Slice of Life: Ask That Your Way Be Long

“When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.”

So starts the poem Ithaka by Constantine Cavafy.
We set out on our teaching journey with lofty ideals. Our Ithaka is to inspire. The one that has given up. The one that says that’s not for me; that’s for the smart ones.

But a teaching journey can take you to disappointment. With yourself or with a student. There are those days when the road is scattered with obstacles.  Dead ends. Double backs.

Today was one of those days when students would have none of my planned course of action. Their fifth-grade sensibilities took control, and they focused on their neighbors, not the writing or the running records I had planned.

What I expected did not happen. My plan book was a pipedream.
But, there were glimmers. Fleeting moments.

Reading clubs talked about this article.

What they wondered/learned:
“I didn’t know what a green card was.”
“Yeah, I’d heard of it, but I didn’t know.”

How they could figure it out:
“I think it is something that lets immigrants work here legally.”
“It says so right here.

What they just learned about themselves as a reader:
“If I keep reading it can answer my wonderings.”
“When I look around it, I can find clues.”

These golden minutes were days, weeks, years in the making.

Later, reading partners Deb* and Mary* talked about their book.
“The One and Only Ivan have all of those themes.”  (pointing to the chart posted with five important themes from Cornelius Minor )
“Yeah, when Ivan helped Ruby he was doing amazing things.”
“And that is also how when tension exists, friends and family support each other.”
“Mack used his power to control Ivan.”
“And Ivan stood up for Ruby.”
“Ivan figured out how to help Ruby. He thought that wasn’t possible. That was his real struggle.”
Yes, I said. Yes.

In a parent conference,
“After years of trying to find books he likes, I’ve finally figured it out. He loves poetry. He came to me with this saying, ‘Mom, I really like this book.'”
This made my day.  Maybe my year for this child. He found he loves poetry.
I handed him The Crossover. Hoping this will push his interest further.

“…ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.”

The destination is what moves us. On the way, we find moments that keep us going.

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



Celebrate: What is being taught

The attributes of group work are many. Multiple brains working on the same problem to create better thinking is a worthy objective. But the power of a group can also produce the opposite. I saw that happen in my fifth-grade classroom this week. The less resilient crumbled. Unspoken stereotypes cropped up. Learning objectives became sidetracked.

It made me think about what is being taught and what needs to be taught.

Friday, students formed groups and were given limited resources and time to build the tallest and most stable tower.  This fun problem-solving, listening, speaking, and synthesizing activity was a part of a day of math and science learning.

A group of boys dumped the materials out of the bag, and all started talking at once. The loudest and most forceful boy took charge rejecting ideas, promoting others. All but one, fed into his leadership.  Jack*walked away wanting his own materials saying, “They said my ideas are stupid. I’m never right.” I brought this to the group’s attention to which another member, Matt* offered, “I’ve been told my ideas won’t work five times!” Jack* fell apart after one rejection but Matt* didn’t give up.

A group of girls approached the work methodically. They produced efficiently, listening to everyone’s ideas. I watched thinking this is the way it should go. But in the end, they were out-performed. The once positive group turned sour.  I heard, “Why bother if you can’t win.” Their structure ended up in the trash.

Another group girls sat and stared at the materials. They talked. I walked over to inquire what they were thinking. As it turned out, they had already given up. They said they weren’t smart enough to beat others so why try.  Ironically, after a bit of coaching, they produced the tallest, stablest tower.

The pressure to be right, to be heard, to try, to win brought out strengths and weaknesses in each student. And, it made me question what is being taught and learned.

This week I celebrate seeing my students outside the light of reading and writing.
I celebrate discussions that include listening.
I celebrate opportunities to try.
I celebrate losing.
I celebrate unexpected success.
I celebrate questioning what and how we teach.

Read other celebrations here @ Ruth Ayers Writes.

Slice of Life: What was home

I visit the place I grew up every week. It’s a fifteen-minute drive up the coast. An idyllic road that borders the ocean.

Last Saturday the shorelines were swirling. Whipped up sandy bottoms made for murky bays. I could see the cliffs in the distance being pounded by incoming waves. Spray lifting, spattering rocky beaches. All of this was an after effect of the rainstorm.   I thought of Lunada Bay. A block from my parent’s house. The name of my elementary school. A surfer’s haven that has been in the news shamefully for the “locals” gang-like behavior.  This place of extreme wealth and silly surfers was also a source of wonder for me.  It was home.I had to stop by. To visit.

