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.



Celebrate: Teachable Moments

Temperatures soared this week and with them, tempers. Kids had trouble. Some to the point that they fought verbally and physically. By Thursday we had some breeze and the AC started working. Things seemed to get better. But kids were still off. People hold on to hurt and don’t let go of it easily.  Sometimes teachers are thrust into the center of the sturm and drang of students’ lives. When that happens we need to negotiate those storms with them, beside them. It disrupts traditional instruction, but at times is the center of the instruction they need. This week I’m celebrating teachable moments that fall into our laps in spite of and sometimes because of those storms.

Friday: We were on the carpet, getting read to read Wonder. Students who struggle with self control and organization were having a hard time settling. Those who had more organization and control  were waiting patiently. “C” who sat in front muttered under his breath, “No one follows the rules.”

I was interested and asked, “Do really think that?” He looked up at me and nodded. Others around him started agreeing. So I opened it up to the room. With, this, “How many of you agree with the statement that ‘C’ made: no one follows the rules? ” All hands went up. I set the read aloud aside and I asked students to do a quick QFT on the statement.

They had done this questioning work based on the book Make Just One Change at he beginning of the year. In that case I had created a “Question Focus” and they generated questions off of it. This in-the-moment student-generated statement seemed like a perfect and necessary QFT opportunity. So with ten minutes remaining in the class period, I sent them off to generate questions.  Without reminders in the how to’s of generating, categorizing and prioritizing question students came up with an average of ten questions a group.  Some groups got into the philosophical issues of why, other questions  seem like the beginnings of investigations. Here are a few samples:

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While these questions may seem like kid stuff, I think they are really the root of some really big stuff.  They will do some investigations next week. It will be their investigation, I hope we all learn from it.

This week I celebrate a teachable moment that was made up of:

  1. a student’s statement
  2. stopping the planned to address the need
  3. an actionable strategy to generate questions
  4. students’ questions
  5. the future possibilities of figuring out answers or maybe more questions

Thank you Ruth Ayers for creating this space to celebrate our lives weekly. Find other celebrations here.

celebrate link up

Celebrate This Week: Why We Teach

It’s Saturday and time to Celebrate This Week with Ruth Ayers!  Find more celebration posts here.celebrate link upFifth grade teachers see the culmination of the work of an elementary school. We send them off and wonder. Our students move on to middle school and we don’t always know what happens. A few who have siblings at our school came back last Thursday, so proud and a little awkward in their new middle school persona. Seeing these “old” student with the new crop of fifth graders gives me so much to celebrate.

First I celebrate Angelica. She’s going to a middle school that starts in a few weeks, so she’s been coming to school every day helping in our classrooms. And I do mean helping — organizing books, supplies, charging iPads. Now that we have students, she’s helping students. At the end of the first day of school she apologized , “I’m so sorry for talking too much!  How do you guys do it?” The maturity of an eleven year old. Love it!  Her smile and and exuberance is a constant reminder of why we do what we do.

Second I celebrate Christian, a guy who had the courage and know how to stand up for himself. He was placed in a sixth grade remedial English classroom that he knew wasn’t right for him. He had no elective. Upset, but determined he went on his own to the counselor’s office, scheduled an appointment, and then informed them of their mistake. He knew he was a more capable; he was a good reader. He said he was insulted by how they treated him,” like a child.” So interesting his take on this. I am so proud that he knew what he could do and stood up to adults at a new school to make sure he got what he needed.

Third I celebrate my current students’ families. I sent home a “help me get to know your child” survey. I am always so touched by what parents write. If I was to choose one thing to do with parents at the beginning of the year, it would be this. You get so much from this short survey. My form was inspired by the insightful Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp. Get your own here.  One area that came out across the board was in response to the question: “What is the best way to  motivate your child.” The vast majority said PRAISE and ENCOURAGEMENT. Not money or prizes. Beautiful. It made me think of the encouragement provided by the Sugata Mitra’s “granny cloud.’

Fourth I celebrate two new students; one who comes from a local parochial school the other from Texas. Both are potentially fish out of water. Coming in to a group of students who have known each other for years, but these two have entered the classroom with their own set of skills and willingness to learn. Both have stepped up unafraid to face new academic and social challenges. Only ten years old and so brave.

