Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Slice of Life: A broken air-conditioner or an unwelcome encounter?

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 


Up until about 6 on Saturday night, I felt guilty. Guilty that I wasn't flying to Michigan to help move Larkin to Denver. Guilty that I was at the beach with another daughter and her delightful friends. Guilty that the weather was perfect in Rhode Island as opposed to muggy and hot across the middle of the country. The most recent snapchat from my husband and Garth had them driving through Nebraska with the windows open and their hair whipping around. Somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, the air conditioning had broken. Seventeen hours is a long time in the car in the best of circumstances. Without air-conditioning, it sounded really miserable. I felt really guilty. 

"Let's take the dogs for a quick walk before we make dinner," my sister-in-law, Amy, said. The dogs were thrilled. The girls were all playing games in the back yard, and the rest of our crew had plenty of chores to keep them occupied. Amy and I are fast in the kitchen. We could take the dogs for a walk and still serve up dinner before anyone showed signs of being hangry. 

We headed toward our favorite trail, a place where we could unclip the labs and let them run. Within seconds of Okie's freedom, he bolted into the bushes and then bolted out of the bushes. Reeking. Words I didn't know I knew spiraled out of my mouth as the sour skunk smell invaded the walk. Okie dashed to the open grass, rolling and rubbing. 

Amy made dinner on her own as I bathed Okie over and over with various concoctions of baking soda, vinegar, palmolive, and Nature's Secret Skunk Formula. 

As I write this slice, the air conditioner is fixed, and Okie has had a professional deoderizing at Petco. (One was much more expensive than the other.) I'm no longer feeling guilty--just excited to keep hearing about Larkin's latest adventures in her next chapter of life. 

Happy Slicing!


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Slice of Life: When we want what we don't want

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



"What shoes do you think I should wear?"
I was talking to Larkin, our oldest daughter, as I drove across town. She was preparing for a first-job interview, and I was several hundred miles away preparing to interview someone else's 22 year-old for a first job. 
"It's a Skype, Larkin," I said. "I don't think your shoes are going to be the deciding factor."
"But --"
"Wear the shoes that make you feel the most confident," I interrupted, remembering my pledge to validate her. 

The next hour passed with an impressive demonstration lesson and thoughtful answers to our collection of questions. I managed to focus on the answers and content, although I wondered at one point how much thought had gone into our candidate's shoes. I liked them. I didn't compliment them, but I did share with her that my own daughter was having a parallel experience as we walked from the classroom back to the interview room. 

When our candidate left, I couldn't resist. 
"I'm sorry," I said. "I really need to check my phone and my own girl's experience before we debrief."
My phone was full of text messages. F.U.L.L. 
Mom. I got it!Mom. Mom, call me. Mom, I got it. CALL ME. MMMOOOOOMMMMM. 
My response shocked everyone-- including me-- because I started to cry.
"Go call her," they all said. "We will wait."

I called her and we had a quick celebration conversation. We'd plan the details of how to get her from Michigan to Denver (next week), and we'd figure out how we'd visit from Connecticut. No worries. There's a direct flight. 

I returned to the interview room. We debriefed. I focused.

And then, when I got back into the car to drive to a different school, I cried. To the point where I had to reapply mascara.

Sometimes in life there's a fine--almost invisible-- thread between what we want and what we don't want.

Happy slicing,


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Slice of life: Surprising squalls and unexpected peace

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



On Saturday afternoon, my husband, two of our daughters, and I headed down the small trail that leads to the beach. As soon as we got there, Julia looked up. 

"Doesn't look like it's going to stay much of a beach day," she said. Julia's frequently the master of the obvious.

Dark clouds lined the brighter ones, moving closer. I let the waves wash over my feet and ankles before giving her words and warning the credit they warranted. 

"Let's head back to town," I agreed. 

Good thing we did, as the skies opened up, and we were able to watch less forward-thinking beach-goers come dashing up the path and through the puddles, soaked through from the sudden outburst. 

Since that burst hadn't been on the radar, no one, not even the sailors out in the harbor were ready enough to head in and make it to cover. Another one of our girls works at the sailing club, and she had to take the launch out to help out those sailors whose boats were filling with water with sails spinning them into unplanned paths. It really was a surprise squall. 

Later, we had warnings  come up again, predicting hard rain in our area. 

"We're going to get pounded again," Clare said, holding up her phone. 

At least we were home where we could watch the storm brew and unleash. 


That being said, nothing arrived. Thes sky stayed clear, and the sunset was stunning. I think we all watched it with extra appreciation because we were so expecting storms.


