Celebrate: Expanded Time

Time to Celebrate the Week with Ruth Ayers and others who link up every weekend. Find  more celebrations here.

This week I celebrate expanded time to find things I miss.

Email. I found wonderful thought provoking posts lurking in between the Black Friday, Cyber Monday sales.  This weekend I celebrate the folks who give so much to our reading and writing community by attending conferences, presenting and sharing their knowledge on their blogs.

You may have seen these posts, but I’m a believer in repetition.

Fran McVeigh

Katherine Sokolowski 

Elisabeth Ellington

Vicki Vinton

Books. W1mVAgAAQBAJ I got The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming at NCTE and read it on my flight home. Devoured it. Sprinkled with primary accounts and photographs the well-written narrative brings multiple perspectives to the end of the Romanov’s 300-year reign in Russia.

I love holding a book, feeling my progression through it. Reveling in the pleasure of consumption without the worry of holding every bit of information it put forth.

Yay for narrative nonfiction.


Gravity Goldberg’s new book, Mindsets & Moves. For the past three years, I’ve attempted to move my students toward mindful engagement in reading.  Student metacognition (the what and why they read) is also about me understanding how to support this work. Just wanting students to be agents of their own learning isn’t enough.  I need to “mindfully” move them. Gravity’s book is moving me toward the goal of student ownership via her moves of mining (finding student processes), mirroring (giving feedback), modeling (my literate moves) and mentoring (coaching and support toward independence).

My notebook. Notebooking tends to go during the school year. This week I’ve gone back to it to reread, reflect and write.  Paper and pen make for a different kind of energy and perspective.

Thanksgiving’s essential ingredients: family. We had all the cousins together. While I miss the stages of little people, it’s a great pleasure to be with these beautiful young adults.



Poetry Friday: A Brief Visit

Writers try new things.

Writers embrace imperfection.

Use your writer’s eye and tell me what you see.

Sometimes you see ideas coming from the side.

What does it remind you of?

What surprises you?

These are quotes from an NCTE session with Cynthia Lord, Erin Dionne, Linda Urban and Melissa Guerrette. As they shared, I thought of my students.

Today, I think of Poetry Friday. I’ve tried before. Posted once or twice. But failed to continue. No inspiration. No time.

The truth. I think poetry digs to a place that’s personal and uncomfortable. Today, I’m taking the advice I plan to dish up to my students. Embrace imperfection and try. Use my writer’s eye and look out for something that might be coming from the side.

Thank you to Carol at Carol’s Corner, who hosts this week’s Poetry Friday roundup. Thank you to the brave teacher poets that share and wait patiently for me to try again.

A Brief Visit

Woken in darkness I hear drip, drip.

Water has come home?

We’d given up green and fruit for sunbleached rock and barren soil.

I walk into cool, dark, waterless air

and touch a tiny pool that clusters

at the base

of a gutter.

Nearby leaves cling to damp remains

as sun breaks

the grey sky.

©Julieanne Harmatz


Slice of Life at NCTE15: Engagement with Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene

I sat on the ground charging my phone just outside the Exhibit Hall at NCTE with Halley, a pre-service teacher from Iowa.  I had 30 minutes until my next session located around the corner with Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene.  We talked about her program, professors, her hometown, how she couldn’t wait to start teaching.  Loved this kid!

“Hi, Julieanne!”

I look up, and there is the lovely and brilliant Gravity Goldberg.  Amazed that she remembered me from a workshop years ago, I jump up and give her a hug.

“I’m hoping to get at seat at the Tom Newkirk and Ellin Keene session,” she says.

“Yikes, it’s that late.  Me too.” I wish Halley good luck and walk with Gravity down the hall.

A line had formed outside.  Lucky me.  I’m here.

The doors open and I find a seat next to Lisa Eickholt. Wow.

I look across the aisle. There are my Long Island friends Jenn Hayhurst, Jill DeRosa, and Ryan Scala. Hugs are necessary.  I return to find Katherine Bomer and Vicki Vinton next to me. OK, if Newkirk and Keene don’t say a word I would have gotten my money’s worth.

Newkirk calls us to order and starts in talking about narrative.

