Slice of Life: Of Notebooks, Red Penquins and Reading Goals

At the end of some days, I look back and think. What just happened? Yesterday, I entered the classroom with a plan. Somehow I ended up in an unexpected place.

Unexpected can be good. Responsive teaching should go that way.

But, the unexpected can push everything askew. It can dismantle and disrupt and throw you off balance.

Today’s unexpected started with a debate over the best tool for studying vocabulary: notebooks or index cards. One classroom chose one tool. The other was a house divided. One group strongly favored index cards the other were passionate about spiral notebooks.

There were claims and counter claims.

Notebooks are better because there is more room. An index card is too small.

Index cards are better because you can alphabetize them. And you can use them to study.

You can put tabs in the notebook. That will let you put them in order.

But you can’t study a notebook as well as cards.

After a secret ballot, the notebook contingent won by two votes.

In the past, this simple tool was never discussed. I just told and instructed. But this year, because I’m consciously honoring their learning from last year, it’s surfaced. A very strong part of me wants to say, I know best. But do I? How can I really.

Meanwhile, writers live between books and units of study. In their notebooks, at their tables, on their blogs. Writer’s notebooks are clandestinely shared during reader’s workshop.

A’s spotted yellow egg story was read and responded to.

“The ending was so sad,” said E,

“No worries,” said A. “I’m working on the next story. It’s about a red penguin. You want to know how I made this character?”

He continued, “I asked my brother what’s your favorite animal. He said a penguin. Then I asked what’s your favorite color.  He said red! So that’s how I  made my character.”

On the other side of the room, readers quietly and not so quietly, pass books on to the next name on the waiting list.

Students jockey for the best reading position.

Finally, quiet happens, and I start a conference.

After about two minutes, M interrupts with, “Can I please give a speech on Junebug?”

I give him the can’t-you-see-I’m-conferring look, and tell to him save it for Friday.

Disappointed, he holds the book tightly.  “Please.”

I look at him.

“Fine. I’ll wait.” He’s not pleased with me.

At the end of workshop, R approaches with her reading file. “Mrs. Harmatz, I think I have met this goal. I need to set a new one.”  With that the bell rings.

Valuing student voice can be problematic.  It’s not convenient or predictable. It may not be what you expect. It may take some thinking through, but if I am to believe in students, I’d better take the time to listen and negotiate the results.

As for the notebook/index card debate, each student will choose the tool they feel most comfortable with.

I’ll follow their lead.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays and all you do to inspire our writing and teaching lives. Read more slices here.


Celebrating the Cotsen Foundation and the Gift of Teaching Teachers

Yesterday, 500 educators had the opportunity to learn. I was fortunate enough to be one of them as a guest of the Costen Foundation for the Art of Teaching.

Since 2001, the Costen Foundation has provided professional development for teachers. My students and I are indebted to organizations such as Cotsen, who develop teacher-learners.

This post is a reflection on yesterday. I hope some of it inspires you as it did me.

Lovely is an idea that is Katherine Bomer. She embodies a passion for learning and pushes our understanding of teaching. Years ago, she taught me to value my students’ writing by looking for the gems, not the errors. That changed me as a teacher.

Yesterday she did it again with the idea of an essay. Not the five paragraph kind so many teachers ask their students to do.

A “true” essay, as Bomer calls it, is a journey. One that makes connections, and in the end comes to a place that isn’t just a thesis stateimgresment with three supports, but a view of our thinking around and about an idea. It’s filtering thinking through the writing process.

Rather than the hamburger formula of essay think of it as a collage, a road, a mosaimages-11ic of thinking.

It’s writing to think.

It’s an exploration. More like jazz. A mashup, unified around a central idea. It’s narration of thinking.

It entertains and engages. Stand images-10up comics are some of our best essayists.

It can take you down a road to discovery.

It poses the question, “What do I know?”

Consider fueling student thinking with open-ended prompts that push our thinking such as maybe… perhaps…I wonder…it seems…

Can you imagine your students going there? I certainly want mine to.

Christopher Lehman was next on my schedule.

Think of the notes your students take. If your students use notes as a means to copy the text word for word, these strategies can move them towards thinking and learning.

As I write this post, I looIMG_2679 (1)k back at my notes. I re-read and consider my thinking.  I start to own it. I notice patterns and collect ideas. I notice how it connects. By doing this, I add my voice to the notes. That’s what we want our students to do. We want them not just to take notes but to use them.

The strategy of read, think, cover, and note can capture student thinking about the text rather than copying of the text. Going back and re-reading allows readers to search for vocabulary that an expert might use or to look for concepts or information missed in the first read.

