Incidental Learning

When I was ten and younger, my school energy, questions, and wonderings swarmed around play and friends.  Would I get to the swings before they were all taken? Was she mad at me? That boy who sits behind me is so…distracting. And that other boy. .. Even though I was a “good student,” kids and playtime dominate my memories of elementary school.

I bring this up because of a conversation with “J” on Friday. She had to be separated from her best/attached-at-the-hip friend for an hour and was beside herself.  I reassured her she would survive and asked, “Do you think your classroom learning is helped or hurt by your friend?” She answered, honestly. Their friendship disrupted her learning. The fact that academics are happening around her is incidental. I thought about moving her to the another classroom. It might help. But that’s not the point.

She’s not alone. She’s prototypical. Kids engage kids and reaching ten-year-old students’ academic needs depends on remembering that we are social beings. Some students may appear more engaged with top-down teaching, but honestly, most of those kids are faking it. Young students need adequate room to do with their peers, while we observe, listen and coach. In the end, we share accountability for the learning.

So this week when faced with an academic need, one that students have trouble with year after year, where strategies have been taught and practiced, taught and practiced, but still, struggle, we went for the social: group work.

The task: Find character traits that match quotes taken from our read aloud.

The teach: Short, sweet and catchy. Thank you, Kimberley Moran, for turning me on to this fantastic site.

The tools: A list of words (potential traits), quotes from our read aloud Some Kind of Courage (thank you, Tara Smith),  devices to look up words, paper, colored pens, scissors, glue, and your reading partner. And oatmeal cookies served as a tribute to the beloved horse in the story and the reason for so many of the character’s actions.

The process: Lots of talk and tries that led to more paper. Discussion about words and about why that word fits or doesn’t fit with that quote. Some hang on to ideas, looking for the appropriate quote. Others massage quotes to fit the intended trait.

The product: Various stages of approximation and completion.

The learning: At best, the work is incremental and cumulative. Learning builds. Year after year and at differing rates. Hooking in their peers into doing that work helps most making learning happen and seem incidental.

Slice of Life: Between Assessment and Learning

A mother looked at test results and grades from previous years and she worries. Her child’s growth rates are not quite to grade level.

She questions. Will he make it?
Graphic novels, is this “real” reading?
Vocabulary words?

I answer,
yes, graphic novels are reading,
to finding things your child loves to read,
and to reading.
A lot of reading.

With that, the stress of scores and grades lifts off the parent and child. Books hold us up and float us back to a place of understanding and hope. Parents remember their experiences.  Some loved to read, others admit to struggle. For a moment, with the mention of books, we breathe knowing with continued reading and support this student will succeed.

I’m like this parent at times, living in the place between assessment and learning. I teach to pursue the latter. That always drives the bus. But the former lingers, a shadow waiting in the wings. Threatening. Questioning.

Will they make it?
Graphic novels, is this “real” reading?
Vocabulary words?

But then, I remember the importance of time spent doing. I remember the books and the end destination of being and becoming a reader and writer. I remember the journey is a different map for every child.

I remember and say yes
to finding things the child loves to read,
and to reading.
A lot of reading.

And a sense of purpose returns in the world between assessment and learning.


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

Celebrate: Student-Led Conferences

A few years ago, I made a shift to student-led conferences. At the time, many students had never done this type of conference and were at a loss for words. To make it more accessible, I prepped them, gave them questions to direct their thinking. The work was valuable, but it took a lot of class time.

This year, I let the work and the child speak with no prep. There might be some silent moments. But, I thought the process was necessary. The conference could be an assessment of sorts.

I started each conference by asking: What do you want to talk about first? Reading or writing? Some didn’t care. Others showed clear preferences. Their response to that question was telling.

Some students were uncomfortable. They needed prompts. There were silent moments. Most jumped in and rose to the task, approximating the work.

Students read their writing, their responses to reading, explained their self-assessments and compared their assessments to mine.  We talked about the differences. Looked for evidence.  Adjusted our thinking, identified what could be done to lift the level of the work, and made new goals.

One student kept stopping to edit as he read. The “oh I messed up” turned to “that is what writers do. We read and re-read our work and to make it better.”

I listened to another student read her writing. It was better than I had originally thought. We looked at the work and discovered she had instinctively punctuated each run on sentence, giving it meaning and voice. Hearing her read brought it to life and demonstrated the need for punctuation. I couldn’t have planned a better writing conference.

Every student showed what they understood and where we need to work. Many students made decisions to revise their writing. They couldn’t help but notice what was missing; they could have done more. One student reflected on how he had thought about putting things into his writing, and in fact, thought he had. But after looking, he realized, his thoughts never made it to the page.

Conferencing with parents this way was a natural outgrowth of the work we do in class.

This week, I celebrate student-led conferences not only to inform parents but as incredible learning time. Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for Celebrate this Week link up. Find more celebrations here.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: #WhyIWrite

When I was very young, I wrote for anyone who would read my words. Pens and paper were toys. Desk organization was play.

Then I learned my writing wasn’t. So I stopped.

I got a little older, and I wrote because someone made me.

