Slice of Life: Read Aloud with Jason Reynold’s Ghost

This morning I sat my fifth graders down to a new read aloud.

“Is it a chapter book? I hope so; I do lots of thinking in chapter books,” A. said.

For the last three weeks, I’ve read picture books. Great books. The choice was intentional. And they have done good work.  But, now they are itching for a good novel. One that sweeps them up off their feet, just like Some Kind of Courage by Dan Geimeinhart did.

I  read Jason Reynold’s Ghost over the Thanksgiving break, and I was fairly sure it would be a perfect fit.  Reynolds has an amazing way of inhabiting a character. He puts you right there. Even if it isn’t your experience, when you read his words it becomes yours.


I shared a picture of Jason signing our class copy.

“Whoa, he looks like my brother.”
“He’s so young!”
“He looks cool.”
“What did he say when he signed it?

Before I read one word, their hearts are in it. They love this guy.

I read the subtitle, Running for his life, or from it? and asked,
“What do you think that means?”

There were tentative thoughts.

“It could mean …”


“He could …”

The provocative subtitle pulled at them making them think. After chapter one, we don’t know why our main character is the way he is, but we have theories and wonderings. That’s the work we do at the beginning of a book. We try to make sense of the confusing place the writer has landed us in.

He eats sunflower seeds and talks about world records.
Why the heck is this 12-year old (we figured that out) not wanting to get home?
Why is he walking home, when he could take the bus home?

After a bit of reading, I ask students to reconsider the subtitle. They explode with ideas that are stronger and specific to the story so far. The wheels are turning not just about what happened, and what might happen, but why things are happening.

We’re busy noticing and wondering and revising our thinking about the character and his journey. This reading work we do when we start a book; it’s our journey. They are doing as “A” said lots of thinking.
Time flies, and we have to stop, for music. There are protests and groans of “noooo! ” Music to my ears.

No worries, I tell them, there’s tomorrow.

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

Celebrate This Week: Family

This week family and food captivated me. Seeing the next generation purposeful, educated, and resolute gives me great hope.  This week I celebrate family.

This Thanksgiving, they
were all in one room, and oh
what power I felt.

To reach out and touch
each one with a glance knowing
their hearts were beating.

Elders at the head
played the silent observers
of young energy.

Cleaning the kitchen
cousins’ words sparkle sprinkle
us. Found poetry.

Evening ends. Outside
chill creeps in as each soul gives
a goodbye love hug.

Overnight guests walk
into their old rooms, pull out
pillows, sheets, blankets.

This Thanksgiving, my
children sleep all in one house
remembered sweetness.

celebrate link up

Read more celebrations at Ruth Ayers’ site, Discover, Play, Build.

Slice of Life: NCTE16 — a privilege and a necessity

Today I sat, sifting through the words, ideas, and images of NCTE16.
The sense of urgency and responsibility is overwhelming.
Now more than ever, teachers need to honor words that matter to students.

Students need words that make them think; they need opportunities to share their thinking, their stories. If we don’t, we will lose what we cherish most. We will take away our children’s ability to interact and think critically. We will take away their freedom.

Classrooms have to be spaces of light. That’s our revolution. What you do on Monday at 8:30 is gonna change the world.
Ernest Morrell 

I spoke with Tamia, a 7th grader from Atlanta about books. In a roundtable discussion,  she asked us, why don’t teachers consider graphic novels books? Why aren’t there more of them in her school library?

Why not?  In the exhibition hall, I saw beautiful graphic novelizations of Darwin’s Origin of Species and Fahrenheit 451.  Reading is about thinking. These books provide access critical ideas. Why not?


I listened to Tamia and other middle school students who came to ask teachers those “why not” and “how come” questions about learning, technology, bullying, and books. They want to know, and they want to take action. Middle schoolers matter. It was an honor to hear their words. I hope we gave back a fraction of what we got. I am grateful to them, to their teachers, and to Chris Lehman and Roz Linder for the opportunity to listen.