Others had the same idea. Most stayed on the paved road not wanting to venture onto the muddy trails that led to the cliff’s edge. I didn’t hesitate. These cliffs I knew. I walked on them and down them many times. And I needed to get closer to the attraction, the waves.  The waves that brought surfers to blows. The crystal blue, churning. The energy of it draws you in.

Weeds brushed my knees. Mud stuck to my boots. By the time I got to the edge, I was an inch taller. Windswept. Remembering.

I took a few pictures to share with my parents who decades ago held my brother’s and my hand along this trail saying, “Don’t get too close.” My mother’s words stick with me like mud. Not letting go. Keeping me grounded and away from the slippery edge.

I look to the south,


to the north.

It holds what was home.

I turn and walk back to the road. One last look. A place that was home long ago. But it isn’t anymore. Now someone else is living there.

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


DigiLit Sunday: Relationships

I’m connecting with Margaret Simon’s DigiLit Sunday link up @ Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is relationships.


Relationships are created by commonality. A need, place, time, interest, belief.
They grow with trust and shared experiences that strengthen and build the thread creating fabric.  With today’s technology, experiences can be shared without proximity they just need the common thread to build on.

Last year I joined a Voxer group with the common thread of teachers who write. Over the year we’ve developed a strong fabric of trust around our shared beliefs in literacy education. This relationship has become a source of inspiration and support. A place where we have tested out ideas for our classrooms. By teaching similar lessons, reading same books, we’ve been building our classrooms’ connections in spirit and purpose.  Without knowing it, our students have shared experiences.

Kimberley Moran wanted to take it further. She wanted to connect classrooms with book clubs. Creating a commonality with books was a concept that had been germinating in Kimberley’s brain for some time. Read her post to get a peek at the process and the steps we took to begin connecting our readers.

I invited eleven of my students try out this idea. They would read with partners that lived in a place that started school three hours before they did. My California kids “met” the Maine kids on a shared google doc. Their relationship centered on their book.  They wrote their thoughts and comments as they read. Their trust was apparent.  They were all willing to put themselves out there. The book held them together. The book grew their understanding of the other on the other side of the continent.

In unexpected ways, my students started to connect and understand the lives led by others while at the same time living the similar thoughts because of a book. There were moments of confusion. Concerns that need to be addressed.

Student: “Why haven’t they posted?”

Me: “It’s a snow day. They aren’t in school.”

Student: “What’s a snow day.”

Me: “When there is so much snow that it’s unsafe to go to school. So school is canceled.”

Student: “Lucky!  I want a snow day.”

After we had finished the book, we met face to face on Skype. We ate breakfast; they ate lunch. We had a warm sun; they had snow piled high.  Both groups were thrilled to wave and say hello.  Both groups learned a little more about someon8742040239_cc0060f369_b.jpge other than themselves. Someone in a community far, far away was becoming a part of their world. In spite of differences because of similarities, a relationship is being built.

My students can’t wait for the next book. We’ll start the week after next. Our Maine friends are on Winter Break. And yes, the response was predictable:
“Lucky! I want a Winter Break.”





Celebrate: Rain That Wakes Us Up

This week ended with a  rainstorm. Right now I hear drip, plop. Every few seconds, a bubble accumulates on the light fixture above me. When it gets too heavy,img_4793 it drops into the bucket below. That leak along with the weeds that are growing on our hillside have been dormant for years. Both need to be tended to, but today I celebrate the wet and the growth that is messy and muddy.

We’ve had a few storms this year. Yesterday’s was predicted to be big. It hit hardest just before school let out.

I opened the classroom door, and the wind pushed us back. Sheets of rain blew into the covered walkway. Students who love the novelty of rain winced and walked purposely toward the more protected hallway. Parents of primary kiddos streamed in as the fifth graders made their way out to wait for their bus, their car, their afterschool program.

A fourth grader standing on the steps to the auditorium looked at me and asked, “Have you seen my sister? She has two missing teeth.”  After a short silence, he added, “She has freckles.” He paused. “And blond hair.” Another pause. “She’s little.”

