SOL: Finding My Desk

Today my desk is cleared of stacked books and papers. Everything is where it belongs.

Today no pile threatens to topple over a cup of liquid. It is habitable.  But I’m not kidding myself; I know as the week rolls on, things will start to accumulate, in a pile, a basket, or a bag. I’ll place the book, the papers there with sincere promises to return when I find the time. Give it a week and that tidy desk will be no more.

Every time I find this place of organizational nirvana; I vow to maintain it, to put things away. To abandon my “I’ll do it later” attitude. Every time life rolls on and putting something away is trumped by a more enjoyable pursuit.

Oh to be an organized person. The one who has students leave the classroom with all the chairs up on wiped down desks in a room with a lemony-Lysol smell, accented by the Hawaiian air freshener wafting through the air vents. To be a teacher with completed lesson plans on Friday; who has a neat and organized home awaiting her arrival before sunset.

Sadly, I am not of that tribe. For some reason either because I’m not willing to spend the energy, or because my brain doesn’t work that way, or because I get more out of doing other things, putting things away is the last thing I tend to do.

Reading about messy-desk people, I found an exceptional group of individuals. I could use these people to justify my lack of interest in maintaining order. Studies support the idea that an unstructured environment allows for the development of new ideas and fresh insights. Being one of those creative, gifted types sounds appealing. Could it be?

When I’m not teaching, eating, or dealing with family, my natural tendency is to read or write, not put something away. Does that mean I have the sensibilities of a Twain or an Einstein? Or could it be I find organizing something to be done at the end of a semester, a project, or when I’m looking for my glasses?

Maybe I view organizing the way some people view editing. You know those folks who don’t bother to edit till they have gotten to the end. I can’t imagine waiting to edit. I edit as I write. Then I do a thorough editing at the end. What a mess I’d have if I waited until the end of the piece to do it all.

Perhaps I should approach my desk as a writer. Maybe if I view the pile of papers and stacks of books as something to do along the way, things will make more sense. Maybe if I take a writer’s stance to tidying up,  I’ll find the ability to maintain an organized desk. And find my glasses when I need them.

Thank you, for reading my meandering thoughts atop a tidy desk, for Slice of Life Tuesdays with Two Writing Teachers, and for the wonderful group of slicers who show up every Tuesday to write.

Read more slices here.


DigiLit Sunday: Perspective

Today Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday call is to think and write about the word perspective.  I’ve loved these Sunday topics. Thank you, Margaret, for creating this shared writing experience. Join in and read more about this week’s topic here on Reflections on the Teche.


Fifth grade was my favorite school year. I loved my teacher.  I knew the ropes.

When I stepped into middle school, my perspective on the world and myself changed. It was scary. It was exciting. Friendships became paramount, and the importance of family diminished.

Watching my first-born leave elementary school was bittersweet, I knew what was coming.

As my fifth-grade class comes to this moment, I remember being that kid, and how things change.

So now, with ten days left in their little-kid school career, I talk with my students about beginnings and endings; how when we get to moments like these, before we step forward, we should look back and notice. Get a little perspective on who we are now and how we got here.

Reflecting is not something eleven-year-olds do readily, but I find most are fascinated by their little kid selves. They love looking at old pictures and thinking about the playgrounds they played on, their friends, the glittery backpacks they’ve owned.

I told them about a time when I was in kindergarten. A time when my teacher was sick. How I thought certain things that turned out to be wrong. How silly I felt after I figured out what I didn’t know. How it’s funny now, but at the time I felt stupid. How elementary school, for me, was always about trying to figure out how not to feel stupid.

After I had told my story, students sat on the carpet and told stories.

I remember when..I met…Mrs.N caught us…I was new and people were mean…We played…I broke my finger…

They were full of stories.

Quieting them down and getting them to write wasn’t easy. I told them these were important memories you might forget. We need to write them down and maybe, in the process, we might find something we didn’t realize.

Many asked, are we writing a story? And what is this for?

I told them this is for you. What form it takes and who you share it with is up to you. For now, let’s just write.

I sat amongst my most social group of students and wrote beside them. I don’t know if it was my presence or the subject matter, but they settled and soon there was a magical silent hum. Everyone was in their writing.

To have this happen at the end of the school year is nothing short of stunning. After ten minutes I called time. And they did that other magical thing that brings writing teachers close to tears. The loudest and most talkative ones yelled, “NOOOOO! Can’t we have more time to write?!” And, “Can we work on this at home?”

