Slice of Life: Levels as Student Tools

Friday I asked Lori (not her real name) to read a little of her book with me. I reminded her of what we worked on the last time we met, tracking the speaker in dialogue when there are minimal dialogue tags.

She shared this page from one of the I Survived book series.


The trouble was, there was no trouble.

“Wow, you’ve found a book that fits you,” I said.

What next? I want to honor her choice and teach the next step. I sat thinking of what book would help her work toward her goal.  Choosing one for her seemed complicated and inauthentic.

I went off to anther student, thinking about this trouble and my next step.

Monday I gave it another go and asked Lori, “Is if there is a book you wanted to read, but put back because it didn’t feel right? ”

Lori  grabbed the book Ten, by Lauryn Myracle.  She had looked at it earlier in the day because of its cover, but soon  discovered the inside wasn’t what she expected.

“Let’s take a look, ” I said.


The dialogue was much harder to follow than her earlier selection. We worked through it.Even with strategies and support, she felt this was too much. The difficulty was more than she wanted to handle now.

I wondered again. “Do you think there could be something in between the two of these books?”

She nodded.

“What could you do to find it?”

She looked at the levels marked on the top of the books. Ten was a ‘T’ and the “I Survived” book was a ‘Q.’

She looked at me and said, “Maybe one that’s an ‘R’ or an ‘S’?”


Lori started looking and found Flying Solo by Ralph Fletcher. We tried. The reading felt harder than the “I Survived” but doable.


Using levels to guide a selection can help. It helped Lori choose a book that she could read when she wanted a stretch.

In this case, levels became a necessary part of choice. It reminded me of Jan Burkins using the metaphor of shopping for a tunic in The Ed Collaborative Gathering. Sometimes the size can help us shop.


Sometimes we choose to stretch ourselves as readers, and when we do this, some direction on levels could help us find a book. There’s nothing to say that it’ll work every time. But this adventure is something  to keep in mind the next time a reader ventures into the library.

Thank you, Lauryn Tarshis, Lauren Myracle, Ralph Fletcher, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris for your work. You help my students become better readers and thinkers.

And thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. A place to share the bits of our lives that we need to figure out.


DigiLit Sunday: Agency

Children must be in control of their own learning. — Marie Clay

Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and  Opening Minds, spoke these words yesterday at my first session of the Annual Cotsen Conference.

Students should expect to learn from each other.
Children’s questions are the most important part of the process.
Students should see themselves as mentors.

What better way to start a post on agency.

To make these words a reality,  I need to adjust expectations and plan towards that kind of thinking. Students can’t just walk in the door and take a thoughtful agentive stance as learners.  And, it isn’t something I can schedule or compartmentalize.

9:30-10:00 Reader’s Workshop
10:00-10:15: Read Aloud
10:15-10:35 : Agency

But to be honest, there is an element of this in my classroom. Student agency opportunities exist in some parts of the curriculum. And sometimes, agency disappears or is a quick add on and not a priority.  Saying “turn and talk” isn’t enough. Explicit teaching as to how that looks needs a bigger place in our lesson plans.

It’s a relentless choice of how we draw lines.

How much of the perceived must do’s overwhelm the agency necessary to “control your own learning.” And how compelling is the choice? Is there a reflective protocol around choice and agency? One that transfers. If I value and believe in Marie Clay’s words, more reflection is needed.

Johnston went on to talk about constructing causal process. In other words, when you do “x,” this is the outcome. It’s a reflective and potentially predictive.  Perhaps, constructing causal consequences with students is the cornerstone of understanding how to have an agentive classroom, academically and socially.

It’s complicated work. We as individuals and as a community of learners need to set goals for this kind of learning; intertwined with each other and understanding:

Mistakes and quirks are not who we are.
Kids want to be a participating part of a community.
They (students) need to know how to live together

Seeing our differences as positive additions to a community is more than just up to the teacher. Students need to be taught to see we are better and stronger individually when we listen. Listen, as Johnston stated, “because we give a damn; because we find them interesting.” To create this kind of community, it takes many conversations around literature and learning where student talk is the majority and teacher’s questions are minimal.

It is a journey. One of redrawing the lines and approximating.

Thank you, Margaret Simon, @ Reflections on the Teche, Peter Johnston and The Cotsen Foundation for making me think about agency in my classroom.


Writing has great mental health benefits. — Peter Johnston


 Celebrate: Being in the Midst

This week I was in the midst of learning. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was always interesting.

I started off with our TCRWP staff developer Cynthia Satterlee. Grade level teams examined read alouds through the lens of text band complexity. Repurposing of our beloved books for strategy reading groups is so smart.

