fran McVeigh, and Allison Jackson hosting many like-mined groupies of the book shared their thoughts and reminders of what it means to be a teacher who listens and coaches in to student’s wondering. If you don’t own this book, get it. It is something that simply will change your teaching approach from the query-filled stance of the all knowing, to the listener and coach that pushes students to wonder about what they know in the text they are reading. It honors the student’s thinking without butting in with our own. It promotes the fact that all students will come to understand text if we give them the room and time to find it. It reminds us that we are all on the path to knowledge, some are just not there yet. Read Fran’s recent post on the power of yet and get some insight into the book and the chat.

Next: The Cotsen Foundation. This year I have had the privilege of being a Cotsen fellow. This program promotes what the organization terms The Art of Teaching by looking to move teachers from good to great. Teachers can choose their focus and pursue that passion with support of a mentor coach (Michelle Baldonado @MrsBaldonado4 is mine) and access to many professional resources. Part of the beauty of this program is that teachers are valued as resources that  should be cultivated and nurtured through mentoring, observations and inquiry. This foundation honors teachers. Read more about this  program here.

Next: Fellowship Inquiry Work: One part of this program includes inquiry work with other fellows at your school. Our monthly meeting is one of my favorite times. We meet with no interruptions, and talk about our challenges, successes, and a professional text.

Our current read, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, has got everyone  excited. This book looks to move students to inquiry through their own questioning. Teachers create a question focus, not a question, and the students are taught a method to develop and prioritize questions from the focus statement. The focus can be determined in many ways, but it isn’t a question and it shouldn’t show teacher bias. The end product of content learning may vary based on need, but the universal end result, if done successfully, would be teaching students to question issues in a systematic way. If we choose to teach just one thing, the ability to question in a thoughtful manner, just might be the one.

Here’s to the weekend and a wonder-filled week.

Poetry Friday: This is Just to Say

This is my first Poetry Friday post. It was a last minute thing that I just had to do. I’m so glad I had a place to share! Thank you for hosting Tabatha Yeatts at The Opposite of Indifference.san

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My class has only 27 days left of school, but we have all the plates spinning. These fifth graders aren’t quite ready to leave their first school. It is like home, so I’m packing in as much as possible.

Poetry writing is in full swing and in the exuberance of reading poetry, we were rather noisy while our neighbor classroom was testing. So we wrote the following first draft apology. It was inspired by This is Just to Say poetry anthology by Joyce Sidman inspired by the William Carlos Williams poem.

To Mrs. Miller’s Class:

This is Just to Say

We have been too
while you were testing

and which 
you probably wanted 
for thinking

Forgive us
it was NOISY
so fun
and so naughty

I am here to report room 5 LOVES this. Yesterday they all went off to write their own poems of apology.

A to C, “I’m writing this to Mr. Wright, because I was too loud in the dorms at Cataline.”

M to N, “This is to my mom for eating the chocolate cake.”

N to M, “I’m writing about my messy room.”

And it went on.

This is just to say that this lesson was also inspired by TCRWP’s “What if Curriculum” in the 5th Grade Writing Units of Study. A wonderful little addition to the other main works on Argument, Narrative and Informational writing. So through and so wonderful.

And why is it that I just want to keep going with my kiddos. Looking back it seems I always feel that I finally “get” them, by about this time every year, thinking — now we could really make some great progress. But they go, to someone else.

To My Class:

This is Just to Say

I have enjoyed
every moment 
learning together

I know there is 
more to do
I see that spot 
that I still want to shine

Forgive me
it is nearly done
so much 
and so quick


I’m going to miss them.


Slice of Life: Inspiration in the Comment

Every Tuesday writers share a Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Please join in if you are so inclined.   You can read more slicehere. Thank you to  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth11454297503_e27946e4ff_hWhen it comes to reading and writing the steps toward understanding are complex and frustrating. As teachers we try to guide our students to discover words that make meaning on the page.   We want to find joy and excitement in words. What they mean and how to use them; to understand why the writer choose that word. To use just the right words when talking, writing, thinking. We are always looking for the  just the right formula to inspire our students to be passionate readers and writers.

