Slice of Life: Packages of Lessons, Hope, and Heart

This post contains the stories of two packages filled with lessons, hope, and heart.

Package One

Christmas Eve, I pull into my driveway and spot a box on the doorstep.

“Hmm, I bet that’s the book I ordered,” I say aloud.

My husband gives me a look that says, well, you can imagine. I buy a lot of books. And I add, “…for Andy.”

Once inside, I rip the box open. Packing peanuts. I dig and pull. I find a package wrapped in hand-painted tissue paper. My kid-brain excitement still doesn’t connect the dots until I see it.


And the stories come flooding back.

Her art class. The tissue paper classes. This painting holds stories alongside its intrinsic beauty. Stories and lessons my dear friend Margaret Simon has shared.

The sunflowers grace my living room; holding stories and inspiration that ask me to reach out of what I am right now to what I could be. What a gift it is to have a teacher as a friend.


IMG_3021Digging deeper, I find BOOKED and NCTE memories.

I was standing in a long line to get
Kwame’s autograph and book.  I set aside the possibility of getting to the 4:30 session.  I had committed to this line.

Margaret walks up, “You’re gonna miss your session. Go! I’ll stay.”  I’m not sure what I said, but it felt like my mother had come to rescue me.

In the crazy of NCTE, I forgot the book. Margaret shipped BOOKED to New Iberia.  Now here it was in a Christmas package!

This book holds so much. More than the story or the autograph inside. It holds immeasurable friendship.

Package Two

The day after Christmas, another package arrives.

My thoughts go to that book that still hasn’t arrived.

In the dining room, my mystery package contains this and letters of thanks from students at Pine Point Elementary.  Thank yous for the books.


The story of this school found me quite accidentally through Voxer connections.

Kathryn Hoffman-Thompson is a sixth-grade teacher at Pine Point Elementary School located on a reservation in Minnesota. Over the summer she shared her school and her son’s 4H project, building a little library at the school for families who had limited access to books.

The library was built and installed. No small feat for a middle schooler. Now for books.

I reached out to my school community and received nearly 100 pounds in beautiful books that students and parents brought from home. I brought a suitcase to NCTE and shipped a few packages. But it didn’t end there.

Donna Donner’s fifth grade class in Long Island, New York sent a truckload of books.  IMG_3012

Talk about Christmas miracles.  As Donna so eloquently said, “Given the opportunity, children can make anything happen. Place books in front of them and they will read. Place a need in front of them and they will find a way to help. In times when our world feels scary, it is most important to take the time to zoom in on the good, and perpetuate that publicly. I have faith in our leaders of tomorrow.”

These stories, these gifts, fill me up. Stories of passion for books, of creativity and most importantly, kindness.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers Blog for Tuesday Slice of Life. It is a joy to share with this vibrant community. Read more slices here.


Celebrating Slow

We put a premium on speed. We rush to meet, exceed and beat deadlines, expectations, and competition. If on-time is good, early is better.

But this week I celebrate slow and the reflection and conversation that can accompany it.

Christmas morning the house was slow.

By mid morning my daughter wakes her brothers. She’s the shopper/planner and can’t wait. After a bit of prodding, presents are exchanged.

At first, I don’t see it. All seems well. But then I realize. There’s discomfort. This space, a place that was to run and play, isn’t anymore. It’s uncomfortable, a bit sad, and unexpected. This year isn’t the first Christmas  with adult kids. So why now. And more importantly, what do we do about it.

Answers began with stories of six, seven, and eight-year olds. Tiny memoirs.  Priceless moments colored by older perspectives.

I listen.

I answer questions of times they can’t recall.

After dinner home has changed; it fits a little better.

Time pushes towards the new year; the more and the fast will pull in directions that forget slow. So here’s to building in moments of slow. Slow makes space for story and conversation to realize, remember, discover, and create new understandings.

celebrate link up

Thank you, Ruth, for your blog Play, Discover, Build that provides a space to notice and celebrate the small things that life is made up of. Read more celebrations here.

