Monday, September 18, 2017

Slice of Life: The frustration of writing

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. 

A few of my colleagues from my MFA program started an on-line writing group, and we met last night. Some of these people are published authors, and all of them except me have completed their MFA program in creative writing. They've all written many critical essays, including one at least 35 pages long. They've also written over a hundred pages of a creative draft with the input of an experienced mentor.

We've all written a lot. 

And yet, many of the questions and the input and the struggles boiled down to the same questions I ask my elementary aged writers: 
  • What's your story really about? 
  • What does your character really, really want?
  • How do you weave action, description, dialogue, and inner thinking together in order to communicate the wishes and struggles of the characters?
  • How do you stay in the head of your character?
During our critique sessions, the writer whose work we are workshopping is supposed to stay quiet; that person gets to speak and ask questions at the end. Last night, when our author had her chance to speak, she talked about how frustrated she was with this story that she's been working on for five years, and how she still can't seem to focus in on the heart of it. She's thinking about switching the entire draft from third person to first person--which is no small task-- and she's also thinking of abandoning it. 

"I feel completely overwhelmed," she said, her voice raw with honesty. 

Sometimes, I lose sight of how hard it is to write a clear and compelling story, and our curriculum (which is based on the CCSS) asks our students to do it at very young ages. When was the last time you wrote a story? Not a post, not an essay, not a blurb, not a lead, not a conversation, not a poem-- a full story, start to finish. I'm guessing many of us, by virtue of the fact that we are part of the slicing community, have written a story in the not-too-distant past, although maybe we haven't gone back and reworked and revised one. I'm guessing some--maybe many--of our colleagues who don't spend as much time on blogs and in notebooks haven't written a true story in a long time. 

I give our children so much credit. Writing stories is hard. I need to remember that when I am working with my writers, young and old. 

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Slice of Life: "Her mother's hair!"

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. 

Kindergarten teachers have one of the hardest jobs I can think of for at least the first six weeks of school. Today, I spent time in a new teacher's kindergarten writing workshop. Because she had so many structures of workshop solidly in place, I got to see some of the writing these children were doing. Most of kindergarten writing involves talking and drawing at this point of the year, and I sat down with a little girl who was busy with her picture. She had three crayons in her hand-- a white one, a black one, and a brown one-- and she was using them to draw around a non-descript circle.

I resisted the urge to manage her use of utensils.

"What are you working on?" I asked.

She held up the three crayons to make sure I could see their colors. "My mother's hair," she answered.

How glad was I that I asked. I did sit down and showed her how she could draw stripes using one color at a time to produce the desired effect of highlights and lowlights.

"What a great observer of colors you are!" I said.

While kindergarten teachers may expend the most energy, they may also get to hear some of the funniest things kids say.

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Slice of Life: Sorting through what to write

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'm sitting here at my friend's lake house listening to my husband, Jen, and Bill make breakfast downstairs. I've been debating what to write. I find that the more I have to write, the harder it is to get started. In the last week, I have:
  • adjusted to three of my four daughters being away at college... (it's VERY quiet at home!!)
  • moved my office at school... (so much to throw away!)
  • participated in a google hangout with fellow MFA (in creative writing) students... (a complete honor to be asked to join these people!)
  • run a young writers' group at the local library... (these six students are unbelievable!)
  • received my mentor's feedback letter and comments on 75 pages of my novel in progress... (so much to digest!)
  • and a whole lot of other things...
Maybe the best focus is right here and right now, where Jen is interrupting my writing life with breakfast served on a tray--how lucky am I?!?! I'm taking this tray and heading downstairs to the chatter and warmth of their house in front of a misty lake. 

Happy writing!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Slice of Life: Sometimes "good" doesn't mean good

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. 
We are in the first couple of days back to school--those days when we all see each other for the first time, give hugs, ask how the summers were...

Today, I asked one of my colleagues how her summer was.

"Good," she said.

We had time, we were away from other people, and I remembered a medical issue someone she loves had been experiencing.

"How is ___doing?" I asked.

She opened up and shared the struggles they'd had and continue to have. Without writing more, suffice it to know that her summer had been really sad, and really emotional. Really, really sad and really, really emotional.

"I'm so sorry," I kept saying. I really didn't have other words.

Later, that same colleague came into the office I share.

"How was your summer?" my officemate asked.

"Good," the colleague answered before asking a few professional questions.