I came home with the words of children, poets, novelists, educators, and dear friends. They fill my notebook and book bag,  my mind and heart with energy for the students who walk into the classroom every day, every year.

Words heal, grow and can make a change in the world. Here are some of the words I heard this year at NCTE.

Books are a safe place to practice out life. Readers bring themselves to the book. Readers make the book better.
Linda Sue Park

We don’t know how our words will affect others.
Kirby Larson

The (character’s) journey is an echo reaching out into the world. The music fades, but it stays inside you.
Augusta Scattergood

You have to allow yourself to be imperfect. Err on the side of love
Irene Latham

We all can do something, and it is with the small things we do. We can give students opportunities to write about what is happening in the world.  We take these opportunities and write from it.
Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Value students for their values, their beliefs. I  want to see you who you are as a human being.
Laura Shovan

Metaphor is how poets survive in difficult times. We can speak in metaphors. You can’t stop words.
Margarita Engle

Dig for truth. Ask, what is our truth? Understand sorrow, grief, build empathy, and compassion.  Become engaged in the world. Sow the seeds of advocacy and empowerment by unpacking poems to find the meaning
Tara Smith

Literacy is democracy.
Pam Allyn 

We have to be courageous in the hope that we can move forward. We (teachers, librarians, writers) are the purveyors of hope. We need the courageousness to become more human.
Kwame Alexander

 One of the virtues is courage is the willingness to take risks. We need to have self-love when there is so much self-hatred. We need self-love and self-recognition. What was considered politically correct, may become very politically unpopular. We will manifest our courage when we decide who are we communing with.
— Ernest Morrell 

If we want children to think: shift to meaning-based reading conferences. It’s about the meaning the student is making. We weave what we understand. To weave and unweave our understanding along the way. Comprehension, understanding, and evaluation happen at the same time.
Vicki Vinton

Until the student speaks, nothing can be done in the writing conference. When we invite them to talk, we are asking the student to construct a narrative about themselves as a writer. We need to guide students to keep creating that narrative of themselves as a writer.
Carl Anderson

Essay is transformative
Writing about things you dare not write about
Buried truths
Edgy truth
Freedom and excitement
Essay as journey
Writing to think
People can use words as a language as thinking.
It is inviting for a reader.
It makes it interesting to follow.
It is literature because it has an idea.
It circles around an idea.
It may come to a realization, but it might open up a whole can of worms.
It has a voice.  We fall in love with the voice.
It takes a risk.
— A professional, personal risk.
— Potential of feeling shame.
— Opening up to coming to know ourselves and each other.
— To find ways to make us human
Writers are not born; they are made.
Katherine Bomer

We are our students’ representatives of hope.
We are there to help negotiate the dips and peaks.
We do it with words.
Plan on NCTE next year. It is a place to clarify the mission and to fuel teachers for the work.

NCTE. It is a privilege and a necessity.

Slice of Life: Teacher Writers

My teaching life created my writing life, and my teaching life grows with writing practice. Whether it’s a reflection on a professional text, a writing lesson, a read aloud or a conference with a student, I am a better teacher when I take the time to write. It’s the warp and woof.

A byproduct of this has been the development of a writing life that lives alongside my teaching life. Vignettes, poems, chapters, essay thoughts reside in my Google drive with no intentions.  My projects with no purpose. For my eyes only.

But, I promised I’d workshop a writing piece.  It sounded like a good idea, at first. At a distance. Oh yes! I’d love that. But as the day got closer, it sounded less appealing. All of those pieces I’d been playing with I wasn’t ready to share. I needed something new.

My students were about to start their “true essay” drafts.  What better practice? I started early Friday morning. By the end of the day, it was a far cry from where I wanted it to be. Did my thoughts connect? Transitions were an issue. Maybe this is the point — A writing group is a place to get out of your head and listen. With a mixture of panic and doubt, I shared the document.

