Celebrate: Regenerative Practices

It’s time to Celebrate this Week with Ruth Ayres.  I’m thankful for all of those who join in this practice. Read more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

This week was a roller coaster, up and down. Each day required reconstruction.  I’ve got a road I want to travel; sometimes our learning path requires significant detours and roadside stops. Sensing where students are relative to where I want to take them is most important.

This week I celebrate the regenerative practice of writing.

Writing allows my thoughts to be tangible. It lets me hold on to and maybe connect pieces. Writing can feed me. It allows my brain and body to connect with something solid. Be it ink and notebook or the keyboard and screen.

This week I celebrate the regenerative process of listening.

On Friday, I caught this conversation on my local NPR station between Noah McQueen and President Obama.   Noah, an 18-year high school senior from Maryland, spoke wise words. Words I wanted my students to hear. They listened hard to Noah and the President. Afterwards, I listened to my students.

I didn’t ask for them to share or to write. I just waited.

Mostly it was quiet.

Then, V said, “He seems a lot older than 18.”

R said, “That was beautiful.”

I agree.

Happy Saturday.




Slice of Life: Looking for Kindness

It’s Tuesday! Time for a Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey, and Tara. You can find more slices here.

Life is interesting. I have these ideas, theories, plans. I paint this picture in my head, and then reality gets involved. At first glance today was disappointing. But then I thought about it.

Students are writing letters on Bring Your Own Device to school. They have changed their positions pro and con, back and forth.  The more they know and the more they write, the more their ideas morph and grow beyond their initial response. It’s been hard to work through this thinking, this writing. They aren’t loving every minute of it. That’s the part that doesn’t fit the picture in my head.  But I’m proud of their process, their writing and their opinions. They are thinking beyond themselves and that’s hard.

In our social issues reading unit we’ve been talking about power; who has it and why. Students have said people have power over others because of strength, money, will, leadership, race, kindness, love, bullying, laws, judges, intelligence. I find it so interesting they include kindness and love right alongside bullying and money. Not what I expected.

Today we got to the part in The One and Only Ivan where the news media has become aware of Ivan and Ruby’s situation. Ivan, the powerless and caged, has become a bit of a celebrity and my students can see the power is shifting towards him. I’m wondering if they are making the connection as to why it’s shifting. Do they see him as a disenfranchised letter writer, causing change. Do they see the power of the written word?

Put this all together with a side project, sort of an adjunct to our social issues work, an investigation of kindness. Groups developed questions using the Question Focus Technique. Each group choose their top three questions on the topic of kindness. Then they voted on questions they most wanted to investigate. Each class came up with three questions.

  1. Why should we be kind if someone isn’t kind to us?
  2. How can you be kind in difficult situations?
  3. How can you find kindness in your heart?
  4. Why do people bully?
  5. Does choosing kind make you a better person?
  6. Why aren’t people brave?

These questions say so much about what students see around them and why they don’t always choose kind. They point directly at why kindness is such a challenge. Kindness is easily overwhelmed.

Literature is an obvious place to find kindness; choosing to show us kind. Perhaps writing gives us space to find the kindness. To think before we react to what seems to be an assault on our person. To give kind, to find justice.

This student’s writing was a surprise. I didn’t expect it. On Friday he was opposed to BYOD. Today he wrote this:

it isn’t fair that just 5th graders have iPads. All grades should be blogging. That’s why I believe we should be able to bring our own devices to school.

In the picture in my head I see students coming to understand the need for social justice. They’d speak out on the behalf of the weak, reach out and be kind even when others aren’t kind to them.

Students can be selfish. They get their feelings hurt and strike back.  But then they reflect and come up with some startling ideas that make me realize there’s a lot more underneath.



Writing Lessons: Kelly Gallagher

Writing is hard. My students struggle with it. I struggle with it. This year I’ve been looking to help students find moments of writing that edge into places that matter to them.  Taking a page from what I know about fostering reading love, I gave them dedicated time and choice for writing. For some it has worked. But many need more to create a better writing life.