We had to move on, but they stayed in the moment. A natural ending to a writing workshop of sorts. They ended as they began, by talking.

I remember when… I was afraid my parents would die… I was afraid to sleep near a window… my pink booster seat. I loved my pink booster seat…

Tuesday we’ll return and write some more.

Looking through their writing so far, I found this.

My mom and  were driving to the school and i was in my little pink booster seat looking at the school from a distance. “Wow.” i said to my mom speechless. “Why is this school so big?” I asked my mom. “You’ll get used to it sweetie.” replied my mom. I looked out the window again thinking ‘yep i won’t get used to it.’ The school was so big.

I know she has “gotten used to it” even though she thought she wouldn’t. Her perspective changed.

I wonder as she drives up to her first day of middle school will they have the same conversation. Will this reflection help her step on that middle school campus? I hope so.


Celebrating: Doing the Work

On Wednesday night, I came home exhausted and told my husband,
“This year is the worst. They don’t get it; it’s going to be a disaster.”

He looked at me and said, “You say that every year.”

At the moment it was funny, and it eased my worries. It’s good to have a witness to your worries. Someone to hold you up and keep you accountable. To your comments, your actions, your beliefs.

I suppose it’s human nature to forget the bad stuff. Replace the painful and messy chapters of our existence with moments that glisten.  But if that is the case, if that is what we do, what does this say about how we approach learning. Can we, do we tolerate the discomfort necessary to learn?

Learning isn’t easy. It can feel like you’re fighting against the current, running backward, and just making a general mess of everything. The natural inclination could be to give up; stop and change course. Why, continue in something that seems to be accomplishing, best case scenario, nothing.

This week the fifth-grade class created a colonial village for their school to enjoy. THEY did it. The process of that creation was loud and disorganized. Students had difficulties. Working together is hard.  It looked bad: like they are just playing around and making a mess. And they were.

Consider the students who were to be the militia. Start by imagining the kids who chose this role. Now, picture a group of sixteen putting together three six-minute reenactments.  Watching this hot mess, I kept telling myself: this is the process; they need to do this.

I had doubts and to get through it, I held tight to my core belief: to learn, one must do. And that in the doing, there is a lot of approximating going on. And that approximating looks awful.

That belief got me through the weeks leading up to the day of the fair.

Nine a.m.: four classes of kindergarteners and six first grade classes entered the “village,” escorted by their fifth-grade guides. They “traveled” through each station where fifth-grade presenters explained, demonstrated and engaged students.

Watching this, no one could deny the learning, the ownership, and the pride.

Watching what came before this, many would have doubted the process.

It is hard to see the purpose in a playful mess.

To be able to allow this process of learning, I realize I must hold on to core beliefs that will sustain through the discord and disorganization. That will right my thinking in the midst of the stormy waters of learning and anchor me.

First and foremost, students must do the work.

To do the work, students must have demonstrations, models and lots of opportunities to try and try and try and fail and try again.

Students must be engaged in the work, so they have the energy to try and try and try and fail and keep trying.

To be engaged, students must have choice and latitude in what is considered successful.

Play is a part of learning.

Learning should have culminating performance-based practices that give tangible feedback and hold meaning for students.

For learning to exist outside of the classroom walls, learning must accommodate spaces bigger than the classroom.

This week I celebrate my students doing the work.

I celebrate purposeful play.

I celebrate their learning.

For more celebrations read here on Ruth Ayer’s Saturday Celebrate This Week.

celebrate link up

Throughout this post I have used phrases that are titles for two beautiful books that are on my desk right now: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’  Whose Doing the Work: How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More and Kristine Mraz’s  Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day.




SOL: Extreme Learning

Finding reasons to avoid something is a skill we develop early in life.  The if-I-wait-long-enough-it-will-go-away philosophy might work sometimes, but not this week.

Monday came, and the presentations students were to share with the school hadn’t materialized, and the deadline didn’t change.

They were to be “interpreters” of colonial times.
Younger kids were coming to learn. From them.

My fifth graders weren’t close to ready.

All had done research; they started off full of energy and excitement.

Then K. got her feelings hurt.
T. reported that N., “Thinks he’s the boss of everything.”
And that, “He can’t tell me what to do.”

They argued about who should do what and how.
They complained that X. was fooling around.
S. was laying on the table.
Y. wasn’t listening to anything  C. said.

