Slice of Life: Not Knowing

Productive failure is fashionable, and I agree with the concept of it. Struggling through something rather than being given the answer is clearly a better way to push students’ thinking muscles. But many students and adults are in that place of either avoiding failure or acting like they know everything.

By the time kids are in the middle grades, they have an image of who they are as learners and they start to care what others think. The natural why of childhood is replaced by a relatively static concept of who they are or who they want to avoid being.

A large number of students don’t, won’t or can’t allow themselves to struggle or fail. They’re the ones who shut down with a wrong answer; they’re the ones who hide quietly; they’re the ones who have limited tolerance for being wrong and struggle.

Or they’re the ones who came to school meeting and exceeding all measures; they are the exemplars; they don’t have experience with being wrong.

These failure-avoiders can make up a considerable portion of a classroom. So it seems we need to teach to a place that can ease fear, possible shame and provide a bridge to productive failure.

What I’m considering is pushing students to actively and enthusiastically not know. Thanks to Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse we’ve been doing some of this thinking work in reading. We consider what we know from stories and what that makes us wonder.  But I’ve been thinking, perhaps we need to explicitly teach paying attention to what we do not know.  And it starts with me.

When I work with students, I come with ideas about what they don’t know and what they need to know. I might be close. I might be right. But I need to start out with an “I don’t know, let me find out” mentality.

Today I asked students to look at one paragraph and find something they could not visualize.

As the sun touched the horizon, the fishermen abruptly went into their tents. They weren’t really tents–just white mosquito netting hung or draped to make space so they could lie down inside. Not one fisherman stayed to talk or eat more or do anything else. It was almost as if they all vanished at the same moment.

I heard:

” I’m not sure about the sunset, what color is it?”

“Tents? What do they look like?”


“Mosquito netting.”

The horizon, the color of the sunset, tents were all surprises and potential teaching points around visualization. It’s also interesting to note what they did not mention. Do they know what “abruptly” looks like?  If I had just launched into the mosquito nets (the thing I thought they didn’t know), I would have missed so much of their not knowing.

Today, my intent was to allow the wonder and to get everyone (including me) to the I don’t know. We must start realizing that not knowing is an essential, expected and accepted step in thinking.

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. I look forward to sharing and reading slices every week. Read more slices here.

The Power of Non-Traditional Text

Celebrating this week is all about literacy outside the box and building literacy skills in digital and non-traditional ways.  This was a lot of great professional learning that I cherish and it edges into digital learning so I’m linking up with two communities: Ruth Ayres Celebrate This Week and Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday.

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Consider this –

Can literacy teachers dig into subject areas and non-traditional texts to build literacy and content inquiry skills?

With this in mind, I sat with Katie Clements our superb staff developer from TCRWP,  and my 4th- and 5th-grade colleagues to explore the possibilities of teaching literacy with non-traditional text.

We started out by trying to define non-traditional text.

What is it?

  • pictures/paintings
  • videos
  • advertisements
  • songs
  • objects
  • maps
  • technical texts
  • infographics

The list is never ending. It’s everything. Exciting, but at the same time overwhelming, a potential rabbit hole. We need to be mindful and purposeful in our use of it.

Why should we need use this type of text to reach literacy goals?

  • Engagement is a big part of why we need non-traditional media to teach literacy. Abstract concepts of literature are difficult to grasp, and participation will wane as we reach for difficult skills such as symbolism, tone, and metaphor.
  • It needs to be relevant to kids’ lives. It should matter. We are more likely to keep students engaged if we consider our kids’ interests.
  • Information is everywhere. Students need to know how to use knowledge. Processing and consuming the immense amount of information available is necessary for literacy. Blending the traditional with the non-traditional is relevant and appropriate.

How could we use this type of text effectively in reading?

Read Aloud is a natural place. We considered how we could develop understanding of traditional texts that may be beyond readers grasp even when read aloud.

