#SOL15: Day 31, Community is a Non-Negotiable

I sit at gate 38 waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles.

Coming here, I felt guilty.

In my mind, I tried to justify it by adding up the learning I’d attain and see if it balanced out with the money I’d spend.

I knew my desire to go was as much about being with the educators sitting beside me as learning from the educators who stood in front of me.

And I did gain knowledge, tangible strategies I can use tomorrow with students. But, I got something else which has changed my construct as to what professional development is.

The presenters were the focal point and clearly inspirational. They were the reason we came. 

But — 

This weekend I realized the importance of community. A community that is passionate and committed, that rallies around core beliefs, that shares struggles and a strong faith in humanity may matter more than any presenter’s research, idea, strategy, or book.

While  professional development with specific learning goals in mind is clearly necessary, our learning opportunities must include the development of and participation in a community of shared purpose and belief.

No matter what the standards, no matter the mandates, no matter the strategies and practices your school has in place, no matter the technology, no matter the environment, no matter the financial support. What matters most are the core beliefs built and sustained within a community of learners. Without this, nothing else matters.

There was something very powerful about meeting in Riverside Church. We came to listen and commune in our shared beliefs in literacy and humanity. We came because we believe that literacy is a necessity for our continued existence. That literacy is non-negotiable. And that no matter what, what we do is essential.

2015-03-28 08.54.09

This is why I came to Riverside Church to be with my community that sustains me in a job that is difficult and often defeating but essential.

Without the TCRWP community, the community of bloggers and tweeters, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, ready to go back to a classroom of learners with a renewed sense of purpose. Profession development needs to be seen as more than just learning how to do something. It also has to be about becoming a part of something.

Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey, and Tara for building and sustaining the powerful blogging community of Two Writing Teachers. Read more slices here.

#SOL15: Day 30, Notes from TCRWP’s Saturday Reunion

Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend TCRWP’s 88th Saturday Reunion. The beauty of TCRWP is their belief in teachers and the need to build and bolster the community as learners. The reunion was open to all; a gift to anyone who makes their way to New York City.

There was so much to be gained from the sessions. The only problem was choosing which one to go to!

Carl Anderson’s session lifted my understanding of how to use mentor texts, particularly in narrative writing.

2015-03-28 10.08.49Some key points:

  • Students should be immersed in the sound of a genre and to see the way a genre is written.  To be able to write well, students must understand how it goes. Perhaps we don’t put enough emphasis on this because it doesn’t look like writing.
  • Collect texts that are examples of the genre you are working in, that will work best for your students and that you love.
  • A writer’s ability to envision a text is dependent on their knowledge of texts. Therefore, we must surround our children with mentor texts. This means read texts as readers first and read a lot of them before we start to read them as writers.
  • Choose a few of to use as mentor texts for writing. Know these well, examine them through a lens of writing by asking, “how did the writer do _____?” 
  • Identify parts of the text to show how it’s put together. Carl did this with Ralph Fletcher’s memoir “The Last Kiss.” He blocked out  and named parts of the text. I’ve done this with informational and argument, but not with narrative writing. What a huge aha.2015-03-28 10.38.14

Cornelius Minor’s session helped us make some sense of the common core demands to find that “main idea,” “theme,” and “evidence” to support their thinking.

  • First know this: one can’t find evidence without an idea. Hallelujah! 
  • Cornelius shared video clips to show us how to formulate an idea:
    • first find a topic,
    • second say what do you think about it and
    • three say it in a sentence that seems true and that
    • equals an idea!
  • By going through this process multiple times, we had the opportunity to try, try, and try again. Which brings to an essential tenant: students must be able to try, fail and try again and again. This “how-to” broken down into a one-two-three sequence with accessible text (think video) allows students to reach toward finding that idea, so they can then go back and find evidence.
  • Lastly, Cornelius shared a way to support students in finding thematic concepts. He shared five “universal” themes presented in middle school kid language. By giving students the possible ideas up front, students can consider these possibilities and see what fits.

Kylene Beers’ closing was beautiful. Her recent post outlines much of her keynote’s high pointsMany have blogged about it. Check out Fran, Tara and Catherine’s posts.