Poetry Friday: Shifting Thoughts

Driving is my place to listen to podcasts. Storytellers, informative pieces and poetry.

Yesterday, I heard Paul Muldoon, the poetry editor for The New Yorker interviewed by Krista Tippett.  It’s well worth a listen.

This stuck with me.

I think it’s often most useful not to think of it as being all that distinct. I think one of the problems with the general perception of poetry is that we think it’s special. And if anything, I think we’d be better served if we thought it was much more like prose fiction. Much more like theater criticism or film criticism than occupying this kind of special realm, Poetryland, you know?

And this.

…just a new way of looking at something that one hasn’t quite seen before. A way of looking at a wheelbarrow, a way of looking at a plum in an icebox, some modest little shift in the world, but a shift, a revelation. And, basically, if there isn’t some kind of revelation, it hasn’t been worth one’s while to be in there.

The writer’s view of the world informs.

In that spirit, I come to Poetry Friday. Looking to learn from others.

 Shifting Thoughts

In the half awake time, the world makes sense. Energized by clear purpose, I run through layers in my mind.

Until darkness wraps me up
and I drift back.

Too soon a cold consciousness and the day’s happenings bury my thoughts.

The end and middle obscured. 

The beginning waits.

Merry Christmas to all! Happy to be here on Poetry Friday hosted by Irene Latham’s Live Your Poem




Slice of Life: Christmas Past, Present and Future

I’m reading Thomas Newkirk’s Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones. It’s dense and beautifully written.  And it’s got me thinking about my literacy journey. My Christmas past, present, and future.

The pre-teaching Christmas past.  I’m on the treadmill reading The New Yorker. I’d accepted my first teaching position. Fifth grade. I’m excited, yet in mourning. The job will require a shift in my reading life. No longer will I be able to read for personal pleasure. I will read to teach.

That day, a friend spotted my magazine she said, “I had no idea you were interested in such things.”

That day, I walked away from a private literary life. Knowing it needed to be shared.

The classroom teacher ‘s Christmas past. I sit at the kitchen table, pouring over texts to fashion questions that “match” the type of questions students have to answer. I spend hours on this work. 

That year, I faced reality: what mattered was reading that focused on responding to a question. If you could read well, you’d do well on The Test.

That year, I had Leeann* and Collette* in my class. They had passionate voices and stories that rocked. Their writing far surpassed their ability to read.  More than anything, those storytellers made me question my practice. It broke my heart that their voices were not celebrated or valued in school.

The first blogging Christmas past.   I sit at the kitchen table, writing a post.

That year, social media happened, and I found people with a passion for and about literacy. Social media, being social, encouraged almost required participation. Painfully and because I believed that I must do what I ask students to do, my blogging life was born.

That year, I received unexpected gifts. Close friendships. I had no idea my words could create relationships that lived alongside learning.

That year, the new Common Core standards were changing the testing world. Writing had to be taught. That gave permission to give writing a bigger space in the school day and to create a student blog.

Christmas Present: I sit at the kitchen table, reading student posts. They are far from perfect, but they are stories, opinions, ideas. They are writing for each other, not just for a unit of study.

This year, the student blog has taken on a life of its own.  I’m there as a moderator, but it is their space. Students thoughts and interests drive the blog. They have words to share.

This year, tests are looming. But still we take the time to write for each other, to share our voices and our stories.

Christmas Future: I sit at the kitchen table, reading student posts, filled with voice and passion. They aren’t perfect, but there are more than ever before. 

This year, students moderate blog posts and comments that instigate more writing. Writers develop specific audiences. Students start websites and blogs independent of their school life. Better technology and access allow 100% participation over the long holiday break. 

This year, testing still hovers, but it doesn’t consume. Student-driven writing filled with voice and personal purpose is alive.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog that provides a space to write, share, imagine, and give.

