Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Slice of Life: The Power of One Little Word

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. 

The house is quiet this morning, for a little while longer, anyway. Left to their own patterns, the girls sleep late. As long as Okie has had a morning run around the yard, he is content to lie down next to my chair when I read and write.

The morning bloggers have reflected on their One Little Words for 2017, and I love that two of them share by 2017 OLW of brave. I haven't done a lot of public reflecting about my word, although I have loved reading about Fran's progress. That being said, it has been a great focus for my year, and I have pushed through some challenges with the nudge of my OLW. Some of those challenges have felt like short-term dares--diving through the waves when the Rhode Island ocean water is still cold or lifting my legs into a wobbly headstand--or longer term goals like presenting at conferences and submitting my writing to contests and agents (for rejection after rejection).

I am the first of the TWT authors who will share my OLW for 2018, which I have to say feels brave; I'm not sure how I ended up in that first place position! Right now, for those who are still reading and contemplating taking on a word for a year, I'm going to make a strong pitch for it. Resolutions were always tough for me to remember. Some times (often by the second week of January) I forgot what they were and most times (probably always by February), those resolutions were tucked into the back of a drawer within my mind; any potential to change any aspect of my behavior or life was gone. But just one word---

Just one word has been easier to remember, and I'm not sure it had so much to do with the word as much as it has to do with the grounding, centering, and intention the word provides. Each year has brought about challenges--personal and professional, positive and negative, short and long-term, family and friend-based-- and when I think about those challenges, any of my past words would have inspired me to push through; it hasn't been the power of the word as much as it's been the focus of the intention. The practice of choosing a word and living with it throughout a year has slowed me down, inspired me to reflect, bonded me with others who share my word or the practice, and given me an anchor when I felt floundery. (I know floundery isn't a word, but I like it!)

If you're waivering, if you're debating, if you're wondering about taking on a word for a year, give it a try. If you think it would help, write your word down in places where you see it. Remind yourself of your word on your drive to work now and then, telling yourself why you chose it, what it meant. Return to your word when you're feeling floundery--we all have that feeling sometimes. Share your word or keep it to yourself, but let it serve as a beacon or an anchor. You might be surprised at the power of one little word.

If you're off this week, enjoy the time to slow down and rest. Happy 2018 to all of you.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Slices of Life- Moments to Remember

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. 

There are moments that you want to hold on to, remember always. 

Maybe we have the Patriots to thank (or maybe the officials to thank) for the celebratory feel in our household on Sunday night. My husband did a spontaneous happy dance at the end of the game which one of the girls captured on her cell phone so were able to relive his joy over and over.

Moments to hold on to, particularly if you're not a Steelers fan. 

As we cleaned up, Clare and Julia headed to the piano. For years, I insisted that the girls take piano lessons until it was too hard a battle and I gave in to athletic practices and too many AP classes with too much homework, but with time on her hands, Julia returned to the keyboard and played holiday music. Clare took over since she has piano skills to accompany singers, and it led to all of us in the study singing and listening to song after song. Sweet Caroline, Let It Be, Little Wonders, Amazing Grace, You're Beautiful... My mom came in and joined us, and even the dog snuggled against me and listened to the music. 

Moments to hold, moments to hold close, moments to remember always.

Happy writing and slicing,

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Slice of Life: Craft and grammar in a snippet of text

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 going to admit something. I love grammar. I love author’s craft. I love lingering on text and noticing how a favorite author has put together their words, sentences, and paragraphs. Today, I had a chance to share some of the work I’ve done around grammar with several of my colleagues. I shared some of the games we’ve been playing in a third-grade classroom, but I also shared how we can look at a text and appreciate the grammar and craft moves within in it. I shared the first passage from Cynthia Rylant’s Every Living Thing. (Sidenote: If you don’t have this book, you might want to think about getting it, as it is full of short texts that lend themselves incredibly to close reading, mentor text usage, and craft analysis.)

