#SOL15: Day 12, Seeing Our Students in the Mirror

Reading Aileen Hower’s blog this month has been a treat. She is writing slices through her son’s eyes. Jacob sees things differently.  He has Asperger’s.

When I started reading it, I expected to see glimpses of my students in him. And I do. But I didn’t expect to I see myself in Jacob. Many of the things he thinks, are things I think. His worries are similar to mine. The more I read, the more I see him as a mirror, not a window.

I was thinking about this as I was running yesterday.

With each step, I bounced

from one idea

to the next.

It’s maddening

and exciting.

I look forward to running because of this.

The trouble is

I can’t

hold on to

my thoughts.

They are like

beautiful bubbles


pop in mid air.

All of a sudden it hits me.

My ADHD self has surfaced.

My unfocused and

hyperactive self.

I had never seen myself in this light. But for this brief moment, I realize it. I get a charge out of lots of ideas. I do best when I’m moving.  I’m happiest in those moments.

Later that day when N bounced around the room, I connected.  I felt his need for the next thing, the need to move. The inability to keep the next thought from jumping in and crowding out what was there. I saw in me what I saw in my student. I am (in some ways) this student.

Seeing our students in ourselves is fascinating, enlightening and essential. It’s more than walking in their shoes. It’s realizing your inherent similarities. On some level, they are you; you are them. The differences we see might be the ability to put on a mask of acceptability.


Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.




#SOL15: Day 11, Of DMs and Extra Credit

Life can be unfair. That’s a lesson you don’t want to teach your child.

I hear the tears. I knock on the closed door.

Go away! Leave me alone.

I walk away guessing at what happened.

I busy myself in the kitchen. Then I get a text.

Can u come here.

I enter the room and hug my wounded child huddled amongst the comforter, stuffed animals and pillows.

I worked so hard. I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do. It’s not fair.

I wait out the storm. Tears.  Lots of tears.

The cell phone buzzes with DMs.

I just listen and say very little.

I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do. 

More tears. I wait.

Eventually, there is room for me. I say, I know that it seems impossibly hard, but I know you can handle this. I say, I love you.

I don’t think I can do this. 

I say, I know you can; you are strong. I say, I love you.

I say, cry, be angry, lean on people who love you.

I sit there for a long time. And slowly, I see a hint of a smile. The result of a DM that lifts her up just a little.

Ah, there is hope. Is that blue sky peeking through?  I offer just a bit of advice, with lots space for her.

It’s late, but the skies have cleared with talk of how to get extra credit in history.

Soon it’s off to bed with a thank you momma. I love you.

Life can deliver messages that we aren’t ready for; that we don’t expect; that feel coldly unjust.

But life also gives us people who love us and tomorrow, and extra credit opportunities.

Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.






#SOL15: Day 6, The Bully Book

He sits on his knees, leaning on his forearms. His body is draped over the desk.  Three other boys surround him, reading.

S, N, A, and P love video games, graphic novels, and recess. They have a hard time settling in a classroom. Historically, they’ve needed shorter books and lots of teacher support.

After recess, they are totally engaged in this book:


Here’s an excerpt:

I’m an observer. I see what works and what doesn’t. Why does a joke sound funny coming from one kid but seem stupid when someone else says it? Why do some kids eat alone while others are rolling in friends? These are the questions I’ve been  thinking about.

This mystery, based on Eric Kahn Gale’s elementary school experiences, has grabbed my students. It names what they deal with every day. These boys are expert in bullying.  They’ve been on both sides: the bully and the bullied. This story speaks to them.

S, N, A and P don’t sit together. They’ve been known to argue and bully each another. But the gravitational pull of this book has sucked them in. It’s as if sitting together intensifies their experience.

I’m fascinated, and wonder — How are they internalizing this?

I heard one of them in the midst of reading say, “This is M!” They are connecting, but do they see themselves?

At the very least, this is a book they want to read. They love it without me helping them love it. They love it all by themselves. That is huge.

