Slice of Life: The Trials and Tribulations of Animal Love

In the car on Saturday morning, I turned on my local NPR station. Animal House was on.  I can listen to almost anything on NPR, but calm animal behavior advice at 5 am kind of lulls me back to sleep, so usually turn it off. This segment, titled “Is There a ‘Chill Pill’ For My Cat?” got my attention. The soft spoken Dr. Katy Nelson talked to a beleaguered 90-year old Florida woman about her misbehaving kitty. She spoke of bottle-fed cats (wait, my cat was bottle fed) and how they don’t learn their manners from a momma cat (oh no!) and how that could lead to bad behavior. She suggested a cat behaviorist, or cat whisperer. I can’t believe I am actually thinking about this as possibility; I am identifying with a 90-year old cat lady.

Our cat does what he wants. Most of the time he sleeps. Occasionally he looks at us. Sometimes he walks in front of us. He puts up with our need to hold and pet him. At times he even seeks out our attentions. We have a live and let live relationship. Until recently. Now due to a change in his access to the outside, his in and out privileges have been limited.  Come to find out he is easy going when he gets his way, obnoxious when his desires are less than fulfilled. Now he demands in or out, and he gets it, because you can not ignore his crazy making and unrelenting meows. After listening to Dr. Nelson, I feel like an inadequate cat parent.

This behavior has been created by a change in our behavior, not the cat’s. We have two doors off the back of the house. Both have screens that have been custom sliced (by the cat), just enough to allow him entrance in to and out of the house. My husband dubbed them cat doors, the perfect accommodation for cat and human biorhythms.

One evening I sat at the dining room table reading and I hear, crunch, crunch. Not an unusual sound, but a little louder. I look up and a raccoon is chomping down cat food, right next to me. Unbelievable. I chase the critter out; then he stood on the other side of the glass sliding door eyeing me and the food. Disgusted, I secure the door and wash the cat dish.

The cat doors are now sealed, the cat’s desire to venture at will hasn’t changed, and our sleep cycle is interrupted.

Why do we put up with this and still greet our cat with love. Why do shows like Animal House exist. Crazy or typical?

When I looked up the Animal House segment, I found a Fresh Air podcast with Vint Virga, veterinarian and author of The Soul of All Living Creatures, What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human. An interesting excerpt can be found at the link. This quote struck a chord as a slicer and an animal lover:

We reach out to people as well as animals out of a longing we hold deep within to not be alone, to share what we feel, to relate in some way to the world around us. We yearn to be accepted for who we are, warts and all. We spend much of our lives in an unfolding saga, sorting among all the others we meet to find those who we believe best understand us, with whom we can feel free to just be ourselves. Yet with animals, I find, we do so quite differently.

By their sides we let down our guard and show them more of who we are.

Within the shelter of our own homes, one-­half to two-­thirds of us look on our pets as full-fledged family members. We speak of our pets as if they’re our children, invite them into our beds with us . . . While we all talk to animals in one way or other, an astounding 94 percent of us speak to them as if they were human. And more than 90 percent affirm that our pets indeed respond in turn to our human fancies, emotions, and moods. By the same token, just as many believe our pets share human personality traits, such as being inquisitive, outgoing, or shy. Considering how we regard our connection with them, perhaps it’s not surprising at all that slightly more than half of us would willingly risk our lives for our pets, and even more believe that our pets would devotedly rescue us.

Apparently this thing we do with animals is a part of being human.

2014-10-18 09.31.37Thank you Tara, Dana, Anna, Betsy, Stacey and Beth for Two Writing Teachers blog and Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices and post your own here.


Celebrate This Week: Why Write?

Ruth Ayers wrote about why she writes in her Friday post.  This led me to celebrate why I write.

I started blogging a little over a year ago, and I think it’s fair to say it has evolved.  Shamefully, I have been teaching writing for ten plus years, but only writing regularly for a little over a year. In this time so much has changed in my writing and teaching life. The effect has been nothing less than profound.

My purpose in writing is part reflection on teaching, part reflection on the experience of writing. The call to write is self imposed but driven by a weekly habit of connecting with others to celebrate or share a part of my life.  Without this call, this community, I know I would not go to my notebook to reflect. The community pulls me in. To put my words forth and see what comes up. My posts often don’t come out the way I anticipate, discoveries are made along the way. Which is the beauty.  Working it out in a public way makes me accountable. I have to come to some resolution in the process. It has to wrap up, make sense to some degree. Before writing, my thoughts mix around in my head without end points. Without writing, my thoughts that start off shinny possibilities or troubled storm clouds, float off and disappear rarely surfacing as conscious action. With each blog post, my thoughts cycle through and in about 500 (or so) words, a resolution or next step is a bit clearer, driving me towards the next step.