Kylene knows how to bring home what matters in a clear and concise way as these points show:

  • The reading of literature is necessary to develop our human qualities.
  • When we become a part of the character’s life we learn the most about ourselves.
  • A book’s “want-ability” is much more important than readability.
  • For books to be relevant to kids they must have choices.
  • Deep thinking always begins with questions, not the answers.

Attending the reunion was a teacher fantasy come true. Spending time with colleagues and Slicers made New York like home.

Just one more day left in the month of March! I can’t believe it’s almost over. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara for hosting the challenge. Read more Slicers here.

#SOL15: Day 29: Compacted New York

Today’s slice offering: snippets of New York.

2015-03-29 15.40.34

Blue skies,

bare trees,

Brooklyn brownstones,

crisp air.

In front of me, two colleagues.

Beside me, another.

We ventured.

To brunch, the  bookstore, and aimless walking.

Families out with strollers, knit hats, and gloves.

A beautiful Sunday to be included in the food, the books, the talk; to have no schedule, nothing  to do. No place to be.

Washington 2015-03-29 16.53.37Square Park performances, with amazed toddlers and adults.

NYU sweatshirt purchased, with my daughter in mind.

Public Theater lottery for Hamilton, with no luck.

The number 6 train packed, with one interesting passenger
2015-03-29 18.31.49Dinner decisions, with the Empire State Building.

Navigating back to our hotel, with warm drinks and  bittersweet goodbyes, looking forward to the next time we meet.

Good to be slicing with you all.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for you support. Read more slicer stories here.


#SOL15: Day 28, Riverside Church and Patricia Polacco

Today I’m in New York, slicing day 28 with Two Writing Teachers.

I left Los Angeles yesterday. Problems, worries, exhaustion, questions came with me on the plane. Can I do this?

I land in New York, 12:40 am, greeted with texts from my classroom.  Can I do this?

Saturday I find myself in church with Patricia Polacco.

She spoke of her struggles as a reader. How the words moved and why she felt stupid. How she firmly believes a teacher saved her because he saw her. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew someone could help her. How he found a way to help her learn to read. How when you think you can’t you must.

I don’t know exactly what he did. But when I got the aha moment I saw it.

For you (reading) is elementary, but I had just climbed Mount Everest.

My life had changed.

George Felker had pulled me out of the darkness.

None of those books would have existed if (he) hadn’t helped me.

You changed my life.

To this day when I think I can’t face something, George Felker’s hand is on the center of my back

I’m crying. I’ve been crying. On my flight here. In my bed last night.

We kids, we mean to thank you.

You give us the wind and we fly.

I believe you do it routinely.

If you feel like leaving. You need to stay.

You are offering light. Always remember that no matter how tough it gets.

Let me thank you no matter how tough it gets.

I leave Riverside Church with my teacher soul filled.  Words spoken by a master storyteller and passionate human being.

#SOL15: Day 27, Just Hanging Out

Just hanging out.

My new favorite place

in front of the school at

dismissal time.

I dislike the phone disembodied and sometimes disconnected.

I like the face to face powerful and immediate.

Just hanging out

to connect with parents

for a quick conference,

for a progress report

for an update

for “a Danielle had a good day”

or maybe not so good day and wondering why.

Just hanging out.

Just to keep in touch.

Student knows that parents know what teacher notices and wonders.

We touch base.

Just hanging out.

It’s crazy. Students everywhere.

Just hanging out.

Jumping off stairs; hanging on guard rails.

Some walking home toting roller backpacks, jackets, and lunch bags

Games of “you’re-it” waiting for the Boys & Girls Club bus.

Kids with popsicles, snow cones, and push-ups  purchased from the ice cream guy they aren’t suppose to go to — down the street.

Just hanging out

I talk with the tall kids. The kids that aren’t my students, yet.

“Hey how you doing?” conversations happen.

“What’s your favorite book?” conversations happens.

“Whose your teacher?” conversations happens.

Just hanging out.

My new favorite place.