  • landscapes – geography – setting
  • historical – now vs. then
  • objects
  • ideas – concepts
  • lifestyles
  • emotions
  • dialects
  • political situations
  • weather

For example, reading A Long Walk to Water the characters are building boats out of “papyrus grass.” For my Los Angeles city kids, this seems stra7563472-Papyrus-grass-Stock-Photonge. How is it possible to make a boat out of
grass? With this in mind, we looked up an image that allowed us to develop not only knowledge of what it looks like, but build on how to envision a text and why it is necessary for understanding.

We inquire and discover. That is an essential literacy and content area skill.

Other things to consider in reading instruction:

When planning out a unit of study consider augmenting the trickiest, the most complex parts of the unit; the least engaging parts, and the parts that are difficult in terms of reading ability with non-traditional text. High-level concepts such as metaphor and symbolism could be seen more readily in a film clip. Pictures and video are equal access, they allow all students regardless of reading level to do hard thinking work.

When choosing text remember what students like.  We connect more readily to what we know well. A quick survey of students’ favorite musicians, athletes, movies, tv shows, video games taps into engagement possibilities.

To increase transference, treat digital texts like traditional text:  interrupt and reflect. Use the same text over for multiple views and purposes. Use lenses to discover and closely read.  Use digital as practice and move to print text.

Consider using non-traditional texts in all parts of the instructional day, from mini-lesson to one on one conferring with the purpose of engagement, access and always with an eye towards transfer to traditional print text.


Slice of Life: Contextualizing, Part 1

Here’s a slice of classroom life around the idea of context.

Context as defined as:

the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.

When my students read, I want them to see the world of the story as if they were looking through a window, as an observer of a time and place. But also, I want them to understand literature on a human level. And to do this, they must also connect to the character’s situation. How can this be done with a text that is removed from their personal lives? How can we contextualize foreign ideas and experiences for our students?

Historical fiction and informational text present these challenges.  As literacy teachers, we don’t have time to teach background on all possible contexts that could crop up in their independent reading. So what’s the solution? Avoid? Ignore? Accept surface understanding? Or, is there a way to facilitate thinking about a foreign concept in an authentic way within our literary block?

Last week Emmalee Briggs and Dayna Wells brought their expertise and brilliance to my classroom to help think through some possibilities. Could their use of primary documents that instigate deep thinking about history, be used with literature? And if so, what would be the approach and protocol.

We decided to build on read aloud. By asking ourselves, what questions come up as we read? What information could we present to stimulate thinking and contextualize a subject for students?

On Friday, we read this from A Long Walk to Water .:

There was a big lake three days’ walk from Nya’s village. Every year when the rains stopped and the pond near the village dried up, Nya’s family moved from their home to a camp near the big lake.

Nya’s family did not live by the lake all year round because of the fighting. Her tribe, the Nuer, often fought with the rival Dinka tribe over the land surrounding the lake. Men and boys were hurt and even killed when the two groups clashed.

How can students, who turn on the water and drink whenever they want, connect to a life that includes fighting over water?

I searched Library of Congress for “Los Angeles water.”

On Monday, I shared this:

And said,  “This is a picture of the Los Angeles Aqueduct taken in 2008. Study the picture and when you’re ready, jot your thoughts, your wonderings.”

After a few minutes, I invited them to share their thinking. Here’s a sample of conversations:

Where is the water coming from?

A lake?

The ocean?

Not the ocean.

Where is it going to?

The ocean.  Look the blue.

What’s in the pipe?

Maybe recycled water.

Is it clean?

Of course it’s clean look at it.

It looks like a water slide.

Then we focused in on specific quadrants of the picture a la Smokey Daniels‘ work.


It’s dry.

Just rocks.


Then we focused in on this part of the photo.


It looks like a road.

It’s a freeway.

The water is going there!

Are those cars?

They jotted, talked.

Then we read.

Tomorrow, before read aloud, I’ll share these pictures taken when No Name Canyon was blown up in May 1927. The explosion destroyed 400 feet of pipe.

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times

Students will look, wonder, and question.

Then think: How might this connect to our story?

What does this picture make you think?

Can you see doing something like this work in your literacy block?

Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Tara and Stacey for Slice of Life Tuesdays at Two Writing Teachers. Read more slices here.

Celebrate: Doubt

celebrate link upThis week I’m celebrating doubt.