It occurred to me that sometimes that's how teaching is. What you think will be fine--what you think will go smoothly without outbursts or thunder--sometimes surprises you, drenching you, especially if you're not ready. And other times, when you're hunkered down, expecting the storm, it's peaceful and productive. And while we try to anticipate and be prepared, sometimes there's laughter and joy in the unexpected. And sometimes the unexpected peace is the most appreciated. Sometimes it's those moments that embed themselves in lasting memories.



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Slice of Life--Chasing hares

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



My mother's gardens are incredible. Somewhere far back in our lineage, I think we may cross genetic paths with the McGregor family who wanted so desperately to put Peter Rabbit into a stew because she really hates the rabbits who live in the back yard. I've come to understand her dislike (and empathize with Mr. McGregor in ways I never had before) because they really are hungry little creatures. When her old and deaf spaniel Holly caught and killed a baby bunny yesterday, my mother was thrilled. Even though the little dog couldn't hear it, she received a whole lot of praise for her attack on the bunny world, and she spent most of the day poised at the door, ready to head back toward the nest. 

Throughout the week, I've been percolating a post centered on the proverb:

If you run after two hares you will catch neither.

Holly, who is deaf, stiff, and slow was able to capture a bunny. I guess some of her senses and strategies are still pretty intact. I have not been thinking about this proverb in terms of spaniels, though; I've been thinking about it in terms of writing. 

In a kindergarten class, I watched a child diligently copy words onto his paper. He is a child with disabilities, so there are usually adults hovering around, ready to help and guide him through tasks. Since he struggles with handwriting and letter formation, his para had written a sentence on a whiteboard. During independent writing time, H. was working on copying the letters, while the rest of the class was writing opinion pieces about problems they'd identified and wanted fixed in their schools. 

I asked H. what he was working on. "My writing," he said.  I asked H. to read his work to me. His writing was a little messy but legible. He couldn't. I asked him to read the neater sentence on the whiteboard. He couldn't. 

I talked to his para about ways she could teach him that could involve more drawing and less writing--how the instruction and task could be closer to his independent level, and the para was wonderful about changing things up a bit so that the task could still involve letter formation, but wasn't the equivalent of copying hieroglyphics. I left the class thinking about tasks and how we balance teaching all of the skills students need in order to write. I emphasize approximation and not mastery when I talk to teachers about writing instruction, and sometimes I think we all feel like we are chasing a whole lot more than just two hares. 

The world is full of analogies, and maybe it's just that this one doesn't work for writing instruction. It's messy and involves chasing a whole lot of hares. Sometimes kids have to work on letter formation or keyboarding or spelling or capitals. Oh yes, and also thinking of ideas and sentence variation and different strategies for elaboration and... the list goes on, and I'm not sure we should ever ask students to stop paying attention to other aspects of writing and focus only on one. In fact, I'm sure we shouldn't. 

For now I'll leave the focus on one hare at a time to Holly, only preferably when I'm not around. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Slice of Life: Imperfection and Activism

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



I spent a rainy Saturday morning at the first Connecticut Council of Teachers of English conference. 
Truth: I debated going. I signed up at about 5 am when I was sure the morning would be a washout. The breakout sessions seemed to be more geared to secondary teachers than elementary, and I really had to get behind myself. 
Truth: Kate Robert and Maggie Beattie Roberts were the keynote speakers, and I knew they'd be funny. 
Truth: They were. And they were also incredibly insightful and inspirational.  
A lot of what they talked about had to do with the damaging quest so many of us have to be perfect. I loved the reminder from Kate that "Imperfection is not what keeps great things from happening." In fact, we have to survive a whole lot of imperfection in order to grow, learn, and achieve. We have to try and fail, try again and fail again. I know that, but perfect still tends to be the skunk at my party.

They also talked a lot about the importance of activism. Maggie described a neighbor who required, as admission to her birthday party, a letter each party-attender had written in the spirit of activism. Maggie challenged us all to think about what we have to do, how we have to be, in order to have a civic voice. Pause and think about that for a minute.

In the room, we talked about it, and then she spoke for the group: be informed, take risks, participate... "When you're complaining, what are you doing to change it?" she asked all of us.

When I got home from the conference, I mentioned to my daughter about something that was really bothering me. Something pretty big, pretty universal.

"You can't change that," she said. "Everyone does it. It's like a whole world thing."

"And black people once rode in the back of buses and their kids went to separate schools," I said.