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If your students have some knowledge of note taking, review those tools.

  • Ask, how and why you might use one
  • Ask, which one of these tools might fit a text
  • Let the text guide you notetaking

Encourage the use of notes by having students do something with them. Add color. Sort their notes. Re-read and add in what the notes make them think. Note taking should become a student tool for thinking. Not a recording of what was read.

The last session of the day was building vocabulary with Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.  I have a love/hate relationship with vocab. Love the power of it but hate the fact that I can’t do enough for my students.

Kylene and Bob took the stage and engaged us. Exactly what we need to do to raise the “rigor” of our instruction.

First we took the time to play with words. With a bit of nonsensical text in front of us, we were asked, which three words could help us make meaning. It wasn’t the level of the text we viewed; it was our engagement around it. Here’s an excerpt:

The blonke was mailly, like all the others. Unlike the other blonkes, however, it has spiss crinet completely covering its fairney cloots and concealing, just below on of them, a small wam…. It was probably his bellytimber that had made the bloke so drumly.

The three types of words we chose mattered. We didn’t need to know every word but, we needed a few key ones to make meaning.

  • Context:  — blonke (horse)
  • Cause-effect — bellytimber (ill)
  • Tension creating — drumly (food)

Consider building vocabulary around words that give context, are related to cause/effect, or create tension in the text.

Consider building vocabulary around multiple meaning words rather than the bolded words many textbooks highlight. “The tsunami was triggered…” Students know about the trigger on a gun. But how does that relate to a tsunami?

Consider building vocabulary around words that students might have some understanding of, but don’t make sense in context. “He was appointed to lead the committee.” Students know they make an appointment with their dentist. But how does this connect to this text?

We can’t teach students every vocabulary word they need to know, but we can teach the kind of words they need to know to understand a text. Think notice and note for vocabulary. That’s vocabulary work that sticks and grows with the reader.

This session ended after 3 pm. Several of us sat after most had left, sharing our thinking. We were engaged and energized. We were lucky to be there.

Thank you, Cotsen for believing in teachers. For developing teachers as professionals. That’s the best thing you can do for our students.

Slice of Life: Simple Isn’t Always

Even when I have all the time in the world, the unexpected seems to happen, and I get behind. What I thought would be easy, all of a sudden isn’t and what I thought I’d get done in 15 minutes doesn’t.

Saturday I had a simple plan: to go to school and clean my carpet. My room partner assured me the process was a snap.

At 1:00, I find the machine propped up with cleaning fluid beside it.  A step closer and I realize I have no clue as to how to run this thing.

After a bit of I can’t do this, I calm down and remember Google. YouTube videos are inaccessible due to district limitations. The written word is my only hope. Putting”users manual” in the search hits the jackpot: words and diagrams.

I read the manual aloud while turning and talking to the machine. The process clarified the correct vessel for the hot water. Hmmm. That’s in the office. No problem. I grab the container, phone in pocket, out the door.


No keys.

The keys to the office and my car are inside my locked room. Slight panic.

A longer than necessary story told shorter:  In 45-minutes a colleague rescues me.

Five minutes after that, I’ve cleaned the carpet. Total time spent doing a five-minute job, two hours.

Stupid. Stupid. Human.

I knew the importance of keeping the keys with me. But I made a mistake. If you were to evaluate me on my performance, I would have scored poorly.

Why’d I mess up? I was distracted by the time and processing it took to understand something unfamiliar. It wasn’t complicated high-level thinking. It was, in fact, simple; making the work even more irritating. Once I knew what to do, I rushed to make up for my inefficiencies and slam. Big waste of time.

My mistake made me think of students. When I sit down to talk with one about reading or writing what do I notice. Are they working on something that’s unfamiliar or frustrating? Do they want to give up?  Will they make a silly mistake?  Will they rush to get it done like everyone else seems to be?

It made me think of my daily teaching plans. Every day I set forth an agenda, a plan of action for students. And most days, something happens that throws us a curve. If I push and hurry to get it done per the schedule, it ends with someone being frustrated or defeated. Usually me.

This moment of personal stupidity made me think about mistakes and what they say about people. Unknown and untried tasks are difficult at first, maybe even after the first time. What seems simple, isn’t always. Plans adjust, and mistakes inform.

Mistakes and miscalculations happen more frequently than I want to believe. What I do with the mistakes is the exciting part.


My wet and clean carpet. Ready for mistakes.


