Celebrate This Week: Why I Teach Reading

This week, one of my students asked me why I teach reading.

I’ve been thinking about this question in the context of this week.

We’re getting ready. For the test. We took on testing language.

What does that mean?” was a typical reaction to a phrase like, “draw a conclusion.”

It’s not that students hadn’t heard the words before or read texts on grade level or responded to questions.

We’ve been doing this all year. But there’s a difference.

We’ve used these words as learners. There has been approximation, engagement, not mastery. We’ve done the work in texts of choice. The questions have grown out our thinking.

Testing changes context.

The work is not learning. It is responding. It’s right and wrong.

This week, students noticed author’s point of view, made inferences, drew conclusions and found evidence in the text to support their thinking.  The same thing they have done all year. But this week, it was done in a static situation with one text and fixed questions.

It’s unsettling.

One could argue we needed more practice with this kind of work.

One could spend all year getting used to this sort of language. Working in same texts, answering questions with test-like question stems. I’ve done this. But there is a cost.

If we spend our precious time teaching this kind of reading and this type of questioning, the work would be familiar. Perhaps scores would be higher. It’s a possibility.

But if we do this, students will walk out of our doors with an aborted view of reading. Reading for knowledge and pleasure will diminish. And, I believe a result could be that the resources available to them as adults will evaporate along with the richness of a life of learning.

We do students a huge disservice if we don’t give them the opportunity to access enjoyment and to learn through reading.  Providing a classroom environment that reaches that potential is the challenge and craft of being a reading teacher. This is the magic that is reading. This is why I teach reading.

This week, I celebrate testing language a few weeks before the test.

This week, I celebrate knowing why I teach reading.


Thank you, Ruth Ayers, for a place to share our thoughts and celebrations each week. Read more celebrations here.



#SOL15: Day 17, Seeing the Character in Us

I started read aloud, asking students if books took them places. Most students nodded. Then I added, “In books I love, I see myself in the character. I feel like they do. It’s like holding up a mirror, seeing a bit of me in them. Have you ever had this happen to you?”

One or two students nodded, but the majority looked at me like I was crazy. Even my most perceptive readers looked confused.

Then I dug around, giving them some examples from our past read alouds. Saying, “have any of you felt like …”

I was losing them, so I dropped it and pulled out Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose.

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In this story, Kid feels it’s his right and duty to crush Ant, but Ant begs Kid to see the world through his eyes.

I ask students, do you see bits of yourself on this page? Have  you ever felt this way? At first they identify with Kid.

Then Kid says, how can you feel anything you’re so small. Ant replies,

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I ask, “have you ever felt so small and asked this same question?”

“Yes! With my parents!”

Bingo. A shift from Kid to Ant. For a moment, they see themselves in this character. Ant is them.

We consider:

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Students have strong beliefs. “Ant should live! He has a family. They should become friends!”

I’ve spent the year reading books that revolve around kindness. Students could see it in the story. They know who’s the bully, and they don’t like him. But, then they’d go to the playground and call another student “Auggie.”

How could they not see they were being the bully they hated in the story? I hadn’t considered they didn’t see themselves in characters.

This week we will be practicing finding ourselves in picture books characters. Today students had a tiny aha. I had a big aha. Maybe more will be found if we just clean our lenses and look for it.

Thank you, 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. 11454297503_e27946e4ff_h

Celebrating: Students

This week and my students were wild and wet; up and down.  Today, the ground is wet, but skies are clear, and I am celebrating my students with you and those who celebrate with Ruth Ayers every week.  They got through some difficult spots, but came out, in my opinion, shining.

Winter Break is almost here and kids feel it. Schedules were disrupted due to practicing for the winter pageant and the rain. Even with that underlying craziness, students did as they were asked. They practiced their performance. They lined up by height, climbed up on risers, squeezed close together and sang.  Fifth graders don’t like to stand close to one another, smile and sing. But they did it. Their voices rising in unison. Their faces shining. I hate the practice, but the results always  get to me and I smile deep inside.