She stared. Opened her mouth, then wisely closed it.

Like so many parents, I'm trying to be perfect. Clearly, I'm falling short in the realm of activism, but Kate and Maggie helped me think about that, too, on Saturday morning. How to work on imperfections?

  1. Focus and name the goal.
  2. Take baby steps.
  3. Get help--have mentors.
So here's my goal: Make sure my daughters understand the importance of doing something when they have complaints. Maybe Saturday morning counts as a baby step. Maybe sharing some of Kate and Maggie's important messages counts as another one!

Happy Slicing! 









Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Slice of Life: It's not my story!

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



My slice of life is happening even as I write. 

My teenage daughter is working on a personal narrative that she will receive a stakes grade on, and it's due tomorrow, and she keeps asking me for help. I've reminded her (and me) that it's not my story. Plus, I have a mantra, and many of you share it, as it comes from Lucy Calkins: Teach the writer, and not the writing. 

I'm trying. I'm really, really trying. 
I'm struggling. I'm really, really struggling. 

She's working on a google doc, and that complicates the issue for me. It's SO easy to make comments on those docs, and where's the line between teaching the writer something that will be transferrable, and telling the writer something to do on that one piece of writing? I made a comment where I told her to think about four ways to stretch the important moments of her stories: action, dialogue, description, and inner thinking. 

"Well, where should I do that?" she asked. 

You can bet she rolled her eyes when I suggested she's really the one who should decide on the important parts. 
"It's your story," I said. "It's not my story."

She rolled her eyes again when I asked if she had a rubric or a set of expectations from her teacher, and she opened up her classroom. Sure enough, there was a rubric with a list of clear learning targets. I have to say that I don't love that she's writing a story that will receive a  ___/50 total points, but I do appreciate that the list of clear expectations are there for the students. 

"I don't really have any of this," she said, and I could tell she was close to tears. "I hate writing narratives. I hope I NEVER have to do this again."

An invisible dagger sliced through my heart, but I agreed stories can be hard, and we had some ways we could think about revision that could work with all narratives just in case she ever has to write another story. 

Together, we sketched a story mountain of her story, and then I taught her about an emotional arc. That helped her change some of her plot points in ways that even she had to admit made better sense. 

As I write, she's still sending screen shots of some of her revised scenes, working hard to get me to better her writing. As I write, I'm trying to think of answers and responses that nudge her to do most of this thinking on her own by looking at the rubric and self-assessing whether she's met those targets of if she could do more. 

Have I mentioned how hard this is??? I'm still trying...still struggling...

Happy writing and slicing to all of you (and to my girl!)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Slice of Life- A High Pressure Small Group Lesson

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 




Small group instruction usually doesn't make me too nervous. I have a few chartbooks that are well stocked with tools, and I can usually reach for one of those. If I don't have the tool I want, I feel pretty confident about creating something quickly that does the trick. But today, I had a high-pressure small group session. 

I had the tools. I had the students. They had their writing. I had my teaching point. You're thinking this is all good, right? Oh, I forgot to mention the pair of video cameras on my right and left. 

Nothing like video cameras to raise the stakes and my blood pressure. 

As I explained to the four boys why this lesson would be important for them, one of them played with his lead pencil. You know the type. Those intriguing pencils that have several tips that insert into a plastic tube, and if you don't have them all engineered just so, the pencil doesn't work. (These pencils might have been created in order to torture teachers, especially teachers who are trying to conduct a lesson on a video tape.) Fortunately, I had a collection of felt-tip pens and made a quick trade with my friend, which he dealt with. 

"I'll give you the pencil back after the lesson," I said, as I swept up the several parts he'd managed to get his pencil into as soon as the video got rolling. 

The lesson continued, and although it wasn't perfect, it was probably good enough. And maybe it will even be affirming for others to watch some of the real-life adventures of teaching. As my friend reminded me, good=real, and perfect=unbelievable. 


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Slice of Life: If students can't do the work without us---

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



I thought about skipping the slicing life tonight. Truth be told, I've been writing all day. I've worked on my first three chapters of my novel, I've revised my query letter, I've edited some descriptive paragraphs for summer programs, and I've written a critique of a book proposal. I've also made charts and written some demonstration pieces. All in all, there's been a lot of writing done today, and sometimes it gets in the way of a good slice.

Then, almost simultaneously, one of my favorite (I know I'm not supposed to have favorites, but) teachers texted asking if I'd take a look at some of her students' recent on-demand writing samples, and a tweet came through my feed from #tcrwp.


