SOL16: When They’re Ready, Writers Bloom

I didn’t see it. I drove by daily and hadn’t noticed. But Sunday, there it was. A single plant amongst the weeds: tall purple spires of the Pride of Madiera. They blossom this time of year. And it always surprises me. I forget they’re there. Waiting for the right time and just enough water. Every year they come out to claim the hillsides, and a sad looking field of weeds transforms.  Color. 

It happens in the classroom this time of year. Amongst the weeds of fifth-grade drama, some writers show up. Stories and poems filled with voice.

Last week, we started working on a classroom poetry anthology. We dabbled in a bit of narrative writing too. The notebooks house their poems. Google docs hold their stories.

Lunch time rolled around yesterday, and kids come to talk, to eat and talk, to eat and talk and write. Usually, their writing is digital. But today they noticed the poems I’d put on the wall.

“Someday I’m going to do this,” T said, and she pointed at a concrete poem.

I thought she meant the form.
But that wasn’t it.
She wanted to put a poem on the wall.

I told her, go ahead. Claim a space.

Next thing I know, color.

Just yesterday, there was nothing there.
Now poems decorate the door.

It happens this time of year. Every year it surprises me. I forget they’re there. Waiting. When they’re ready, writers bloom.

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

Celebrate: Regenerative Practices

It’s time to Celebrate this Week with Ruth Ayres.  I’m thankful for all of those who join in this practice. Read more celebrations here.

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This week was a roller coaster, up and down. Each day required reconstruction.  I’ve got a road I want to travel; sometimes our learning path requires significant detours and roadside stops. Sensing where students are relative to where I want to take them is most important.

This week I celebrate the regenerative practice of writing.

Writing allows my thoughts to be tangible. It lets me hold on to and maybe connect pieces. Writing can feed me. It allows my brain and body to connect with something solid. Be it ink and notebook or the keyboard and screen.

This week I celebrate the regenerative process of listening.

On Friday, I caught this conversation on my local NPR station between Noah McQueen and President Obama.   Noah, an 18-year high school senior from Maryland, spoke wise words. Words I wanted my students to hear. They listened hard to Noah and the President. Afterwards, I listened to my students.

I didn’t ask for them to share or to write. I just waited.

Mostly it was quiet.

Then, V said, “He seems a lot older than 18.”

R said, “That was beautiful.”

I agree.

Happy Saturday.




Writing Lessons: Kelly Gallagher

Writing is hard. My students struggle with it. I struggle with it. This year I’ve been looking to help students find moments of writing that edge into places that matter to them.  Taking a page from what I know about fostering reading love, I gave them dedicated time and choice for writing. For some it has worked. But many need more to create a better writing life.

Saturday, Kelly Gallagher helped me (along with a multipurpose room full of like-minded educators) reach toward that goal. I took pages of notes. We wrote and wrote. Getting professional development like this is tangible and inspirational. What a gift! Kudos to my district’s leaders for providing this opportunity.

If you are looking for a new PD read or two, consider giving yourself these books. Much of the work we did yesterday is highlighted in Write Like This.  In the Best Interest of Students is out in a few days.


Here are a few morsels Kelly shared that I plan to use in my classroom and in my writing life.

Articulate the why.

  • Writing is hard, but writing is necessary.
  • Writing helps you sort things out.
  • Writing helps fight oppression. It’s a gatekeeping skill.
  • Words are weapons and tools.
  • Writing helps you persuade others.
  • Writing is generative.
  • Writing makes you smarter.

With this in mind remember writing, like any skill, is an act that must be practiced. As teachers we are their coaches and we need to coach throughout their game: from the sidelines, during time outs and half time.  Students need a sense of what they should be doing, adjusting their moves along the way. This drives growth.

Think about how your writing time goes and apply Dick Allington’s philosophy about reading to it — it’s less about ability and more about opportunity.

  • Allow for low stakes writing.
  • Allow for lots of writing.
  • Allow time for writing.