They plan to talk tomorrow.

I can’t wait.


Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge.  Read other slices here.








#SOL15: Day 2, Grocery Store Luxuries

It’s March and I’m “slicing” with over 100 bloggers on Two Writing Teachers blog. The challenge is to post “a slice of life” daily for 31 days. This is my second year taking this challenge. It is a journey. One full of mystery and a little bit of fear. Follow the adventure here.11454297503_e27946e4ff_hYesterday, the need for cat food sent me to the grocery store, but the cosmetics aisle called.

When my kids were little, going to the grocery store required lists that were strategically crafted by aisle location. Clear and decisive movements were key to getting through the store quickly with the least amount damage.

In those days, labels were not read. I avoided areas where candy, ice cream, toys or pacifiers were displayed. Some stores were off limits because checkout areas contained these items. Taking the time to read a shampoo bottle was out of the question.

The need to rush through the store has long since passed, but the memory lingers. For this reason, grocery store shopping offers a strange sort of allure. The opportunity to read labels and marvel at the multitude of products is a luxury.

After a bit of close reading in cosmetics, I chose the Cover Girl three-in-one pencil sharpener and walked toward the in-store Starbucks thinking, a latte and perhaps a little time in the school supply section.

Just then, my phone dings.  “Cat’s hungry,” my husband messages.

I reply and turn down cat food aisle.

Maybe I still need that list.




Slice of Life: Looking for Kindness

It’s Tuesday! Time for a Slice of Life with Two Writing Teachers. Thanks to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey, and Tara. You can find more slices here.

Life is interesting. I have these ideas, theories, plans. I paint this picture in my head, and then reality gets involved. At first glance today was disappointing. But then I thought about it.

Students are writing letters on Bring Your Own Device to school. They have changed their positions pro and con, back and forth.  The more they know and the more they write, the more their ideas morph and grow beyond their initial response. It’s been hard to work through this thinking, this writing. They aren’t loving every minute of it. That’s the part that doesn’t fit the picture in my head.  But I’m proud of their process, their writing and their opinions. They are thinking beyond themselves and that’s hard.

In our social issues reading unit we’ve been talking about power; who has it and why. Students have said people have power over others because of strength, money, will, leadership, race, kindness, love, bullying, laws, judges, intelligence. I find it so interesting they include kindness and love right alongside bullying and money. Not what I expected.

Today we got to the part in The One and Only Ivan where the news media has become aware of Ivan and Ruby’s situation. Ivan, the powerless and caged, has become a bit of a celebrity and my students can see the power is shifting towards him. I’m wondering if they are making the connection as to why it’s shifting. Do they see him as a disenfranchised letter writer, causing change. Do they see the power of the written word?

Put this all together with a side project, sort of an adjunct to our social issues work, an investigation of kindness. Groups developed questions using the Question Focus Technique. Each group choose their top three questions on the topic of kindness. Then they voted on questions they most wanted to investigate. Each class came up with three questions.

  1. Why should we be kind if someone isn’t kind to us?
  2. How can you be kind in difficult situations?
  3. How can you find kindness in your heart?
  4. Why do people bully?
  5. Does choosing kind make you a better person?
  6. Why aren’t people brave?

These questions say so much about what students see around them and why they don’t always choose kind. They point directly at why kindness is such a challenge. Kindness is easily overwhelmed.

Literature is an obvious place to find kindness; choosing to show us kind. Perhaps writing gives us space to find the kindness. To think before we react to what seems to be an assault on our person. To give kind, to find justice.

This student’s writing was a surprise. I didn’t expect it. On Friday he was opposed to BYOD. Today he wrote this:

it isn’t fair that just 5th graders have iPads. All grades should be blogging. That’s why I believe we should be able to bring our own devices to school.

In the picture in my head I see students coming to understand the need for social justice. They’d speak out on the behalf of the weak, reach out and be kind even when others aren’t kind to them.

Students can be selfish. They get their feelings hurt and strike back.  But then they reflect and come up with some startling ideas that make me realize there’s a lot more underneath.