Of course I'll look at the writing samples, I texted right back. She went on to share how disappointed she was with the quality of the writing. I responded with the standards. They met the state standards--just not her standards. And now in our upcoming unit, we have a new bar set, and that is one where they go above the basics and into the realm of independent demonstration of all of her great instruction.

 We teach well beyond the standards, and sometimes the work we see in process pieces exceeds the work students produce in an on-demand situation. Let me revise that statement. Sometimes the work we see in process pieces exceeds the work we ALL produce in an on-demand situation. That being said, I think it's crucial that we are constantly and continually assessing students' internalization of our instruction because yes, if they can't do the work without us, they can't do it.

So here are some questions to help us build independence and repertoire regardless of unit and regardless of level:

  • How long can the student sustain productive work without adult intervention? Is that amount of time increasing?
  • How strong is the scaffold, and what is the plan for removing it? 
  • What is the student's understanding of the work they are doing?
  • Are we valuing the process and growth more than the product? 
When left to their own devices, sometimes students will wow us and sometimes they will disappoint us. Our job is to give them the instruction, power, motivation, and pride in becoming independent writers, regardless of their level.  

And now, I've completed my writing for the day, including a slice!

All good things,







Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Slice of Life: One big upside-down bag

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



This morning, my car had to go into the shop. It's been making a funny noise. For a while. I've tried to ignore it. I had to stop ignoring it when my daughter was home and drove my car and said, Mom, what's that noise your car is making? 

My husband took my car today, so I had to drive his car. I am happy that I have a husband who takes my car into the shop. He has a nice car with a heated steering wheel, but other than the heated steering wheel, I don't like too much else about his car. It's too big. The radio stations are all sports-oriented. His keyring doesn't have the fob I need to get into schools throughout the day. 

When I got to school, I stayed in the driver's seat for an extra couple of minutes as I wrapped up a conversation with my sister-in-law. She was still on the line when I got out of the car and opened the back door. I might have said a bad word when I opened that door. I could blame the car, but I think probably the cause was user error. When I tell you that my teaching bag fell out upside down, I mean 100% upside down. 

She laughed, and then I laughed. "I don't even have to be there, and I can tell you have a big mess," she said. "I do," I said. 

As I write this post, I wish I had taken a picture, but I'll try to explain with writing. My classroom bag is a Scout bag with 6 outside pockets and a big center compartment. I keep mini-charts in it, as well as pens of every color and size, paper clips, a stapler, demonstration texts, a couple books,  folders, and a set of paper types. At least. And my bag turned upside down in the parking lot. 

My friend Frank was walking across the lot. "I saw that," he said. He knew exactly what I was going to ask. We laughed, and he helped me pick up the mess. 

"It could have been a Monday," he said. 

"True that," I said. 

When I saw him at the end of the day, he wanted to know if my day had gotten better. It had. And my bag is much more organized!

Happy Slicing,


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Slice of Life: Creating opportunities for competence and confidence

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 


One of the best parts of my job is working with students in their classrooms. It's also one of the hardest parts of the job because usually, I focus my energy on the students who are struggling and striving. By the time students get to third or fourth grade, they have fairly well-established understandings and beliefs about themselves as writers, and this makes me sad. In this morning's slice,  Clare Landrigan wrote about first-graders who questioned why she addressed them as "readers." Likewise, I see many, many students who do not see themselves as writers. 

We need to change that. 

Today, I worked with a group of four fourth-graders who are just beginning a unit on informational writing. We integrate information writing with social studies, so they had some topics about Connecticut history to choose from. Rather than choosing a topic that would require a lot of research, I asked each of them to choose a war they knew something about. We'd write fast and create a shared piece-- each section would be about one war. Three of the four boys knew a lot about wars, so they were able to get started with their writing right away. With the nudge of some transitional words, they each wrote several sentences about a specific war. While they were off and running, one of the boys shook his head and indicated that he didn't know a thing about any of the wars. I asked him a little about the Revolutionary War, and he teared up, unable to provide anything of substance about it. "How about just war?" I said, trying to do some damage control and stop the tears. "What do you know about wars? You can write a section just about what was is in general." He perked up, and he managed to write a fair amount with plenty of also's, another's, for example's, therefore's, and this is important because's. 

I share this because at the end of twenty minutes, they produced an informational text with sections, different types of information, transitional language, and a plan for an introduction and conclusion--in fact, they were excited enough about it that they told me they'd work on the beginning and ends tomorrow before school--and...they were excited about their writing. "I never write this much," one of them said. "I didn't realize I had so much to say." Three of the four boys felt great about what they wrote, and my teary friend admitted he felt better. Sometimes, I have to settle for better. 