This brings me to the assessment  I gave my students this week. I hate giving tests. Hate taking tests.  But I have to admit, the results can be fascinating. I told my students, as I handed them the (gasp) practice language arts performance assessment from Smarter Balanced,  this is to help me help you.

The content wasn’t bad, three articles about service animals. They were interesting and not too long. I knew some would struggle, some aren’t there yet, but it seemed appropriate for fifth graders in May. I figured it wouldn’t kill them, so let’s see what they can do.

They were to read the articles, answer a few opened ended questions, and then write an opinion piece using the information.

Watching them take this was painful and pleasing. Sort of like watching them line up and sing. They suffered a bit as they hunkered down to read a text that was not their choice. But they took out their notebooks and jotted their noticings and thoughts. They wrote in the margins of the text. They took their time. They worked hard. I was proud of them, and worried for them.

They read, re read, and finally got to the questions. Did they have enough left to answer the questions at the end of all that?

The following day they wrote their opinions.

After it all was over, I asked them what they thought about the work. They said it was exhausting, it was challenging, and it wasn’t what they wanted to do.

I asked them was it good to know what they would be facing in May? They all said yes, loud and clear.


Students have to take this test, for better or for worse.  In all fairness to them, they need and want to know what they need to face.

I spent last night looking at their work. What I saw were big ideas from the text jotted in the margins as well as their thoughts, questions, and reactions.

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That right there said they understood the text, they interacted with the text, they had comprehension and thinking that went with the text.

Their answers weren’t perfect, but the majority were getting there. From what I could see, the errors were largely due to the fact that they didn’t read the questions as thoughtfully as they read the text. In most cases it had nothing to do with their actual comprehension.

In writing, about two-thirds had written opinions and the others had written informational pieces. Were they perfect, no. Were they thoughtful, yes. The majority showed their thinking about the topic and incorporated some of their learning from reading the articles.

My students have not mastered the expectations of the common core as measured by this assessment. What they showed was that the work that we (as a school) have been doing is getting them there. And more importantly they are readers, thinkers and writers. .

Today I celebrate my fifth graders and all the teaching and learning that has happened in their elementary school careers. I celebrate the years of excellent, authentic teaching in classrooms filled with read aloud, guided and strategic reading and writing instruction, with real books and magazines, and the opportunity to read and write daily.  I celebrate the opportunity I have to continue to teach and learn with my students in the months to come.

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Slice of Life: Reading Lessons in Unsuspecting Places


There is a printer in the hallway, and two printers in the garage. The ones in the garage are there because  no one has been able to make them work our wifi. Monday our printer in the house stopped working.  I told my husband figuring we’d probably need another printer.

“We’ve got two in the garage,” he says.

“And they don’t work.”

He just looks at me and says, “Yes. They. Do.”

“Okay, where’s the manual?” I say, thinking he doesn’t have it.

Surprisingly he shows up with it.

Even more surprisingly, I figure it out in about 5 minutes. Bam! I’m printing. “Yes! I am awesome!”  Feeling rather full of myself, I tell my husband, “If you could find the manual for that receiver, I bet I could figure that out.”

Minutes later he hands me the manual.

Not sure why I asked for this. About two weeks ago, somehow the audio stopped working on the TV. No idea why, and up to this point I really didn’t care. There are four remotes and many boxes and switches involved. All of this has given me a complete hands-off relationship with the equipment.  Because I rarely watch TV, I forget how to turn the thing on. Consequently, I only watch something if someone else is. And even then, I usually walk away.

What was I thinking. Me fix the receiver?  I’m not completely sure what a receive does. Receive something, but what and how is mystery.

Faced with my self-inflicted challenge, I opened the manual and turned to the diagram of the console. Yep, lots of buttons.  I sink down on the hard wood floor and read the display on the receiver. It says, “SAT.” I think, well the date’s off, it’s Monday. But that  has nothing to do with sound.