My heart hurt. I'm not sure I will ever ask someone again how their summer was without truly studying their response.

Sometimes good just doesn't mean good.

Peace to all my writing friends,

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Water Damage...Student Work is Irreplaceable

As many of you know, I am an avid collector of student work - charts, writing samples.  Over the past 15 plus years of teaching 4th and 5th grade, my students created poetry books, realistic fiction books, informational books, newspaper articles, book reviews, and more during our reading and writing units.  They added them to our class mentor text basket and gave many to me as gifts since they knew I loved using them as samples each year with my students.  Over the years, we created many class books to compile our favorite writing pieces and added them to our class mentor basket.  That class mentor basket had to continuously be upgraded to a larger basket each year to hold all the fabulous student mentor texts.

Even though, I don't have my own classroom any more in my new role as Language Arts Consultant, I still have that mentor text basket in my office available for all students to use, read, and enjoy. Former students, who come to visit, also love looking through them to reminisce and see how they continue to grow as readers and writers.  

Last week, I received a text message that a pipe near my office leaked and there was a lot of water in my room.  I immediately thought of everything ground level that could now be ruined from that water.  The books, post-its, bookcases, tables, and more that I personally bought over the years.  I was told they had to remove almost everything out of my room to dry out the carpet and that it would be dry in a few days.  All I kept thinking about was my books! You all know how much I love books and I would hate to see some damaged by water! 

Yesterday I went to school to see the damage and to put my room back together.  As I moved my bookcases, I saw some autographed books ruined by the water that were on the lowest shelf.  I saw clipboards, post-its, folders, and copies wet and damaged that needed to be thrown in the garbage.  I saw the bookcase that looks like giant legos, ruined by the water.  I saw foam boards, that we created as a class over the years, damaged from water.  I filled up two garbage barrels of damaged materials. But all of that can be replaced and bought again.  All of those materials are replaceable.  

Then I turned and saw my student mentor text basket.  I hoped it wasn't left on the floor where it could have been ruined.  When I lifted it up, drops of water fell.  As I removed the student work samples from the basket, I felt the soaking wet pages.   I flipped through and saw they were all ruined.  These are irreplaceable unlike all the other materials. These were one of a kind pieces from students. These were collected starting my first year of teaching in 2000.   As I looked at all of them laying on the table, tears fell from my eyes and I am not a crier! But this broke my heart.  This was years of hard work by my students damaged from water.  I immediately laid them out on the table and set up a fan to blow air on them to salvage at least some pages.  

I have always valued the power of student work and that is why I collect samples, use them as mentors, and share them with colleagues and students.  Yesterday I learned that not only is student work important, but it is also irreplaceable.  I take photos as often as I can of student work and I am so glad I do! 

Here are some photos of the damage: 

Cheers to student work!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Slice of Life: Looking forward to a writing group

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'm looking forward to tomorrow night when I will have my first official writing group with a special group of students. We met a month ago to talk about the idea of a young people's writing group, and they were all so enthusiastic and excited about it. On the eve of our first real workshop, the seven of them--ages ten to thirteen--have shared their work on google drive and are reading each other's work with the intent of participating in our critique group tomorrow night at the town library. 

I have been thinking about the agreements we made a month ago at our introductory meeting, and I have written those agreements to hand out to my young writers tomorrow night. I have also just written up some important reminders as they plunge into the world of critique groups. If anyone out there has some additional ideas or suggestions to offer before these are official for my Young People's Writing Group, please share! Also, if anyone has any experience with running writing groups for this age group and can offer some tips, please do!

Here's what I have at this point:

Writing Group Agreements


  1. We will meet at 6:00 on Monday evenings once a month. We will plan to meet for an hour and fifteen minutes.
  2. We will divide into two groups, and the groups will be determined by Melanie a few days before we meet, based on the content of the writing.
  3. Please share your piece with your group members 48 hours before we meet so that they have time to read your work.
  4. We will have a 10-15 minute craft lesson before beginning workshopping each other. Topics will vary and suggestions are welcome.
  5. Read the work of others in your group and come prepared to talk about it.
  6. Each person will have their piece workshopped for 10-15 minutes, depending on how many people are in attendance.
  7. When your work is being discussed, you remain quiet--just listen! You will have an opportunity to speak during the final 2-3 minutes of your turn.

Important reminders

  1. When deciding between a smart comment and a kind comment, choose the kind one.
  2. Be sure to balance feedback with compliments.
  3. Monitor how much you are talking and how much you are listening. Speak enough so that people listen and listen enough so that people speak.