Model, model, model. And do it in front of your students. Real time.

Kelly Gallagher is the master of modeling. Yesterday, he took us through three models with mentor texts . All of this work is generative and focused on the craft of writing.

The first level we looked at was the most structured. The idea was to write as close as possible to a mentor text. Changing the topic yet using the model to guide each step in the process.  Rick Reilly’s  “Congrats Newly Minted Rookie” piece provided a model for us to try our own “Congrats Newly Minted…” piece. Think congrats new minted mom, kinder parent, middle school teacher. Now, imagine using an age appropriate text for your students. Or, doing this with your favorite piece of writing. For some writers this is highly supportive model and for other writers it might be highly restrictive. Either way it develops writers..

The next level was modeling  off the structure of a text. The simple approach we looked at was from Gretchen Bernabai’s book Reviving the Essay. The example we worked with was writing sentences with the stems:  what I used to think,  then this happened, and so now I think. The seeds from this type of beginnings could create a much wider range of writing possibilities.

The final and most unstructured way to use a mentor text as a model was to find “hot spots” or words/phrases that spoke to you in a piece of writing. At this level, a seed for your writing notebook could be launched from a key quote, phrase or word. We listened to and read Daniel Beaty’s Knock Knock to try out this strategy.

Imagine trying each of these methods with your students over the course of a week. Invite them to choose one to revise and revise in front of them, showing the struggle and the thinking needed to revise.

A word on revision: RADAR. Replace, Add, Delete, and Reorder. Model that. Track your process. How often do you replace, add, delete and reorder your work? Highlight each move. Imagine growing your writers along that continuum.

And speaking of continuums — What about grading? Assessments? Don’t confuse them.

Kelly considers himself a teacher of literacy, not literature. With the goal of everyone improving, everyone moves.

He’s a mentor to emulate.







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.

celebrate link up


Celebrating the First Two Weeks of School: Wild Reading and Writing Genius

Time to celebrate the week with Ruth Ayres! Link up and celebrate your week here.

The second week of school is done and i have to admit my mind is a little scrambled by the process of sorting out my two classrooms. Getting to know them is a crazy process. Honoring each person for who they are, and then understanding how they all fit together with you is a challenge, but at the same time quite wonderful. So first I must celebrate that process. With all of it’s messiness, the stories I’m learning and the stories we are creating.

We started Genius Hour work on Thursday. First we defined genius as the act of solving a problem in a way that no one has done before. That a genius looks at something that others are stuck on, and gets the world unstuck. How we all have an obligation to share our gifts and genius with the world. To “mine” our genius we listed what we love, something we could do forever never get bored. Then we listed what bothered us, things that we saw around us that just weren’t right in the world.

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Such an interesting way to find out what matters and what troubles them. It’s also a fantastic way to activate the idea that they can and they need to take charge of their lives; that they can do something and create their lives.  Today I celebrate my 59 geniuses and Joy Kirr’s amazing resources that helped me introduce this thinking. Find the link here.

This week we started setting up reading partnerships. When I say we, I really should say “they.” I started conversations with individuals asking about their reading lives that included their partnership history. Most have a keen knowledge of who was a good partner for them, so I let them lead me to the beginnings of this work in our classroom. It takes time. More time than some were willing to tolerate. Wednesday morning, in between reading conferences, I looked around the classroom and noticed students (who haven’t been officially partnered up) sitting beside each other with same books.  Tired of waiting for their turn with me they just did it.  I celebrate these wild readers taking charge of their reading lives.

I want to celebrate 15 minutes of just writing. Every day, at the beginning of our day,  we just write. There are no rules except to write. It’s now a practice.  After writing we share our strategies and our growth we found while writing. Here are a few ways we find our writing:

Reflect on yesterday

Notice what is around us

Find ideas in our writing to write more about

Wonder why

Be inspired by other’s writing

Draw, doodle

Finally, I celebrate Saturday mornings that allow the time to collect the pieces of the week that are truly wonderful.