I study the page, searching for anything that might have to do with audio. The diagram delineates every knob and its purpose. I read it aloud, because that’s what I do with difficult text. “Number 14 – source.” I trace the line that leads me to the knob. “Number 18 – volume.” Again I locate the dial on the diagram and then find it on the black box. I turn the knob. Nothing. Back to the manual and  I look at the explanation of “source,” I read aloud, “SATELLITE/CABLE.” Oh maybe that’s what SAT means?

I touch the source dial

Flip:  GAME.

Flip:  HTML.

Flip : TV and… sound

Ha! I am a technology rock star.

My husband and daughter are in awe.  Both want to know how I did it.

What did I do? I ventured into foreign territory, but I had a history of a little success so I was ready to try. I had time, no pressure. I stumbled around a bit in the text, but I  took my time and played around. I asked myself, what made sense and tested it. It didn’t work, so I tried something else. Tested it and bam it worked!

This got me thinking about how a struggler faces text and how we teach reading. What did I do?

I had a bit of confidence and time to process. I  read aloud. Questioned.  Tested it. Got feedback. Re read with the feedback in mind, and tried again.

In the end, I got it and felt good about me.

Now if that happened for students as they work through a text; what readers we would have.

Thanks to Tara, Dana, Beth, Stacey, Anna and and Betsy at Two Writing Teachers who provide our Slice of Life sharing space. Find more slices and add your own here.

Celebrate This Week: Beginnings, Volumes and a Milestone

It is Saturday and time to celebrate with Ruth Ayers.  Join us, no invitation needed, every Saturday. Find the link up and other Celebration posts here. This week I celebrate the beginnings of writing, tons of reading and a birthday.

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1. I met up with my two new writing partners, Cathy Skubik and Christine Leishman on Google Hangouts! First off, yay us for making technology work. Secondly yay us for for jumping into this place of uncertainty that is writing. And finally yay Two Writing Teachers for making this possible. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.

2. I retired my old Mac laptop. It has served me well, never a problem, just an upgrade here or there. But after a week of lugging it around NYC, I decided it was time. Sorry old friend. Now I sit in front of my shiny new MacBook Air — oh so pretty, light and fast. While I celebrate this lovely new thing, I appreciate the many years of service of the old.

3a. I am loving kid lit. First off,  Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff captured me immediately with the main character Albie. He is a heart breaker and all of you lovely teachers out there will immediately think of your own Albies. It has earned a place alongside Wonder and Each Kindness in my Read Aloud line up for next year. A great book to teach kids about what really matters. Thank you Tara for your great review of this book. It made me pick it up!


3b. I am in the midst of Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana. OH.MY.GOSH. Talk about being swept away. You will just love Armani. This girl stands up for what is right, but has the good sense to keep her mouth shut when she knows it’s not gonna help. That’s what helps her survive as you hold your breath for disaster that you know is coming: Hurricane Katrina. It’s a page turner and a tear jerker. I’m thinking this is historical fiction for ten year olds. What do you think? Thank you Erin, I picked this book up because of you.


4. I read Teaching Interpretation Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning in two days. This book by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen addresses a difficult thing to teach in an easy to read fashion. The simplicity in presentation is just one part of the brilliance you will find in this text. They have taken a complex thing, interpretation, and broken it down. Sonja and Dana have thoughtfully analyzed the process of how to come up with ideas about text and then test student thinking with evidence. Symbolism and theme, two sticky areas for those literal types in our classrooms, are beautifully addressed. With their teaching in my head, symbols pop up all over the place as I inhale books. Thank you Sonja and Dana. Your book has made me a better reader and will make me a better teacher next year!


5.  And finally  I’m celebrating a milestone of sorts: my middle child’s birthday, 20 years old today. Only one teenager left!


Growing Myself as a Reader at TCRWP’s Summer Reading Institute

After day one of TCRWP’s Summer Reading Institute I am overwhelmed with the volume and depth of what i’ve heard and learned.

A lot has changed since the last time I attended a Summer Reading Institute six years ago.  One of the biggest changes has been the expectation of the Common Core. . The other change you might not be as well aware of is the change in me. I entered  classrooms a very different person.