Thank you Two Writing Teachers: Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey and Tara for your blog and the opportunity to share our stories. Read more slices here.

Celebrate This Week: Small Steps to Build Big

It’s the beginning of the school year, and then all of a sudden, the beginning ends and you start to get worried.

We take small steps toward goals. Sometimes in the wrong direction. We try, self-correct. Then take another step. The pace is slow. You worry. “Will we get there?”

I go through this every year. Every year. I worry for students that need to run not walk, towards learning. They meander and get a little lost.

This week marks the 100th Celebrate This Week link up with Ruth Ayers. Of those 100, I have missed just one. I didn’t start out thinking about a goal. Post number one happened. It was a safe place. I was nurtured and encouraged with gracious comments. Then post number two. And somehow, week after week another small post. Many weeks, I didn’t think I could or would. But somehow I did. And here I am looking back, surprised.

And that’s the thing. What’s possible isn’t apparent at the beginning.  For many, potential is buried and needs to be dug out. Cultivated. That takes patience and time and belief.

This week I conferred. One by one. I started to see a little light.  A pattern of needs. Small groups of students began to align. A few simple teaching points and follow-up conferences happened.

This week, even though the mountain we need to climb is daunting, I keep reminding myself, we can only do it a step at a time.

This week I celebrate small steps toward big goals.

What students say:

“Is there another book in this series? Will you get it?”

“My goal is to read every I Survived book.”

“We’re writing a 200-page picture book. I have a lot of work to do.”

“Where do you get those tiny post-its? They really help me.”

What students do:

Line up to recommend books.

Create waiting lists to get those coveted books.

Leave a notebook with a post-it saying, “Please read this Mrs. Harmatz.”

Write every day in notebooks and on devices. Their stories.

Read every day, books of their choosing.

This week we stepped closer to becoming readers and writers.

This week I celebrate the small that builds to big.

Thank you, Ruth and congratulations on the 100th link up.

Every week celebrating the week builds big. Read more posts here.

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From 365 Days of Wonder

Slice of Life: Finding Your Dot

Before my daughter started school, she was a storyteller. I couldn’t wait to read the stories she’d write once she could write.

It didn’t happen. Her social nature took over and the words shut down. She was not going to expose herself.

Writing is personal. She knew this, and she wasn’t going there.

She’d do the assignment, as scripted, nothing more. Hating every minute of it.

Monday my cell phone buzzes.

“What’s a modern word for, bear those ills we have?” asks my daughter who is behind closed doors down the hall.

“Ahhh, persevere?”

“Thanks, Mom.”

Two hours later, she emerges, beaming.

“Mom this is so good, let me read it to you.”

Inspired by Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” (that was the assignment) she read her composition. To me, to her brother, to her dad.

She wasn’t seeking approval. She just wanted to share. She was pleased, in fact joyful. And it wasn’t that joy of the assignment being done. It was joy over something she had created.

I’ve blogged on the assignment conundrum: whether it is nobler to assign or not to assign. My daughter stands firmly on the side of assign and do. She is not an independent writer/learner yet. I suppose most 17-year olds aren’t.  For her, the assignment was a necessary scaffold. It gave her a safe box to write within.

Being an upper elementary teacher, I favor the camp of choice within a genre. Sometimes this is a struggle for my fifth graders. The personal narrative writing my students are doing at the moment is always difficult. Telling their stories is not where most go joyfully. They’re getting to that self-conscious age.

They don’t see themselves or their lives as impressive or dramatic.  Anything other than the standard, rollercoaster story or I-got-lost-at-the-mall story, are avoided. They’d rather keep those simple and maybe serious stories to themselves. Behind closed doors.

Mention fantasy, fiction, even essay, and they get all excited. Anything that’s not personal. Pleeease!

Ideally we will form a community where sharing the silly, and deeply personal is safe and supported. But in the meantime, some may need a mask. Perhaps behind a mentor text they love and can see themselves in or close to.

Inspired by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz’s A Mindset for Learning

Tomorrow, we will re-read The Dot for Dot Day. The Dot could be a perfect mask for some writers. We will read it to find moments of resilience and empathy. We will read it for structure. We will read it to find moments where a dot is enough. Perhaps some will find their dot. It’s not a big or dramatic thing. It’s just a dot and how we found it, and it’s ours.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers blog for Slice of Life Tuesdays. The community you have created and nurtured inspires weekly dots. Read some here.


Celebrating Our Personal Narratives

Yesterday K said to me, “Mrs. Harmatz can I share this story with you?”