There were requests to change groups.

The problem: they had to hear each other’s thoughts and come to a consensus.

It takes a nimble leader to get others to listen and agree.
It takes great skill to have ideas and communicate them in a way that gets creation going.
It takes persistance, resilience, flexibility and I’d argue a deadline to get things done.

What seemed like a relatively straightforward exercise was an intricate dance of intellectual getting-along.

This is extreme learning.

My students had to mix with another classroom’s students and formulate a plan on how to teach something they had learned independently. They had to do it without me arbitrating. They had to do it for themselves. Together.

I sat them down and informed them of their predicament: they had one day to get their scripts written.  The deadline was 2:30. No exceptions.

“Can’t we work on it at home?” pleaded C. as the others looked on.

“Nope, you have to do this together, now. Write.”

We had space and desks.

Computers opened.
Voices rose.
Students stood around desks.
And wrote on the white board.
For moments voices got strangely quiet.
And then intensity around the work grew.
They shared their Google docs and fought out the work in the document.


Soon it was time to go.

Now, I’m alone in our little building. They’ve gone home, and I’m stunned by the silence and the effort made by those who rose above the mess and owned the work together.

Getting it done tore at some friendships. Strange alliances formed.

Collaborating is a delicate balancing act. For children and adults.

As usual, I learn from watching my students learn. I’m honored to be in their presence.

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

DigiLit Sunday: Intent

For this week’s DigiLit Sunday topic,
Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche
asked us to reflect on the idea of “intent.”


Intentions differ based on interest and need, but it’s an essential part of being a human. And, intent or purpose is what our schools need to nurture in every child.  That’s the challenge.

Amid the day to day, we forget that school is a place to grow each child’s purpose: to set young people up for intention. For some students, this comes readily. For others, they just can’t get it. These are the students that would rather not be there. They don’t fit as traditional learners. Their intent is to get out of school as soon as possible.

As educators, we take this on. This is our job, our purpose, our intent. To help students find their fit. Their intent.

It is my intention to give my students opportunities to find “books” that they can and want to read. To get students to spaces like EPIC and graphic novels and Wonderopolis to find “reads” that suck them in, where they can understand the power of being a reader.

It is my intention to give my students time and a way to write joyfully.  Beyond the workshop that defines the genre and the content to a place where writing is a way to think and feel and sometimes share with people who matter to them.

It is my intention to make school a place where students come to find intent. To find books they want to read, to write something for a classmate, to teach something they learned, to learn from their classmates, to feel they have a place in a community of learners, to wonder, to play and figure out how to get along. To know that their ideas, and their intentions are valued.



Celebrate Reading Stories

The book was splayed open, face down on his desk.  He was busily doodling in his notebook. I wandered over and asked, why did you put the book down?

He responded with a shoulder shrug, eyes half hidden under long dark bangs.

The question wasn’t intended to be pointing out a wrong or to get him “on task” in reading workshop. He wasn’t in trouble, although he may have thought so, me, being his reading teacher. I was just wondering.

We talked. He was tired. The book wasn’t holding him. Perhaps it never did.

Why did you put that book down, is an interesting question. One that might be worth study, not judgment.

There are plenty of books I put down. Some I pick up again at a later date. Some I don’t. There are some that fit me at the moment and then lose me halfway through. Is there something wrong with me as a reader? With the book?

I thought I felt free to stop a book when I pleased.  With no penalties. But, I realize, every time I abandon or finish a book, I build a narrative that says, I’m the kind of reader who …

Every time I read, I create my reading identity. We all do. And this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s worth reflection

I ask my students to figure out their reading stories: who they are as readers.

There are some who rattle off those genres and books. And there are those who struggle. They have a scared reading identity. They’d rather not look. They’d rather give a shoulder shrug or an answer you want to hear.  To make you go away.

I think we need to stay. And ask.

The end of the year is a time for asking. Time to assess our teaching of reading and a time for students to reflect on their reading in ways that build understanding; our sense of who we are as teachers of reading and as readers.

We need to ask questions of our reading this year. Reflect on reading practices. What made you proud as a reader as well as what was your biggest fail; what surprised you and what kept your attention; what took you to another place and what made you forget your troubles; what helped you keep going and what made you put the book down.

The answers add up to a reader’s story right now. The good and the bad. Students need to know who they are as readers and look for reasons why, so they can grow. Teachers need to know and understand what helped students and what fell short so they can sharpen their practice. We both need to take note, adjust and develop.