Dear Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Tara, and Stacey, may your holiday be merry and bright.

Read more slices here.



Celebrate: Home for the Holidays

This week was spent getting ready to perform our annual musical pageant. Time, patience, and talent were needed. Kids are excited. Adults are stressed. Learning the lyrics, the movements, and doing it together is a challenge.  The task is big, especially for the youngest of kiddos. This is not my strong suit. So I followed the lead of the musicians on staff and tried to keep calm.

After hours of practice, the rough spots smoothed out, and students rose. They stood together and sang, danced and played.

And, there were a few who stood out. Those who shine a bit brighter in the spotlight. Those who pay attention to their beat.  Those who turn it on big time. This is their time.

My school is home for many kids. This week many came home.  Former students, I haven’t seen in years came to watch cousins, siblings, nieces and nephews perform. They came back to visit and remember their time.

This week I celebrate students reaching up to be their best, those who listen to their tune and perform with full hearts, and those who dedicate themselves to finding and nurturing the music that lives in children.

This week I celebrate my school for being a place that is home for our students, past and present.

Happy Holidays!

Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for your blog Discover, Play, Learn, that provides a weekly space for the practice of celebration. Read more celebrations here.








Slice of Life: What Keeps Us Reading

I had a conversation with a colleague last week in the lunch room. She’s new to a grade level and was disturbed by the limited engagement she saw in her readers.

And it made me think. How often does maintaining or finding engagement in a book enter my lessons?

Engagement is something that’s addressed at the beginning of the year, perhaps revisited after a break. Sort of like classroom management. I teach a few lessons on it and then, off we go to what really matters, finding theme, main idea and supporting evidence.

But. Is that what really matters? Doesn’t all start and end with engagement? We talk about the need for reading lots of books. But for some, reading is like taking their vitamins or eating vegetables. With the winter break looming, I have cause to worry. If students aren’t engaged in reading, why would they pick up a book when they are out of school. What really matters when they walk out the door on Friday?

This being said, when and how are students engaged in reading in my classroom?  How deeply? Where are the weaknesses?  When reading workshop happens, are they engaged throughout the period?  Throughout a book?  We work towards specific reading goals. But do we work toward maintaining engagement?

Yesterday, I set students up to answer some of these questions. Their mission was to “watch” themselves as readers. To notice when they became disengaged. Students placed post-its on pages where they “lost it.”

And I watched them.

After twenty minutes, most had a few post-its dangling out of their texts, and I asked them to think about their work and share their findings.

Times of engagement:

  • the subject matter
  • action
  • humor
  • amazing ideas
  • problems/tension
  • surprising moments/changes/twists
  • secrets
  • dialogue
  • When you have the character’s perspective in mind
  • When you can imagine the place
  • When you can’t put the book down
  • When you know more than the character knows
  • When you don’t want to read anything else

And disengagement:

  • when there was detailed description
  • when the problem was solved or there was no apparent problem
  • when nothing was happening

These observations came as no surprise to me.  But more importantly, the students recognized these moments for themselves.

The beauty of this is how it stirs up more questions.

What do readers do when they hit the inevitable moments of disengagement?

When the tension declines, the problem is solved, or there is a descriptive passage without the presence of action and drama, what does a reader do?

Fortunately, we have tomorrow and the rest of the year to explore disengaging moments. To discover, find the value in or to understand these moments and how to approach them in literature and informational text.

Finding the right book matters. Finding ways to maintain engagement throughout a book matters. Finding the theme and evidence to support will be much more likely once we find ourselves wanting to find time for a book.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. A place to share our writing and our lives. Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Deb, Kathleen, Stacey, and Tara. Find more slices here.










Celebrate: Re-understanding

celebrate link up

Today I’m celebrating re-understanding.

It happens all the time in my classroom. When students believe they know, but their understanding is false.