Fifth I celebrate my student’s insightfulness and courage. They created, refined and prioritized their own questions around a focus topic using the Question Formulation Technique. I blogged about it here and here. They worked through one question focus: Writing is Hard. The results were a great assessment of attitude toward writing but what I want to celebrate is the students’ reflection on the importance of learning how to question.  Their responses reassure me that this year will be a great one:

It’s important to learn how to question because when we are older we will ask better questions.

You don’t need help from any teachers, it’s better to do it yourself.

You think a lot when you make questions.

Making questions is like a treasure, because it can be hard to find.

We can use this for survival… to figure things out…in everyday life

Today I celebrate why we teach and love what we do: parents that want the best for their kids and students’ exuberance, bravery, thoughtfulness and willingness to take the journey with us.  We are so lucky to have such gifts.

Slice of Life: The Power of Questioning

Every Tuesday, Two Writing Teachers blog hosts a place for bloggers to post a slice of their life . It is a wonderful, supportive community. Join in as a contributor or read more slices  here. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth for providing this space for our writing.11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

Today, after testing, we started the read aloud “What Do Fish Have to Do With Anything?” a short  story by Avi. In the story, the main character,Willie, is a sixth grader who asks a lot of questions. His recently single, overworked mother responds to one of his particularly difficult questions with, “Questions that have no answers shouldn’t be asked.”

With that thought in our minds, we move to the idea of questioning:  the who, what, why and how of questioning in school. Guided by Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, we started a new line of thinking: How to ask questions.  As members of the Right Question Institute, the authors’ work is not just about teaching students how to question for academic gains,  but  for social justice and self advocacy purposes.


This is just a step toward teaching the Question Formulation Technique developed in the book. A step toward hearing more student voices, student thinking and creating student agency.

Before we started the work,  students had to be clear on the ground rules.

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Seems simple? Maybe. Would they just look at me when they saw the idea. Would they be able to make questions out of statements. Could they not argue and criticize ideas of their classmates, We talked a little about each rule and students had to be honest about what would be a challenge.

The talkers, the ones who love debate, admitted #2 would be their biggest challenge. Students who tend to be know-it-alls (other students gave them meaningful looks) decided to be the ones to write the questions they heard to keep themselves quiet.

Some didn’t understand the idea of asking questions.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t get it.”

So I modeled a tiny bit.
“Let’s say the topic is shoes. So questions I could ask might be: Why are shoes important? or How are shoes made?” That quick general example gave those who found the idea of coming up with questions completely foreign, a tiny idea of what the heck I was talking about.

My only criteria for each group was that it  have a scribe and contain 3 to 4 students.

Then I gave them the statement to develop questions about:

Our differences separate us.

I hoped the statement showed no bias on my part, was something that could generate interest and open-ended questions. We have been reading books (Wonder, Out of My Mind, The One and Only Ivan, A Long Walk to Water) that highlight the struggles of those who are different, the outcasts. Those who either don’t fit in or aren’t wanted.  This theme runs through our lives and can cause some of our biggest life challenges. So I was hoping the background knowledge was strong enough to make some connections, although not necessarily from the reading.

They looked at the words on the board.


I worry.

S  asks,  “Do you mean in our books?”

I respond, “Your job is to generate as many questions as you can.”

Then talk. Finally.

They were bursting with questions.



How come….

Is it ok if..


I heard a little bit of, “That’s not a good one.” To which I added, “No judgement.”

And a little of, “That’s because…” To which I mentioned, “No discussion.”

I also heard, “How do you do that? You have so many questions!”

Mostly I heard questions that fit the idea.

In about five minutes most had a page of questions.

One group member came to me and admitted they had nothing because two group members “played around.” (classic) The group was dismantled, distributed among the groups with only three and informed of the questions they had come up with.

As we walked to lunch J said to me, “I’m so glad we are asking questions. I am always asking questions.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this from her. She is someone who asks all the time and it shows in her reading and writing.

Questions are the road to thought, to asserting your ideas, to wondering about why things are they way they are, to how they could be better, to change. All students need a healthy dose of why, when, where, how come in their daily school routine. Questions that come from them, not a teacher or a test. Questioning empowers us.

The scribes filed away their questions and saved them for tomorrow’s next steps: improving and and categorizing  them as open- or closed-ended. Just understanding the difference will be huge.

Excited for tomorrow.