My shoulder shrugging student has a reading narrative he can’t articulate without coaching. So before we close out the school year, we’re going to look closely at our reading lives to figure out who we are right now.  And celebrate our reading stories.

Read more celebrations on Ruth Ayers blog, Discover Play Build.

celebrate link up


SOL: Back to the Beginning

We made our way to the other side of the school, not our usual morning ritual. Today we ventured to a temporary home, a small outpost on the primary yard made for children half the size of a fifth grader.

Baskets of books, magazines, notebooks, a ream of paper, post-its, mobile devices, pens come too.

We stop short of the classroom to discuss how to proceed. What to do with our backpacks. All movement has to be orchestrated and planned.

Once in, our thirty bodies fill up every inch. Our feet our books our bodies. We can’t help it. Every step thunders while memories of being in small chairs seep into conversations.

We discuss our neighbors: the tiny first graders who walk like birds, our natural noisiness, the need to respect our environment and each other.  Slowly, we find places to sit.  No one knows where things are or how to do things. Day 161 feels like the first day of school.

Then blogging happens. Read aloud. Reading.

Inches from each other, eyes meet. Every foot tap is detected. Every squeak interrupts in this room built for smaller people.

 Would you like to read outside? I suggest. They jump at the chance. To breathe to have a little space.

As disruptive and uncomfortable as it is to be out of our room, being in this space is a gift of sorts, to see each other and ourselves other in an old new light.

We moved back to the beginning for the last days of elementary school. A place to remember how it was.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Find more slices here.

DigiLit Sunday: Refresh the Page

slide11Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche asks us to reflect on the word “refresh” for her DigiLit Sunday link up. This thinking took me to the classroom, to students.

The school year is winding down.  Students are letting go. I see it in their writing, their actions, their faces.  They are leaving. imgres

Last week, students crowded around me to ask for new notebooks. I thought it a little wasteful. I started to say, don’t you have any pages left?  I thought, aren’t new notebooks for beginnings? But on reflection, I realize, this is a beginning of sorts.

In elementary school, students learn to read.  Reading and writing happen every day. Students have been taught to choose books they want to read, to notice and wonder, to get their thoughts on the page. They can read and write about what interests them.

Once middle school years begin, structures and expectations are different. Bell schedules, textbooks, after school activities, take up a lot of space. Reading and writing for choice can get lost in this busy world.  All the more reason to give them a notebook to start their less scaffolded reading and writing lives.

In twenty days, my students leave the place they learned to read and write. Time to refresh the page with a new notebook with the expectation that they hold and carry on reading and writing.





Celebrate: Unexpected Connections

This week I want to celebrate an unexpected connection.

This week I was listening to the amazing and sometimes overwhelming Good to Great Voxer chat. I happened to listen to something that I might have skipped over. It was about Number Talks.  I could have passed over the link; I don’t teach math. But this week I had the time to listen to a few.

I saw the seven dots as a square of four with a line through it.

I was fascinated, and a little ashamed that I had no knowledge of this beautiful work. Turns out my colleagues who teach math use this strategy all the time. Interesting how it took my Voxer friend, Christina Nosek in San Francisco to clue me into something that is going on two doors down from me. It makes me think about how I listen to the world. But that’s another blog post.

This post, for this week, is about how math work informed my literacy work.

Thursday my students and I were talking about the many ways we can write about reading. How readers can be reading the same thing and have different ways of seeing it and writing about it. Right then in that discussion, the seven dots popped into my head. How we see the world varies. How we see the text varies.

The next day I read this passage from our read aloud,  Deltora Quest #1: The Forests of Silence, by Emily Rodda.

The cart that collected the food scraps would be of no use to him. Prandine must have guessed that Jarred had used it to escape, because it was no longer permitted to enter the palace. These days it waited between the two sets of gates while guards loaded it with sacks.

I stopped and asked them to sketch or envision this scene. I told them thumbs up when you’re you’ve got it. Then I asked them to describe what they saw so I could sketch it on the board.

Some described iron gates, others, wooden slates. Some saw the gates arching; others spiked at the top. Some saw the doors slightly open; others saw the lock. Some just saw the bags of food scraps; some were seeing the apple cores inside the bag. Some saw the guards with a frown and a metal helmet.

We read on.