Saturday, Kelly Gallagher helped me (along with a multipurpose room full of like-minded educators) reach toward that goal. I took pages of notes. We wrote and wrote. Getting professional development like this is tangible and inspirational. What a gift! Kudos to my district’s leaders for providing this opportunity.

If you are looking for a new PD read or two, consider giving yourself these books. Much of the work we did yesterday is highlighted in Write Like This.  In the Best Interest of Students is out in a few days.


Here are a few morsels Kelly shared that I plan to use in my classroom and in my writing life.

Articulate the why.

  • Writing is hard, but writing is necessary.
  • Writing helps you sort things out.
  • Writing helps fight oppression. It’s a gatekeeping skill.
  • Words are weapons and tools.
  • Writing helps you persuade others.
  • Writing is generative.
  • Writing makes you smarter.

With this in mind remember writing, like any skill, is an act that must be practiced. As teachers we are their coaches and we need to coach throughout their game: from the sidelines, during time outs and half time.  Students need a sense of what they should be doing, adjusting their moves along the way. This drives growth.

Think about how your writing time goes and apply Dick Allington’s philosophy about reading to it — it’s less about ability and more about opportunity.

  • Allow for low stakes writing.
  • Allow for lots of writing.
  • Allow time for writing.

Model, model, model. And do it in front of your students. Real time.

Kelly Gallagher is the master of modeling. Yesterday, he took us through three models with mentor texts . All of this work is generative and focused on the craft of writing.

The first level we looked at was the most structured. The idea was to write as close as possible to a mentor text. Changing the topic yet using the model to guide each step in the process.  Rick Reilly’s  “Congrats Newly Minted Rookie” piece provided a model for us to try our own “Congrats Newly Minted…” piece. Think congrats new minted mom, kinder parent, middle school teacher. Now, imagine using an age appropriate text for your students. Or, doing this with your favorite piece of writing. For some writers this is highly supportive model and for other writers it might be highly restrictive. Either way it develops writers..

The next level was modeling  off the structure of a text. The simple approach we looked at was from Gretchen Bernabai’s book Reviving the Essay. The example we worked with was writing sentences with the stems:  what I used to think,  then this happened, and so now I think. The seeds from this type of beginnings could create a much wider range of writing possibilities.

The final and most unstructured way to use a mentor text as a model was to find “hot spots” or words/phrases that spoke to you in a piece of writing. At this level, a seed for your writing notebook could be launched from a key quote, phrase or word. We listened to and read Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock to try out this strategy.

Imagine trying each of these methods with your students over the course of a week. Invite them to choose one to revise and revise in front of them, showing the struggle and the thinking needed to revise.

A word on revision: RADAR. Replace, Add, Delete, and Reorder. Model that. Track your process. How often do you replace, add, delete and reorder your work? Highlight each move. Imagine growing your writers along that continuum.

And speaking of continuums — What about grading? Assessments? Don’t confuse them.

Kelly considers himself a teacher of literacy, not literature. With the goal of everyone improving, everyone moves.

He’s a mentor to emulate.







Celebrate: Genius Hour

At six o’clock Friday night my principal walked in my classroom to return Brown Girl Dreaming.  “Jackie Woodson speaks to me! How did I not know about her!?” she gushed. We go on to talk about the book and about all the good that happened this week. I’m so fortunate to be in a school with passionate colleagues that are energized by books and education. After that conversation, more celebrations for the week were clear.

GENIUSHOUR (1)This week students reached the end of a five-week Genius Hour/Passion Project Cycle.  My only constraint in this work is that students stay within the week’s theme.



We started the year with an hour once a week. Due to scheduling problems, the time started to move from an hour once a week to shorter segments across the whole week. Now genius “time” happens in 10 to 15 minutes segments at the end of each day. Many stay to continue working during recess or after school so the time stretches out even longer. At this point, with this group of students, I like the change. They need to get to work quickly and they don’t loose touch with their work.

Students love genius time. They can’t wait. As a teacher you are a consultant, an observer, and a supporter of their learning. Students work in teams of their own creation, on work they direct, completely. They find like minded souls and talk. During all the noise you might wonder: is this time well spent?