Moving my reflective practice to my classroom, knowing most of us don’t take thinking journeys without a push, I ask for writing about reading on paper every two to three weeks. I “invite” students to practice the possibly of this journey of thought — to come to new realizations through writing, not to demonstrate knowledge. As a side benefit, I see where they land on a continuum of learning. Which brings me to the sticking point. A real problem. I can teach students to journey, to discover their thinking, to love books. And I can do this in ways that don’t “feel” like assessments for students. But then I assess for grades. My students know this. I can’t ignore this when the “is this a test?” query that pops up when I hand them them the paper. This leads many to hate this writing about reading. To rebel against it. Most do it because that’s what students do – what the teacher asks.

I have one student who does not, will not comply. While a reader and a writer (on electronic devices), she won’t write on paper, won’t read as we read as a community of readers. She moves to her own drummer. I love this kid and I understand her moves. I am this kid in many ways. The trouble is she isn’t on her own, accountable only to herself. She lives in a community that has expectations, the world who will continue to assess her and the classroom who depend on her contributions. She’s in a community that doesn’t always have an electronic device. That at times, has to write on paper.  She battles the paper and pen. Gives three words when asked to express her thoughts. Self assesses herself as a “1” and then buries herself in a book. How much of this is can’t and how much of this is won’t.  What is to her benefit, the do it because it’s “for your own good” and what might be counterproductive and hence clearly not for her good. She hates writing, on paper, for a teacher. But when asked to write about the meaning of a text in activity that is not collected, she admits, grudgingly, that her understanding is very much improved. Asked to blog she is works hard to make her meaning clear.

While my headstrong student isn’t learning disabled, her strongly held beliefs need to be accommodated for. Why not a blog post to meet the call to write about reading? And in the end, might that be an option for the more compliant souls in the classroom? I have had this thought before, as I watched some struggle in those moments of paper and pen writing. And why hadn’t I come to this end point sooner? Maybe because I hadn’t written about it.

Today I celebrate writing for reflection, writing for a community, writing for my students.

Thank you Ruth Ayers for creating a community, a call to write at Celebrate This Week. Find more celebrations and add your own here.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Five Things I SHOULD Have Said at Work Today


It’s Tuesday and time for Slice of Life. What a gift it is to be able to write and link up with thoughtful bloggers at Two Writing Teachers! Thank you Dana, Tara, Betsy, Stacy, Anna and Beth  for this and all you offer on your blog. Read more slices and share your own here.

Yesterday I started to shift instruction: edging toward a heavier dose of informational reading and writing. Every year this is uncomfortable. Not because I don’t like the work. It’s just moving the ship in a new destination without tossing out all we have done is tricky and makes me a bit uneasy. With a color coded plan in hand, and belief that we can hold tight to what we have done, I enter a grey Monday.

I walked by two colleagues who were immersed in conversation. I didn’t really notice them. I was alone in my thoughts. I didn’t notice until I was in the copy room, punching cards, and I tuned in to the conversation. It was about a book he was writing. The fact that I wasn’t included hurt a bit. The little grey cloud that was hovering over me got a little bigger.

Morning minutes ticked by. The air felt stagnant. Everything that met me seemed a little off.

Students walked by. Not quite the same smiles. Distant?

The day hadn’t even started, and I had a feeling that the direction I was going in wasn’t good.

The day happened. Sort of kind of what I had planned, but not quite right. After a union meeting and a parent conference, I sat in my classroom mulling it over. I try to think in a linear way. But I’m more of a circular thinker, which can make me crazy. You know a what if, then, and what about that thinker. The possibilities are endless.

To blame someone or something for my funk would be easy, if only it worked. My circular logic keeps running through this not quite right, now that I think about it, actually really awful day. I’m irritated with the why and what next feelings,

Home I go. Think. Read. Write. Troll around the internet. I read a few posts, and fell into Kelly Wickham’s post on Five Things I Said At Work Today. Fun stuff. Could be a slice some day.

But today’s slice is five things I should have said (done) at work today.

I should have said, how can I help?

I should have said, here’s this book, I think you’ll love it.

I should have said, read this post, it made me think of you.

I should have smiled, a lot more and a lot bigger than I did.