Slice of Life: Uncomfortable Possibilities

I avoid thinking about uncomfortable things. This weekend I had to deal with the possibility and reality of two such things.

Earthquakes are something I’ve grown up with. I’ve experienced a couple bad ones, but they’ve been few and far between. If predictions are accurate, the “big one” will have a staggering impact on our area. I have one friend who moved to Arizona due to fear. The majority of us live with it, putting it in the back of our minds.

If you’re smart, you make sure you have fresh emergency supplies, some cash stashed, bookshelves secured, and no items stored up high that might go flying in the event of a big quake. There isn’t a season for earthquakes and time just slips by. I had put earthquake preparedness off. This weekend for many reasons, I made headway at home and at school in this department.

Of all the work I did, books were at the center of it.  I never seem to have enough books, yet I have so many I can’t store them properly.

I entered school with a clear plan of attack. Amusingly I thought it would be done in about three hours. It seemed easy and straightforward.

Without much thought I pulled out the boxes in a cabinet I hadn’t gone through since last year.. The boxes were stacked three high and three wide.

Pulling out the last one, I grabbed the broom to sweep up the dust bunnies and crayons that had slipped under, and I felt it.. Skittering down my leg. I didn’t see it, but I knew. Cockroach. I knew they were there.  I just conveniently forgot. I looked. He’d vanished.

I fearlessly continued, thinking I was bigger than he was.

A flash and I smacked a box down, pinning the beast; his head peeking out from underneath, his large antennae twitching. Yes, I’ve got you. I shoved the bugger into a mason jar and capped it with the box that had trapped him.

Now what? Not wanting to think about the implications of his presence, I crushed him. Done with it.

Six hours and lots of dirt and wildlife encounters later, the room is set for disaster. Nothing will tumble down on an unguarded soul. Even the cockroaches are safe.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

Slice of Life: The Power of Assessments

Assessments are powerful tools. Consider medical tests. Used appropriately they can be lifesaving. Used inappropriately, they can be misleading and lead to painful misdiagnosis. The same is true for reading assessments.

My students have been been schooled to be careful, questioning readers. Speed has been discouraged. Their reading assessments to date have rewarded thoughtful responses, both spoken and written. They are used to conferring with a teacher to express their thinking. This is what they believe is expected of them as readers. This is what they think reading is.

My district has recently required a new reading assessment. I had never done this type of assessment before and the majority of my students had no recollection of taking this kind of a test.

The assessment measures reading fluency over three passages with a quick retell at the end. The emphasis is on speed: the number of words read and spoken in the retell.

Results aren’t complete, but what I have noticed is how quickly students adjust to expectations. In the first passage they would read at their typical, careful pace. When stopped at the minute mark they were startled and felt they needed to complete the piece to be able to understand it. Retelling the story was difficult and frustrating for them. After all they hadn’t finished the text.

By the third read, students’ speed increased markedly. Their years of learning how readers should read was abandoned for what was expected, speed. With that speed they got further in the text, but their comprehension was at best on the surface. They could recount details, but synthesis of ideas was limited.

In just six minutes (the time allowed to read and retell three passages) their behavior as readers changed. Whoa! Do they learn fast.

As much as I told them not to worry, you could see the concern in their faces. They could see their scores come up on the iPad screen.

“What does green mean? Is that good?”

They probably felt like the patient in the doctor’s office with all the blinking lights and numbers. Thinking, am gonna be ok?

I try to reassure them. I tell them reading is not about speed. Reading is thinking and thinking takes time. Don’t worry about this, I say.  Go back to your book, hoping they forget the entire experience.

When I found out I had to do this assessment I was irritated because of the time taken away from instruction. After testing them, I am more disturbed by their reactions to the assessment.

When we test students we send a message. We are telling them this is what matters. You’d better be good at this.

Fortunately, my students went back to their books, and I will go back to teaching them that reading is thinking and that takes time. I also walk on with the knowledge that the assessments we give students send powerful expectations and should be given with care..