I look at him and his notebook. In the margin is a yellow colored egg with brown spots. I’m thinking, we are “suppose to be” revising our personal narratives. K is working on something that is not. Hmmm.

“This is kind of a fairy tale. I think it’s my best piece of writing ever.”

I melt. And sit down. J, sitting across from him, is listening, ready to hear the best story ever.

“I’ve been working on it since the beginning of the year.”

We listen to the story of a strange creature who hatches out of this brown spotted egg.

When he finishes, K looks up at me with expectant eyes. I know as a teacher of writing I’m not “suppose to” compliment the writing, I’m “suppose to” compliment and teach the writer. I know that I’m “suppose to” be teaching into our personal narrative unit.

K asks, “Should I keep writing this?”

Oh. My. Gosh.

I ask, “What do you think this story is really about?”

“Probably about not fitting in.”

While I’m not “suppose to” complement the writing I did.

Retrospective-thinking here:

I could have complimented him on his writing spirit.

I could have complimented him on his independence as a writer.

I’m wondering why and when K wrote this story; how he has been working on this story. Little by little, here and there? He is the writer I want to be. That’s what I should have said yesterday.

Being human means, we don’t always do what we are “suppose to” do the moment we are “suppose to” do it. We don’t always fit that expectation neatly. The bigger question might be, do we grow to fit in a way that fits us?

Yesterday, T came back with his mom to visit. He’s a sophomore in high school now. Straight As. Looking to study computer science. He was a quiet kid. Still is.

T didn’t fit that straight-A image when he was with us. If you were to look at his assessments when he was a fifth-grader, you wouldn’t think he would be on track to be college or career ready.  He was an earnest, hard-working a sweet, sweet soul. But that didn’t show up in his test scores.

Given time, this young man is finding his place, where he’s supposed to be.

When we look at our students’ assessments this year, I think it is important to celebrate and support the narratives that live alongside the score. Being human is a complex thing. Full of possible and intention and reflection that isn’t always evident.

What hatches out of that spotted egg may not meet our expectations. It may not fit at the moment. Part of our job as educators is to celebrate those moments of hard work and excitement that may not be what we are looking for at the moment, but speak to a whole lot of possible.  That’s what takes away the achiness.

This week, I celebrate finding the possible in our personal narratives.

This week, I celebrate Ruth Ayers for creating this place to meet and reflect on our week. Thank you, Ruth.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Slow to Notice

Tuesday is time for Slice of Life. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers blog for a place to live as writers. Read more slices here.


I don’t run outside much anymore.  I miss the landscape and the weather, but time on the road can wear you down, so I’ve come inside.  Today for some reason, I decided to go out.

The first steps, first block, second block were slow. Memories of years and miles of running on this very street did not match my current state. It felt all wrong.

After about a mile, it became more familiar. Either I’d picked up the pace, or my brain adjusted.

At the turn around point, I walked out to the edge of the park that overlooks the bay. Three surfers were sitting patiently waiting for a wave. I watched, taking in the Pacific breeze.

In years past, I wouldn’t have stopped or slowed. I would have been watching my pace, comparing it to the last run. I would have missed this.

This long Labor Day weekend let a lot of slow happen. With more time,  I was allowed the luxury of slow.

Tomorrow starts the fourth week with kids, and my fear of going too slow is building. I’ve kept it at bay. Longer than I usually do. I wanted a solid community and was determined not to rush.

Now for the business of assessment. I’m working through running records, one kid at a time. I hear them, take notes, and students adjust their reading goals afterward. It takes time. And during each conference, I learn, not just about this student, but about reading. It’s exciting; my notes hold next steps. But I worry, is my pace too slow?

This year, I’ve pushed kids to reach a little higher than I usually do at the beginning of the year, just to see what they can do. It’s taking time, and it’s pushing them to places where they struggle a bit.  Through conversation, they teach me so much. I try to tuck in a teach and nudge them to set a goal.  What they write down gives me feedback, and I clarify next steps.

This year, I’ve spent time digesting the new Teachers College Reading Units of Study and Jenn Serravallo’s Reading Strategy Book and my awareness and knowledge of how readers might approach text has grown.

This year, I see more. Perhaps it’s because I’m pushing kids to uncomfortable places.  Perhaps it’s because I know a little bit more. Perhaps it’s because I am going slower and noticing.

The pace feels uncomfortable at times. But I don’t to rush to match what was, to get through the list, or to get to the next lesson. This year, I want to pay attention and name what I see.

This year, I’m adjusting my pace.  I’m hoping by going thoughtfully and purposely; I’ll find more. Taking the time to stop and notice something I wouldn’t have seen before.