Celebrating Growth: The YES and the STARTING TO

Today I’m celebrating the growth I see in my students. We have only a few weeks left together and it seems to be culminating in a beautiful way.

Every year at this time, we focus on Colonial America. Stidents have visited a colonial village  and witnessed reenactments, watched videos, read, talked and researched a specific area of interest.  This is all in preparation for next week, when our 5th grade students take our school back in time to colonial days. They set up “booths” to teach youngers about life back in time.  I have done this work for the past 11 years, and each year brings different students and a slightly different me to the project. This year for the first time, they blogged their learning.

When we started blogging at the beginning of the year, there were lots of bumps. Learning the technology and overcoming problems was how I spent a lot of my conferring time. I worried was it worth it? Was it hurting writing?

Eight months later, I am celebrating students ability to navigate technology and use it as a writing tool.  There are still technology bumps. Students still make mistakes and lose text.  But they have learned  how to fix, how to recover. Students have taught each other how to crop pictures, how to integrate the pictures with the text, and how to insert picture captions. They figured it out and kept writing. Now I confer with students on writing not technology. The last time they did this type of informational writing, every step was a struggle. This time it flew: note taking to research to flash draft to published product on our blog.

This year we started using the Units of Study from TCRWP. I knew they were good, but oh so overwhelming for the students (and me). Understanding the checklists and using mentor text took time. We’d focus on one aspect of the checklist at a time and ignore others. So much of my teaching centered around understanding the mentor text and the checklist. I worried, were they getting it.

Eight months later, I’m celebrating  my students’ capacity to use mentor texts and check lists independently.  When I ask,  how might you use the mentor text to improve your writing? Students know what I mean. When I ask them,  show me how the mentor text has helped you. They can say specifically what they did and what parts of the mentor text helped them.

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Learning takes time. And it takes a bit of belief in the fact that the baby steps we are taking forward, and sometimes backward, will add up to be enough  Along the road we worry: will we make it. Today, I am celebrating. In so many ways, we have made it. Students are have grown in independence as readers and writers. They may not all be at that  spot that says “YES.”  Some may be “STARTING TO” but all have grown along the continuum. All are moving and they all are ready for to take the next step.



Slice of Life Day 28: Hearing Student Voices

During the month of March I am blogging daily with others in the Slice of Life Daily Challenge. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth at Two Writing Teachers for providing and supporting this place to learn and grow. Read more slices here.


Today. What to write? Lots of thoughts. Overloaded brain. Things aren’t completely thought out. I may misspeak. That’s a difficult place to be when you are putting your words into the world. It happens. Just keep writing. That is the goal I told my students. That is your goal for today. So that’s what I’m telling myself on day 28 of the March Slice of Life Challenge.

Write don’t stop. Just write. It’s about fluency, I tell my students and myself. You must be fearless when you know someone might judge your writing. When students write they are judged. They are assessed as to what they need as a writer. What a vulnerable place to be. If someone was out there taking notes on my writing, categorizing my needs as a writer, designing a teaching point for me, would I feel good or bad about this? What would make me feel privileged to get their input. What would make me feel less than and want to hide and never write another word.

I remember one time when I was in a Teachers College workshop with Colleen Cruz, I was stuck. She walked up to me asked me a simple question. With my answer I knew where to go next.  It was magic. She just asked a question and opened my eyes to what was right there. I just wasn’t looking.  I’ll never forget that feeling. It was empowering. Nothing about it made me feel less than. It made me realize what I needed to reach for as a writer and a teacher of writing.

That magic aha moment is hard to give to students. What I am starting to see though, after years of doing this work, is that my mission is to nudge writers, ever so slightly in the direction that they are leaning that approximates forward. Pushing too hard will just result in a fall.