Their work wasn't perfect; it was an approximation. However, it's hard to teach kids to write if they don't write. Somehow, we have to make the work seem doable so that we can celebrate and enjoy the energy that feeling confident and competent brings. Sometimes I wonder if those feelings are right up there with audience and purpose.  Thoughts?

Happy Slicing,


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Slice of Life: Picture Books and Powerful Essays

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 



Yesterday at a PD session our presenter mentioned the beautiful essay that Matt de la Peña wrote in Time Magazine, Why We Shouldn't Shield Children From Darkness, and Kate DiCamillo's equally beautiful response to Matt, Why Books Should Be a Little Sad.  Today, one of my colleagues mentioned these essays in a completely separate conversation, and truth be told, I already had tweeted and shared them with several people. Some essays are so important they just keep coming up.

If you have missed these essays, go read them instead of the rest of my post. Really. At least just one of them. Matt and Kate are much more worth reading than I am.

I had pre-ordered Love, so I'd already read it before Matt wrote about the debate with his publisher about one of the illustrations. In Loren Long's illustration, a little boy is huddled under a piano and an empty cocktail glass. When I first read the book, I didn't notice the glass. My focus was on the words and the language--the poetry within the text.

I'm not sure that I can make this comparison as powerfully as I want to because I recently loaned my copy of Baby by Patricia MacLachlan to someone so I can't quote the exact passage that opens the first chapter, but bear with me. Papa tap dances after his first cocktail that makes him happy. He stops after his second cocktail that makes him sad. I'm not sure how different Papa's mood change in a middle grade novel is from the empty glass in a picture book is, and what I think is more important is that if a child notices either one of those details, then maybe that child needs to notice those details. Maybe that child is the one who needs to talk about something, and it's those details that provide the opening.

Thanks to this community,






Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Slice of Life: Thinking About Social Justice at Teachers College

Every Tuesday, the writing community of Two Writing Teachers hosts Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 


Sometimes my work takes me in to New York to hear the reflective, provocative, and brilliant thinking of the people who work for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. While I had other ideas about today's slice of life, I feel far too compelled to share some of the wisdom, ideas, and insight from today's session with Cornelius Minor and Natalie Louis. I've tried to capture my notes in the form of categorized provocative questions and/or statements.

Ideas and questions to begin the thinking:
  • We can/must teach children to look at what’s different and find beauty.
  • When we don't understand each other, sometimes we assume we do. Before we give advice we should either ask to be asked or wait to be asked. 
  • Think about the word diversity as it appears within your district documents? Do we want diversity or do we want inclusion? How do we see the differences? 
  • What’s really important for young people to do? look at things that are different and find beauty in things that are different.
  • Justice has never been achieved by waiting for a leader to act first. If we want kids to be change agents, then we have to be change agents first. 
  • What do you want people to say about you when your career is ending?
  • Schedules are a moral document; we are where we invest our time. 
  • Engagement isn't a kid problem; it's a system problem. 

Thinking about social justice:

  • Who has power? 
  • Who is choosing to stay silent?
  • How do we take responsibility to hear everyone?
  • How can we make an impact?
  • How do you differentiate social justice? What is the level of injustice that that kid is ready to embrace? 
  • What would you outlaw if you could outlaw something to decrease the chaos in life?

Teaching empathy-Questions to ask students, especially within the context of read-alouds:

Questions for teachers:
  • How do we actively teach kids to build relationships?
  • Where in our day to we teach empathy?
  • How do you think about your curriculum for read aloud? 
  • What do the books we read say about class, gender, race, socio-economic status...?
Questions for Students:
  • Who will you be in a moment of conflict?
  • Who would you be in this read aloud?
  • Why does the book end on an earlier page? 

Thinking about what we ask students to do:
  • Be comfortable with discomfort. 
  • Persistence is a skill that can be taught. The ability to persist through a no is a skill we can teach kids.
  • Complexity of the task and complexity of the text changes, but not the skill, not the goal.
  • How do we find issues that matter to kids? Justice projects can take a lot of different forms. Engage them in things that matter to them. 

So much to think about in these statements and questions, and this is my distillation of about eight pages of notes. If you are reading this, you are probably someone who has already given thought to many of these issues. Thank you. How do we get others on board with the responsibility and power that we have as educators in a chaotic, unpredictable, and unjust world?

Peace,