Complicated. How to access these words so they make meaning not just as we read but as we write? And not just reading the word in a sentence, not just using the word in writing, but understanding the specificity of that word. Knowing that that word and no other word is  just the right word. Poetry seems to be one way to work toward all of these goals.

We have been reading poetry, one a week. Now we are going to  write. Knowing this was my plan, knowing my students would be scared, knowing I felt the same, knowing I had to start somewhere, I started with forms that have constraints and rules.  Those places I felt like I could be sure it was poetry because it “fit” a definition. Erasure felt safe as did found poetry, book spine poetry, haiku, tanka, cinquain all good. It was playing with words.

Chris Lehman’s #teacherpoets workshop was a next step. It was a  less safe place, but how could I not go: great lessons, great poems, amazing teacher poets all around. I pushed myself a bit further to that internal place where emotions lie. (silent scream) I listened, did the lesson, wrote a poem.

Days later, I looked back at that poem I had written. Oh it was painful. It didn’t do what I wanted it to do. It was repetitive and trite. I revised and revised. I revised to the point of having no poem at all. As the screen held fewer and fewer words, I thought soon it will be as if I didn’t write anything at all. Which hurt because it meant the meaning of my poem, the emotion I felt didn’t exist.  I closed the screen. Thinking bad thoughts. The next day  I read this comment from Catherine Flynn:

Your poem is the opposite of Laux’s “On the Back Porch” and it perfectly captures the bittersweet feelings we have as we realize our children are growing up and are ready to begin their own lives. I love this image of shifted furniture “leaving empty spaces uncovering indentations of what was there.” The perfect sliver to capture this big, important topic!

Then I reread this one from Cathy Mere:

To me, your poem speaks of our children growing up and we have to let go. Perhaps it is because that is exactly where I am right now. “Choices, that are no longer mine to make.” “Photo flash” of the times we’ve shared together.

Oh the power of a comment.  A comment that is a whole paragraph and specifically says what spoke to them.  Revision is a painful process. You just want to throw it all away and say it’s just too hard and I’m really not that good anyway.  But IF there is one little voice that says, no, don’t do that. This is good BECAUSE….The writer can rise again and pull out the writing.

Taking this lesson to my teaching self and back to where I began this post: the secret formula, the gift we can give our students, might just lie in the  compliment that is specific.  The compliment that says just what is good and why. That plus a little nudge and maybe they won’t crumple up the paper and say they are not good. Maybe they’ll say, really?  Open up the notebook and give it a go.

Thank you Catherine and Cathy for your specific comments.on that poem. I’m working on it.

And  to all who comment on Slice of Life posts, I can’t thank you enough. You are my writing teachers that keep me opening up my notebook.

Celebrate: Breaks and Colleagues


celebrate link up

It’s Saturday! A day to find moments in our week worth celebrating. Join Ruth Ayers and others  here.

One. Spring Break!  I always think breaks are when I will catch up.
This never happens.
I may finish up and clean up a few things, but I tend to start things too:  projects and thinking that can leave me feeling like I actually got behind!
Strange as this may seem, I celebrate the opportunity breaks give me to find more.

Two. Teachers. One day this week I visited Tim Bedley’s 5th grade classroom.
I follow him on twitter and was intrigued with his work.
I knew he was geographically close, so I contacted him asking if I might observe his class.  He generously opened his room to me.
That act of trust shows so much.
I walked out of his classroom with ideas to process, but more importantly uplifted by his willingness to welcome me into his world.
I celebrate the spirit of educators who share, show, and teach by doing.