After this week of presentations, I am sold on the power of this work.  Students created their own questions, they read content they found, they wrote and planned their presentations. They clearly demonstrated learning and more importantly the process of learning.

The endangered sea animal group did extensive work that will continue though the next cycle. They plan to find ways to raise funds to help .2015-02-20 10.40.05
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There was a lively debate between two students on who was the better soccer player Ronaldo or Messi. They went back and forth with reasons and evidence and at the end they turned to the students saying you decide!


I learned a lot about the history of basketball. Who knew women played in 1892. Less than a year after it was invented!

Three students inspired by Alex’s Lemonade Stand raised $60 over President’s Day weekend for kids with cancer.

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This week I celebrate students’ learning. I celebrate the process and their agency. I celebrate their abilities. I celebrate genius time that allows students to find and use their genius.

Thanks to Ruth Ayers Saturday link up that provides the wonderful practice of celebrating the week! Read more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Uncomfortable Possibilities

I avoid thinking about uncomfortable things. This weekend I had to deal with the possibility and reality of two such things.

Earthquakes are something I’ve grown up with. I’ve experienced a couple bad ones, but they’ve been few and far between. If predictions are accurate, the “big one” will have a staggering impact on our area. I have one friend who moved to Arizona due to fear. The majority of us live with it, putting it in the back of our minds.

If you’re smart, you make sure you have fresh emergency supplies, some cash stashed, bookshelves secured, and no items stored up high that might go flying in the event of a big quake. There isn’t a season for earthquakes and time just slips by. I had put earthquake preparedness off. This weekend for many reasons, I made headway at home and at school in this department.

Of all the work I did, books were at the center of it.  I never seem to have enough books, yet I have so many I can’t store them properly.

I entered school with a clear plan of attack. Amusingly I thought it would be done in about three hours. It seemed easy and straightforward.

Without much thought I pulled out the boxes in a cabinet I hadn’t gone through since last year.. The boxes were stacked three high and three wide.

Pulling out the last one, I grabbed the broom to sweep up the dust bunnies and crayons that had slipped under, and I felt it.. Skittering down my leg. I didn’t see it, but I knew. Cockroach. I knew they were there.  I just conveniently forgot. I looked. He’d vanished.

I fearlessly continued, thinking I was bigger than he was.

A flash and I smacked a box down, pinning the beast; his head peeking out from underneath, his large antennae twitching. Yes, I’ve got you. I shoved the bugger into a mason jar and capped it with the box that had trapped him.

Now what? Not wanting to think about the implications of his presence, I crushed him. Done with it.

Six hours and lots of dirt and wildlife encounters later, the room is set for disaster. Nothing will tumble down on an unguarded soul. Even the cockroaches are safe.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

Celebrate This Week: Personal Process and Paths

celebrate link up

Every weekend I show up here to celebrate and reflect on the week. Thank you Ruth Ayers for creating the space to share with others who do the same. Taking the time to stop and reflect matters. Reading the reflections of others on similar journeys bolsters and instigates more reflection. Thanks to all who share their celebrations.  You add to mine.

We spent some messy and difficult moments this week trying to figure out how to build sound arguments. Connecting and sorting ideas and evidence can be confusing and frustrating. We worked hard at looking at it one way and then another. Pieces are coming together at different rates.  All are trying to clear a road that is their own. Here’s one: an improved version of my teaching.

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And another quite different journey to understanding.

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And  others struggle to clear a way, to make sense of the evidence, to prove what they believe.

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I celebrate my students’ persistence. Their willingness to work alongside me, to find a way in this work. I celebrate post-its, highlighters and my iPhone camera. These tools allow us to sort, select, and reexamine. I celebrate my students’ ability to change their direction and have courage to make their own path.

This week I celebrate writing and reading that is personal and sometimes buried deep; protected in a place where no one sees. My last conference on Friday was with a reluctant writer and reader. I asked him what was good about writing. He said, after a very long pause, poetry.  Wow I had no idea. I asked him what was his favorite book ever. He shrugged and mentioned Smile and Sisters. Hmm. Poetry and graphic novels. I used to hesitate giving students novels in verse. I thought students just zip through them with little understanding. But this tweet made me reconsider the entire genre and its possibility.