Today I sit in a place taking in information that is rich and complex for me to synthesize and understand. Today I access knowledge on a deeper level. Just like my students who have to dig deeper to take in text, I have to work at a different level. Before I understood the idea of the work, and I worked hard to bring it into my classroom, but the practice wasn’t the result of my personal practice.It was processed by others.

Today I’m at point where I need to take this work to a deeper level. Just like my students. Lucy Calkins’ keynote address  highlighted the call to see reading as a personal challenge. The expectations of what it is to be a reader have changed. Drastically.  Students need to process information at a deep level.  They are no longer the receivers of information. Now they have to do something with it. And, we teachers are not the information source. Now we are one source of how to access text, how to interpret, to synthesize meaning. Lucy asked us to see this as a  turning point for students and for teachers.

Today teachers need to take this challenge on and grow ourselves as readers. We work on our writing to get better at it. Why should reading be any different.  Getting better as a reader needs to be something we take on. It’s personal. Sure we’ve been reading for a long time, but we need to look at our reading closely and ask ourselves how can we get better. Most people I know accept the fact that we could learn a lot about writing. How is reading all that different? Just because no one sees what you think as you read? Try one of the common core tasks with a piece of literature and you tell me. Is it easy? Could you improve? Absolutely.

We need to work on it and at it.

What a huge aha that was for me. Of course. Why wouldn’t we need to work on ourselves as readers. This will allow us to work side-by-side with our students, drawing upon our own struggles and our found strategies to help students attack their struggles. Just as we do in writing.

Today is another day to try this work and get better as a reader.

Celebrate Extra Time and Space

Every week Ruth Ayers invites bloggers to celebrate their week by focusing on about the big and the small things worth holding up and celebrating. Thank you Ruth for this lovely ritual. Read more celebrations here.celebrate link upToday I celebrate the time and space created by summer. As a teacher, the school year is very time driven. We eek all we can out of every minute. And we get a lot done. But with that pressure, that efficiency, we loose a bit of mind space that allows for possibility and growth. Today I celebrate all that can go with the extra time and space that summer allows.

1. Conversations. In the hurry of the school year, I maintain friendships with a text, a wave, a promise to get together, but in the end, while I mean to take the time, I often can’t or maybe just don’t. I say, next week, tomorrow. All of a sudden, time has slipped by and it hasn’t happened. With a little less schedule, I stop and talk. Today I celebrate two long conversations and how the ebb and flow, the back and forth that goes with it can move your thinking and lift your heart.

2. My desk. I’m one of those teachers who cleans up their classroom and brings a lot home. Because I need to read it, organize it, cull through it, re think it in a thoughtful manner.  The upshot of this is that my desk, in the corner of my bedroom, is inundated with charts, books, papers, more books, files, stacks and stacks of things to go through. Yesterday I went through my stacks of papers, took pictures of charts, filed, tossed and so today, I can celebrate my desk. You can see the color of it!

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3. Projects Completed. This desk space was only possible after I finished a few school related “projects.”  All were opportunities to interact with other teachers, to do things I love, but the prep took mind space, leaving no energy or time to clean up. I moved from one project to the next, telling myself, when it is done then I’ll organize, make dinner on time, shop before 6 pm. I promised myself, my workspace would move to one spot of our house rather than the living room, the dining room and sometimes the kitchen. Today I celebrate the completion of these projects and the space that finishing creates.

4. Reading. Reading takes on a different persona in the summer. I read during the school year, but my summer mindset changes how I understand things. In the summer, I see things that could be. I can see how certain things apply beyond the moment I’m in because there is no particular moment I’m in.  It’s time to fall in love with reading again. Today I celebrate the time and space created for reading and the thinking that goes with it.

5. My family all in one spot, at the same time. Everyone is scattered and schedules seem to never align. But this weekend, the amazing will happen and (because school is out) all will be together at one time. Today, I celebrate that rare occurrence.

Happy first day of summer.


Happy weekend to you.