After the very long time known as school, I read writers who dipped right into my heart, as if they were me, yet were the furthest thing from me. At this point I was certain, I would never write.

Years passed, and my teaching life began. Suddenly, I became that person to make others write. Horrified by this sudden turn of events, it became apparent there was only one way out of this mess: I had to write.

I tried. Sort of. I’d write with my students. But it was half-hearted. Again, I was doing what my teachers told me to do.  Not because I valued it.  I was not writing about things that mattered to me. I was not writing for my peers. I had nothing at risk.

I started writing in this space to look at my teaching self. In looking, I’ve realized if I were to stop teaching tomorrow, I’d write.

I write to notice moments that are washed away by the fatigue that ends a day. To understand what surrounds and inundates me. To discover who I am or maybe find who I want to be.

I have a writing self. One that chooses and revises thoughts, one that edits words and their placement. And I have a self that enters the world. One who reacts and experiences. One who publishes instantaneously. Perhaps I write to get that self, the one that enters the world, a little closer to the self I leave on the page.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for Slice of Life Tuesdays. You provide a place to notice, discover, and understand who we are and who we want to be. Read more slices here.


Celebrate: Doing it Better

Every day I cull through papers.
Sort, staple and put into colored-coded folders.
Every day I think back to move forward.

Some days, it takes a night to figure out.
Some days, it takes all week.
Some days, I’m still trying to figure out.
And some days, I’ve seen before. But the memory isn’t rekindled.
Afterward, I think, oh if I could only go back and do it better. Just as I wished the first time it happened. Oh to see the repetition in the moment.
This is my hope at the end of some days.

This week my students reflected on a unit of study. They self-assessed and added in their next step.  Each and everyone went to an uncomfortable place. They held their words up and compared them to the ideal. It is complicated work. The thinking and the comparing can be painful. This week, my students stepped up after that hard work and added in what would make them better, showing their resilience and courage.

As I look back on my week, a teacher of these brave souls, my students are my mentors. Today I compare my teaching to the teacher I want to be and write in my plan book, a reflection for next year, so when the moment that is a memory happens, and I will see it and do it better.

Thank you, Ruth, for your Celebrate this Week link up. Your call is a gift. Read more celebrations here.


Slice of Life and Slivers of Light

Moments of beauty and promise are all around, but some days they can be harder to see. Sometimes they are slivers of light that come quickly and pass quietly. We have to pay attention.

A morning parent conference brought an immigrant’s story.
She came here at 17.
Learned to read English.
Worked two jobs.
Cared for her family.

Her daughter listened to the stories she has heard growing up. She looked on, proud.

“I tell my daughter, everywhere there are things to write about. You just have to be open to it.”

The bell rings and this momma gives her girl a kiss goodbye, and receives, a when-will-you-pick-me-up hug. I could hear and feel the love between these two.

Inspired by her mother, my student and I walk to the line, looking for stories to tell.

We enter the classroom, and the talk begins. Fifth graders are a busy lot. Blogging brings their buzz down; it’s a quieter way to be heard. And there is a sliver of light.

Later, getting ready for reading Some Kind of Courage the excitement builds. This adventure story has them captivated. But today I ask for thinking about big ideas. It almost seems unfair to ask such a thing when “what will happen next” is of prime importance. Who cares about themes if someone is going to die!

This chapter brought quiet and tears to a boy in the front row. This is the second time it’s happened and the second boy it’s happened to. No one said a thing.

I say, “When a story brings big emotion, we need to pay attention and ask why.”

I hear the slow beginnings of talk. Hesitant words.

“Family is important.”
“How you’ll do anything for family.”

I write their thoughts on the board. And with it, I see slivers of light.

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

DigiLit Sunday: Mentors

Margaret Simon has me thinking about mentors today. Find more thoughts on mentors @ Reflections on the Teche.


I swim with a masters group a few mornings a week. There are plenty of mentors in the pool. Some are age group record holders. Many were college athletes. There’s even a former Olympian. They are experts in the work. While these athletes are inspirational to watch, if all I had were their example, I’d probably give up. A mentor is more than a model of proficiency. A mentor needs to reach to a place of ability and understanding in the student. That’s where the coach comes in: taking me where I am and showing me what I can try.

I’ve learned a lot about teaching by paying attention to my reactions to workouts. When do I push myself? When do I want to give up?

Translating my experience in the pool to my readers and writers in the classroom, I reach for mentors with these ideas in mind:

  1. See the student in the work. By noticing and naming what a student does like the mentor, I invite the student into the club.
  2. Break the mentor down. By looking closely at one or two things the student could approach, I keep it simple and replicable.
  3. Step away from the student. By giving lots of room to practice, I let the student try and try.
  4. Reflect. By asking, what went well?  Celebrate the approximations.
  5. Repeat  #1-4

Mentors and coaches are guides. They provide road maps. They inspire and invite us in. As we try, we see more and continue to try. That’s the cycle we want our students to feel. It’s a cycle that builds on itself.

I’ve been lucky to find mentors who make me want to try. To mimic and morph, look back with new understanding, and try again.

My mentors’ words resonate in me, and I hope, shape my actions and decisions in the classroom.Listed below are some of the biggies.
A warning to readers and my apologies to the referenced  mentors —
These aren’t exact quotes. I’ve paraphrased the words that live in me.