2Q==Of course. It’s easy entry. Few words on a page. A gentle way to pull at the reader in bits that don’t tire. Words on the page that can be taken in deeply providing space and energy to do so.

We’ve been reading Locomotion, So, I asked. Do you like our shared reading work? His eyes lit up. Bingo. The world of novels in verse and my current read (on the right) came to mind. Maybe this is a path for him.


Paths to learning and growth are personal. There is no one way, no magic ticket. I’m lucky I have the opportunity to venture down different roads with students and teachers everyday. Here are some paths I wandered down this morning: writing from Elizabeth, reading from Nora, homework from Pernille; and book love from Carrie.

Happy weekend!

Slice of Life: Play, Learning and School

This weekend I found a tweet that captured me and led me to a TED talk.

After watching it…

I felt guilty about the sports activities my children dutifully performed for years.

I thought about my students, their recess time and how limited it is. I thought about their class time and how long it is relative to play.

Then #caedchat started. This is a really, really fast chat; I usually miss 90% of the tweets and loose the thread quickly but for this topic, I was willing to try.

First question:

I thought and watched.

Tweets included words like joy, unstructured, choice, engagement, and of course the great Mr. Rogers.

Second question:

Ok wow. To get to this I needed to get clear on my definition of play. First I thought, play is doing something just because it is fun. Something that made me smile or laugh out loud. My (decidedly nerdy) “play” is my choice and completely engaging. It shifts easily from one thing to the next. There is a sense of wandering and wonder. When I play I’m absorbed by it, and with it.  Time just doesn’t exist.

Now, consider the idea of learning and play. Do they sit side by side?

Learning requires engagement. Learning requires practice: doing something again and again until we reach a level of mastery, of knowledge. Play is a deep form of engagement so it is clearly a conduit for learning.

Now consider school and learning. Is school sitting on the same bench as learning? Is learning taking up two different spaces at school: one in the classroom and one on the playground? Are we using the power of play in our students’ best interest?

I wondered what my students considered play in the classroom. Is there anything they think of as play? So I asked. (#scarytodo)  Admittedly I had to stretch their definition of play a bit. School is about someone else setting the agenda not them.  Here’s their “play-like” list, in no particular order:

experiments, drama, genius hour, iPads, blogging, read aloud, field trips, graphic novels, colored markers, writing what I want, drawing, talking

Good to know.

And what if…

  • students never spent more than an hour in class before they moved to another space to play
  • playtime was offered not just as outside time but in maker spaces
  • educators spent time quantifying the value and necessity of play in learning along with depths of knowledge

What do you think? How doable is play? How necessary is play? What can we do?

Celebrate This Week: Signs of a Writing Life

For years I have been disturbed by the fact that my students didn’t love, in fact didn’t even like writing. Writing was hard, not fun.This was painful. Clearly I was doing something wrong.  I wanted writing to be something that could make a difference for them; could give them voice. But they weren’t seeing it that way.

So I got them blogging.

It helped a little. But I still didn’t see them jump for writing like they did for reading.

So this year I decided to give students dedicated time everyday to write what they wanted outside of workshop time. I hoped this would help them create a bigger space for their writing lives.

It worked for some. Most needed a push, a reminder, a quick tip, a mini mini lesson, a bit of inspiration to keep going. They needed to be taught to be independent writers.

Time and choice wasn’t enough. The workshop time taught them how to write in workshop, but outside of it they were rather lost.

I added in lessons to teach towards that independent writing life I was imagining for my students and myself: some thematic ones like One Little Word work; gathering ideas; craft lessons dropped in here and there; access to the iPads for blogging and google doc creation. And I wrote beside them in various ways.

Documents and posts started to appear. They were far from perfect but they were growing in number. It was writing. Their writing. Writing they had taken through their process and published on their own. It seemed like more. They jumped for the iPads. But was it for the technology or was it for writing.

So this week, I asked — What is good about writing?