Most see doubt as a weakness. And it can be. Doubt can disable.  It can stop the doing and stall progress. But doubt can be something that checks actions.

Doubt keeps me on my toes. Doubt opens me to perspectives that yesterday I vehemently opposed. Doubt makes me look into dark places to consider things that I need to look at in the light.

The more I parent, teach, live, the more I doubt. I believe there are times to employ doubt in order to understand and promote what matters most.

This week I watched my students take the test. I walked up and down aisles, just watching them.

This week I stood beside my students’ reality.  I faced the place students have to go once a year, and doubt creeped in. Students must sit, feet on the ground, behind a desk carol.  They’re all alone with no support. This place, where what they do in that all-alone-dark place, without support, determines a bit of their future. Watching students sit — shoulders tense, legs jiggling — made me doubt my classroom stance.

The majority of our classroom time is about the process of learning, of reading, of writing and the joy that should come from it.  In that spirit, we work collaboratively, all over the room in all kinds of ways. Most often we are not sitting quietly at a desk.

This year my students practiced and learned the standards tested. They learned it in the spirit of authenticity: how it makes sense in the world, how they might use it in their lives to be better humans. I strive for authentic learning because I believe this is what keeps students engaged, this is what teaching and learning should be.

Students did very little practice behind a testing carol. They spent the vast majority of their time active, participating, approximating, learning.

Watching students test my beliefs were tested with doubt. Did I do right by them? Not practicing an environment that they are required to be competent in?

This isn’t a new debate for me. I’ve doubted and adjusted my stance. And, over the years I moved towards and then strongly away from the testing world. Towards authenticity. I still believe that is the place to spend the great majority of our time. I still strongly believe it is the only place that will sustain and promote learning.

But, today letting doubt seep in — I question.

How can the reality and impact of testing  be included in an authentic learning landscape without corrupting the spirit of learning and risk taking that goes with it?

Testing is there. It’s a reality for students and can determine their future. How can we make this reality productive and not crippling to the authentic process of learning?

This doubt challenges. That’s a good thing.

This week I celebrate doubt.

Please share your thoughts. Thanks to you and Ruth Ayers for the Celebrating This Week link up. Read more celebrations here.

Slice of Life: Poetry Thoughts


National Poetry Month came late to my students. Spring Break and a field trip conspired to make yesterday our first classroom school day of April. Poetry had to wait too. Or did it?

We’ve  been reading Locomotion by Jackie Woodson a page at a time. Students annotate  their copy with what they notice, know, and wonder. I read it aloud, they write, we share, I write their thoughts on my copy.  Poetry has engulfed us daily — the sound, the structure. We’ve been looking closely.

To  begin our “official” poetry unit, I started out with an inquiry. I asked students to complete this:


describes feelings in an easier way

can tell something about yourself

expresses things around yo

sometimes hymes

sometimes tells a story

sometimes has a form like haiku

sometimes has a rhythm  like rap

helps you imagine

shorter slices of life

words from the heart

The power of their thoughts. Unfiltered. All from the word poetry.

They know so much. Little snippets of poetry snuck up on them with The One and Only Ivan.  Then Woodson’s beautiful words showed the many ways poetry could go. Students have read May B, Brown Girl Dreaming, and The Crossover and begged for more. Poetry has been with us all along.

* * *

What follows is some erasure poetry from this post. Last year Dana introduced this writing to me. I took my post copied it and started deleting words that didn’t contribute to what I thought was the essence. I don’t allow myself to change the order. I can just erase and change line breaks.


Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey, and Tara at Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.

Celebrate: Field Trip Adventures and Homecomings

I spent the last three days and two nights on Catalina lsland with 108 fifth graders and 17 adult chaperones. This fifth grade field trip is something students will always remember. It is a life changer for many. And, it is always very stressful. This week I celebrate those brave parents and students who overcame a lot of fear to reach those rewards. 

The trip was a huge leap for parents who sent their babies off on a boat to an island 20 miles away.