Here’s how the first couple of sentences go:
Leo was the first one to spot the turtle, so he was the one who got to keep it. They had all been in the carm driving up Tyler Mountain to church when Leo shouted, “There’s a turtle!” and everyone’s head jerked with the stop.

In just a few minutes we talked about the different verb tenses that appear in this passage. It can spark a great conversation about how dialogue appears in text as present tense. Why is that? We also talked about the use of proper as opposed to common nouns. What was the purpose of specifically naming Tyler Mountain? What if had been just a mountain, unnamed? And what about the pronouns? We don’t know who they/everyone are at this point. Should we? Why don’t we? Some additional conversations that could come out of these three lines include the use of punctuation, the choices of verbs, the lack of adjectives and adverbs--

Recall and recognition are important, but how we notice and appreciate intentional and effective use of language reinforces, engages, and develops deeper understandings of these concepts.

Always happy to be slicing in this community!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Slice of Life: You don't know the words?

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 had a moment last week when I worried about the (okay, my--) parenting of my youngest daughter. She loves babysitting, and she went off with a skip in her step to watch over our friends' boys. The three year old was still up, so she had the task of putting him to bed. When I picked her up, she told me all about it. 

"We played blocks," she said. (That's good, I thought. Nice divergent, creative play.)
"We watched a show." (I'd rather you'd have read more books, but okay.)
"I read him a few books." (Now we're talking! What books did you read?)
"The only problem I had was that he wanted me to sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." (What?!?!? Why?!?! You have a beautiful voice--)

And then, she told me she had to google the words to Twinkle, Twinkle.

I'll let you go back and read that again. Yes. Go back and read that last line again.

Nope, not the second verse. The main verse. 

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Had I really not taught my little girl the words to Twinkle, Twinkle? 

I laughed. So did she. 

"I couldn't remember if there was another line after the diamond in the sky part," she explained. "I know the tune from playing violin, but not the words."

Fortunately, she's a child who sees the humor in these sort of occurrences, and she can acknowledge that learning words is sometimes hard for her. And I can acknowledge that since she is the youngest of four, she might not have heard traditional lullabies with the same enthusiasm as her older sisters might have.

But I'm left to wonder what else I have forgotten to teach her. What else is she missing? And will those other missing parts be able to be filled in by a quick google search?

Here's hoping--

Happy writing,

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Slice of Life: When work comes home it can sometimes be fun

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, we all bring work home. Tonight, I planned a first-grade opinion lesson that I'll teach tomorrow. After dinner, I sat at the kitchen table making a chart and writing a demonstration piece about which of my four unopened toothbrushes I like best. 

"What are you doing?" my husband asked as I studied a toothbrush.
"Figuring out which one I like best and why," I answered. 

On cue, he joined in. I had ranked the blue one last, and he ranked it first.
"Why?" he wanted to know. "The blue one is awesome. Check out the bristles and the handle on it."

"I can't ever have a blue toothbrush because that's all you have, and I don't want to mix them up," I said. 

Julia was home for dinner tonight, and she joined the conversation. Always her father's daughter, she agreed that the blue one is best, and she pointed out some details and features I hadn't noticed.

"Check out the angle," she said. "Some toothbrushes slip and bang your gums, and this one will let you keep a really good grip."

Maybe those first-graders will be as into toothbrushes and their analysis tomorrow morning. 

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Slice of Life: What does it really say?

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 Friday night, we went to watch our second daughter's college soccer game. Since it was a Friday night, she opted out of the bus ride back to campus and came home with us for a night. As we drove home, the results from her psychology test posted on-line, and she went through the answers, checking her score. Julia tends to do well, and she came across a multiple choice question she'd missed. 

"Listen to this ridiculous question," she said from the back seat. "How do you conduct a study that looks at the casual relationship between social media use and anxiety?"

She read off the choices. 

"Read them again," I said. I was a little miffed that I didn't know any study that would provide insight on a casual relationship. In face, I had no idea what was meant by a casual relationship. 

Then I thought of something. 

