Celebrate: Superpowers

It’s time to celebrate the week! Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for offering offers a place for this weekly practice. Find other celebrations here.

My kids lived in Batman and Superman costumes, t-shirts and PJs. It wasn’t until they went to school that they wore clothes that excluded a cape. I loved those capes for what they lit up in my kids: adventure and escape.

Maybe it was the spirit of Halloween that prompted a conversation around personal superpowers in my Voxer group this week.  It got me thinking about my superpower. And the corollary, my kryptonite.

I believe we all have superpowers and things that derail us. Our kryptonite.

Perhaps it’s with highs; there are lows. Is it because we dare to fly too high?  Is it something internal that just stops us? Are we protecting ourselves?

Or is it something that’s put on us? Have we been taught?

Yesterday, I asked my students about their superpowers and their kryptonite. While their superpowers ran the gamut of whatever they were passionate about, their kryptonite was surprisingly similar.

Hurtful words

Telling me I can’t.

Saying I’m not good.

Other conversations hovered around the impending celebration.

 Is it time to put on our costumes?

Is it time yet?


And my favorite question of all, “What are you gonna be?”

The limitlessness of this query exists on Halloween and whenever we put on a cape.

Today, I’m celebrating superpowers and the question, what are you gonna be.

Here’s to imagining the possibility of what schools and teaching could be. A kryptonite-free space where we can wear our capes and fly.

Happy Halloween.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Literary Balance

A few things happened last week that have me thinking about balance in our literary classrooms.

The first thing was the book fair. Kids came back with books. Graphic novels, nonfiction, chapter books all of their choosing. Books that aren’t in my library. Some might not have been on their level.

The second thing was a decision to open up the first 15 minutes of the day to pure choice, reading or writing. Before that,”the first 15″ was an opportunity to blog or write in their writing notebooks, whatever they wanted to write. But after some conversations and thought, I decided to open up the choice to reading or writing.

These two things created excitement, disbelief, and questions.

You mean I can read anything?

Can I write about reading?

Can I read this?

My response to each was, “Is it reading or writing?”

Once the choice was understood, the silence was deafening. All were deep into what they had chosen.

I saw this passion and agency surface again during our weekly reading recommendations when students recommend their “5-star” books. I love this time when students get to stand up for books they love.

Today, T got up to recommend The Crossover and the room lit up. I have five copies of this book, and they have been passed around like crazy.  T could hardly get her recommendation out without comments flooding her talk.

N: It reads like rap.

P: But it’s really like poetry.

T: It’s about basketball.

N: And family.

A: And and a girlfriend.

T: I love the cover. Feel it. It feels like a basketball.”

G: Ooh. Let me feel it.

M: It’s written like Home of the Brave.

This is the real deal. Complete student-led choice and engagement.

It can’t always be this way. Nor should it be.

Students have “choice” within units of study that revolve around goals and genres. Interpretation and analysis of nonfiction, realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, poetry. This is hard literary work, where teachers nudge students’ brains and hearts toward these goals with read aloud and mini-lessons; with book club discussions and conferences. This is necessary and important work that builds engagement in an academic and thoughtful construct.

But today I’m thinking about balanced literacy in a way that offers kids a balance of goal driven work with space and place for agency. I’m thinking about the room we need to make in our classrooms for student-led engagement in literacy. Times without checklists or units or expectations. Times when students just light up with the opportunity to read, write and talk about books without constraint. This is necessary and important work that creates readers who will live on outside the classroom in a culture they own. .

Thank you, Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey and Tara for a place to share our lives. Read more Slices of Life here.


Celebrate: Student-Parent Conferences

Every weekend I land here for reflection. Thank you, Ruth, for the space to meet with others and share.  We need to take the time to stop and notice the good. It’s always there even when things aren’t just right yet. Click here to read more celebrations.

celebrate link up

I deal with little humans. Little in stature and little in experience. They are new to the game. Their “newness” is a gift and a challenge.  That’s why parenting and teaching are the best and hardest jobs.

This week was all about conferring with students and parents. Together. Two parents, often a sibling or two, flanking the child. I’m there with my partner teacher. All eyes on this little person.

Some students revel in the spotlight. Ready and willing to share all they have done and all they plan to do.

Other students worry. Their eyes downcast.

We, teachers and parents, want the best for the child in front of us.

Sitting in the teacher’s seat, I am grateful for being a part of a child’s learning life. A year has been handed to me. I’m honored.

Parents love their child with every inch of their being. They worry. The love and worry manifests in many ways. Are they on grade level?  What does my child need to work on? What can we do?

I start by asking, “How’s the year going?”