I should have said something. Caught up in my own world, not wanting to complicate what I was trying to figure out, I realize I didn’t talk to colleagues today. I sort of holed up inside. Ironically, that inward motion magnified the dissonance. Rather than breaking out and letting a little light in, I kept the door closed.

Today made me realize how much I power I have in creating my life.  It made me think of most days when it seems like the whole world just looks me straight in the eye, smiles and offers up possibilities. Today wasn’t one of those days. Lesson learned, at least for now. Tomorrow, I promise I will be looking out not in. And it will be much better.

Celebrate: Endings and Beginnings, Again and Again

Happy Saturday. It’s time to Celebrate with this week with Ruth Ayres. Two wonderful things to look forward to every week. Read more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

This week was full, yet passed in an instant.

Five things —

1.  The return and departure of our eldest. He flew in on Monday from two months in Europe. Happy, exhausted, and full of life. Today he left for Santa Cruz. Our reunion was brief and a bit fractured (time in little pieces, here and there), but good. He seems settled and ready to move into the next phase of his life. With that feeling, it is easier to let him go.

2. The return of my car. Two “kids” home and driving meant that I have been car-less. As much as it really doesn’t matter, and I don’t particularly like or need to drive, something about having my car back gives me a sense of control and order.

3. The homecoming of my parents. Both were in the hospital. Sunday they came home. Fragile, but happy. My dad’s lovely nurse Rayna said it all, “Getting old isn’t easy.” That’s an understatement. They have been married nearly 60 years and are still entertain each other. Lucky them, lucky us.

4.  The end of parent conferences. It was two long weeks of meeting with families, 58 in all. I want to celebrate the dedication of these families. Everyone made time: took time off, did what was necessary and made their child a priority.  Only one parent asked where their child “ranked” in the class and only two asked what their grades would be. Most wanted to hear about how learning was going from their child, not from me. In most cases I felt more like a facilitator not like a validator or judge. In situations where students weren’t meeting expectations yet, we worked on next steps. All worth celebrating.

5.  The beginning of fall. You have to pay attention to notice fall in Southern California. We don’t get the vivid colors. Most trees are evergreen. Air temperatures change subtly.  Darkness sneaks up on us sooner and lasts a bit longer. The fog hangs on the coast. Things seem a bit calmer, quieter, providing a respite from summer.

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Slice of Life: Writing About Reading With Kelly Gallagher

I spent last Saturday learning with Kelly Gallagher, the amazing Clark Kent-like teacher, author, speaker. While his work is geared toward middle and high school students, don’t be afraid elementary folk. Many things make sense for the youngers too.

For years, I have struggled with students’ writing about reading. They have done it because I asked them to. Kicking and screaming.  From the students’ perspective, writing about reading was more about accountability.  I believe them.

On Saturday, Gallagher shared a writing about reading activity that blew me away in terms of my understanding of a text.  We were to read a short text, the poem “Billiards’ by Walker Gibson, three times.  Each time we read, we were to self assess our understanding. After scoring the third read, we were instructed to write about the text’s meaning for three minutes. My understanding dramatically increased by writing my thinking down.  Of the teachers in the room, about 75% reported the same phenomenon. The difference was so clear I thought I had to try this with my students.

I choose a 150-word excerpt from our read aloud. This exercise was presented as an experiment. Something for them to try out to see what they got out of it. I told them I was not collecting it. It was for them. After writing, over half of the readers reported growth in understanding and felt the writing increased their understanding.

Interested in their thinking, I conferred with a dozen readers.

I asked  – What happened as you went through the process? Here are a few responses.

Writing about it after I read really made a difference. It totally changed my thinking since the first read.

I had to really think to write what I thought.

It was completely different than the quick writing I do. It took longer, but I got a whole different idea from it.

It was hard. I understand the text but putting it into words was difficult.

Writing made no difference in understanding, but there was a change in re reading it. I noticed more by the third read.

One partnership reported that writing made no change in their understanding.  I asked them to write again after they had talked the text. After about two minutes, we reconvened. Both reported the writing after talking made a difference.

Some individuals claimed no change in their understanding through out the process which is a red flag for other reasons.

While this isn’t The Solution to my writing about reading issues, it has added a new tool for my students and me.  It’s interesting work worth trying.

A few other thoughts  —

  • Readers saw this process as useful when they were confused or in part they think might matter
  • Readers who struggle writing their thoughts need to be coached.
  • Readers need reading time. Writing about reading should be strategic, purposeful.


Thank you to Dana, Betsy, Anna, Beth, Tara, and Stacey of Two Writing Teachers Blog for Tuesday Slice of Life.