Slice of Life: Day 2 Filled with Piles, Files and Treasures


Day 2 in my first slice of life daily challenge. I am so impressed with the numbers who slice. I just wish I could read more of them. All such gems. So proud to be a part of the Slicing community at Two Writing Teachers. Thank you Stacey, Dana, Tara, Elizabeth, Anna and Betsy for helping me become more of a writer.

Today it rained, hard. It hailed. Today there was lightning, thunder.
Today I filed papers.
What do these things have in common? All these things don’t happen very often.
Truth: I am terrible at putting things away.

I am one of those people who loves organization, but hates to organize. I’m one of those people who instead of putting things away in their place when I get them, I put things in a place that I will eventually put away. Today was eventually.

Today I filed.

My bedroom was awash in student work, absence notes, random mentor texts, charts, cards.

Stacks were made: memoir, informational texts, poetry, fantasy, etc.
Found: a random poem written by my middle son in 4th grade -his ode to Lord of the Rings.
Ummm. I sit and think. Where to put this treasure? I place in a pile of other un-categorizable papers. A pile to be discovered another time. I think that is fine. I’ll find this again. Next time.

Now, where is that book? I’ve been looking for it for days, weeks. Searching the bookshelves and other places I pile books. I know I have at least one copy of it.  Every time I start looking, I get distracted by another book.

Today I found The Boy on the Porch.  Hmmm… I sit down in the corner. Just a little break from organizing I think.

As I read I wonder. Who is this boy? He’s magical, alien, and other worldly all in one. I think of the wondering work my students would do if they read this book. He’s a secret treasure to this couple who find him mysteriously placed on their doorstep. Mute. Its magical quality reminds me of  Cynthia Ry;ant’s  Van Gogh Cafe.  The secret, sweet part of Jacob reminds me of the sweet spirit of the character in Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodsen. I’m wondering if he is part animal, related to the cow and the beagle. And why does this couple receive these gifts? Will they get to keep them? Should they?

Time is slipping and the papers are on their way to being filed, but you can’t walk on the ground without stepping on one.

My husband walks in clearly disgusted, “We have to leave at 5:45,” he says

“It’s  3:30,” I say.

He knows me too well. Irritating. So I put the book down, focus on the papers, get them off the ground,  and in files that are named.

Now I can read and someone can walk on the ground. Now I can go back to the book I can’t put it down.

But wait, what was I looking for? Oh yes Bird by Bird. It is driving me crazy. Did I loan it to someone? If so, please return. Now back to the book.

Celebrating the Planned and the Unplanned Moments

celebrate link upThank you Ruth Ayers for the space, Celebrate this Week, to reflect on things worth celebrating. It rejuvenates and focuses me on the good.

FIRST: The One and Only Ivan and Reading Graffiti We started Ivan Monday. This incredible read aloud has offers so much. It’s hard for me not to stop constantly and just gasp or giggle at certain points in text. Ivan is a poet, a dreamer, a philosopher. He sets the tone for all we do this week. Our Reading Graffiti Wall is christened with student selected lines from Ivan.2014-01-17 19.06.22

SECOND: Memoir Writing  The perfect line from Ivan launches memoir.  First we studied mentors Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers. and essay-like memoirs from former students. Then we developed a chart of what we are shooting for.2014-01-17 19.08.37

Gathering began, and I saw little glimmers of possibility as I conferred with students–

“What are you working on?”

“I’m writing about my grandmother, but it’s hard, you know my mom’s mom, she just died.”

“What are you working on?”

“I’m writing about my dad and how I miss him.”

“What are you working on?”

“How letting go of rescue animals is hard.”

Oh my. Next week, we begin the touchy work of holding on and developing those heartfelt moments. Moments that fifth graders (sometimes) don’t want to see, or (sometimes) aren’t quite ready to look at, or (maybe) are afraid to show. As students gathered and I conferred, the number of “I don’t know what to write about” was down to practically zero. Groans were heard when we had to stop writing.