And now I'm off to read what's been shared so that I am in compliance with #4!

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Slice of Life: In appreciation of writing communities

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. 

Many of us participate in the Slice of Life Challenge in March when we write every day. It's hard. We all know that. And at the end of the month, we're proud. We all feel that. And so grateful to Stacey for the vision she had to start this ritual over ten years ago. 

I completed my fourth of five 10-day residencies for my MFA in creative writing, and I have that same April 1st feeling but in an exponentially more intense way. For ten days, I shared a space and place with about forty other people who wanted to write, analyze, and critique books, stories, essays, poems, sentences, and words. Days began early, ended late--readings finished around 9 each night. Daily workshops went on for three hours in the morning, and if I took a break from afternoon seminars, I wrote. 

The Solstice MFA Program reflects its name. It changes lives. Meg Kearney is the director, and at the beginning of each residency, she impresses on all of us the importance of shedding any envy we have for other people's writing. "Fall in love with someone else's writing," she tells us in her opening remarks. She reminds us that when given the choice between being smart and compassionate, choose compassionate. "You're all helplessly intelligent, or you wouldn't be here," she says. Intelligence shows up when you're being kind. Our Solstice writing community is a well of energy, a source of intensity and creativity. 

I share this for two reasons. Maybe someone in this SOL community would be interested in the Solstice program--it works well for a teacher's schedule-- and also because I'm winding up for a thank you to this SOL community. Writers need energy--the magnetic spin of people in their world who share passions and understand why (or how) we sit down, sometimes more than once a week, and spin stories. Today as I write, I'm alone in my bedroom, but I'm not really alone since I know that when I hit publish, you'll be there. 

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Slice of Life: Underwater Adventures on the Fourth of July

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. 

When Paul asked who wanted to go out snorkeling, my first response was no. The water's cold. Other people will want to go and there won't be equipment for me. I'm reading a really good book.

And then I remembered my One Little Word which is brave. And I remembered my resolve over the weekend to be a little more adventurous. And I thought about being with my best friends and talking about the power of the word YES.

I think everyone was a little surprised when I asked which wetsuit I should wear, and my nephews really got a kick out of watching me wrestle myself into it. There was no way I was going to snorkel in 68 degree water without a suit, though, so I fought through that wetsuit and got it on. Paul realized I was serious and he helped me with fins, then had a mask ready for me.

We stayed in the water for a while, and we spotted starfish, giant horseshoe crabs, blackfish, and lots of small fish. Paul was hunting for stripers, but maybe they were in deeper water. I haven't snorkeled since our Christmas vacation, and I forgot how peaceful it is to be in the water and feel part of the underwater world.

Almost as peaceful as the beautiful Fourth of July sunset we got to enjoy.

Happy Slicing and Happy Fourth!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Slice of Life: Noticing and Celebrating the Good

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. 

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been percolating a post about children's perceptions of writing workshop practices. That post is in draft form; hopefully this one will be complete soon! I get to go into lots of classrooms in my role as the district's writing coordinator, and yesterday, I visited a 4th grade classroom to talk to them about how and why their entire class's writing data was so good. 

I knew the teacher would get some praise from the students. I even warned her that she might be embarrassed. As it turned out, yes, she might have been a little self-conscious about the compliments that came her way--her students talked about her high expectations, her push for their best, her humor, and her ability to motivate them--but she was also touched and honored. As is the case with many star teachers, she thanked me for honoring her students, but she did not acknowledge the honor I'd given to her. I may just point it out to her again the next time I see her!

Sometimes I don't take enough time to notice the good, and even when I do, I don't take enough time to celebrate that good. Her appreciation for the acknowledgement inspired me to write this post, and maybe it will inspire someone else to walk into a thriving classroom, notice it, and celebrate it. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Slice of Life: Paying attention to the garden

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. 

At a recent writing workshop, one of the presenters took us outside. She had us find a place to sit and just pay attention. Pay attention to the sounds, the smells, the tiny changes and the tiny creatures. Just pay attention.

For several years, I have worked on a middle grade fiction novel, and the primary setting is in a backyard garden between April 1st and June 21st. Therefore, I have worked hard to pay close attention to the garden over the last few weeks. I had tried to sit on one of the slate steps every day and pay attention.