#SOL15: Day 26, Book Club Game Boards

Reading is social. We want to share. When we need help, those we trust can help us through the tough parts.

In my classroom, students are members of book clubs.  Clubs have three to five members with like interests and abilities. More often than not, they are also friends. They choose books to read together, they plan their reading, they read aloud together, and they talk about their books.

Earlier in the month, I posted this about a book club tool called “game boards” or club houses.

This device is a tool to help reading clubs gather and talk in a focused, purposeful manner. The best kind of club would come to their discussion time brimming with thoughts posted in their books and naturally go from one idea in the book to the next, building on each other’s thinking.  I have two or three groups that come close to this description.  They flow. Clarifying, rethinking, seeing another member’s point of view, referring to pages in the text to prove their thinking.

The other five to six clubs need a tool to help them in their discussions. This tool isn’t fancy. It’s just a piece of tag board with places for students to place their jotted thought. The board is big enough for their post-its and small enough to get them close together. 2015-03-16 10.19.23

When clubs meet, they bring a post-it they think they can talk “long” on, their books and their notebooks. Each member places their post it on their placeholder. The members then read the post-its and decide which one to start with. That one goes in the center.

Many clubs then use “pebbles” to talk. Each member gets three (an arbitrary number) to use. Every time they talk they put a stone in the middle. When they have used up their stones, they have to wait till all members have used their stones. Then all can get their stones back to start again. All clubs don’t need this tool. High-functioning clubs often choose not to use this tool. It can disrupt the natural flow of conversation. Some clubs start out with them and then find they don’t need the scaffold.

This video clip is a club meeting on One for the Murphys. You can see the way they use their stones to talk. I set up the iPad and walked away. Watching this afterschool, I can check on their thinking but also their use of the tool. Viewing their club talk lets students reflect on their work and set goals for future work.

In some ways, this group might not need them. There was a bit of natural conversation without the stone put in. You’ll notice one of the other students tapping her finger, telling her partner to put the stone in.

Book club talk is highly prized time in reading workshop. It gives them purpose for their reading and writing. Students are motivated to come with a valuable post-it.  They enjoy the interaction and the “game” or club house board centers students on the text and talk without me hovering over them.

Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.


#SOL15: Day 25, The WiFi’s Killing Me

All of a sudden,

the WiFi in my house is


I can’t connect in the dining room,

in the kitchen,

in the living room


in the bedroom.

I can connect


Hallway…router above in the attic

At first,

and then, nothing…



This is killing me.

Tomorrow Starbucks.



Thank you slicers for your amazing writing, support and inspiration throughout the March challenge. This has been a blast! Looking forward to the next six days of daily slicing. Even with the lousy WiFi.

#SOL15: Day 24, Lessons from My Children

Today was one of those days; nothing seemed to go right.

On my way home, I struggled to find some light spots in the day.

I walked in the house. My “I-really-don’t-like-reading” high school daughter came up to me and said, “Mom I read 200 pages last night!  I’m so proud of myself.”

She’s reading Insurgent. She saw the movie Friday night, bought the book Saturday,  I watched her read on Sunday. Her head down, totally in the book.

This may be “it,” I thought. The Book that shows her what it means to love reading.

We talked about why it was so good. She said, “I like to see the movie first. It helps me picture it.”  Hmm.  A lesson for my students perhaps.

My son is working with a few of my students. He’s thinking about teaching so what better opportunity to see what teaching looks like. During dinner, we talked about his thoughts, observations, and teaching moves. One of the students is a fast-taking-joke-telling, run-on sentence making, hyperactive blogger who has great stories to tell.

I asked my son how it went working with him. He said:

He seemed to understand my metaphor of playdough. You need to stretch writing out and play with it. So when you are writing digitally, if you hit return at the end of every line you can stretch out your writing and play with it, like playdough. That can help you see where ideas begin and end.

Never did I mention using a metaphor to teach writing. And playdough — perfect. He instinctively knew to do this. Jeez. Some people have to go to the Reading Writing Project, read Lucy Calkins, plan and practice the idea of using a metaphor to teach abstract ideas. My son just walks in and does it. If he weren’t my kid, I’d be exceedingly jealous. In the end, he came up with a cool strategy. Who knows what I might learn from him as he gets to know my students.