Regardless of common core definitions, any and all good writing has a narrative element. There is an ever-present need for narrative.  We humans relate to and remember stories. They connect to our humanness, our emotions.

A question might begin your work, but the tension keeps us reading. Even in academic writing you must have a plot; there must be tension. Readers must have a purpose to read on.

Our brains are devoted to the visual therefore we need a sense of the visual to comprehend.

I think of the nonfiction books I’ve loved. They were stories about people.  I remember these people and the scenes the author created for me to enter. They live with me.

Then Newkirk says something shocking, yet sensical.

Reading is an act of forgetting. The details anchor us.

I thought it was my weak brain. And, this explains why students cling to those fascinating facts after reading nonfiction.  Apparently, I’m beating myself up for a natural occurrence.

He hits us again.

Do we really read informational text for information?

What do we retain? We hold on to the journey, the story. We stay for engagement and emphathy.

And I thought it was just me.

Then he tells a story: The story of his experience reading The Emperor of All Maladies with his wife who was fighting cancer at the time. He ends this story by reading a reflection written by his wife on the book.  We are in tears. We will remember.

Keene stands. She starts with questions (giving us purpose, creating engagement).

How do we know children are engaged in what they are reading?

How do we know they are understanding?

What do we know about how they retain and reapply?

Do they use their conceptual understanding over time?

She had us. The studies show low retention. Low levels of learning.

Engagement we know is necessary, but what does it look like? When students appear to be “on task.” Busy. Is it engagement? Or compliance.

Picture a quiet classroom.  Books are open; pens jot in notebooks and on post-its. Is this engagement?

Keene describes another setting. Students  are working collaboratively on a project. Each student busily takes on a task to complete the work.  Is this engagement? Or a kind of parallel play.

Keene asked us to consider our moments of engagement. “When have you found yourself lost in a learning experience? What were the conditions that led to that level of engagement?”

To ground us in reading she asked, what needed to be present to have that “lost in learning” level of engagement with a nonfiction text?

Ideas came up.

  • The text was written just for me
  • A need to puzzle something out.
  • Beautiful words
  • A surprise
  • Something that changes thinking

These are times when we find ourselves engaged.

Can we find these conditions in our classrooms?

Keene then outlined four key ideas

  1. Engagement is born of intellectual urgency – the need to know
  2. Engagement is born of emotional response to ideas
  3. Engagement is deepened by perspective bending
  4. Engagement is connected to our sense of the aesthetic

All of these made sense but the most intriguing to me was the aesthetic. Many young students aren’t necessarily connecting to what I understood as “aesthetic.” Keene went on to explain.

Students need to learn and know who they are by identifying their beliefs. This may boil out of the aesthetic. When you feel it.  When something made for you.

I think of my student who is capable but disengaged in school.  Last week I handed him The War that Changed My Life, and he changed. Completely. Nothing could distract him from this text. His mom even commented. Did I finally find something that spoke to him? Did I connect to his sense of aesthetic?

Imagine what you could do next to create engagement in your teaching. How can we connect to the aesthetic in our students?

Yes! We need to model, model, model and ask students: When have you felt lost in learning? What do you believe in? And listen.

Thank you, Two Writing Teacher for Slice of Life Tuesdays: A place to reflect and share with like minded souls. Find more slices here.


NCTE15: A Necessity

I’m coming off the high of NCTE15.

Before making the commitment to attend this year, I questioned whether I deserved to go. Was this an indulgence? Was I worthy of this trip?

But today, I know this conference is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.  It’s not just professional development. It’s professional sustenance.

I learned in sessions led by teachers who enter the classroom every day, just like me and do extraordinary things to teach learners the value and importance of the written word. Teachers like Pernille Ripp, who reach out to authors and enrich the lives of students around the world with the Global Read Aloud.

I learned in sessions led by writers of the books I bring to my students. Writers like Katherine Applegate, Cynthia Lord, Sharon Draper, Linda Urban, Georgia Heard, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Writers who humbly share their process, their strategies, their struggles and their hearts for the benefit of teachers and students.

I learned in sessions led by educational leaders and researchers. Those who have provided me intellectual and professional support; whose words I’ve underlined and try to live in my classroom. The likes of Tom Newkirk, Ellin Keene, and Lucy Calkins shared their research and best practices.