THIRD: Poetry Began. It was a shaky start. Three simple questions guide us for now: 1) How do we know it’s a poem? 2) What does it mean? 3) What tools does the author use? A great starting place I gleaned from this NCTE recap post by Stacey Shubitz.  This is where we begin and build from. Once again Ivan guides us in our work. He tells us gorillas are poets. I tell my students we will be like the great apes and not the slimy chimps, chattering away. We will model ourselves on Ivan. We will study and craft. Remembering what makes a poem, looking to build our own crafting muscles along the way.

FOURTH: Quiet Time with Students. Wildfires on Thursday meant bad air quality, so students were off the yard and in classrooms for two days. No outside play was allowed. Friday after school I sat at my desk, eyes burning. I felt like taking a nap. Students linger.

My classroom at 4:30:  Two students lay on the carpet reading magazines, several are at desks reading books, a couple are sitting in the back reading blogs. They take an occasional break from reading to talk about a book they want to read next or to share something they just read.  

They stay until they’re picked up. This isn’t unusual.  They want a quiet, comfortable place to read, to talk, to write, to create something. They share things that they are thinking about with me and with each other. 

The custodian walks in to vacuum, so the students decide to do some investigation outside.

A few minutes later, “Hey, Mrs. Harmatz, wanna come see our experiment? I’m proving that dirt sinks and soil floats.”

I see a dark substance, apparently the “soil” floating on the top and another dark substance, the “dirt,” on the bottom of a plastic beaker.

“What’s the difference between soil and dirt?” I ask.

“Soil has cow poop in it,” she responds.”Feel it. It’s light and spongy. That’s why it floats.”

The experiment continues.  Adjustments are made. Questions are asked. Soon the discovery is made that there are tiny pieces of bark in the soil and that’s what floats. Wood floats in water. So much for the cow poop.

As I think back on this week, I want to celebrate all of the things that worked. Things that came together like I had hoped, but more importantly the moments created by students — the quote from Ivan, chosen by a student that fit perfectly with memoir; the notebook entries and discussions with students that showed a glimpse of what they have inside; and after school time when students meander from reading to investigation.  Moments that shed light on who they are and what they think. This week I’m celebrating these moments that build relationships  and learning–moments to experiment, to write, to read, to just be.

Mixed Emotions — The Last Teaching Day of 2013

It’s the last night before a three week break, and I have mixed emotions.

I’m excited to have a change of pace and a refocus on home. I’m looking forward to lounging around reading a bit more.

I’m excited to have time to recharge and rethink. Sometimes I get so caught up in the moment I forget exactly where I was going when I started. The time to piece together ideas that are coming at me all at once in a slower, more methodical way is a luxury of time off.

I’m excited to be with my family, all together. Both sons should be home tomorrow night. That will make us five again. I value these times above all else. The time with just us five is limited.  As time goes by, their worlds get bigger and our role as parents gets smaller. So when they do direct their attention towards home, I sit up and pay attention.

But, at the same time…

I’m sad about the loss of routine; the disconnection to the day to day. While I love the less hectic pace, I can get lost without a looming deadline. Pressure makes me perform. The lack of it can lead to lots of disappearing time, and the feeling of, “what did I do today?”

I’m sad about loosing contact with my students. They are a part of my life and when they aren’t there, things are just a little off. I have purposely not started a new read aloud because I don’t want to leave something as important as a book up in the air for three weeks. It would feel like we deserted the characters.

I know that every year students come back from break a little more mature than when they left and are able to take on more difficult work. Time off from training the body or the mind allows for recovery and growth.

But (there is always a but), I worry that their reading and writing lives suffer. Thanks to the amazing teaching that precedes me and our school culture, my students know that reading is a must.

The writing part of their lives is a little less developed. For some, the opportunity to blog is there. They will do it because it’s fun and they love it. But many do not have access at home. I can send home books, notebooks, and pens, but I can’t send the internet or a device that allows them to connect to it. I can’t send them daily reminders to write.

What I can do is ask students to come up with their own personalized “game plan” for reading and writing. Perhaps a sort of nerdlution challenge will develop. Something that they define around reading and writing.

Here’s looking at the last teaching day of 2013, with hope for 2014.

Go #nerdlution.