Slice of Life: Thank You Mr. Flagler

It’s Tuesday and time for Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thanks to Dana, Tara, Stacey, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for the wonderful place to meet up. Read more slices and link up with your own here.


A few weekends ago Chris Lehman’s EdCollab Gathering presented an online workshop. How lucky we are to have such access to so many powerful ideas and educators. I watched Sara Ahmed’s session on capturing Middle School hearts and minds. She spent 45 minutes highlighting some wonderful ideas she uses in her San Diego classroom that makes me want to preorder her new book, co-authored with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

In her session, Sara showed how she and her students create a sort of identity chart or “Me” map. I’ve done things like this before, but I wanted to see if it would help me, and maybe my kiddos, find some inspiration for slicing. Sometimes you just need a new tool!

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I let my map sit for a while.

Then up popped that midnight wakeup call.

It was Wednesday, actually Thursday morning, and my daughter woke me up in a panic.

“Mom, I have to write a five-paragraph essay on Emerson and transcendentalism.”

I kid you not.

Ok, how hard can this be. I weave into her room heart pounding from the adrenaline surge still coursing through me. I pull out the text book. Oh my. An excerpt from Emerson’s Nature is three pages amidst this massive 600 page, 10 pound text that covers all of American Literature in tiny pieces.

My reaction: Can we Google it? Seriously isn’t that what any resourceful person does?

Googling was forbidden.

Ok. I try to read the text and make sense of the rubric. It was way above my reading level, at least at 1 am.

I don’t think I could pass 11th grade AP English.

Certain that all her hopes and dreams were destroyed, she dissolved into tears, cursed my ineptitude and wished her brother was home to help.

I went to bed.

The next evening, she presented me with a well-written piece. But how?

“I just talked to my friends. Each told me their interpretation of the text. I thought the text through with that in mind  and wrote it.”

Brilliant. She has her own PLN.  This girl will survive.

The happy ending was filed away.

Meanwhile, my reader self and my teacher self all coalesced with Sunday’s #titletalk chat on reading levels; triggering some older memories.

When I was 10 years old, I wasn’t much of a reader and not much of a test taker. By today’s standards, I would not have met Common Core expectations.  If I was a young person today, my very literate, educated parents would have worried about low scores (because I probably would have had them), blamed it on the media or maybe the teacher.  I wouldn’t have measured up.  Had I been given my daughter’s English assignment at 16, I mostly likely would have failed and had another reason not to like reading.

Fortunately I didn’t have that text as an 11th grader. I had a teacher who read short story with us: complete, unabridged stories by Hemingway. We read and discussed as a class. We wrote. We were taught as long as we had support for our theories in the text, our point of view would be considered. It was a community of readers, talkers, and thinkers. It was fun. This class made me want to pursue literature classes in college.  Mr. Flagler changed my reading path.

As parent conferences and the grading period approaches, I will tell my students and their parents the story of my 10-year old self. That we measure student’s reading level only as a tool to understand how to help them become better reader; not to measure their worth or their future success. That we spend our year focused on growing their love of reading while working on their reading skills, so they want to do and can do more of it as they go through their school years and beyond.

I am grateful for my 11th grade literature teacher and will keep him and my experience close as I confer with my students. Thank you so much Mr. Flagler. For allowing me to fall in love reading and the possibility it holds out for all of us. I hope I can measure up.

Celebrating: Technology in Writing Workshop, Year Two

This week I am celebrating technology in the Writing Workshop.

celebrate link up

We just finished our first writing unit: Personal Narrative.  It may seem like the most natural thing to write about oneself.  But, to write in a way that shows who we are is not an easy thing for anyone let alone a fifth grader. If  you don’t believe me, try it. It takes courage, self reflection, and a lot revision.

Last year, I started writing weekly with two writing communities. First with Ruth Ayers’ Celebration link up. The weekly practice of celebrating the past week was and is a perfect place for reflection on my teaching. Not too long after that jump, I added a “Slice of Life” weekly post with Two Writing Teachers to my writing life. With these weekly posts, my perception of myself as a writer changed dramatically. These writing communities offered models and support for my writing and pushed me quite naturally towards a new understanding of reflection, “small moment” writing, and myself as a writer and a teacher of writing. I knew I wanted this community experience for my students, but by the time I figured this out I wasn’t sure where or how to fit it into Writer’s Workshop.