I sat with and talked to educators whom I am privileged to call my dear friends. Social media and conferences like NCTE have made these connections possible. We come together for these events that build our relationships and our practice.

Now home, these teachers, wordsmiths, and researchers are beside me, Supporting my students and me. As we read, as we open our writer’s notebooks, as we try on strategies, we engage with this community of literacy.

Teaching children to become thought filled decision makers is a challenge and an honor. The annual NCTE convention supports the passionate community of educator-learners who choose this vocation. It brings together the best in the work to inspire more.

Thank you, Erica.




Slice of Life: Sometimes You Have to Watch

We can only write what we know.

Knowing this, writing research reports is asking a lot of young writers. Report writing involves reading, viewing, or listening to new information, understanding it and then writing about it in a way to teach others. That’s way up there on the cognitive processing charts.

And that’s what my kiddos are attempting on the topic of water. It’s an issue that interested them and seemed simple and relatively accessible. We have lots of books and videos on it. So we went for it.

Students had researched. Taken notes. Studied mentor text. Noticed structure.  They knew how they wanted their writing to go. Many were pushing to write, enough with this research!

This weekend, I tried to write my report and struggled with the task. How well did I understand it? How should I put it together? And most importantly, what is the next step for students?

Monday came. I shared my process. I set my introduction aside, and I chose the section I was most passionate about writing. The one I knew the best.

As disconcerting as not starting with the beginning was for many students, they did it.

They picked up the section they were excited about and started with energy. They knew how this should go, and they went for it. For a while.

Then pens started to stall.

Neighbors started to fidget.

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

This is how kids look when they get stuck. I knew why. I had experienced the same thing this weekend. Their knowledge couldn’t sustain their writing.

Time to adjust.

I said, “Guys I know this is hard. It’s hard because we all aren’t experts on all of the things we want to write about. We know it, sort of. The thing is we are passionate about different things. So who would like to conduct seminars on a topic? What are you passionate about? What could you teach someone else?

Hands shot up, and engagement went through the roof.

A. had a group discussing bodies of water.

K. taught all about the weather.

D. and R. explained the water cycle.

W. was sharing how water exists throughout our bodies.

T. had a seminar on climate change.

Groups of students huddled around their instructors with notebooks. 

 Students got the opportunity to chart and explain and re-learn. They moved every five minutes or stayed to “re-hear” and note take.

Fidgeting and needs for the bathroom disappeared.

After the twenty-minute mid-workshop teach, energy and writing resumed.

Those seminars were not in my plan.

What should I have done to make this a better lesson? Should I have started with the seminars rather than the writing? At first glance, I thought so. But on reflection, how would I have known what students needed unless I had given them a chance to write.

Sometimes we have to sit back and watch to know what’s next.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for this space to share our reflections on life. Read more slices here.



Celebrate This Week: They are me

We need to celebrate the good things, especially in ugly sad times.  Ruth Ayers cultivates this with her Celebrate This Week link up. Thank you, Ruth, for the space to share. Read other reflections here.

celebrate link up

The news reports out of Paris cut to the core.

When disaster strikes, I hold my own close and breathe a sigh of relief. I think, they are safe.

Then I think, but what about those who aren’t.

I’m going to take a leap here.

Hold on.

They are mine. They are me.

This week I celebrate perspective. Long hours. Late nights. Frustration. Fatigue. Report cards. Mistakes. Missteps. Imperfections. And, the gift of tomorrow. Next time. I celebrate being able to look back, reflect and make better.

I celebrate the times I stopped myself. And asked:  What’s up? Are you ok? Did you get enough sleep last night? What made you think that? How did you do that?

The times I didn’t assume. I kept listening.

The times I encouraged. Say more. Show me.

The times I took a deep breath and didn’t react. I didn’t say anything.

The times I thought, what if this was my child? What if this was me?

This week I celebrate the ability to look back, have perspective and remember they are mine and me.

Slice of Life: Mentors Matter

“Come in and close the door.”

I walk into your room. You’re on your bed. Pillows piled behind you. You gaze into your laptop.

“Listen to this.”

You begin.

 “As long as I was in the water, the word ‘no’ drove me to do what others thought unreachable.”

You finish. Your personal statement for college. First read. To anyone.