Read more slices and contribute your own here.

Celebrate: Five Things This Week

Celebrating this week with Ruth Ayres is a weekly ritual. Last week I missed it.  So here’s to catching up with five things to celebrate this week. Find more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

ONE — My daughter passed her driving test. This means she is driving me to school, rather than the other way around. Strangely the added bonus here is time to catch up and have time with her. She appreciates the car and I appreciate the time. A good deal for both of us.

TWO — Our classroom Scholastic News magazine has finally come in and we are loving the weekly informational read. I can’t recommend this magazine enough. It does cost, but the high interest content and well designed articles adds up to perfect for informational text reading and mentor text for writing.

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THREEStudent blogging is a huge bonus to our writing workshop. Students reading students’ writing makes the writing real and responsive. My students have been so fortunate to connect to the classroom blogs of teachers Erin Varley, Margaret Simon and Michelle Haseltine. So much learning going on and they love it!

FOUR — Thursday Genius Hour time has become the place we work on passion projects: what we are passionate about or frustrated with. Many students are bothered by people being “mean” or “just not right.” This applies to people, animals, and their community.

One boy, who is usually very social, was sitting by himself during Genius Hour time. I walked over to him and asked what he was working on. He said it really bothered him how people act better than others. “It makes me feel bad.” To fight this he came up with the “Awesome Project” or how to make people feel awesome. He’s not quite sure how to do this but I love the idea.

Another group is writing a play to about bullying. Another group wants to fund a camp for kids who have challenges (they aren’t sure what challenges or how to fund it but that’s part of the process). There are groups that want to improve on Mindcraft, perhaps letters to the developer.

Many thanks to Joy Kirr and her genius hour treasure trove of resources. If you have any interest in doing this kind of work, click here.

FIVEParent conferences are in full swing.   While there is so much to cover and it is stressful, today I want to celebrate the huge value these conferences bring to teachers. Hearing parents’ concerns and students thoughts offer a surprising opportunity for assessment. In one conference I asked,

Me -So tell us about your reading.

S – Half and half.

Me – So what’s one half?

S – I half struggle and half get it.

Me – Say more.

S – In Huck Finn I got it, it was good. But in Tuck Everlasting I struggled.

In the end, we talked about what the struggle was specifically, how often this happens and what to do about this. Just like teaching, I’m realizing my whole positioning on parent conferences need to be reorganized in my brain: less on me telling more on me listening.

Happy weekend!




Slice of Life: Parent Conferences, What’s the Verdict?

It’s Tuesday, time for Slice of Life. Thank you to Dana, Stacey, Betsy, Anna, Tara, and Beth at Two Writing Teachers Blog. Read more slices and contribute your own here.


Today’s slice marks the first day of parent conferences.

To prepare, I pull together a sort of paint by numbers portrait of each child.

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It’s a snapshot of mastery of the standards at this point. Some students are very “photogenic” in the classroom environment. Others, just don’t look good in this light. They need a different space or perhaps time to show their real colors, their true beauty.  This parent conference moment is just that, a moment in time with one set of expectations and measures. Is this measurement what will matter or measure a child’s potential for the world they will soon be participating in?  A world they will contribute children to that may end up in our future classrooms; a world that will support their parents (and us) in old age.

For all this data (and it does provide direction to teach with), it isn’t the picture that parents hold in their hearts. When parents walk in and ask, “How are they doing?” It’s with the child’s yesterday, today and tomorrow swirling around in their heart.  You see it in their eyes. They are looking for confirmation that it’s going to be okay. They don’t want their child to fight the battles and make the mistakes they did. They want their child’s path to be better.

The child sits next to their parent, wanting more than anything to please. Some get teary and you’re not even sure why. Perhaps they are beginning to feel the burden they can’t begin to articulate.

You talk with each parent wrapped up with what matters more than anything to them. I’ve known their child for nine weeks — two hours each school day. I’m just learning who they are and their parents are looking expectantly at me to give them a verdict.  Will they make it?

We talk about growth and goals.

We talk about concerns and next steps.

We talk about student’s dreams, about middle schools to apply to, about times when their child felt proud of an accomplishment, of how to help that child find those moments of pride.

While the mastery of standards matter, when I really think on what matters most, what we want each child to walk out with, is the sense of pride in accomplishment; the knowledge that they can make it and that they matter. As much as they depend on us now, we will soon be depending on them.

So much is at stake. I feel lucky to have families that care so deeply. It is their past, present and our future.