This year, with our narrative unit of study sitting behind us, in fact beside us as a tool, “slicing” bits of our life seems to be a natural next step. All of what we learned or started to learn can now be practiced and supported by our community of bloggers. We have a toolbox of strategies, models and checklists. And as our “slices” accumulate, we will have home-grown models to reflect on, a community to learn from. This week I celebrate our new writing unit:  Slice of Life writing on our blog. Other teachers have done this work with their students, most notably Tara Smith who is guiding a lot of my work through her posts here and here.

Last year, one of the biggest benefits of blogging was the feedback kids got from each other. Kids wrote for other kids. This made blogging like no kind of writing they had ever experienced. Many didn’t consider it writing. It was more like a conversation. It was fun! My concern was while blogging and iPads are engaging, and students were writing more, does the blogging environment and iPad technology make better writers.

This week, I’m happy to report a few ahas about technology.

1) Viewing the blog as a publishing tool limited its power. This year, students put their writing on the blog during their revision stages. That move alone has opened doors. Things I didn’t anticipate.

2)  The power of “pinch and pull” typed text. Typed text, even in an approximated form, is easier for students to see what has and has not been done. We can look at mentor text and then at our own writing. It is there in a typed format. Not a crossed out, whited out, taped over, hand written form but typed text that can be enlarged by a pinch and pull on the screen making it easier for students to see what they have written and compare it to mentor text.

“S” had written three simple sentences: “We went to the park. It was warm. I wanted to swim.”  He writes simply throughout his piece.  His thoughts are there. I wanted to teach him to vary his sentence length to develop a more complex writing style. A quick “I-do, we-do, you-do” move in a conference got him to revise his work easily and teach into this skill for all of his writing, not just this piece. With the iPad “S” can play with different sentence structure possibilities without being frustrated.

Another group of students were approximating dialogue and we celebrated. Their next steps were to tag, punctuate and paragraph so readers can understand who is saying what. This is difficult to teach with hand written documents. But with typed text the differences and similarities between student and mentor text become more apparent. The leap is less and the approximation closer still.

3) Emojis can provide a bridge to elaboration and craft moves. Some students found the emoji keyboard and “secretively” started to play with it. My first reaction was ok, just don’t over do it. But then I saw the power in it. One English Language Learner put an image of a rocket into his text. “I ran fast (rocket image) to the park.” He had done the thinking work towards figurative language with an image naturally. He understood the move but not how words could give him the same image. It was an obvious leap for me, but it took some coaching for him to “see” this. The leap wasn’t vocabulary, he knew the word rocket; it was how to use the word like an image. Other students who understood similes had already written the words, and then found the image to enhance their words.

Showing not telling emotions is still a struggle and emojis created a perfect bridge for some students. Students looked for the emotion they felt with the emojis and inserted it into their text. Then we worked together to describe the way the eyes and mouth looked in the text. Mind you, I had taught this lesson explicitly earlier, and some got the idea. The emojis helped others see how to show not just tell their emotions.

4) Editing with typed text makes the tricky stuff teachable. The issues surrounding editing when keyboarding is involved are interesting. Some of the work requires typing lessons:  how to shift so capitals are created and where spaces need to be placed. This is something you don’t know until you start to type. Tricky but very teachable when text can be enlarged with a simple pinch and pull and then compared to a mentor.

5) There are limitations to technology access, and that’s good because it pushes use of all of our writing tools. I have one iPad for every two students. That means all can’t be blogging at the same time. This limitation allows for continued use  of “old school” tools. When one partner is blogging, reading blogs or commenting on blogs, the other partner is in their notebook, ruminating in that space, drawing on old entries, lists, heart maps, stored strategies — using the pen and notebook to craft. This isn’t bad, in fact it is good.  Sort of cross training for writing muscles.

Year two of blogging with iPad technology in Writing Workshop has just begun.  Today I celebrate the writing  we have done and the learning how, why and when to use our our tools, new and old.  We are grateful for all of it: notebooks, looseleaf paper, Flair pens, Kidblog and iPads. These tools grow us as writers.