I like how it comes together at the end.

I thought I knew something, but after writing it I knew so much more.

 I like writing about myself. I think I should write a book.

It helps me express my emotions.

Telling stories I want to read.

It makes me feel free. .

Writing stories in my journal.

Getting to write what I want to write.

Showing my accomplishments.

Going back and making it better.

Getting lots of comments! .

Getting it done.

I asked: What are the struggles?

Knowing what to write.

Sometimes there are no words..

I want to share, but I don’t know how.


Getting started.

Getting stuck.


Is it writing love? Maybe not yet.

Do they like writing more than the beginning of the year?  I’m going to boldly say yes.

Is there more I can do? Absolutely.

I need to wear the love of writing as I have for reading, to quote Lucy Calkins, “on my sleeve.” It needs to be bigger. I need to really write before their eyes. And fail. And try again. They need a real live model. I really haven’t done this enough. There are moments but it isn’t enough.

To be honest, I’ve been that model as a reader. Reading with them. Discovering and loving books with them.

Writing needs to be apparent and heartfelt:  a shared place and space we love and grow together.

This week I celebrate my student writers and our growing writing lives. We have a way to go, but i think I’ve found a possible pathway.

celebrate link up

Happy Saturday. Enjoy more celebrations on Ruth Ayers’ blog here.





Slice of Life: Listening to Learn

Parent conferences have started, and my one little word is my best friend.


First thing Monday morning D comes to me with a pained expression on her face and says, “Do I havvvve to be there Mrs. Harmatz?”

Me: You are running the conference, of course.

D: But it’s called Parent-Teacher Conferences not Parent-Student Conferences!

Me: Maybe we should rename it.

She goes on to tell me that a pair of UGGs and Nikes are on the line with this conference.

D: What are you gonna say Mrs. Harmatz?

Me: You’re saying everything. I’m just listening. I might just ask a few questions.

After school, D shares her favorite writing piece with her mom. I ask her to tell us why she choose it.

D: Because it is about my favorite thing, my birthday. I get presents and we have cake!

Me: Great! Is there another piece you are really proud of? (I’m hoping she’ll show her informational text that took weeks of work.)

She looks through the blog, and comes right back to the birthday post.

Me: What did you do as a writer that you liked?

D: I liked how I said how happy I was.

This was not the piece I would have highlighted, but I’m glad D stuck with her birthday piece. She chose the one that made her happy. The one that mattered to her, not me.

Hmm… This tweet found me when I got home.

When she first choose that piece I was shocked. I never would have guessed that was her favorite piece. It was one she did on her own, it wasn’t a piece from a unit of study. It was something she did on her own. Did it showcase her best work or her meeting of the standards? Not really. But if I were asked to choose my favorite writing, it would be the one that mattered most to me. And that might not be the one that meant the most to others. That’s exactly what D did.

Lesson #1 Learned: What matters to students matters. This is where we start and continue our teaching.

Z came to me at the end of the day and said,” Do I havvvve to be there?”

I go through the same song and dance as I did with D.

Even though she resisted, she prepared for her conference. The writing work she was most proud of was loaded up on the iPad, her best writing about reading was ready to share, and her self assessment was prepared.

She started by sharing her research report with her mom .The one I would have shared with mom.

Mom: Z I love this beginning! You really captured me. It is really quite clever.  Z, I am so impressed.

Z: Did you see my ending Mom?

Mom: Yes, Z… It is very good.

It was such a lovely moment I forgot to ask why she choose this piece.


Lesson #2  Learned: Ask why, even when you agree. The reasons they state may not be the reasons you think!

J was next and clearly not very happy about the prospect of a conference. J is a student who a teacher might say, “struggles with focus.” I let her talk. I asked a few questions, mostly why and say more about that.

In the end, engagement was what tipped the scales toward her success. No huge surprise. Things that get her excited, especially DRAMA lift her awareness and get her to move toward a more focused state, away from those pesky distractions.

Now I’m thinking about how to engage her, not how to get her to focus. I’m not thinking about how to focus her, but how to engage her. Tapping into her desire for drama will lift her towards learning.