Click to enlarge

On Wednesday, our Writer’s Workshop had visitors.  Principals from our area’s elementary, middle and high schools walked through our schools’ upper-grade workshops. They were there to see how it goes. Imagine students are called down to the carpet for the lesson and ten adults walk in.

Students listened. Thought. Tried. (It wasn’t easy.) Then they went to work.

The adults left, and more came in.

Students wrote, weren’t sure. Tried.

I conferred.

More adults.

This week I celebrate my colleagues who look and listen beyond their schools.

This week I celebrate the writers in my room who thought, wrote, revised, and persevered through uncertainty.

My students are passionate about read aloud. Every day they whoop when it’s time to read and beg for more at the end.

 Friday left my students thinking and then gasping with recognition of what these lines meant:

“Son, I’m glad you didn’t lose that pistol of yours.’Cause if you end up buying your horse back from Mr. Bishop, it’ll be with lead and not gold.”

I heard:


“Wait.. that means…”

“Bullets are made with … lead.”

“He’s gonna have to shoot him!”

So I asked, “Would shooting Mr. Bishop be ok? Is it fair? After all, he did buy the horse.”

That got them talking and writing.

On the heels of that, I pulled out some quotes from the text to see what student could make of them. Millions of thanks to my brilliant friend and master teacher Tara Smith for this idea. This work was an incredible opportunity for students to think about the text and for me to watch them think. Students partnered up. I asked them to consider what each of these quotes might say about our main character.

This pair worked diligently and wrote what each quote meant in a retell-like fashion.

I asked them to push themselves further to say what each quote says about Joseph. Look how they grew their thinking:

What they wrote tells me so much about where they are in their reading process. In the past, I would have beat myself up over those who weren’t seeing what I wanted them to see. This time. I looked and thought, ok, that’s where they are, now.  

My talkative, full-of-life after lunch crowd took to this work. They focused all of their social energy on the task of making meaning.

In spite of moments of uncertainty and trouble that make up every week, the week ended with an overall good feeling. It was noticeable, And it wasn’t because kids got everything I tried to teach them. It was because they tried and tried. And I walked out understanding a little more about who and where they are.

Thank you, Ruth, for Saturday Celebrations. Thank you for the opportunity to look back and take it all in. Read more celebrations here.

Slice of Life: Inside Voices

Week six. The beginning. Still.
I feel like I should be further along. But I’m not. Yet.

After class, I sat and stared. Shell-shocked.  I thought of my first years of teaching when I cried at lunchtime. After so many years of teaching, surely I shouldn’t be in the same spot.

I recharged the devices, solved a few tech issues. Felt less incapable. Rephrase that, more capable. Reposition, rethink. Learning is a tough gift to give and receive.

The door opened. “Hey, Mrs. Harmatz, I forgot to leave this with you.” She handed me her reader’s notebook.

I forgot. She remembered. It must have mattered.

Driving home, I thought I can’t slice. There’s nothing I want to say. Out loud.

Nursing my wounds, I ventured to student writing.  Their sweet and silly all-alone voices came through and brought me back. Unwittingly I went to a place of hope.

In a large classroom of big kids, it’s hard to hear what’s inside. It’s not the voice they show to the world. The out loud voices are different. It’s the inside voice that is aching to get out. To be heard. They break my heart and make me smile. Who we appear to be in context is not always who we are.  It’s my job to honor that inside voice. To hear it and bring it out.

Writing is a gift. I’m glad I sliced.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for a place to share our inside voices, that remind us why we are here. Read more slices here.


DigiLit Sunday: The Fractured Tale of Drafting and Revision

Today, I’m linking up with Margaret Simon @ Reflection on the Teche DigiLit Sunday posts. The following fantasy was born out of this week’s topic: drafting and revision.slide11

Once upon a time lived a teacher that wanted to learn to write.
She went to a great city to learn from the wisest writing teachers in the land.
There she discovered the writing process where children and adults could find the magic of writing.

We were to
Gather ideas in notebooks
Choose the favored one
Draft “long and strong” on yellow legal paper
Revise with more paper
Edit using magical purple pens to rid the story of imperfection
Publish on new white sheets of paper and share with classmates and parents at a great Celebration. 

Years passed and the writing process lived in the teacher’s classroom.  Large and sticky paper adorned classroom walls. But there was one big problem. No child ever wanted to revise. It was too painful. Colorful pens called Flair were found to help the children, and that worked for a while. Still, students reviled revision and started to hate writing.

Saddened the teacher went to the great city to find an answer. She looked for ways to make revision magical, to help children re-see their work. She tried and tried, yet the process was still painful, and writing was not loved.