Slice of Life: Reflecting and Reality

I stand in the kitchen, thinking:  Slice of Life. What could I write? I’m confused right now. But knowing that we, my students and I, are going to start a four-week cycle of Slice of Life blogging (thank you Tara for your inspiration), I knew I had to write if for no other reason than to experience writing when I don’t know what to say, or when what I have to say isn’t the best thing. So I write.

My reality, when I step back and really look, is often not as bad or as good as I thought.

Last week I viewed a writing workshop lesson I had done. Before I watched, I felt pretty good about it. It was a lesson with all the bells and whistles and tons of conferring work. Then I watched it. I saw some good, but what I saw and heard made me cringe. My voice. Stop talking is all I could think. So I’m pushing myself, once again, to take more of a backseat approach and just let things move without my every direction and correction.

Today, we read aloud a great part of Wonder.  Students were engaged; loving the book. Then recess and lunch happened.  

Students returned, pink cheeked, sweaty, loud outside the classroom door. On their desks was feedback on work they did last week. They came in. I waited for them to settle. I asked them to review the comments, jot responses in their notebooks, and then get to reading.  They had books and time. They know how this goes. I waited, so I could get conferring started. I waited. Redirected. Waited some more. Watched. Redirected again. Waited. Finally I had had enough and I brought in the moves to make them settle. They felt the bit of disappointment and irritation in my voice. 

I expected students to be self directed after lunch and recess. A recess filled with drama. A recess so far removed from the moments of our read aloud and our classroom space. What was I thinking? While they should have been able to settle sooner, the move I was asking them to make was too much, right now. They couldn’t make the turn from play outside to quiet thoughtfulness in a book.

This evening I cleaned. I do that when I’m frustrated. Solution? Next steps?  My thoughts were going like this: I really don’t want to tell them how to move, how to breathe, how to take every step when they know how it goes.

But, do they really know how this goes?  They may know what is expected, but have they ever learned how to settle on their own. You’d think I’d see this sooner, but this is an aha moment. My thoughts and goals, that are down the road a bit, colored my expectations rather than the reality. We need the baby steps, Oops, I forgot.

Sorry guys. I get it. I think. And after writing, I can see a little better.

Thank you Dana, Tara, Betsy, Stacey, Anna and Beth at Two Writing Teachers for this space that helps me reflect and self correct, again and again. Read more slices and share your own here.11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

Celebrate: Teachable Moments

Temperatures soared this week and with them, tempers. Kids had trouble. Some to the point that they fought verbally and physically. By Thursday we had some breeze and the AC started working. Things seemed to get better. But kids were still off. People hold on to hurt and don’t let go of it easily.  Sometimes teachers are thrust into the center of the sturm and drang of students’ lives. When that happens we need to negotiate those storms with them, beside them. It disrupts traditional instruction, but at times is the center of the instruction they need. This week I’m celebrating teachable moments that fall into our laps in spite of and sometimes because of those storms.

Friday: We were on the carpet, getting read to read Wonder. Students who struggle with self control and organization were having a hard time settling. Those who had more organization and control  were waiting patiently. “C” who sat in front muttered under his breath, “No one follows the rules.”

I was interested and asked, “Do really think that?” He looked up at me and nodded. Others around him started agreeing. So I opened it up to the room. With, this, “How many of you agree with the statement that ‘C’ made: no one follows the rules? ” All hands went up. I set the read aloud aside and I asked students to do a quick QFT on the statement.

They had done this questioning work based on the book Make Just One Change at he beginning of the year. In that case I had created a “Question Focus” and they generated questions off of it. This in-the-moment student-generated statement seemed like a perfect and necessary QFT opportunity. So with ten minutes remaining in the class period, I sent them off to generate questions.  Without reminders in the how to’s of generating, categorizing and prioritizing question students came up with an average of ten questions a group.  Some groups got into the philosophical issues of why, other questions  seem like the beginnings of investigations. Here are a few samples:

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While these questions may seem like kid stuff, I think they are really the root of some really big stuff.  They will do some investigations next week. It will be their investigation, I hope we all learn from it.