"Are you sure it says casual?" I asked. "Could it be causal?"

In the back seat, Julia started to laugh. "We really do see what we are programmed to see," she said.

She passed me her phone with the question on it. From a letter by letter standpoint, causal is pretty close to casual, but miles apart in meaning.

While this interaction has kept me chuckling that weekend, it has also made me remember how we really do see what we expect or what makes sense to our own brain, as opposed to what's really there. And, I'm sure that more times than we know, students miss questions not because they don't understand the content we're assessing, but because of some other factor that gets in the way. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Slice of Life: What happened in Vegas changed my slice

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 had a post all written and ready to go for this morning's SOL call. I wrote it on Sunday night after spending time with one of my college girls. It's light-hearted and funny and when I went to bed last night, I wasn't sure whether to put it up this morning. And this morning, when I woke up, my heart still ached from reading about the events, from reading about the people, who died in Las Vegas. 

My inbox has emails from Nicole Hockley whose son, Dylan, died in his first grade classroom in Sandy Hook Elementary School. And it has an email from Chris Murphy, our Connecticut senator who argues passionately for tighter gun control laws. And I have a text from another one of my daughters wondering what she can do, allowing how upset she is and how she'd like to try to find some sort of job that positions her to do something. And I don't know how to answer her. 

Today, like a moth to the flame, I am sure I will continue to read about the people who died when Stephen Paddock opened fire on them with one of the 23 guns he brought with him to his room on the 23rd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort. I'm not sure why he chose to bring those 23 as opposed to the 19 more guns that remained in his house. I will grieve with their loved ones and I will appreciate the stories of heroism that will emerge and the generous show of humanity that continues to come out of Las Vegas as people donate money, time, food, and blood. 

And in the days to come,  I will continue to wonder out loud and in writing what needs to happen before this country can agree on gun control laws. I believe in the Constitution and in the privileges of the Second Amendment. However, I don't understand, and I don't think anyone will ever convince me, that it should be legal for a single person to own 42 guns. I just don't.

I will save my post about Julia for next week, and I will continue to think about how to answer Clare who wants to do something. Your comments and ideas are welcome. 

Peace to all of you,

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Slice of Life: Conversations about important issues

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 night, I had a twenty minute car ride with my nephew, Jack, who is an attentive, bright 13 year-old.

"So Mel," he said. "What do you think about this whole NFL thing? Have you been paying attention to it? Do you know what's going on?"

We talked for a while about how he views the actions of some of his favorite football players. He had strong opinions that Colin Kaepernick shouldn't lose his job because he exercised his right to free speech. I pointed out that maybe he didn't lose his job, and I decided to play the devil's advocate a little bit (although I probably feel even more strongly about it than Jack), questioning Jack about where we should draw the lines on how people use their power, fame, or privilege.

Earlier in the day, I had tweeted about my concern that we were now paying more attention to the issues around free speech than the ones around racism and police brutality--which were the issues that started this whole conversation. I asked Jack what he thought about this--whether he thought we were creating different conversations in order to avoid possibly more difficult conversations around how people of color are treated differently.

Without missing a beat, Jack pulled up a screenshot of a letter Michael Bennett wrote following an incident he had with the Las Vegas police department.
We ended up in a lengthy conversation about the racism that exists in our country and how hard it is to talk about it.

I shared with him how I am evaluating and trying to be more aware of my own racial biases that showed up when I took the on-line Project Implicit tests. (If you haven't tried these, I recommend taking the time to see how you do!) Maybe what worries me most is that we do have racism in our country, even within groups of people who we wouldn't expect it from. Maybe it's so hard for us to talk about it, to really look at it and dig in to inherent and unwanted biases that it's more comfortable to talk about the First Amendment and what it means to show respect for our country. Personally, I'd like to hit pause on the conversations about who took a knee, what other teams did, and whether our president has the right to tell their bosses to fire them, and instead talk about why anyone felt compelled to protest in the first place.

I'm guessing I'll be thinking about all of this for a while--

Write on,

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,