One day, try as she might, the teacher could not go to the great city. To allay her sorrow, she ventured to the internet and the world of Twitter. There she found many of her kind and the great teachers from the great city. She learned the language of “tweets” that led to “links” when clicked, revealed magical stories called “blogs.”  She loved those blogs and dared to create one of her own. She found other teachers who were looking for solutions, and they journeyed together on the internet, and they became dear friends.

She spent that summer reading, tweeting, blogging, and imagining a classroom where children could blog and share their thinking with others in classrooms in far off lands.

She returned to school with this dream in her heart and found iPads purchased years before for another idea.  She brought one home, played with it and found a safe place for kids to blog called Kidblog. There she found other classrooms like hers. Children started blogging and like their teacher, they loved it. The teacher hoped this would help revision. But sadly, this was not the answer for all students. Many still found it difficult to go back and re-see their writing. They just wanted to share.

A few years passed and the school grew. Technology was improved. Chromebooks and emails that the teacher had wished for appeared. The teacher wondered could students draft and then revise on Google Docs?  It was frightening to let go of the paper, but maybe, she thought, revision would be easier.

So one day, when there were enough devices, the teacher said to the students, let’s draft on Google Docs. The quiet hum that followed was a sound the teacher had not heard before. At the end of workshop, the children begged for more time.

The next day the dreaded revision lesson happened, and children clamored to revise.  At the end of workshop, students asked for more.

It appeared the pain and suffering of revision were vanquished.Better still, the teacher found revising while drafting happened.

The teacher and students celebrated and wrote on.

And drafting and revision lived happily ever after.


Celebrate: Untangling the Knots

Learning takes your whole self, and that whole self is often distracted.

Students walk into the classroom with ah has and ideas, missing objects and misunderstandings. All of that is whirring around in their brains. Some can patiently wait their turn. Some can struggle on their own and figure it out. Others come in on fire. They have to tell you, now. Needs, confessions, explanations are burning a whole in their hearts.

“Can I talk to you privately? ”
“Can I tell you something?”
“Is this ok?”
“Will you read this?”
“Can I show you?”

This week was about working out troubles that distract and celebrating access points to learning.

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart. My students are enthralled by this read aloud. We finished a chapter, and they beg for the next. I leave them hanging with a promise of tomorrow. They can’t believe I won’t read on. Chants of read more fill the room every day.

Saving Dory” in Scholastic News. We skimmed it together. We numbered the paragraphs. They look for facts and opinions. Mark agreement or disagreement. The room hummed with engagement. Animals are access points.

Writing on Google docs and Kidblog. Electronic writing is something students find accessible and meaningful. Revision is doable, almost pleasing in Google docs. What was torture, with paper and pen, is desirable.  Blogging makes the written word a means to an immediate peer response. Writing this way doesn’t feel like writing. It is a part of their world.

This week, alongside the drama that is kid life, I heard:

“This is interesting.”
“Can we have more time to read?”
“Can I keep this?”
“Can I borrow that book?”
“Can I stay to finish this?”
“Can I work on this at home?”
“I like my story.”

The weekend is upon us.

On Monday, students will enter the classroom bursting with their worries, wonderings, and accomplishments. Next week, we will continue to untangle knots and create learning amid the stress and strain of being ten.

celebrate link up

Read more celebrations on Ruth Ayers’ Discover Play Build.



Slice of Life: When there’s not much to say

“A” handed me the Chromebook. “I don’t have anything to blog about today. I need inspiration.” She smiled. ” I think I’d rather read.”

Maybe next time, I told her.

My students get the option to blog every third day. So when they don’t jump on, I’m surprised, and I understand. That’s why I sit here.

Tonight’s post started with the feeling “A “had.  But if I expect to guide my students as writers, I had better find something worth a click and a peruse. My students are the reason I write when I’ve got nothing. They are my motivation. That’s why I sit here.

Last week I wrote alongside students. They watched as I started in my notebook. They watched and slowly opened their notebooks. I chose. They chose. And then we drafted.

Now we’re revising. Using the TCRWP checklist for narrative writing, I find that I have not stretched the heart of my story out. In fact, this important part consists of one word: embarrassed. That’s it. I come clean and checked the “Not Yet” box on the 4th-grade checklist.

Not yet. Now, what?

This weekend, I came up with three strategies to stretch, to figure out what I’m trying to say.

1. Write long about the idea
2. Flashback to a time before the big thing happened to look at what might have caused it
3. Daydream about what I wish had happened

Today, I tried out each scenario with my students. I wrote. They wrote. Again and again and again. Each strategy. We loved the idea of daydreaming.