It was an even bigger leap for students who ventured into so many unknowns. From the snorkeling with fish to the foreign bathroom conditions, students had to overcome uncomfortable situations. After tentative attempts and lots of nudging by supportive adults, they ventured into deeper waters, played, and learned in this wondrous environment.

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This week I celebrate all of the adults who took time out of their lives to support all children in this venture. It is a big deal being away from your family, living in different spaces, being asked to do different things. The adult chaperone team made it possible for all students to be successful.  I can’t thank them enough.

This week I celebrate coming home to moms and dads who ran to meet their children wanting to know all about it.

This week I celebrate the children who walked arm in arm with their sibling back to the car.

This week I celebrate coming home to my son picking me up, my daughter giving me hugs, and my husband ever supportive. I celebrate my bed oh so comfortable, my cat sleeping at my feet, a good cup of coffee this morning and two days to recover!

Thank you to Ruth Ayers and this link up to Celebrate this Week. I am forever grateful to her for this opportunity and to those who share their celebrations. Read more here.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: This is What I Want

I’ve been thinking a lot about what my students have gotten out of this school year.  Maybe it’s because year end’s in sight. Or maybe it’s because I’ve had some time to read, think and write. Or maybe it’s because some students are struggling with life and school, and I’m at a loss.

Probably because of all of these reasons, I’ve been thinking about bottom lines. What are students walking out the door holding on to? Are they gonna be ok, taking the next step? Are they ready?

I’ve asked these same kinds of questions about my own children.

While I’m not sure of the answers, this is what I want:

I want them to walk on knowing that they are seen. That the world has space for them and that they are entitled to be there. That they are a part of a community that needs them, and that they need to contribute by doing what they can. That trying is hard, but if they keep trying they will move. That doing well on a test is just that, doing well on a test, nothing more. That what matters is that you come every day and expect something of yourself.

I might forget these ideas in my mission to teach the concepts, the skills, the strategies. I might forget this in my desire to fix, to challenge, to grow.

I might forget that the most unforgettable thing I could give a student is the knowledge that I see them, that I care about them, and that I honor them – what they think and who they are.

I was listening to a podcast with Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles and author of Tattoos on the Heart. While my kiddos aren’t as tough as Luis, nor am I as saintly as Father Boyle, the conversation made me laugh and think about the feelings I have toward my students and how they might think of me.

I said, ‘You know, Luis, I’m proud to know you, and my life is richer because you came into it, and when you were born, the world became a better place, and I’m proud to call you my son. Even though’ — and I don’t know why I decided to add this part — ‘at times, you can really be a huge pain in the ass.’

In response, Luis looked up at me and said, “The feeling’s mutual.”

Maybe I returned him to himself, but there is no doubt that he’s returned me to myself.

If we value our students for who they are and where they are, we are right there beside them.

That is what I hope they walk away with.

This is what I want.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hGlad to be back to the slicing world.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life on Tuesdays. Read more slices here.

Celebrate This Week: Renewal, Reunion, and New Spaces

Today is a quick celebration post for Saturday. I love to link up with those who find moments to celebrate in the week. Thank you, Ruth Ayers for this community.  Find other celebrations here.

celebrate link up

First, I celebrate Spring Break.  I celebrate waking up to the sun. I celebrate the opportunity for recovery and renewal.

Second,  I celebrate TCRWP’s Saturday Reunion in New York City. What a huge celebration of educators and their belief in literature and community.

Third, I celebrate blogging every day in the month of March as a part of the Slice of Life Story Challenge. So many participated. That made the experience rewarding and possible. I celebrate all of the “slicers” who did it!  I celebrate those who commented on my blog.  I celebrate my colleague Dayna, who leaned in, let go, and let it loose in the world of blogging.

Fourth, I celebrate #digipoetry. I celebrate Margaret Simon and Leigh Anne Eck, who got this idea going.  It was a very gentle call. No big expectations. That worked for me. This new fresh space felt like a safe place to start. Join in if you have the urge!

Fifth, I celebrate my new tiny blogging space, playing with writing. I opened it up as a place to just write. It’s small and uncomplicated. Growing gently.

Finally, I celebrate the weekend and all of you: taking a deep breath and celebrating together.