The day came. The hour came. My turn came.

What was this about?
Why did I write this?
The virtual nature of the group allowed me to read comments beforehand
(Note to self: Next time, read comments before we meet). 

I’m still processing. Each comment stretched my thinking in directions I had not considered. The work I need to do is substantial, but I walked away wanting to work.

What a gift. To be supported and nudged toward something better while being acknowledged for something valuable.

What a gift for the writer and the teacher in me.
This is what I want for my students. I thought of peer work in a different light. Now, the value of the experience is real for me. Understanding provides an incentive to provide my students with this type of collaboration.

I can’t  thank you lovely teacher-writers enough. Thank you, Margaret, Julie, and Catherine.

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



DigiLit Sunday: Purpose

Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche asked us to think about the word purpose.the-purpose-of-lifeis-a-lifeof-purpose1

There is a why and a what to the word.
The why drives the what.

Every year, every lesson I think why. Why are we doing this? What is the intended outcome? Time is limited, so everything should have a very clear why or purpose.

My purpose as an educator comes down to this:     Engaging students in reading and responding to understand their world. From news events that impact our lives to literature that shine light on the darkened spots of our world.
I take in their work and the work of the world and wonder,  How do I do that? 
Especially now.
The election is over. The holidays are upon us. Over the next seven weeks, students will be in school for three of them. Off and on. What to do with this crazy time that is purposeful? Time is choppy. Attention is short.  Can you hear the “activities” calling?  No, thank you!  Think purpose.
My solution is to mix purposeful work with hit and miss student presence. The emphasis is on flexibility, variability, and the power of digital environments.
1) News from Scholastic Magazine and Newsela offer timely articles that allow for choice and flexibility of accessibility.
2) Daily picture book read alouds provide excellent literature, in short, digestible pieces. They engage their hearts and keep their minds open to the ways we need to see others.
3) Choice in reading. In subject and length. Short stories and graphic novels work in these fractured times. Check out Storyworks articles and stories. This bi-monthly magazine is worth the subscription.
4) Short videos and podcasts engage differing modalities of attention. They enhance and extend their thinking and wondering.
5) Ample blogging and responding time on ideas that surface from their reading.
6) Notebooking and talking. What it makes us think. Why it feels right or wrong.
The excitement of the season sacrifices time and focus. But we don’t have to lose sight of purpose or engagement.  Shorter and variable texts, as well as digital ways to interact and respond, offer opportunities to continue their learning. And if it is engaging enough, will attract readers and writers during those vacation weeks. Newsela and Kidblog both offer up possible ways for kids to read, write and connect while they aren’t in school.

Celebrate: Finding Hope

Celebrating this week is difficult. Wednesday morning I wasn’t sure I could face my students. Children of immigrants. Children of color. My colleagues texted me. Their messages added up to, what now?  Exactly.

Looking for wisdom I turned to my virtual colleagues on Voxer and saw this quote shared by Tara Smith:

Within our hearts we know the society we wish to live in. No one can take that vision from us. We are each of us keepers of that promise.

This country has seen wars and grave injustices, slavery and even civil war in its past. Yet we found our way through. We will now, too.

It lifted me up enough to walk into my classroom with resolve.  When I got there I found this amazing combination of need and strength.

Wednesday morning I read  Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne. We read it for character, perspective, and theme. We read to understand these four voices. All with differing perspectives on that same experience. Differing points of view as my students would say. You can judge them. Who is right and who is wrong. The bigger work, our work as a classroom, was understanding them.

As I read it to one class, the sharp edge of the book cut my hand. I read on.
Meanwhile, two boys got up and walked to the back of the classroom where I keep  band-aids. I read on. They returned to the carpet. One reached up and handed it to me. I wrapped my finger and whispered thank you and  read on. They just did that. So kind and agentive. These students saw what was needed, reached out and helped. This is what we do. I celebrate their instinctive kindness, responsiveness, and agency. These students give me hope.