Celebrate: Writing Right Now

This week I celebrate writing: stories that exist in tiny spaces, poetry that crops up and opinions that blaze. Today I Celebrate This Week with Ruth Ayres. Thank you, Ruth, for giving this space for writing.

celebrate link up

Our stories and thoughts are stored up in inside. This week we looked for opportunities to let them out.

We started blogging on paper.

“Blogging on paper?!”

Yes. That is where we start.

Seeing the physical space a blog post will fill is the first step. I wanted students to see that a blog post should be more than a text message. Putting forth a fully formed idea should take up a whole sheet of paper.

“A whole sheet of paper?!”

Yes. That is where we start.

To lessen their anxiety, I added, “It can be about anything you want.”


Yes. That is where we start.

Posts evolved.

Comments added.


Wednesday night I commented.

Thursday comments were read; blog posts were published.


Here are our stories. One time stories, first time stories, in kindergarten stories, skateboard stories, Halloween stories, how I became an artist stories, the book I just read stories, texting stories, video game stories, in the park stories.

Here are our opinions. Why we should be allowed to bring cell phones to school, why cats are better than dogs, why dogs are better than cats, why Mario Cart is awesome.

Here are our poems, our poets. “We can write poems?!” Here is the possibility of poetry.

This week our community got to know one another a little better.  Some students held back and only wrote comments. But isn’t that the way for some of us.  Some wait and watch.

I had thought next week we’d start on the electronic blog. But now I’m reconsidering. Perhaps we need another round of paper blogging. Time to watch and try out. To stretch and consider possibilities. The physical nature of touching paper and bright post-its invites in a way that digital does not.

Our stories, our opinions, our poems of the right now matter and inspire others to find their own.

When we write, we go beyond the ears of the person sitting next to us. We reach out and document the way we see things right now. We take our experiences and emotions that lie in our head and heart and filter it through writing and drawing. It’s like a recycle, a rehash. The result might not be exactly as it was, not exactly how it went, or how we wanted it to go. But it is where we are right now.

Writing helps us see who we were, are or maybe can be. Writing is what makes us, us. And more than what we thought we could be.

Slice of Life: Reading Lessons

We’ve been living in picture books for the last two weeks. It’s been a place to shore up students’ knowledge of story elements and structure. The lenses have been simple and straightforward. The reading process has been systematic.  Parallel structures and themes have been discovered quite organically in the short texts.

“Look Mrs. Harmatz, they have the same shape. The stories are the same.”
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Way cool.

“Do you think we’ll find this same structure in other stories?” I asked.

Of course, there is a huge yes. Students discovered this. They own this one.

Today,  I grabbed Yard Sale by Eve Bunting and started in. Halfway through the book I realized I forgot to do what I’d been teaching them since day one. I stopped.

“Oh my gosh, you guys. I totally forgot to do something.”

Immediately hands went up. And “I know’s!” ran out.


You forgot to read the back blurb! They chorused.

“I can’t believe I forgot that. But the good news is, you knew. Don’t forget to remind me of that. It’s too important. Should I go back and read it now?

Yes! Most yelled. Except for one lone NO!

“It’s too late,” he said. “You’ve ruined it. You have to go on, we know too much.”

“Really? You think so.”

“Yes,” he said.

Love this guy. Most likely he just didn’t want to stop the story.

I was irritated with myself. Rushing to get in to the story, I  forgot.   “Hmm,” I thought aloud. “I do know a lot, but I’m not sure what the theme is yet. What if I go back and take a peek to see if I can find a clue as to that?”

With one vocal dissenter, we went back and read the blurb. Sure enough, there was a clue as to a possible theme.

I used to avoid reading the back blurb because I was afraid I was taking away the magic and discovery of a story. One that the author unfolds and that the reader noodles through. Testing ideas. Going down thinking paths that might be dead ends, rethinking and reevaluating theories.

I used to think that reading a book blurb was cheating. The reader is supposed to “earn” comprehension. Work to find it. Reading the back seemed like getting the answers.  Kind of like Spark Notes.

This year, I’ve come to love book blurbs. They set up my students up for understanding. The lens is prepared, and we set out, a little ahead of the game, to find out more. Rather than a blank slate, by getting some clues as to the story, we have a rough sketch of an idea as we enter the book. Our goal is to bring depth and nuance to that picture.

Reading book blurbs is far from cheating.  After all, reading isn’t a multiple choice test.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays, a place to share our teaching and writing lives. Find more slices here.