I say, “You have to read this to your brother.”

You say, “You think it’s good?”

I say, “I love it.”

It’s you. It’s what makes you a challenge and what I love so much about you. I’m not sure if it’s what colleges want. But, if they don’t, then you shouldn’t want them.

We walk to the living room and share with your brother.

You get to these lines,

“Sorry, little girl, but there is NO way that you can beat your brothers – they’re much bigger and stronger than you,” my coach leaned down and told me.

“They aren’t that much bigger!” I spat back while hurling myself into the cold water.

And he laughs out loud.

“Do you like it?” you ask.

“It is great,” he says.

Your biggest brother, the one who is “so smart,” (your words) just said what you wrote is great.

Your brothers are such a big part of you. All you ever wanted was to be like them. To keep up. To be as good.

No matter what I say or do, what your brothers think is bigger.

I’m the safe place. The person you share with first.  But, my opinion is not the one that matters most. Your brothers have driven you. You followed them, dressed like them, ordered whatever they ordered at restaurants. Their passions were your passions.

You read it again.  When you get to the end, you say, “I really like my last line.”

I do too.

Even as a kindergartener, I knew you were a writer, a storyteller. Glad to see you think so too.

You’ll never be as big or as old as your brothers, but you seem to be catching up little girl. Mentors matter. So glad you have them.


Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.

Celebrate this Week: Joyful Learning

On Monday, the barista handed me a red Starbucks cup. And it made me smile. But on my ride to work, I felt a sense of panic.

The holidays are here.

And this is my Saturday conclusion: we must care for our joyful selves. It’s our job as teachers to channel the joy towards learning. Every day. But especially now. With all the mandates, standards, and good intentions pressing on us, teachers need to filter and deliver what students need to learn with a sense of joy.

Rewinding the week, consider where we are as learners in the world of informational text. Very few students responded well to the request to “Briefly summarize the main idea(s) in a text.” Many were flummoxed by the words “briefly summarize.” Others reported on what interested them, what they thought mattered. Not unusual. And if you think about it, it’s a natural thing. We respond to what resonates in our heart and mind. Not necessarily the author’s main idea.

These results are typical. Students understand the concept of main idea they just need a refresher and practice in the work. The challenge. and I believe the key to success, is to do the learning joyfully.

We started with these ingredients:

Scholastic News Magazine (one copy for each student)

Minilesson featuring a “1-2-3” chunking strategy

Time for independent work

Time for group work

Scissors, glue, markers, and pens

Time for presentation of ideas


main idea pic 1main idea pic 2    Where we are now:main idea pic 5 main idea pic3main idea pic 4

 Main ideas, details and renaming of sections showed they understood the main idea and could put it in their own words. But the biggest accomplishment:

“That was fun!”

Joyful learning.

Something to celebrate this week and to shoot for every week. Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for your Celebrate This Week link up. Click here to read more celebrations!

Slice of Life: What do students need to know?

What do students need to know?

What do we need to get them ready to do?

What skills should they have?

Perhaps because I teach the last year of elementary school, I get asked these questions all the time.

Perhaps because people believe this is the beginning of the end. The last year before middle school. The last year before the end of childhood.

Yesterday, a group of students helped after school.  They did the work I could have asked parent volunteers to do. Work that would have taken a teacher hours to accomplish. With a little instruction and my physical presence, students got two classrooms ready for a social studies field trip. They assigned teams, roles, and organized each class.

They loved it. Even left a thank you note for the experience.

Every year I give students opportunities to work independently.  Times that they are responsible for something other than themselves. Times to work without a net. No scaffolds. The tasks I ask them to take on won’t result in disaster if they fail. It’s a safe way to try on independence.

I believe that we inadvertently discourage independence. Our charts, our coaching, our prompts, our questions might be a necessary step. They could be tools that help students “feel” the sensation of success. They can allow for approximation. But could some of them also imply that they can’t do without us?

We need to start asking, does our teaching create dependence?

Trouble happens when students have no knowledge of, practice around, or instruction in what to do when we’re not there to ask, defend or problem solve.

We need to provide independent practice. At home and school throughout the elementary school years. We imply belief when we allow students to try.

What do students need to know?

They need to know adults believe they can do it, and the sooner, the better.


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