He was one of many brothers and sisters looking. Their usual pattern of “find your sister/brother” had been disrupted and the olders were on edge.  With the assistance of teachers, siblings were united and bit by bit escorted under umbrellas to their waiting cars and buses.  Soon the front of the school was quiet. All that could be heard was rain.

This week I celebraimg_4807te the rain that announces a leaky roof and muddies the hillsides. I celebrate call of family and the seamless unspoken collaboration of teachers who take care of children no matter what.  I celebrate seeing things that have been overlooked or taken for granted. I celebrate the uncomfortable that wakes us up and calls us to action.
Read other celebration posts here at Ruth Ayers blog, Ruth Ayers Writes.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Finding Personal Space

Learning in close proximity isn’t easy.

Students sit side by side, face each other. The possibility of eye contact is inevitable.  Any student who is the least bit social or curious will likely engage another. Tempers and passions can flare unexpectedly. Lines are drawn, dividing your side from mine. The annoying tap, tap of a pen or unconscious jiggling of a leg can drive a sensitive, distractible student to shout, “Stooppp!!!” when it becomes too much.

Asking a room full of 30, 11-year olds not to pay attention to their neighbor is ridiculous.

There are moments when all are deep into a book or a piece of writing. And there are a few students who have the ability to remove themselves mentally no matter what. For these few, being distracted from their books takes a lot. But for the majority, distraction is the norm.

I don’t blame them. I’d want a separate place.  So  I try to create spots for students that give them breathing room and space. To spread out.

Last week, my conferring table, piled with clipboards, and other tools became a new desk.  I travel around anyway. The desk was just a place to store and stack. The resulting change has made for a better work environment for students and a more efficient me.

I thought I had it, but students saw the changes and asked for more.

Tonight I looked at my classroom and could not see any possibilities. I have no desk; I can’t eliminate the doc cam table. Frustrated, I started to move tables. No. No. and Nope. Finally, an adjustment created a new spot. Another place to go to when a neighbor is too close for comfort and all other classroom options are taken.

We’ll see. Tomorrow we’ll test it out.

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




Celebrating Words that Heal: Here We Go

Celebratory moments sprinkle here and there throughout each day. And lucky me, students are generous in their offerings.

I love this book.
Can we get the next in the series?
Thank you.
Why didn’t we have poetry this week?
I have a passion for writing.
Ivan was a real gorilla?
I love this author.
Oh! I get it!
Can I help?

Words to treasure and celebrate. Bright spots are to build on.

One moment this week lingers. It weights heavy on my mind. Requires my attention.

Words fly.
And quiet is hard to find.
It’s physical.
Words fill spaces where questions lie.

When all have settled down there is a moment and
thought happens and
quiet descends and
muffles and
that want to wiggle free.

In that silence someone notices
Annie’s crying.
“Are you sick?” I ask. There have been fevers raging.
She tilts her head.
and whispers no.
Let’s go outside and quiet lingers.
Wondering respects her unknown pain.

What can it be?
Something said by friend or foe.
What word has hit and exposed her heart?
What happened?
The playground?
In class?
Who did this?
But no.

This pain is deep. Ages old.
Something she holds alone.
A broken family just poked her heart.
Somehow, some way
Words rose up and took her by surprise
in a classroom
one late Friday afternoon.

Annie leaves and words fill the space.
We wonder silently why.

We need words that heal. To counteract the words that sting, confuse, and worry. To lift us up.

Next week, I’ll pull out HERE WE GO by Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell. This book is crafted so perfectly. I want to give one to every teacher I know. I want to give one to every student I know. This week I celebrate planning next week.

Here’s to celebrating the week with Ruth Ayers on her blog Ruth Ayers Writes.

celebrate link up

Slice of Life: Does He Pass?

It’s that assessment time of year when benchmarks and report cards start to put pressure on students and teachers. Assessments that say whether you have it or you don’t. In elementary schools, we look for a particular kind of growth over the year.  All are moving. But some aren’t to where we want them to be — yet.

I sit down with kid after kid, needing to know, where are you now and what can we do next. Some beg to do this work. Others ask to postpone.

I listen to them. Most students know where they are as readers. But sometimes I push.

Tyler* looked at me as I handed him the text. “I just did this” A resistor. He’s afraid. Afraid of failure.