At recess, I walked back to my room and saw H. running toward me. “I need your help,” she said. She took me to the playground. “She’s being bullied,” H said pointing to a young girl. Another fifth grader was advising the youngster on steps to take. H looked at me and said, “We need the three steps to resolving differences here. We need an ‘I’m sorry bench.'”

They didn’t need me. These beautiful fifth graders had it under control. They knew how to resolve differences, and they took action. This week I celebrate the goodness that exists in their hearts and the bravery they have to stand up and speak out. These students give me hope.

This week I celebrate students who came to school. Who read, wrote, created, shared their fears, and stood up for goodness.

I am lucky to be with children. They give purpose. They give reason to do the hard work. They give hope.

We need to be there. For them. We need to be better. For them.

celebrate link up

Find more celebrations here, at Ruth Ayers blog Discover, Play, Build.

Poetry Friday: Mary Oliver

Good morning Poetry Friday.
Thank you to Jama Rattigan @ Jama’s Alphabet Soup for hosting this week.


I’ve had the wind knocked out of me. What I thought was true isn’t.  For my students, and my own children, it is worse. They don’t know the ups and downs as well. Their eyes have been downcast.  Because they are children, they are powerless. And that is the reason to be there. That gives purpose. To help keep the path lit. To help along  on an uncertain road.

I’ve been reading Mary Oliver. Her words strike deep and have allowed me to regain composure and strength for coming days.

I will try
by Mary Oliver

I will try.
I will step from the house to see what I see
and hear and I will praise it.
I did not come into this world
to be comforted.
I came, like red bird, to sing.
But I’m not red bird, with his head-mop of flame
and the red triangle of his mouth
full of tongue and whistles,
but a woman whose love has vanished,
who thinks now, too much, of roots
and the dark places
where everything is simply holding on.
But this too, I believe, is a place
where God is keeping watch
until we rise, and step forth again and–
but wait. Be still. Listen!
Is it red bird? Or something
inside myself, singing?


Slice of Life: Doing it Well

We need to write and write some more. If this was easy, everyone would do it and do it well. — Seth Godin

I have embraced the first part of this quote. I show up and write. What stops me in my tracks, are the last three words. What exactly does “doing it well” mean?  I have a lot of fear living around this idea.

Most days, I bury my underlying worry with the belief that by writing, I define my journey. Writing is an act of clarification. In the moment of writing, I hold on to me. Putting my recollections and thoughts on the page move me towards a better next step.

I’ve made my musings public, and a byproduct of this has been friendships. Generous and masterful teacher-writers have invited me to write alongside them.  They honor me. But the fear of doing it well has snuck up on me.

I know I will learn. Sharing in a critical venue is my next step.
Still, I worry. What if it’s bad?  I remind myself, this is the process. The value of the product hovers over me.

I think of my students, and I’m made acutely aware of where they sit. What they put on the page is risky.  Product and process. What is valued?  I believe for my students and me doing it well is doing it. Where we are right now is where we are doing it well now.

How strong my students are. Those who proudly share, who publish their thoughts and feelings. Those who say, I want to be a published writer. Those who say, I am a published writer.  How brave they are. They are my mentors.

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

Celebrating: Dan Gemeinhart

This week, I overheard, “Why are books so much better when a teacher reads imgresthem?”

It’s not the teacher that makes the magic. It’s something about reading a great book together.  The anticipation. The excitement. The thinking.  Everyone’s on the same page. On the journey. We ache for and sometimes hate the characters. We want to read on, but we don’t want it to end. That was how my students felt about our read aloud Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart.

The only thing better than reading this book happened yesterday when we had the honor of a Skype visit with the talented and generous Gemeinhart.