Lesson #3 Learned: Forget about focus and think engagement. See this post for more on that.

Conference days are long, but when studied and listened to, provide a goldmine of knowledge that can guide our next steps.

Thank you Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays! Read more and add you own slice here.






Engagement, Practice, Passion and Literacy Learning

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Check this out: Vicki Vinton and Cornelius Minor in the same building.  The ESC South of LAUSD, brought these great educators to us — wow — what an opportunity –what a choice!

Vicki led the high school folks in reading, while Cornelius worked with elementary and middle school teachers on writing.

My notebook and brain is brimming with rich thinking and new teaching approaches Cornelius brought to life. As a side note, he has enough energy and passion to light a couple of stadiums.

Here are a just a few of my takeaways.

Mastery comes from practice. Our goal as teachers is to develop the emotional, social and intellectual energy so there is desire to practice.  Practice only happens when we are engaged enough to try, fail, and try it again.

My job is to create the conditions for practice.  The need for engagement must color all teaching moves.

I imagine my students’ passion for video games. Time doesn’t exist for them when they are gaming. Engagement goes on and on. They try and try, again and again. Through that practice they master the game and seek out more challenging experiences.

While writing and reading might not be video gaming, I need to remember this engagement can happen for my students and shoot for it. This is where learning happens. It’s my job to work toward it. Build it.

The average American has an attention span of seven minutes. With fatigue, attention span decreases.

I realize I need to look closely across our day; to reconsider my expectations and look at the realities.  I need to notice it, measure it, address it. Think stamina. Think engagement. Always be aware of it and adjust for it. Stop the work before students disengage.

Essay writing is about thinking first. Teaching students to develop ideas and claims, reasons from evidence found in text comes first. Structure matters but it is not the first or second or even third teaching point.  Moving students through a journey of thought about a text or subject is the bigger goal. Structure matters, it just shouldn’t be served up as a first move potentially preempting the harder thinking work.

Working with evidence to support a claim and develop a reason for the claim has befuddled my students, and my grasp on a good teaching pathway was weak.

Cornelius clarified my thinking and approach.

  • The claim is a belief.
  • The evidence is anything quoted or paraphrased from a text.
  • The reason, or analysis, is the intersection of the two.

To develop this kind of thinking, consider “drill” work. Present a claim and a piece of evidence. Then ask students to find a reason that might connect the two.


It isn’t as easy as it might sound.  Here’s one I tried.

Claim: Beyonce is a positive role model for women.

Evidence: In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history.

Think: What might be the reason that links the evidence to the claim? How or why does this evidence support the claim?

Reason: Through hard work and talent, Beyonce has achieved great financial success.

Great thinking “drill” work to try, practice again and again on various claims and pieces of evidence, so when students go to writing, their analytical muscles are a bit more developed and can play the “game” with more skill.

Use the TCRWP student checklists with on demand writing. The new checklists with pictures and kid-friendly language are powerful tools that can direct students toward self assessment. That’s a win win. They see it. They set goals for the next step. You can find them in the new Writing Pathways book.9780325057309

But, I have shied away from using them with students’ first piece, their pre- (before any instruction) on demand work. Why? I didn’t want them defeated before we even start the unit. Cornelius offered a simple (why-didn’t-I-think-of-that) solution. Use the grade level checklist that matches the work the student is “starting to” be successful in. White out the grade level and bam! The checklists look so similar it won’t be obvious one 5th grader is looking at the 3rd grade checklist while another is working on the 5th grade one. We do this accommodating in reading with just right texts. With a little white out, here is the tool for just right writing work.

Writing matters because it gives us tools to handle struggle. We all have experiences. We all have been and get broken. Writing gives students possibilities and power. Writing gives students tools to handle the struggle. Giving students that power, to work through their struggle and rise, matters well beyond any common core expectations.

At the end of the day, educators were begging for more. Every minute on Saturday was valuable. Side conversations did not exist. No one missed a minute of this powerful PD instruction. I left with renewed energy and purpose for the writing work I’m imagining my students will move towards.