Tomorrow, I’ll rewrite this part in front of my students. They’ll watch me struggle through it. Strategies matter, but the fact that I struggle in front of them is equally important. It’s messy and imperfect. Not up to standard, yet. It is a process I live through as they watch. I struggle. They struggle.

With this spirit,  I plan to write beyond this blog in other genres and formats.  Just as I ask my students to write, I will write. And be critiqued. Not with the 4th-grade checklist, but with adults who expect adult writing.  (Is there an adult checklist?)

I approach this new writing with not much to say. In fact, I’d rather read. But if I expect to guide my students, I had better find something.

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



DigiLit Sunday: Reflection

Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche DigiLit Sunday topic this week is “reflection.”


We’re working in a narrative writing unit right now. Personal narrative. Students have written several first drafts.

We wrote about trips, birthdays, Christmas, amusement parks. The times that seemed important.

We wrote small. About the beetle that flew in the classroom and made B. scream and N. try to catch it.

We notebooked and mined for ideas. We wrote again. About the haircut, the baseball hat, the Pokemon card.

We looked at our drafts and reflected. We asked what did this moment say. What really mattered. At first, what mattered was the fun, the excitement.

Then we asked what did we learn about ourselves at that moment.
And the answers changed to something that dug deeper to our sense of self.
Of who we are or were at that moment.

That’s challenging. It takes looking in and sorting through initial reactions and drama and asking why did I do this and what does it tell me about me. That’s reflective thinking.

Most of us go through life without doing much of this work. Things happen, we react without thinking. Looking back, to reflect on our reactions takes time, but that’s not all. Reflection is a habit.  It is a process of excellence. Athletes do it. But thinking about our daily lives as something to improve to gold medal performance doesn’t feel necessary. Or maybe it’s not about excellence it’s about understanding. Maybe it’s about noticing who we are, noticing our reactions in the world, and making our stories within it.

Teaching children to be reflective, to think about what they do and why they do it may seem to be much more than how to read or write. But in fact, teaching students to understand who they are and be responsible for their actions is about reading and writing their lives.

A reflective mindset informs. It gives you data. How you reacted to the beetle, informs your future behavior.

Our writing and reading lives are about craft and structure and comprehension, but if we do it with reflection, it’s about who we are and who we can be in this world.


Celebrate: Reading Revelations

Yesterday I walked out of my classroom, not exhausted.  After week four, I’ve got my sea legs.

This year marks my thirteenth teaching fifth graders.  As a kid, it was my favorite grade. I guess it still is.  There are moments, though. Times when I think I should be doing something else. Times when I think, what was thinking. Times when the magnitude and impossibility of the task seem overwhelming. Times when I think only fools would dare. But then I have moments that make my heart so full I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Reading with students is one of those times. To be able to see what they do. How their brains attack a text. How they make sense of it. To be able to see what they do well and the magic of it is a celebration.

Yesterday I sat with Z. He struggled through a passage that, based on last year’s data he “should” have been able to read.  Afterward, he asked,”Can I read my book now?  I really want to read it.”

Crazy, I think. I’m pulling him from a text he wants to read to read something he can’t. 

I asked, “Can I see your book?”

He runs to his reading spot on the carpet and brings back Touchdown Trouble.

I asked, “Would you read some of it to me?”

He reads. It fits, perfectly.  He has found a “just right” book.

I’m not sure what I said to him but, the juxtaposition of his reading an assessment text with his reading a book of choice floored me.  He couldn’t read a text that mattered to me. He could read a text that mattered to him. The book was the same level as the assessment text.


At the end of the day, I pulled out my reading notes. Documented here are the levels, the strengths, and needs of each child. I come to his name. I write: chooses just write books/favors sports stories and biography. Needs to learn to negotiate texts that he doesn’t choose. 

We have a journey ahead. To balance the texts he wants to read and cultivate the love of reading with the texts he has to read and grow his academic life. Both are important. Both are dependent upon the other. It’s like the heart and lungs.

Celebrating the journey.

Read other celebrations here at Ruth Ayers’ Discover, Play, Build.


Poetry Friday: Traces


Poetry can put me in that place of “huh?”

Like the student who hid
in a corner because she
didn’t want her friend to know,
I edged into poetry.
Until I found

lots of
white space
to take in

Now I give my students poems.
And I worry.
Will they love this?
Does it push their ten-year-old selves gently?
Can they feel and see the words?

From behind a picture book, I hear, “that’s beautiful language.”
The one that hid reads a poem and
says, “hey that’s what I did!” .

Traces of absorption
enough to sustain.


Thank you, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater @ The Poem Farm for hosting this week and always providing beautiful poetry for kids.