This week I celebrate a teachable moment that was made up of:

  1. a student’s statement
  2. stopping the planned to address the need
  3. an actionable strategy to generate questions
  4. students’ questions
  5. the future possibilities of figuring out answers or maybe more questions

Thank you Ruth Ayers for creating this space to celebrate our lives weekly. Find other celebrations here.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Thank You Gary

Tonight I need to sort things out before I go to bed. Running isn’t a possibility, so writing is the workout.

High temperatures in Southern California are getting dangerous. Recess is indoors and after school athletics are canceled. If you don’t have air conditioning, sleeping is difficult. This morning, students were irritable. One actually fell asleep reading on the carpet; out cold.  He had had no sleep the night before.

The morning wore on. By lunchtime, my east-facing classroom’s thermostat read 89º.  After lunch, we packed up and took off for the library, filled with cool air and couches.  Our minds started working again and tension decreased.  Some reading and writing occurred.

At the end of the school day, my hot classroom was cooler than the triple digits outside, so a few came back to blog.  I work with them as I sort though papers, charge iPads. and tack up a chart for tomorrow.A

After they leave, I walk outside to check on the desk that had milk left in it over the weekend. Gary, who is a custodian at two schools, is scrubbing out the smelly residue in the heat. He’s making sure my kiddos who share this desk will have a place to sit tomorrow. He has to leave for the other school by 6:00 pm, but he makes sure this is done.

Tomorrow is projected to be as hot, my air may not be fixed, and I’m betting sleep won’t come easily tonight.

So here I sit, hot and sweaty, trying to figure out a few beat the heat strategies..

I think of Gary. This guy gets the job done. No matter his health, the climate, or the type of mess, he meets challenges with composure and a smile. Never have I seen him in a bad place, mentally. Today he is my hero, not only for cleaning up something that was awful, but for doing what was necessary for student learning.

I’m off to the store for water, some new markers  (maybe we’ll find some poetry on our walls), and something for Gary. I’m hoping my air conditioning will be fixed before it gets too hot tomorrow, but I’m channelling Gary. Doing what needs to be done.

Thank you Gary for more than just that clean desk.

And thank you Anna, Tara, Betsy, Stacey, Dana, and Beth for Two Writing Teachers. Your posts guide so much of my teaching life and provide a space for necessary reflection. Post your own thoughts and read more slices here.


Celebrate: Revision

I’m late to Celebrate This Week with Ruth Ayers. Thank you Ruth for making me come to this page with my celebration. It took a while to figure it out. Find other celebrations and post your own here.

celebrate link upThis week I’m celebrating revision.

It’s Monday morning.  My plans are clear in my mind. My vision of the day and the week is possible. Sort of fairy tale like.

Monday, I walk into my classroom and try to open the google slide doc I want to share. Google docs is blocked.  I revised.

Tuesday, “C” is walking to class with no backpack. Hmm. “Hey ‘C’, back pack?” 

“I left it in my dad’s truck.”

He has nothing to work with. No book, no writing. We revised his day.

Wednesday, after recess, three students are in the office, not in class. All students are clearly disturbed by the absence and needed to let me know. This process takes time and what was envisioned my me doesn’t happen.  So we revised.

I started the week armed with some theories about how students experience independent reading and read aloud. Thursday and Friday, I started testing my theories. The answers students gave me were instructive and shook up my next steps. Which is good.  So I revised.

This week was filled with not much that worked according to plan. Most steps I tried to take required stepping back and revising. Frustrating at the end of the day. It felt like I’d gone no where.

Teaching takes a lot of revision, rethinking.  Frustratingly necessary. Fortunately there is next week.

Slice of Life: Wondering About Wonder

It’s Tuesday and time for Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thank you Tara, Beth, Stacey, Anna, Betsy and Dana for the this place to share our writing. Post a slice of your own and read more here.
11454297503_e27946e4ff_hWhat Readers Really Do authored by Vicki and Dorothy Barnhouse has been the basis of much of my thinking about reading instruction, and last Friday I had the privilege to spend a full day of thinking  with colleagues and Vicki Vinton. This book has helped me understand the relationship between learning and instruction in general. 