Hearing  what student writers are saying has taken time. Hearing what they are saying versus  hearing my thinking of where I’m trying to take them, is my challenge. What they think and say makes sense, perfect sense to them. Just like understanding phonetic writing, a teacher’s ear needs to be fine tuned to the nuance of what they say and see and how it relates to what they are attempting to do. With that understanding, I can nudge them on from where they are sitting. It takes patience and time of both teacher and  student. I’m just acquiring the ear for this work. Student voices seep in  when I stop myself  and just listen to what they are saying. Then I have the huge aha moment.


You my dear readers have put up with my meanderings over the last 26 days. Thank you. I do appreciate it. To those who continue to visit and take the time to comment. I can only hope I give back a little of what you all have given to  me.

A few slices ago I mentioned a podcast I was doing on twitter and blogging. if you have the time check this out. Listen for my lovely student voices. Unfortunately there isn’t enough of them in this podcast.


Celebrating Connections

celebrate link upThanks to  Ruth Ayers and all who contribute to #celebratelu. I am thankful for the opportunity to think back on the week and find the gems worth holding on to.

1. I’m celebrating connections with my “family” community. I am lucky to have three kids who have friends that feel comfortable being in our house.   Last night neighbor kids, old friends of our oldest, my daughter and a few of her friends hung out and talked — about sports, local gossip, and college aspirations. We’ve known some of these kids since they were in preschool. They are like an extended family. They walk in, often without knocking, because they know they are always invited.

2. I’m celebrating connections with former students. Being a fifth grade teacher, I’m the end of the road for elementary school. I always wonder what happens in their lives.  Friday, a young man walked up to me, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and asked me how I was doing. He told me his plans of going on to college and perhaps medical school. This may not seem earth shattering, but this young man was a struggling elementary student. He had significant learning disabilities and was multi-lingual, the combination of which made understanding English extremely difficult. I was beyond impressed, not just for his academic goals but for his poise and presence. Everything and anything is possible, don’t count anyone out.

3. I’m celebrating connections to my students through writing.  Reading their memoirs yesterday I was struck by my students’ resilience and honesty.  Many told of times when they had disappointed someone, got angry with a friend, or got in trouble. Quite a few recounted getting in trouble with a teacher.

One of my new students (he’s been with me for three weeks) wrote how a teacher mistakenly thought he was doing something wrong; how teachers don’t understand him and  “that’s why I hate school.” Never would have known this if we didn’t write.

Another wrote of a time he had to do homework, but he didn’t want to because his whole family was doing something else, so he didn’t. He then told how the teacher had screamed at him and he cried as his mom watched. A bit melodramatic perhaps, but his perspective is his reality.

Another told the tale of her dad’s struggle with alcoholism. This isn’t easy stuff.

They felt safe enough to share. I am honored, and I celebrate the power of writing.

4. I am celebrating connections with my colleagues.  I work with amazing teachers. We are a team and work to meet the needs of our students daily on all grade levels. I am proud to be a member of this group.  Today, I want to thank Dayna Wells (@daywells) who taught a social studies lesson to my students. WOW. I learned so much that I will attempt to capture in another post. I celebrate Dayna for her curiosity, energy and risk taking moves that has allowed her to bring this work to me and my students.

5. I am celebrating connections with you all who contribute to #celebratelu. Reading your posts is a joy. I always smile and sometimes cry.  Happy Saturday.

Celebration of Beginnings, Fits-and-Starts, and The Now

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Every Saturday Ruth Ayers hosts bloggers who look back on their week with an eye for moments to celebrate. It is a wonderful way to honor, to notice and celebrate all the good things that happen. Click here and find out how you can start this practice.

Several of my colleagues joined me to learn about blogs. I was so excited to introduce them to some of my favorite blogs. They walked away with a little more knowledge and a list of blog sites. Hopefully they will lurk a bit and maybe even comment. Who knows there might be a future blogger among them. I celebrate my colleagues who are looking for more to bring into their lives and to the lives of their students. Next, twitter chats!