Three. Social Media. The other day one of my colleagues mentioned how I seemed more at peace with my teaching, and he wondered might have caused this.
I knew what he meant.
Twitter and blogs I told him. He just looked at me, completely blank.
He has no idea. How could he?
Not being a participant in this world he just can’t understand.
Before social media, the only voices I heard were in my school and mostly at my grade level. Now the voices are from many places and my thinking is pushed, yet at the same time supported. I don’t feel alone anymore.
I celebrate all of you out there who have opened my world of teaching, writing and reading.

Four. My colleague Amy. I am the one at my grade level who tends to push for something more or different. This could be a real pain. But my colleague Amy not only goes with it, she makes it better. Just yesterday (a day off), we met to talk about our next challenge.
I asked her:
Is this the best use of our time?
Is is the best thing for kids?
Should we change it?
Eliminate it?
Difficult to think this way when you only have seven weeks left in the school year.
But we sat down and for the next few hours we wrestled with possibilities. I love this about my colleague Amy.
I celebrate her energy and openness.

Five. #TeacherPoets. This is the first year I’ve really embraced poetry.
Today’s Teacher Poet Google hangout with Chris Lehman was inspirational.
Check out the link, view the videos, and join in on the next two sessions.
My hat’s off to Michelle Haseltine and Betsy Hubbard.
To hear them read and workshop their poems in this virtual writing world was brave and beautiful.
I am honored to be a part of this process and I secretly hope to have a poem workshopped–some day.
I celebrate all of us who work at poetry leaving our emotions on the page, looking closely, living in specifics, and describing things as best as we possibly can.



Teacher Poets: Finding a Sliver

teacher-poets-1Last Saturday I watched the Teacher Poet Google hangout with Chris Lehman and some brave teacher poets. I sat and watched hours after the initial broadcast, and did the lesson. I watched. Stopped the video. Listened again.What a great way to learn.  Check out last week’s work  and this week’s assignment here and join Chris this Saturday for a great workshop experience.

Writing and the workshop is helping me define what poetry is for m now. It is something that pulls at my heart; it crystalizes the essence; it highlights  what’s necessary and worth holding on to.

I tried out Week #1’s  strategy of finding a sliver in a big important topic. A really terrific strategy for any kind of writing. This is a draft and I’m not sure of the title.



The door opens and cool air, the cat, and noise rush in.

Sounds move past and fill the kitchen.

Bursting, until it leaves quiet.

I heard a whisper of warning just before the shift

towards choices,that are no longer mine to make.

It moved past me with just a whisper warning:

it’s no longer my decision where and how to place the pieces.

The furniture shifted leaving empty spaces uncovering indentations of what was there.

Children no longer, they’re out the door, a photo flash resides in their place.


Thank you fellow poet bloggers who are reaching  for more in their lives and in their teaching. It’s nice to journey together. Check Leigh AnneMichelleMargaret, Kevin,  Mary Lee, and Cathy’s blogs for more poetry inspiration.


Slice of Life: Missing a Mentor

Every Tuesday writers share a Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Please join in if you are so inclined. It is a wonderful community of writers, readers and teachers.   You can read more slices here. 11454297503_e27946e4ff_hYesterday we went to dinner at Benihana’s for my youngest’s 16th birthday. Her choice.

We did the usual things you do at Benihana’s, which is watch amazed as the chef does their magic in front of you. Before and after this dinner is where my story lies.

Earlier that day, I had texted both of her brothers to make sure they gave their sister a call or a text. At about 4 pm neither had done this. Checking my phone, my daughter notices a text from brother number 2.

“Mom, did you notice this text? He’s gonna use my old phone rather than replace the one he lost. Too expensive. Some brother, he hasn’t texted me happy birthday!”

I text him. Reminding him.

Immediately a text comes through.

She tells me and seems satisfied.

Maybe a half hour later, she says, “He isn’t coming up to diner?”

I am kind of surprised she thought this was a possibility.  “You miss your brother.”