As I plan for the week and then re plan after each lesson, I am always measuring how much I do and how much students do. Every day my teacher-self fights the desire to step in and do more. Every day I hold myself in check, trying to up the percentage of what students do.

I try to hold back and listen to what students are saying and thinking. Even when what they say seems so off, if I really listen I see threads of their logic that link back to the original work or thought. By hearing their thinking that initially appears as misunderstanding, often proves to be so instructive for me and is what drives my next steps. 

Seeing the world and the lesson through students’ eyes is really my job. Sitting in their shoes looking back at me is a true reflection on what learning is going on.

Tonight I am looking back at our read aloud Wonder by RJ Palacio. We started the book with the simple and straight forward thinking about our reading as put forth in WRRD by asking students what do they know and what do they wonder about as they process through the text.


Before we started the chapter called “Locks” I asked students to look back on their thoughts and share what they noticed so far. What popped out at them and what were they wondering about. I recorded their thoughts.

One student said, “I looked Auggie up on the internet and I saw a trailer for the movie, but it didn’t let me see what he looked like.”

Another student wonders, “Does he have a lip?”  (I wonder why he is wondering about the lip, that seems so insignificant but I write it down.)

And yet another student chimes in with, “I’m having such a hard time picturing him because, I don’t know what he looks like.”

Others add, “Yeah, in the beginning it just says about how he looks worse than you would think.”

“And how people are whispering behind cupped hands.” 

“But what does he look like?”

Part of me wants to say, well why do you think the writer didn’t tell you this? Why is she leaving us so in the dark? What do you think that means? But I restrain myself and just write down their comments.

Another part of me is so pleased that Auggie has lingered with a student enough to look it up on the internet outside of class. His own curiosity drove him to it.

So thinking about some the work Vicki shared with us on Friday, I consider possible approaches to pursue this line of inquiry.

One path we could take would be to ask what does your wondering make you think. This is a replicable move across texts. It is clearly what readers or thinkers can do with a wonder. Sometimes we look it up and find the answer and sometimes we look it up and find no answer, so we have to think about our wondering to find an answer.  

Another way we could go is to explore this line of inquiry in the text. Perhaps, if we read closely, there might be some clues we could uncover. Thanks to Kindle the work is easy. I searched for “looks” and “face” and this is what I got:

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking it’s probably worse.


No one had any idea I would come out looking the way I look.


The doctor’s realized there was something wrong with my face, but they didn’t think it was going to be bad. They told mom and dad I had a cleft palate.  (maybe that’s why students were wondering about his lip)


She said when she looked down into my tiny mushed-up face for the first time, all she could see was how pretty my eyes were.


People think I haven’t gone to school because of the way I look, but it’s not that. It’s because of all the surgeries.


I’ll be the only kid who looks like me.


I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all.


I’m used to how I look by now. I know how to pretend I don’t see the faces people make.


Which way to go? The first way is one that could be a move in any exploration of wonder. The second way one could be used when we have a text to explore. Ah, the beauty of having more than one class. I can try both and see what comes up. Clearly this line of inquiry will continue throughout the text. Students are keenly aware and concerned about this and will be on the look out for it. 

Reflecting on this, a couple of things pop out at me. First, curiosity drives independent work and thinking. And second, close reading could be authentically pursued when it is a possible source for answers we are driven to find. Thinking is hard but thinking about something we are interested in is, well interesting.  



Celebrate: The Year To Come

celebrate link up

The process of learning is difficult. We ride alongside learners. We come with love and passion for what we know to be true and valuable. We want to share this with our students. There are times when that love is clearly felt and then reflected back on us.  And there are times when things fall flat or even go backward. When what you thought was going to be great, but wasn’t. When you just didn’t have it. Or when someone else diid something they shouldn’t. And then we as teachers are left with the student who is hurt or by ourselves, trying to figure it out.  

Today I celebrate the year in front of me.  Today I celebrate students that make me look forward to the learning and growth to come. They grow so much every year. I am lucky to be a part of it.