Students share.  Some without hesitation.  Others with one-word answers. “Good.”

Then, “Say more about that.”

If we listen, we hear some answers.

Me: What are your reading goals?

T: To track the problems and how the character deals with them.

Me: How have you have done that? Maybe share a read aloud story.

T goes on to discuss Yard Sale by Eve Bunting. He recounts the problem: they have to sell everything because they are moving to a small apartment. How the character handled this: at first she was upset, and then she understood.

Me: So why do you think the family had to move out of the house to the small apartment.

T: Hmmm. Maybe because they need to go to a nicer neighborhood?

Me: Maybe. Or maybe…

T: Hmmm. Maybe… I’m not sure.

Me: Why might someone move from something big with lots of stuff to something small with less?

T: (Long pause.) I don’t know.

Me: Could it be something to do with money?

T: Oh yeah, maybe taxes got too high. Or maybe someone lost a job.

Me: Maybe. The author didn’t tell us, did she. She’s asking us to figure it out on our own. Sometimes we need to take what the writer gives us and fill the holes they leave with our understanding of the world. When we do that, we interpret the story, and it becomes ours.

All the while parents are listening.

Me: When we work on filling the holes the author leaves us, it’s called inferring.

I look at the parents. “Does that help?”

They nod.

The good news, he’s growing, and we know what to work on. The better news, you’ll be there to see it.

That’s the beauty of parenting and teaching.

This week I celebrate the gift of students, parents and teachers who give time to listen and learn together.

Slice of Life: A Message to My Younger Literary Self

I found this thought from Mo Willems (via Jenn and Jill’s post).

“As a writer, what advice would you give your younger writer self?”

I decided to widen it a bit and give advice to my “younger” literary self.

  1. It’s ok to not like the books others like.
  2. Stop pretending.  Mom knows you’re faking it.
  3. Ask to be read to. It’s not just for little kids.
  4. Ask for help.
  5. Take that Shakespeare class.
  6. Don’t listen to your short story professor. He’s a frustrated writer.
  7. Don’t worry so much.
  8. Take more art classes.
  9. Memorize poetry.
  10. Pursue your passion. You will eventually, you might as well start early.
  11. Offer help.
  12. Re-read.
  13. Travel.
  14. Ask for help.
  15. Don’t be afraid of poetry.
  16. Write every day. No one will see it but you.
  17. Be patient with yourself.
  18. Find mentors.
  19. Get a cat. They make good company.
  20. Take pictures.
  21. Ask for help.
  22. Listen.
  23. Offer help.
  24. It’s never too late.
  25. Remember, there is room for you. You are good enough.

Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey, and Tara of Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesday. You and all who post and comment Tuesdays, provide for my past, current and future literary self. Read more slices here.



Celebrate This Week: Hope

Saturday is the calm after the week. A time to reflect and celebrate. Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for this place that allows me a space to sit and write.

celebrate link up

This week I’m celebrating those who give hope to children.  Educators and writers who call on us to never give up and to reach out to those in our lives who need hope.

Hope. That was the message Patricia Polacco gave students this week.

Last March I sat in the third row of  Riverside Chapel, surrounded by educators and listened to the magical storyteller Patricia Polacco.  As she lifted up her Keeping Quilt, she lifted us up and moved us to tears.

This week I stood in the back of a crowded school auditorium. Again she lifted up her Keeping Quilt and lifted up an auditorium of students with the power of story and hope.

“I write personal narratives, ” she told us. “How many of you are writers?”

Hands shot up.

“The only difference between you and me is that I’ve been published.”

Then came storytelling.

Stories of family and stories of struggle.

The story of being learning disabled.

The story of being humiliated when she was asked to read in front of the class.

The story of being bullied on the playground.

And stories of hope with a call to never give up and to reach out to those who struggle, to those who need hope. “You know who they are,” she said. “They’re easy to see. They’re the ones sitting alone at lunchtime. It is your job to reach out to them.”

She told the story of the meteor that had fallen in the backyard of her grandparent’s home and then reached into her red bag and pulled out a piece of that meteor. She cupped her hands over it and told of its power to grant wishes.  “You all can hold this meteor. Cup your hand over it. Do you feel it heating up?”

Students quietly cupped their hands over the “meteor” in their laps.

“But wait! Your first wish must be for someone other than yourself. Someone who needs this wish.”

Students quietly made that wish.

As students left, magic swirled around us.

“I almost cried,” said K as she exited the auditorium.

“She’s beautiful,” said D.

J came back late to class beaming. “She gave me a hug!”

“How did you get that?!”

“I just asked.”


The next day, it continued.

In class, I proudly showed off her signature.


“She has beautiful writing,” said S.