Student-led conferences are beginning. This is a new type of conference for my teaching partner and me.  We’ve done only two, but both have revealed a lot about these students and what they need. Bottom line, communication with students is so much deeper when the student takes the lead. Our hunches are clarified and parents seem pleased with the dialogue.  One wants me to help him learn to talk in groups. Another expressed her love of story telling but fear of memoir. Little did she know they are really the same thing. I celebrate the first two and look forward to next week’s full schedule.

My reluctant writers seem less reluctant.  Some of my students are paralyzed writers. They feel they don’t know how or where to start. They are worried: are they doing the “right” thing? Conference after conference, I slowly chip away at their resistance and uncertainty.  I sit next to each writer and talk with them about their process, their worries as writers, and slowly they start to move the pen. We find little bits of possibility. We talk about those little bits and slowly, the little bits become classroom mid-workshop interruptions that highlight this writer’s process of fighting writer’s block. For this day, they are a star. I won’t be surprised if tomorrow’s a struggle, but the struggle might be lessened by the memory this week’s success.

My daughter’s re-found love of writing. As a preschooler she had writerly ways. She had voice. She was always writing. I just knew she would flourish in the writer’s workshop environment at her elementary school. Sadly it didn’t happen the way I envisioned. Her passion for writing disappeared.

Now a sophomore in high school, she has found her writerly self in argument writing.  That confident writer I saw as a four-year old is back. What started as an assignment in class is slowly creeping into her life outside of school. Our evening at the Beacon House Bistro (a recovery program for alcoholics) has inspired her to write a speech about the program for her youth group. I am so excited for her. She knows she’s good at writing and wants more. 

My dad is home from the hospital. It’s a scary thing to go into the hospital at 93. He has been there before, but this time seemed different. A call from my mom at 1:00 am Wednesday morning was the first big difference. That drive to the hospital was horrific, all the time thinking of what could be. When the nurse said he was fine, I broke down completely. You know the possibility, but not now. Now can be too much to bear.  Now he is home. I celebrate the now.

#Nerdlution Two — Week One

If you’ve heard of Nerdlution and want to know more, read this post from Chris Lehman to get some perspective. Join in if you are so inspired. There is no expiration date and no invitation  is needed. Post your journey on Michelle Haseltine’s blog on Thursdays or tweet #nerdlution.

So far, week one is on track.

Goal #1  Check!  My  Slice of Life post this week brought some wonderful feedback. The Slicers are an amazing group o storyteller teachers. Read some of these posts if you want a boost!  The support I received in comments this week filled me with the energy to meet my student writers right where they were on Wednesday.

Good news: the reluctant writer of my post had two meaningful stories he was planning on Wednesday. Both were memories of moments that have shaped his “inside and outside smarts.” A huge leap from his I-hate-writing-stance last week. His success gave me strength and patience for another struggler with a deer-in-the headlights look and nothing on the page. Tomorrow is another day. Thank you Stacey Shubitz for sharing your reluctant writer story. You’re my inspiration.

Goal 2: Tweeting as a class is rolling. While the beginning was a little shaky, we got off several tweets about The One and Only Ivan. Yeah us.2014-01-17 19.09.15

If I had Ivan as a friend I would make sure he had a lot of other animal friends & make sure he had a good owner who cared for him.-Michael

Ivan grew up as human baby..why was he treated that way but now he’s in a domain? -Lydia

I learned from the One and Only Ivan that mack and his wife took care of ivan when he was a baby.Why didn’t they keep him -Jill

Goal 3: The getting to bed on time…not yet. BUT the week isn’t over, and I remain ever hopeful. This is one of those I should because it’s good for me, but something always gets in the way things. Maybe that’s how some of my reluctant readers feel about reading at home. They know it’s good for them, but something gets in the way.  Hmm. Even something to learn from my inactions.

Happy rest of the week!nerdlution-button-tiny-01-1