On Tuesday, I worked with L.   L is learning English. To boost the clarity of his written thoughts, we did some shared writing. He used the word really to describe how fast something was moving. I wrote really on the page. He read the sentence and stopped me, pointed to the word really and asked, “What does that word mean?”

I responded half laughing saying it’s the word he used to describe something. We talked about the word’s meaning; about how and why we use the word.

His response at the end was, “Oh. I didn’t know that.”

I love it when he says that. It shows his trust and his stance as a learner.

L was using this word in his spoken language. It took writing it and rereading it for him to realize that he didn’t understand the word.  Fascinating from a learning perspective.

This work got me wondering about understanding. How often do we think we know. Or we assume we know. So we don’t question.

Admitting “I don’t know” is hard. For some, it’s close to impossible. Especially when we are supposed to know.  But if we are to be learners, we need to find ways to become more like L. Trusting and brave enough to ask:  What does that mean.



Slice of Life: Student Owned Read Aloud

Most days I enter my read aloud with a post it free text and an open mind. This might get me kicked out of the interactive read aloud club that has post its carefully planted at strategic points to teach specific reading moves. But, I have found that my students find more and I find out more about them when I am open to their thinking. 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of planning and thought that goes into read aloud.

I choose text that present opportunities for my students to think; titles that they could not have accessed on their own.

I plan for the process. I want them to know this is what readers do, and this is how it feels when they do.  I set them up to do the reading work, to know they are readers.

I plan for replicable approaches to text. I plan for conversation and writing.

Today we considered:

Why writers do things.

Chapter 34, “A Star is Born” in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

I asked, “Before we start, what do you think this title might mean.  Why this title?”

Conversations started in partnerships and grew. I heard:

It’s like a star in Hollywood.

Someone famous.

Maybe it’s about space. Albert loves that.

Stars can mean hope.

Hope is born?

Could it be about Ally having hope now that Mr. Daniels is helping her?

With this replicable beginning to any chapter, students were set up to look for potential lines of thought.

We started. Readers stopped to add to and adjust their theories. They supported and changed their ideas that showed up in conversations.

It’s about Albert being a star.

But he doesn’t want to be famous, he said so, he didn’t want the limelight.

No, it’s about all of them Keisha, Albert, and Ally.

But Ally doesn’t think so. She doesn’t believe.

I still think it’s about hope.

We ended our read aloud and considered a quote from the end of this chapter:

Be careful with eggs and words, because both can’t be fixed.

I asked, “Why did the writer write this? Why did she end this chapter this way?”

To answer this time,  students wrote.

Five minutes passed.

I leaned over N’s notebook.

Eggs can break and they can’t be fixed. Words can be spoken and they can hurt that can’t be taken back. Neither can be fixed.

I said to N, “Hmm, that makes me think of Each Kindness!” I had not seen that connection. I saw it with his words.

Students offered up their thinking with their partners.

Then I asked, “I wonder why the writer used this image of eggs? Add on to your thinking.”

Over T’s shoulder I read:

Ally is like an egg. And connects to the title of the chapter – A Star is Born. It’s like Ally isn’t a star yet. She’s the egg. Like not born. If someone is  mean she could break before she becomes a star.

I could not have planned this. Students own this read aloud.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays: a place to reflect and share our lives. Read more slices here.

Celebrate: Boundless Reading

This week we ventured into Wonderopolis. I can confidently say Wonderopolis is my students’ new favorite thing. It keeps them still when the bell rings for recess. It makes them cheer when we start and whine when we have to stop.  “What are you wondering?” is the most natural thing to ask a child. And the wonderings of Wonderopolis are boundless.  This week I celebrate our wondering and Wonderopolis.

Writing makes thinking happen. So writing about reading makes perfect sense. Unless you are anyone who just wants to read to find out. Last week I challenged kids to write about their reading in a way that expressed themselves and showed their thinking about their nonfiction reading. I believe student voice and understanding exists in these images.