“Is that worth a lot of money,” R asked.

“It’s priceless,”  I said.

In an after school conference, a parent mentioned the story of the meteor. Her daughter had told her all about it.

Stories retold; that’s magic.

Patricia Polacco touched our hearts and left hope. Of being a writer, a reader, and a storyteller.

This week I celebrate Patricia and our school’s dear friend Dayna Wells, who sought out and shared the magic that is Patricia Polacco.

Slice of Life: A Book of My Own

This weekend, I went to our local Barnes and Noble. When I walk into a bookstore, I have the same reaction I have when I walk into a shoe store. Everything is beautiful, and I want it all.  I love the shelves stacked high with new, untouched books. I walked out with a bag full.

Yesterday at school, I placed some in the library bins and hid a few behind my desk.

Within seconds of the class coming to the carpet, they were spotted.  And forget about making a teaching point. Brand new never touched books. Everyone wanted them. And I don’t blame them.

Growing up, my mom took me the library every week. She raised me with the why-buy-when-you-can-borrow mindset. My mom pile of books on the checkout counter, and I’d try to do the same. It was hard. I didn’t find much. All I saw were spines on gray metal shelves.  I didn’t like the smell of library books. Someone else had used them. That bothered me.

But, I loved the school book orders. For some reason, buying books in this way was ok with Mom.

Books would come in paper bags with my name written in teacher cursive. Getting one of those brown bags at school was like getting an early Christmas present.

I loved biographies, mysteries, and stories of girls who lived in other countries. I remember their covers. I remember how the pages looked and felt. These were my books. Untouched by anyone but me. I could put my name in them and put them on my bookshelf.

I remember how they made me feel.

Owning books matters.  When you own a book, it lives with you. You need to find space for it. It becomes family.  It takes a reader to a higher level of commitment.

Yesterday we started our read aloud, A Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Lynda visited our classroom via YouTube and read the first chapter. I took notes along with my students. We stopped the video and talked. Backed it up a bit and had her re-read.  They were spellbound.

Afterward, a student asks, “Where d’you get the book?”

Students always ask me that question. They want their copy to hold, page through, put their name in. I don’t blame them. I’d want it too.

Thank you,  Lynda, for writing books we want to own. And, thank you, Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana Deb, Kathleen, Stacey and Tara for Two  Writing Teachers blog. Read more slices here.



Celebrate: Think Time

This week has had it’s ups and downs. The trick is not letting it get to you. The up or the down.  Looking back to find the small moments to celebrate is big. It keeps me moving forward. Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for creating this space that honors the small stuff.

celebrate link up

This week marked the end of our personal narrative writing unit. This week I assessed their growth.  Watching students muscle through their thinking, settling on an idea and then proceeding to execute it in 45 minutes is fascinating and gut-wrenching.

A few jump right to it, hammering out line after line.

A few sketch, then write.

Several flip through their notebooks, filled with stuff.

A few just sit, staring into space.

Some fidget, clearly in pain.

And I watch the time slip by. Silently panicking for those who are playing with their pens or staring into space.

Fifteen minutes pass. By this point, most have gotten their stories going.

E sits with nothing. Nada.

I pace the room and wrap back around eventually circling behind E.

Miraculously, his paper is filled, and he’s on to page two.

I breathe. I’ve seen this happen. The kid who sits and waits and then bam. There it is. He’s the kid who needs to marinate.

This process of assessment is necessary. I hate doing it, but I need to see what they are holding on to and what needs to be worked.

The thing is – I know I would have been the one sitting, staring into space. I wasn’t asked to write in class “on demand” until I was in college, and I remember the shock of it. Now it’s expected of little ones. They get used to it and for the majority of students, it shows what they can do.

But what about kids like E. Like me?

Soon time’s up, and E hands me three filled pages. He looks at me earnestly and says, “This is the just the beginning. Can I have it back to finish next week?”

This week I celebrate kids who need to sit and think. The ones that have a lot to sift through before they commit their words to the page.

This week I celebrate the ones that want their writing back because it means something to them. They have a story to finish.

Slice of Life: What’s a Just Right Read Aloud

I believe literature can bridge gaps that would otherwise never close. The potential of this brings me hope.

Teaching how to read and love literature is the cornerstone of my language arts classroom. I try to capture it in read aloud. This time is precious. It has to count.

Every year we read joyful, funny books. Books that children love. And every year we read books that are disturbing. Every year I wonder, are my book selections the best I can make. Too heavy, too light. What’s just right?

Our first chapter book of the year was Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate. I love this book, yet was concerned. How might my students understand it or handle the topic?