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers blog for Tuesday Slice of Life. Share your own and r11454297503_e27946e4ff_head more slices here.

Slice of Life: Confusion and Being Human

My #nerdlution15 challenge is a warm up for my SOL post.

Today’s word: confusion

Confusion — bewildered, baffled, confounded, mystified.  In a tangle of knots. Not knowing which end is up. The state of confusion is a place where we are lost and sometimes frustrated verging on the edge of anger and despair. We feel it’s our fault. Clearly we aren’t that smart or perhaps we are losing our mind. Or maybe someone is playing a trick on us; changing the rules mid-stream and not letting us know. Laughing behind our back. That is where the embarrassvertical confusionment comes in. A confused person is one who doesn’t understand their world or situation. But wait, is confusion a cultural shame? Why shouldn’t we view confusion as the necessary precursor to clarity?





If you haven’t read Anna’s One Little Word post, you should. Her words helped me find mine.

Time and being human are at odds. Humans make mistakes and messes, and the limited nature of time can magnify the impact of our imperfections.

My parents, at 94 and 87, have been each other’s best friend through 56 years of marriage. They have been their children’s and grandchildren’s biggest fans, giving what they thought was the best they could give. They have fought for their independence, never wanting to be a burden. They parented, modeled how life goes; they taught what it is to be human.

They taught me about mistakes.  How mistakes can hurt and be life changing. Number one they taught me to be brave and own my mistakes. To admit to them and apologize for them, no matter how painful and embarrassing. They taught me to reflect on my actions. To question, and if found wrong, rectify my thinking and doing. They taught me to be honest. To be honest with myself, and in so doing made me more responsible for my actions.

This Christmas there was a misunderstanding that grew from confusion and resulted in anger.

My parents refused to see my brother. This was the first Christmas my parents did not see their son. The first Christmas we were not all together.

First there was confusion.

Baffled, mystified were the words my parents used.

I don’t understand what could have happened were the words my brother used.

Then came anger. The feeling of betrayal on both sides.

I tried to piece together the events and the actions, but it was impossible. I had a feeling as to what had happened, but in the end had to rely on what I knew to be true about my brother and my parents.

They have a relationship of over 50 years of love and trust. This had to be a misunderstanding based in confusion that moved to anger.

After a long discussion with my dad on New Year’s Day, he came to believe he had made a mistake. And even if it wasn’t completely his mistake, he saw the need to reach out. “I made this happen,” he said, “I have to make this right.”

The next day, he called my brother and apologized. Not an easy thing to do.

Right after the call, I got a text from my brother, “Dad called, I think we’re in a better place.”


Being human is hard. We react badly at times towards people we love. We make mistakes.  And (if) time is linear, we must make amends quickly. I know my dad wishes he could turn back time and eliminate the moment that precipitated the trouble. But, that isn’t possible, so he did what he had to do.  And I watched, getting instructions on how to be human.

Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog, to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara, for this space11454297503_e27946e4ff_hto share the small moments that construct and constrain our lives. Read more slices here.

Slice of Life: A Chicken Moment

The last slice before Christmas and all through the house, all creatures are sleeping as I work on this post. Thank you to Two Writing Teachers Blog. You, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara, give us so much daily and then this Tuesday time and place to share.


Dinner was being made by many hands last night. That’s a nice thing about the holiday season. Meals together that are made together.

I make the salad.

My son cooks the sliced chicken.

My daughter heats the sauce.

Reaching and bending around each other, the table is set and food is placed.

The sauce is ready and my son starts to pour it over the chicken.

“You stir it,” my daughter tells me. “It tastes better when you do it.”

“How old are you! 6?” her oldest brother teases.

“No, 7,”  she shoots back.

These moments happen infrequently outside of this space we carve out for holidays. Usually everyone is running to their commitments. Making reports and then moving on to the next challenge. Rushing towards success, to independence, to grow up.