This week I celebrate student writing about reading that fits the mindset of the student not the assignment of the teacher.

On Tuesday, my student, K, picked up this 304-page book.

61HgnG6bnJL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_K is the kind of reader whose book selection leans toward thin books with exciting covers. I watched. Wednesday I wandered up to his table and found him two-thirds through the book.

Me: Whoa! You just got this yesterday!

K, looking up at me: Yeah, it’s a really good book!

S across from him: I am surprised too. He just got it.

K: It’s just a really good book!

This week I celebrate K finding “a really good” book.

This week I celebrate my students who wonder, write about and enjoy reading.  I celebrate the creators of books, magazines and online media that speak to my students’ interests. I celebrate the time to find and the time process.

Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for the opportunity to share my celebrations each week.  Find more celebrations here.

celebrate link up


Slice of Life: A Literary Letter

Dear Rooms 501 and 601,

I knew our first day back after the Thanksgiving break was going to be challenging. Teachers looked groggy. One even said, “How many days till Christmas break.” You had to be feeling this too.

I had plans. Big ideas. I was ready to hit the ground running with all kinds of wonderful.

Then you walked in.

I thought that the library would be packed with you all shopping for books.

I was wrong.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit heartbroken.

I sent home new books. I thought you were excited about them. What happened?

Over half of you in Room 501 said you didn’t have time.

I set my sadness/borderline despair aside and asked, “What makes you want to read?”

Some of your answers didn’t surprise me.

Books with humor, action, mystery, drama

Books that have the impossible.

Long books with short chapters. (Cool thought! Me too,)

Books that are filled with sadness.

I asked you about books you love.

Smile, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Tides of War, The Crossover, Crenshaw, Lost in the Sun, Runaway Twin, The Story of Diva and Flea, Home of the Brave, Fish in a Tree

Some of you were specific.

I like the book called Anne of Green Gables because she’s brave and the imagination is making me heartful of feelings. So I love reading books like these.

I like adventure but what makes it difficult is that the words are hard to pronounce and it’s so intense that I forget waht happens in the story.

I am honored to hear your thoughts. They give me hope and purpose.

I asked why so many chose not to read over the break.  Was it because of the books? What J said may be close to the truth for many of you.

I think we chose books that were just right, we just have other things that take our attention away.

I know some read at home over the last week. Some always read. But many didn’t.  Thank you for your honesty. That’s how we will get better. We need to work together to figure it out.

I learned just right books and choice aren’t enough when you walk out the classroom door. There needs to be more. Something else. But what? More accountability? (you didn’t have partners to respond to) More parent involvement? (a letter, a phone call)

You moved on to your next class, and these questions stayed with me as Room 601 walked in. 

I was ready. My plans were adjusted.

“Ok, guys!” I said. “Pull out your books. Put the books you’ve finished in one pile. The books you’re still reading in another pile.”

I looked around. Most of you had the finished pile stacked high.


“When can we shop for books?” K asked.

I looked over at D. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan was sitting on her desk. “That’s one thick book. Did you finish it?”

Well it took a few days. But I just went outside on my porch. No one is there. It’s quiet and I can read.

D’s comment got lots of you talking:

I read in the morning, play video games at night.

I read at bedtime.

I read when my parents are cooking.

I read when I get bored. I got bored a lot this break.

I set goals for myself.

I know some of you in room 601 didn’t read. Some of you don’t read when you walk out the classroom door. But many do. And we need to learn from this.

I learned readers find a time and a place to read every day. Readers make plans and goals for reading.

I learned that those who read outside of school, read with a plan they made. In a place they chose.  No one said my mom made me. No one turned in a reading log or got a coupon as a result of reading at home.

I’m happy for those of you who have found your reading life outside of school. You are on your way. Some need some extra support. You haven’t discovered that place and time that fits you, yet. We need to work on that.

See you tomorrow,

Mrs. Harmatz

P.S. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Tuesday Slice of Life. Find more slices here.