Sixty-four children sat in a darkened classroom captivated.  Crowded on the carpet, around the computer, and at desks, they listened. One by one, students would come to the computer and say, “Hi my name is… and I was wondering… how…”

Gemeinhart took each question and answered. Reader to reader, writer to writer. I listened and watched my students. Smiling. Some students took notes. What they wrote was not only a record of the visit but a picture of what each child took in.

On reading:

He was one of those kids who read all the time. Books inspired him to read a little too much. His parents would tell him to stop reading.

He moved around a lot as a kid. Always moving to new houses, new schools and leaving friends. But libraries were always there, filled with books.  When life changed, he had books to keep him company.

Books are like friends. He could always count on books. They stayed with him the longest.

He reads and loves all kinds of books.  Two to three a week!!  There isn’t a favorite there are hundreds of favorites.

Books feel like magic.

On writing:

When he was in the second grade he knew he wanted to try to write.

There a lot of ways to become a writer.

Ideas for writing come from a mix of things. Your brain must be going and ideas come together. Characters come from people in your life but not just one person.

Names of characters are tricky. They have to sound and feel right.

Sometimes stories start with the plot and sometimes with the theme–like I want this to be a story about someone overcoming trouble. And sometimes  it starts with the character.

The messages he delivered will stay with my students. These quotes will live on the classroom walls.

Books are friends.
Stories are amazing.
There are lots of ways to become a writer.

This week I celebrate writing rock stars like Dan Gemeinhart for writing books to love and sharing the love of reading.

Read other celebrations on here. Thank you, Ruth, for a place to share the joys of the week.



Slice of Life: Writing to Think

We’re dipping into an essay writing unit, “true” essay, based on Katherine Bomer’s beautiful book The Journey is Everything.  We’re trying it. And each day, I try to figure out where my students are in this process. This work is not prescriptive. It is intended to be fluid, thought provoking. My continual question is, is it?

We’re working on gathering ideas. Ideas from what we read, what we notice, what bothers, or frustrates us. Making lists. We’re doing what Bomer calls “try its.”  Short bursts of writing around an idea, a quote, a fact or statistic.

Today I presented my students with a fact I thought would speak to them.

90% of all 4th through 8th graders are victims of bullying.

I heard: “Duh.”

Acceptance.  What disturbed me at first was the reaction to the content. What I realized later was this was a typical reaction towards a fact. Digestion and recapitulation.

I realized that my students need to learn to react.  To think and wonder. Wonder why something exists in the world. Wonder about the implications. That can be scary. So I wonder, are they ready to question the world they’re just beginning to understand? Or, is questioning required to understand?

Presenting a fact and asking students to write meets a limited response. They need to see what I mean by writing about a fact. I shared my notebook.

Then I asked, what did you notice about what and how I wrote?

“You asked lots of questions.”

Exactly. The process of gathering ideas,  a journey of thought, is driven by questions. It requires us to ask, what does this mean and how does it fit into my understanding of the world? Perhaps even, what can we do about it. It’s about being curious. It’s about discovery.

After I had shared my writing about a fact,  I shared this quote:

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”  –Anne Frank

My students know  Anne Frank’s story. They know what happened. Here was a victim of extreme bullying who saw good in humanity.

I asked my students to talk about this. What did they think, wonder, question?

I heard:

I wonder, how can she feel that way?

Maybe there is good in even the worse kind of people.

Maybe it’s how you see people.

Maybe it’s the kind of person you are.

How can you see good in those who hurt?

Then students wrote. I told them, just try it for five minutes.

They were uncomfortable at first and had what-do-you-want-me-to-write-about moments. Sentence starters like, I wonder…. and maybe… gave students ways to begin

Students considered more quotes and facts and talked.

I don’t want students to become dependent or limited by what I present, so we closed out writer’s workshop and stepped into reader’s workshop with this teaching point: Readers think deeply about news articles by questioning ideas, facts, and quotes. We notice and wonder.

This is a brave new world for my fifth graders. Tomorrow we will try it again. We’ll practice the work of wondering and questioning the facts and our beliefs.

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