Teach the writer, not the writing. — Lucy Calkins
The student is the curriculum. — Mary Howard
You learn to write by writing about something that matters to you. — Ralph Fletcher
Find the gems in student writing. — Katherine Bomer
What do you notice? What do you wonder? — Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse
Nonfiction lets us learn more; fiction lets us be more. — Kylene Beers
Reading is the inhale, writing is the exhale. — Lester Laminack
To keep our students reading, we have to let them. — Donalyn Miller
We teach to engagement, not mastery. — Cornelius Minor
Teach one thing. — Shana Frazin
What could you try? — Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
Model, model, model. — Fran McVeigh
I’m not good at this, YET. — Peter Johnston
Every child can learn. — Chris Cassidy




Poetry Friday: Seeing With Others

Violet Nesdoly hosts  the Poetry Friday Roundup.


Every Thursday we read a poem in class.

My students have new poetry eyes and understanding has been a bumpy adventure. Seeing poetry with others can color our thinking. Each class has a different tone. A different dynamic. And, it changes how they see. It can sharpen and distort our vision.

I’ll ask,
“What do you notice?”
“What do you wonder?”
“What does that make you think?
“What is the author telling you?”

I’ve encouraged. Gone slowly. Line by line. Stanza by stanza. Prompting them to notice, wonder, think and speculate.  They talk. I listen and ask for more.  And then they write. Talk, I’ve found, can skew thinking: what I think they think and what they think. It isn’t until I read their responses that I get a peek at what some can articulate in the quiet of the page.

Talk, I’ve found, can skew thinking: what I think they think and what they think. It isn’t until I read their responses that I get a peek at what some can articulate in the quiet of the page.

Last week I shared Adrienne Jaeger’s New Eyes. We read it line by line. My west coast students held the idea of Madison Avenue and the sea of tank tops and shorts tenuously.  I worried the message of homelessness and human worth wasn’t felt as keenly as I’d wished. Perhaps it was their lack of schema. Wrong poem? Wrong teaching?

This week I thought my fifth-graders could use a dose of empathy. Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s tribute to Georgia Heard’s new book Heart Maps seemed just the ticket

Click here –> Like Windowpanes

Students loved the sound and the rhyme but, the message seemed to fall short in the class that needed it the most. One boy spoke how it made him think of a family death. Then others joined in with other deaths of animals. How had the message has been confused? Missed? I asked, “What part of the poem connected to their thinking?”  They responded,”…we’d know her cat had died last night.”

I fretted and tried to understand their point of view.

Tonight I read their thoughts. Many were swayed by the one boy’s interpretation. With his words, they were sidetracked and failed to see other ideas. But a few quiet words came through in their notebooks. The class that had not heard his comment saw it as a poem of listening to other’s hearts and seeing people for what they had inside.

What I thought failed, hadn’t completely. In fact, one student saw the connection between New Eyes and Like Windowpanes. Something I had missed. Completely.

Seeing through another’s eyes can skew or sharpen our vision: a lesson in human nature and capacity for understanding.


Slice of Life: Home Alone

They left me in the morning to sleep. No matter.

I move to the foot of the bed.

Stretch in the morning sun.

Lounge atop the living room couch.

Perch on the shelf.

Stroll past the window to keep my mind engaged and the animals on alert.

Nap in the study.

Temperatures drop, and the light fades. Dark. These hints of fall confuse me.
The wind is a fascination. I want to venture, and at the same time, prefer to stay within. A conundrum.

The absence of my people is noticeable; close to annoying. How will sleep come? Do they expect me to sleep without their bodies to disturb?

I sit. Howl.

They do not come. How rude.

I shall not look at them when they return.


I whine and paw the door. Insistently.

They do not appear.

I am unnerved.


I find a box. Its four walls bring comfort abating my anxiety.

There are many small moments in a cat’s life. They are fleeting but dramatic. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for a place to write about our many lives. Read more slices here.



#DigiLit Sunday: Conferring

This Sunday, Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche is celebrating her daughter’s wedding. In her absence, I’m hosting #DigiLit Sunday. Thank you, Margaret, for creating this place to share our digital teaching and literacy thoughts.


This week’s topic is conferring.


This quote sums up the essence of teaching. It is the continual challenge. The most difficult and the best part of teaching. It’s the part you never have enough time for; the part you always wish you could have done better.

After years of worry as to how to best confer with student writers, it has come down to this: hearing, seeing, and honoring students’ words. When I sit next to a writer, I can interrupt, impose, or act as their perceived savior. Ultimately, I want to honor their process and lift them up to the next step. Aid and assist.

Digital writing with Google Docs has allowed me to read student words before conferring. Now, when I sit beside them I have a better understanding, and I can see the possible, writer to writer.

“Writers, like you and me and all of those writers we read, have faced this problem. Can I show you one way I have tried to solve it?”

That is conferring as I know it. A communion of listening and thinking.
A call, response.
What do you want to say?
Can I show you what I’ve tried?

How does conferring go in your classroom? Add your thoughts by linking up  in the comments below.