The story of Kek is brutal: a ten-year-old Sudanese refugee making his way in Minneapolis after his detention in a refugee camp, after losing his mother, after the murder of his father and brother.

Heavy stuff. My students aren’t privileged by Western standards, yet they are light years away from Kek’s experience. My students read for plot, action, adventure, humor, and fantasy. Is this too big of a stretch?

I went with it because it was the chosen text for the TCRWP Reading unit of study. While I don’t hesitate to change things to meet student needs, I felt I needed to give the design of this unit a chance. The expectations are high. I thought if anything would help students approximate the work required, the read aloud would be the access point.

We have a week left in the book. And there have been glimmers of deep thinking. I’ve seen a few notebooks that gave me hope, but the overall reactions of students worried me. Was the nature of the story turning them off? Was engagement waning? They were so quiet.

Today I read this scene,

The grocery store has rows and rows, of color, of light, of easy hope. . . I stand like a tree rooted firm my eyes too full of this place, with its answers to prayers on every shelf. . .

I reach out and touch, a piece of bright green food I’ve never seen before. And then I begin to cry.

I stop and wonder aloud:  “I don’t understand. This is the opposite of what I’d expect.  A grocery store is a place that ‘answers his prayers.’ Why would he cry?”

I hear

Maybe he’s filled with joy. Yeah happy tears.

Then from a student who seemed disengaged and had voiced his opinion that the text is slow (not enough action) turns to his partner,

I think he’s doesn’t think he deserves these things. Why him and not his family.

We read on. The Library,

I don’t know what to do with it all, I say. I kick a chair leg. To have all this food and all these books and all this freedom. I  feel sort of… I dont’t know, the word. Too lucky.

“Too lucky?” I say. I don’t understand. Why is Kek feeling this way. How could he feel too lucky? His life has been unlucky. Why is this such a problem? Why has the author created this situation for Kek? For us to understand?

Partner talk erupts.

He can’t handle this it’s too much.

He doesn’t think he deserves it.

He feels guilty.

I think I have a new theme!

Somethings can not heal. Things can’t help, sometimes they hurt.

They listen to more.  They hear how Kek handles his trip to the mall, his encounters with money, birthdays, and racism. All ideas that are foreign to him yet he moves through it.

Then, I take them back to the quote that titled the section:

One doesn’t forgo sleeping because of the possibility of nightmares.

Students have interpreted this to mean: One doesn’t give up living because there might be trouble.

I ask, “How do these chapters fit into this part? How does it fit with the whole?

They talk and write.

Later at the end of reading workshop, students finish up their discussions on their books. Two students approach.

“Mrs. Harmatz, we have two new questions we should ask during partner talk: How does this part fit in with the whole and why is this important?”

Whoa.  What I’d been saying again and again in read aloud had sunk in just a little bit and transferred to their work. A few have gotten toeholds on the wall they need to climb.

This book is challenging in its structure and content.  But perhaps, there lies the wisdom of this book choice.

We have to sort through the whys and hows. We have to fit the pieces together to make sense of it. And we do it together. That’s what a read aloud should do.

We have to think through the differences. We have to come to terms with ideas that disrupt our world view. That’s what literature should do.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Live Tuesday. You bring us together to write, to share, to connect. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey, and Tara. Read more slices here.

Celebrate This Week: Student Reflection

It’s time to Celebrate This Week with Ruth Ayers. Thank you, Ruth, for this weekly practice and place to share our lives. Read more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

This week I noticed a subtle change in our classroom. There is a level of comfort and a sense of urgency.

It happens every year, and every year it’s different.  The difference is the child. This is their year.

Every time I sit with a child, I’m looking for their next step. What instruction do they need right now? Can they hold on independently in this place with this text, or do they need support? For how long? In what way? How can they reach for independence? What tools might help sustain independence? That is the beauty and purpose of assessments, formal and informal. Not for just the number or letter on a spreadsheet, but for what we do next.

And there are excellent tools available to help measure and guide student understanding. More than ever before.

This week I celebrate an assessment that doesn’t show up on any report or print out. One that moves the ownership towards those that need to do the work: student self-assessment.

This week we started student-led conferences. Students sit beside their parents and reflect on 1) what they can do well and 2) what is difficult.  That reflection pushes students to name where they are and what they struggle with. This is powerful work that can be revisited and reflected on again and again.

If you think this is too difficult for students, consider Trevor Bryan’s post here that describes a flexible and replicable  reflection process. He asks students: is the task easy, just right or difficult. And then, why. Simple and I’d argue an essential step for learning.

This week, and this year, I celebrate regular student reflection.  Without this piece, our students miss out on a tool that could move them towards continual independent growth.