I’ve watched him do smart reading work in read aloud and in his own reading. I’ve watched him figure things out that others couldn’t. I believed he had it in him.

“I know,” I said, “but I think you can do this. I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t believe that you could do this. Just give it a try.”

Being a good sport, he smiled and started reading aloud.

He stumbled. Word after word. Missing 8 of the 100-word passage. An unacceptable accuracy. Kicking myself silently, I let him read on.

Then I asked him to retell the story and followed up with comprehension questions. Tyler did what some students who struggle with fluency do. He nailed the comprehension.

This happens. Kids develop pathways to understanding that aren’t reliant on all the words. Knowing this, I asked him how he did it.

“It was easy to read but hard to read out loud. There were a lot of words I wasn’t sure of.”

“So how do you figure it out when you don’t know a word?”

“I write them down and look them up.”

“But what just happened? You didn’t look up any words.”

“I kinda read ‘around’ the words. Putting in words that seemed to make sense.”

So smart. Exactly what readers do.What we practice in class, looking for contextual clues. We infer the meaning of words when we are unsure and read on.

He has gaps. Gaps that can and probably will get in his way. Holes that need to be filled. But can he understand this level? He’s a self-aware reader. He can negotiate meaning. In many ways, his understanding exceeds readers who are very fluent. Fluency is not the key or the barrier to his understanding yet.

So, does Tyler “pass” this running record?  Strictly speaking no, because of fluency. But how does his fluency sideline him as a reader? That for me is the bigger question to consider.

Just a slice of classroom life. Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of life Tuesdays. Read more here.


Celebrate This Week: Tending the Garden

I exhale as I come to this page on Saturdays to celebrate with Ruth Ayers. Ruth has cultivated a place to tend and account for the week’s treasures. A time to set aside the burdens and clear off a space to admire. Thank you, Ruth.

celebrate link up

Every morning as I round the corner to my classroom, I have a group of students waiting. If I’m a little late, they ask why. If I’m there before they are they question why. They want to help. They want to talk. They want to be in a warm classroom. This starts my day. Everyday.

And it continues throughout the day. At recess, at lunch, after school, officially and unofficially children come to get help, borrow a ball, call their parent, get a Bandaid, “help.” These kiddos are always filling the space and filling me with their ideas and questions.This week I celebrate the students who come because they want to and because they need to.

One morning Adam* walked in and sat down at my desk, looked me in the eye and asked, what can I do to get tested today? Not a typical kid question. He wants to take his running record. No problem, I tell him. He was due for one. So as soon as class started. We sat down.

Adam is not on grade level yet. Literature isn’t his cup of tea. He prefers reading nonfiction. Right now he’s obsessed with area 51. He also has a written plan to become president in 2048.  He is inquisitive and hilarious. But as he informs me, he just isn’t interested in reading fiction. I told him I understood. But, I added, if he plans to become president, he had better start reading a little more literature. We read “those” kind of books to understand people. Then I shared these quotes from a recent New York Times interview with President Obama.

Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country.

…I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

His eyes widened.

He’s still pouring over nonfiction facts, but I hope Obama’s words planted a tiny seed.

This week I celebrate Adam, his drive to succeed, and figure out area 51.



Poetry Friday: Langston Hughes

I found this book at a local library sale. Stamps on the inside front cover tell me the book’s original home was the Tenth Street School library in 1978.


Now it lives on my poetry shelf stamped OBSOLETE.  Out of date.
How far from the truth.

Langston Hughes’ poetry, illustrated with Ann Grifalconi’s woodcuts dig to the heart of then and now. The accessible symbolism is real for kids. The dark and light, the shadows, the wall, the dream. Students’ connections were quick. To their lives, to what they know. They couldn’t believe it was written in over ninety years ago.

That wall is still there in similar and different ways. Yet their dreams live. That’s one of the beauties of youth. While they noticed the darkness, they also saw the explosion of exclamation points at the end breakthrough allowing light and dreams to shine through.

As I Grew Older

by Langston Hughes

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
bright like the sun–
My dream.

And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky–
The wall.

I am black.

I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.

Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.

My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dreams!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,

To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!thumb_IMG_4761_1024.jpg

Thank you, Penny, for hosting Poetry Friday Roundup at Penny and Her Jots.