At this chicken moment, I remember times when she has asked me to make her a sandwich, toast the bagel, make a smoothie, sit beside her during a sad or scary movie. Not because she is can’t do it, but because she wants me to.

This slice of holiday life is fleeting, but present in tiny pockets of the day to day. Something to listen for in the new year.

I stir the sauce onto the chicken, making sure all the pieces are coated, and smile inside.

Happy Holidays, peace and reflective moments to you all.

Slice of Life: Genius Hour Revisited


We had Genius Hour yesterday.

During our Genius Hour time I don’t direct the work, the students do. I operate as a consultant and resource. I’ve been a big proponent of this work, because of the agency it builds. That doesn’t mean I don’t question the work and watch, try to guide and counsel on as needed basis. Yesterday was a day I questioned their work.

Our focus this year has been to research or follow your passion or what bothers you, and find a way to help make a difference in the world.

I encourage individual work, but many students gravitate toward group work. The trouble with groups is the possible reduction in personal agency and that strong personalities can dominate the group. Some kids get excluded. You know that kid: the kid who is “annoying,” the kid that doesn’t fit in.  This year, it seemed that students were working well together.

Ironically, trouble started in the “kindness project” group. I heard talk that was far from kind. They were saying and doing things that were exactly what they were preaching against.  This talk led me to stop the class half way through our time.

I asked students to put their work aside and write, persuade me, prove to me that Genius Hour time was worthwhile. All you could hear was the tapping of pens on the desk.

As an aside, they can write argument when it’s something they have a strong opinion about. Three reasons why with supporting evidence, introductions, conclusions and a fair amount of begging could be found in most letters. All done in ten minutes with no planning, prompts, charts or talk preceding their writing. Here’s a sampling of their big ideas:

It makes us feel like we are in charge; playing but working at the same time

I want to teach myself and share my thinking

It helps me with problems – I learn new things

I want to show others that we are geniuses and help other people

It inspires us to do more

We work hard on these projects, inside and outside the classroom

We are able to study things we want to learn in this world

It helps us learn things we didn’t know and helps us spread ideas to the world

It is a time for us to express our genius and stand up for what we believe in

The responses shined a light on why this is valuable time for students.  When I think back on what I have observed I note the troubles and the strengths. Some struggle to find focus and have switched projects. A lot of the work is done outside of class. Some of it was socializing and messy and loud. The trouble in groups happened, but the majority showed great team work and dedication to their work.

Reading through the responses, one piece stood out with a contrary and sobering point of view. “N” liked the time, but she also had the strength to stand up and say the opposite of the group:

I honestly don’t think we need to continue. I don’t know. I’m like, can we just read? I don’t like a loud room and I have things I like to do, but I think that most just want to be with friends.

At the bottom of the page, “N” wrote and then scratched out: “so I think if we do the Genius project….”  I wonder she had in mind.

This one student’s voice is true and indicative of something that needs to change. And maybe not just for her, but for others who need more quiet, focused and personally responsive time.

Providing students with Genius Hour time when time is in short supply, might be a dangerous move. It is not safe. It is possible that the majority are just saying what they think I want to hear to continue in this rather unstructured school time. With that said, I know there is thinking, reading and writing inspired by Genius Hour that has continued outside the classroom time. This is the type of work  we want our students to engage in. Independent, self propelled learning that is done for their own interests and not because a teacher told them to do it.

Genius Hour might  have times that are less than perfect, but it has gotten students to do work they otherwise wouldn’t have done.  The fact that my students feel they have “genius and stand up for what [they] believe in” is big. And that is exactly what “N” did when she apologized for not liking the noise and wanting to just read.

We have things to work out with our Genius Hour time, but isn’t that true for all things we do in the classroom. Things need to be worked on to meet the needs of all. Luckily the room is filled with genius, so it’s not all on me.

Thank you Anna, Betsy, Beth, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers for providing a space to share these slices of teaching life. A space to work out it out. Sometimes we just need to write. Read more slices here.