Its walls were lined with stone. In wonder, Jarred realized that he had found the entrance to a tunnel. Scurry, mouse, Into your house … He knew what he must do. He lay flat on his stomach and wriggled into the hole, pulling himself forward on his elbows until the space broadened and his way became easier. So now the mouse is in the mouse hole, he thought grimly, as he crawled along in the darkness. Let us hope that no cat is waiting at the other end. For a short time the tunnel sloped downwards, then it became more level and Jarred realized that he was moving through the center of the hill.

Students had to do some thinking work. They used their notebooks.

We all see the text differently.

This week I saw dots differently. The dots connected, unexpectedly. This week I celebrate those unexpected connections.

Read more celebrations here on Ruth Ayers blog Discover, Play, Build.

SOL: Expectations With Choice

Writing about reading has been a difficult sell for some students and adults.

I just want to read, stop bugging me to write, is a complaint I’ve heard from both populations.
But, I know, from my experience, writing about reading, always lifts the level of my thinking.

Do I always do write about reading? No. If I want to read something deeply or I am reading with others, yes. I make purposeful choices. I want my students to do the same. Always dogmatically writing about reading, no. When they are reading deeply and with partners, yes.

Sunday, I read my students’ Reader’s Notebooks. They are theirs. I don’t grade them. I check in on them for specific work. Now that testing is over, I wanted to get a sense of where they were in their thinking.

Monday, after book shopping, I called them to the carpet and said, “I set a lot of time aside this weekend to read your notebooks. I was so excited to see what was going on in your reading lives. Sadly, I finished in no time. There wasn’t much to look at.”

They looked at me.

I could of, maybe should have asked them why. But I didn’t.

Instead, I asked them to tell me all the ways they could write about reading. They said I recorded:

Character webs, sketching, know/wonder thinking (wonderful shorthand for Vicki Vinton/Dorothy Barnhouse’s strategy in What Readers Really Do) emotional timelines, tracking the plot, retelling, boxes and bullets, summary, found poetry.

I looked at them.

They looked at their feet.

If they knew so much, why didn’t they write? I knew they were reading. Maybe they were making purposeful choices, perhaps not.

I could of, maybe should have asked them why. But I didn’t.

Instead, I handed them their Reader’s Notebooks and said. “We have four weeks left. Let’s get serious.”

Expectations were set: In thirty minutes, read and write about reading.

“Can we choose any way to write about reading?” K asked.

“I expect you to,” I said. “Use what works, for you and the book.”

“Can you leave that list up?” M asked.

“Of course.”

“Yesss!” And he took off.

Four students refused to leave the carpet. All looked concerned. Finally, one asked. “Can I get a new notebook?” Then the rest chimed in with me too.

Ok, that was an easy fix.  Off they went, new notebooks in hand, thrilled with the opportunity for a do-over.

I moved from reader to reader checking in, scattering stacks of post-its, reminding them of how they might be useful.

I walked by A’s desk; he looked up at me sheepishly. “I don’t write about reading,” was his response to how’s it going.  Shame made his shoulders hunch over. I could see what he was thinking: Just when I thought I could happily enjoy reading, she caught me.

“I know,” I said. ” I’ll help. You’re a great reader; you just have to show a teeny bit of your thinking on the page.”

He sucked in deeply and looked at me. Suspicious. “Ok, I guess.”

With about five minutes left in the workshop,  I asked those kiddos who were sucked deeply into their books to come up for air; take a moment to write about something that stuck with them.

Afterward, they graded themselves on quantity and quality of their reading. They talked with their partners, shared their writing about reading, made some plans for reading tonight.

Many came up to me to assess their writing. I turned it back to them with what do you think? Most were tougher graders than I would have been. Typical.

Several kiddos pulled reading logs out. (I have generic ones students can choose to use. ) This time, I asked why.

T said, “I like them. I like putting down the time I read and the pages I read. It helps me set goals for myself.”

A said, “They are neat and organized. I like that.”

Whoa. Really?

K walked up to me. Holding out her notebook, “Can I use this over the summer? I have a plan as to how I’m want to use this.”

Uh, yeah sure, great idea.

I was disappointed this weekend.  But, what I saw today was surprising and pleasing.
When there were unstated expectations, during the fog of testing and test prep, most did not write about reading. But today, all jumped to do it.

They knew what to do.
Expectations were clarified.
A menu of options could meet the expectation.

Everyone wants to leave the classroom feeling like they did something. Expectations with choice help students find that path.

That’s how reading went today.

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