Mark hates, hates, hates reading a book a week. That’s what he wrote on his student survey yesterday. While this is clearly not what I wanted to hear, it made me smile. The fact that he was clearly stating what he felt, not what I wanted to hear, made me celebrate. I can trust what he tells me is the truth. This is something we can build on.

Jordan loves, loves, loves food. He is a thinker, but sometimes it doesn’t look like it.  He gets in trouble on the yard. Doesn’t do his homework. Sometimes refuses to do what he is asked to do. Sometimes he out and out lies. It doesn’t look like it, but he wants to learn, to do well. I know it and we have a team of adults at school to support him. We have this year, the last year before middle school. This year to build strategies to support him and how he approaches learning.

Jessica came to me at lunch. Mrs. Harmatz, can I talk to you about something, starts the conversation. She goes on to tell me how her dad said she wasn’t a good writer or reader.  That she writes like a kindergartener and doesn’t understand what she is reading.  Those words knocked the wind out of me. Where this child falls on the continuum of 5th grade ability isn’t the point. It doesn’t matter.  It seemed in this moment she just wanted to tell me this. And as I stumbled around trying to say that she was amazing without undermining her parent, she goes on to say I will be better I will work harder because you can’t give up, I will be resilient.  As painful as this situation is, I celebrate the fact that she came to me. That we have a year together, to grow her and her family towards a positive mindset.

Today I celebrate the year to come.




Slice of Life: Reading Lessons in Unsuspecting Places


There is a printer in the hallway, and two printers in the garage. The ones in the garage are there because  no one has been able to make them work our wifi. Monday our printer in the house stopped working.  I told my husband figuring we’d probably need another printer.

“We’ve got two in the garage,” he says.

“And they don’t work.”

He just looks at me and says, “Yes. They. Do.”

“Okay, where’s the manual?” I say, thinking he doesn’t have it.

Surprisingly he shows up with it.

Even more surprisingly, I figure it out in about 5 minutes. Bam! I’m printing. “Yes! I am awesome!”  Feeling rather full of myself, I tell my husband, “If you could find the manual for that receiver, I bet I could figure that out.”

Minutes later he hands me the manual.

Not sure why I asked for this. About two weeks ago, somehow the audio stopped working on the TV. No idea why, and up to this point I really didn’t care. There are four remotes and many boxes and switches involved. All of this has given me a complete hands-off relationship with the equipment.  Because I rarely watch TV, I forget how to turn the thing on. Consequently, I only watch something if someone else is. And even then, I usually walk away.

What was I thinking. Me fix the receiver?  I’m not completely sure what a receive does. Receive something, but what and how is mystery.

Faced with my self-inflicted challenge, I opened the manual and turned to the diagram of the console. Yep, lots of buttons.  I sink down on the hard wood floor and read the display on the receiver. It says, “SAT.” I think, well the date’s off, it’s Monday. But that  has nothing to do with sound.

I study the page, searching for anything that might have to do with audio. The diagram delineates every knob and its purpose. I read it aloud, because that’s what I do with difficult text. “Number 14 – source.” I trace the line that leads me to the knob. “Number 18 – volume.” Again I locate the dial on the diagram and then find it on the black box. I turn the knob. Nothing. Back to the manual and  I look at the explanation of “source,” I read aloud, “SATELLITE/CABLE.” Oh maybe that’s what SAT means?

I touch the source dial

Flip:  GAME.

Flip:  HTML.

Flip : TV and… sound

Ha! I am a technology rock star.

My husband and daughter are in awe.  Both want to know how I did it.

What did I do? I ventured into foreign territory, but I had a history of a little success so I was ready to try. I had time, no pressure. I stumbled around a bit in the text, but I  took my time and played around. I asked myself, what made sense and tested it. It didn’t work, so I tried something else. Tested it and bam it worked!

This got me thinking about how a struggler faces text and how we teach reading. What did I do?

I had a bit of confidence and time to process. I  read aloud. Questioned.  Tested it. Got feedback. Re read with the feedback in mind, and tried again.

In the end, I got it and felt good about me.

Now if that happened for students as they work through a text; what readers we would have.

Thanks to Tara, Dana, Beth, Stacey, Anna and and Betsy at Two Writing Teachers who provide our Slice of Life sharing space. Find more slices and add your own here.