Some of my noticings over the last few days:
  • There are a lot of birds making different noises. My grandfather used to know all of the different birdcalls, and he even used to be able to imitate them. I wish I had spent more time learning those from him. The only one I really know is the cardinal’s call.
  • The azaleas are losing their luster. The cool weather kept them vibrant for longer than usual, but the flowers are beginning to crinkle and drop.
  • The allium look like giant purple lollipops, rising up behind the irises. How do those stalks holdup those oversized spheres?
  • The clematis are out--large purple stars with golden centers. Each day they come out a little more.
  • Canopies of leaves in all shapes and colors
  • Grass that won’t stop growing
  • Peonies that keep almost getting up their courage to open up, but clamp up tight when the temperature stays cold and the rains come. I’m glad about this since I don’t want their heavy blooms to be knocked down by the rains we’re expecting. Peonies always make me think of my husband’s mother who had spectacular hedges of these pom-pom like flowers.

I could keep going--sharing the noticings of the garden that I’ve committed to for the eight weeks. I could also recommend making this a practice for yourself or with your students. My husband says it reminds him of Monet and his haystack. There’s something really beautiful about noticing and paying attention to the subtle changes that happen to the same place over a period of time.

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Slice of Life: When there's too much to write...

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. 

Last week I wrote about how around this time of year, the pace of life gets going and it sometimes all feels like too much. This week's theme and topic unintentionally echoed last week's. 

There are weeks when I sit down to write something for the weekly Slice of Life, and I can think of nothing to write about. And then there are weeks when the abundance of potential blog posts is completely overwhelming, and I can’t get started on a post because there’s simply too much. I can’t focus. This week, I can’t focus. There’s too much. There are culminating activities--Capstone presentations, performance assessments, the Relay for Life that my daughters spend their year working on. There has also been the homecoming of college students and the approach of major birthdays in their lives. (Larkin turns 21 on June 3, and she is chomping at the bit to walk into the local wine store and buy a bottle!) There was a field trip today with 100 students to a somewhat very disorganized convention, (increasing my own anticipation for Larkin's wine-buying legality.) And there have been some important doctor appointments, athletic events, and achievements on the parts of all four of my daughters, as well in my life, too. How do I decide what to focus on and write, staying true to the concept of a slice of life?

Maybe my slice today needs to spin into and out of the ritual of sitting down in my writing chair, fingers on the keyboard, and deciding what to write, what to share with the community. Maybe my slice needs to include some of the empathy and understanding I have for those students who sometimes just can't get going. As I work with one of our special education teachers to develop a meaningful RTI system for written expression, sitting down and just getting a post out reminds me of how hard writing can be. Sometimes we get bogged down with the volume of word production and the correctness of grammar and conventions when the real challenge is sorting through ideas and just. getting. going. 

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Slice of Life: Trying to make sense of lots of ideas

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. 

You can't do it all. 

I feel like this should be a post couched in an apology and an excuse for failing to show up to the SOL community for the last few weeks, but here's the deal. You can't do it all. 

We've had vacations and proms and assessments and reports and college decisions--did you know that April is one tough month for parents of high school seniors who can't make up their mind about where to hang their hats for the next four years? It is. Trust me. Enough about excuses. I have a Slice of Life to write. 

Today I had the fourth of five science curriculum writing sessions, and we are approaching the gratifying part of the process when we are actually writing lessons. We have an understanding of all the standards, the dimensions, the cross-cutting concepts, and the content students should know and understand, so we can now envision the work that will engage and educate our students on a day to day business. However, I realized as we got going that within the units, even though we were designing them to be inquiry-oriented and student-centered, the keepers of the knowledge were going to be the teachers. I asked the facilitator about this, wondering to him about where students would have the opportunities to set learning goals for themselves and understand what they were expected to learn. Here's the conundrum that we are still working on processing through and figuring out: if we create discovery-based learning opportunities that begin with a phenomenon and a Question Formulation Technique (QFT) or something along those lines, how is it authentic if we are then telling students what they need to know and be able to do once we work our way through the unit. 

I don't have the answers, and you are all welcome to think about this and comment away. Honesty, I'm not sure there is an answer per se. It's just another wonder about the convergence of important educational concepts involving student agency, inquiry, goal-setting, learning targets, integration, and transference in an information rich environment where teachers are not expected to be the keepers of knowledge but instead the facilitators of acquiring it. Hmmmm.  Maybe you can't do it all!

Please feel free to brainstorm all of this with me!

Happy to be back slicing,