He’s been away  for two years. Growing up, she followed his every move. She dressed like him: superhero costumes, t-shirts, shorts.  Followed him into the sports he choose: swimming, surfing.  She was an athlete and a tomboy through middle school. Keeping up with him was a major concern. Being like him was the goal.

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When he went away to school, I knew it would be hard on her.  Many of his younger friends become surrogate brothers. She had seemingly adjusted to his absence.

Last night as we drove home, she started talking about him. How when we went to dinner she’d always order what he had, because he had good taste. If she ordered before him and it ended up being different than his order, she would switch to his choice. How he taught her how to cut meat properly. How she was so proud when others said she looked like him.  “You know what Mom, someone at swim said I swim like him.”

“Yes, you do,” I responded.

“Do you remember when people thought we were twins?”

“Yes, I do. Miss your brother?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Me too.”


Missing a mentor

Attached at the heart

Tender memories surface

Taking you aback

Clinging, holding on

Lingering, just below

Achy unused muscles

Infused with the past

Responds to fresh



Thank you to  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth  our hosts at Two Writing Teachers for nurturing this writing community.

Spring Break: List Poems

It’s Monday. First day of Spring Break. I’m making lists. A big part of me wants to do a whole lot of nothing. I battle with myself over being productive and being lazy. Something in between the two has always been difficult for me. Writing a list poem on a post makes it a bit less random, more thought out, less likely to be lost, than it would be on a post it.

What I need to do.


the closet, the library:

pack away the tried and true,

dust off boxed up treasures,

pull out the new,

set aside the unused,

 the unneeded few.


Time set aside for 

the  necessary,

the things I can’t ignore:

  handyman, doctor, dentist, vet

 no excuses, no more.


It starts as a curse but develops

into dreaming:

lessons, books, discoveries.

Suddenly work is seeming

to be what I want to do:

writing and reading.

For more fun with list poems see Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s The Poetry Farm and Ken Nesbitt’s Poetry4kids.

Glad I’m  playing with poetry! Thank you fellow poet bloggers who are reaching  for more in their lives and in their teaching. It’s nice to journey together. Check Leigh AnneMichelleMargaret, Kevin,  Mary Lee, and Cathy’s blogs for more poetry inspiration.

Celebrating Hands On Learning

celebrate link up


I’m  celebrating our trip to Catalina Island.

Over 1,000 students, 140 parents, and 7 teachers have gone with me on this trip over the past 11 years.  Every time I learn something; every time it is thrilling; every time there are challenges.

For our fifth graders it’s a life changer. They put on wet suits, that keep them warm and buoyant; masks and snorkels that allow them to see all the wonders of Toyon Bay. With the sunlight shining overhead, they go into kelp forests. Garibaldi weave in and out. In sandy spaces,  bat rays, shovel nose guitar fish and leopard sharks swim below. They pass schools of  blacksmith and opaleye. They snorkel at night to see bioluminescence. They participate in labs on squid dissection, invertebrates,  sharks, algae, plankton and oceanography. Students set up, clean up and eat together for three days away from home. They face and overcome fears.They have the magical experience of going to camp.

As one fifth grader said, this is heaven.and then another responded, no this is paradise.

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Draft: Poetry Sorting Through Right Now

For the month of April I’m playing with poetry. Today is no form. It is raw.

This is what’s happening now. Right now I have no control over things.. Poetry can serve to sort this through.


This isn’t the way it’s suppose to go.

Bags are packed, emotions are high

Postpone They say

You need signatures



Risk Management

Outdoor Education

Dr. I’m in Charge

They, The Three Signatures,

can break


Hiding behind titles.

Hiding in offices,


They can say No,

They have the Power.

We wait,

hoping, powerless.



Thank you fellow poet bloggers who are reaching  for more in their lives and in their teaching. It’s nice to journey together. Check Leigh AnneMichelleMargaret, Kevin,  Mary Lee, and Cathy’s blogs for more poetry inspiration.