After dinner, my daughter came out to the kitchen saying, “Mom I’ve got to share this with you. My film teacher showed me these.”

“I just love them,” she said. “I watched them over and over.”

The fact that she wants to share, share things that matter to her and connect to ideas that matter to me made my night.  She walked back into her room saying, “I just love my film class.”

I can see why.

Being taught by your children is something to work towards and cherish. That was the light that happened today.

Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here

#SOL15: Day 23, What We’re Reading

It’s Monday, and I made a commitment to a chapter book Read Aloud. I don’t take this decision lightly. Our class Read Aloud shoulders a huge responsibility.

Read Aloud is the centerpiece of the Reading Workshop. It guides and informs reading and writing instruction: from vocabulary, structure, and craft to understanding character, cultural  and historical perspectives.

Read Aloud is our shared group experience. We are tied together by this text. It’s one of the biggest decisions I make for my students. It nurtures our reading community.  For this reason, the majority of our Read Aloud time is spent in literature. I believe that is how we learn about humanity and how to be humane.

Informational text happens beside our Read Aloud, with online articles, picture books, infographics, maps, pictures, and primary documents that supplement the literature.

Some of my students struggle to love reading. They read because it’s good for them (like spinach), because their parents require it, because they want to do well in school. Not because they love it. I get that. But if all goes well, Read Aloud is the best part of the day.and these students know that book love is possible.

Because of this, Read Aloud must be a book that students will carry with them forever. When they come back to visit me as middle schoolers, the first question they ask is what are you reading.

These reads have met the standard for my students over the years-

  • Because of Winn-Dixie
  • Flying Solo
  • Mick Harte Was Here
  • How to Steal a Dog
  • Tiger Rising
  • Wonder
  • Out of My Mind
  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Locomotion

All of these reads have included kids that in some way connected to my students.They could see themselves in one way or another in these books.

Today we will start a book that may stretch their thinking a bit, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Will they see themselves in Salva and Nya? Can they connect to this world of war and struggle for the basics of life? Will this be just a window into this foreign country and culture? Or will we find threads that connect us to these characters.

9k=The Sudanese children in this story are a far cry from Los Angeles urban kids. Or are they? We start our journey today.


Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.

#SOL15: Day 22, Digital Learning Reaching for Authenticity

This post serves a dual purpose: my 22nd post in the Slice of Life Story Challenge and a link up to Margaret Simon’s Reflections of the Techie DigLit Sunday.


Last Sunday, Margaret wrote about the Authenticity Test. This “test” hit home with me.

This test includes two major priorities:

1. Is the activity used outside of school?


2. Is it a literate habit of experienced adults?

Just this week I feel like my students are close to passing these tests.


Blogging has lit up writing for my students. It’s real, alive. They love reading other blogs and getting comments. Just like us.

They get feedback from people who matter to them, their peers. Just like us.

But, blogging includes frustrations and problems. Just like us.

I can’t connect.

It’s slow.

It’s glicthy.

I can’t save.

I can’t find…

With 30 students, I can’t possibly solve their problems.. And that’s a good thing.

Blogging offers the opportunity to learn by doing. There are boundaries and expectations, but students want to get the post up. They want to upload the picture. They want to learn how to use the spelling tools.  My job is coach and cheerleader.  Their job is to try and try and try again until they get it.  Digital learning in the classroom allows students to figure out how to do things. Just like us.


I’ve borrowed iPads from another classroom.

I hear, “I can’t find my google doc on this iPad Mrs. Harmatz!”

“Use Safari and Google it,” I tell her and I walk away.

I come back five minutes later; she’s working on her doc.

Literacy skill and agency all courtesy of digital learning.

And finally, students are working outside of the classroom. On their own.

Check out  Zoe’s post. It popped up one night.

The next day, “Did you see my post? And it wasn’t easy, Mrs. Harmatz. I wrote it and then lost part of it, and I had to re-write it.” Just like us.