Friday, March 31, 2017

Slice 31 of 31-#sol17: My top ten reasons for taking the challenge

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Day 31 of this 31 day writing challenge!


Some of you may have participated whether by creating or watching the Flipgrid that Kathleen started. If you watched Brian Kissel's video, you will understand where I got my inspiration for the top ten benefits or reasons the Slice of Life Story Challenge is so important to me as both a writer and a teacher.

Here they are: my top-ten list for taking the SOLSC of 2017

10. I go to yoga more. I find that I draft inside my head during several of the poses, so I get myself to class more often in March. Therefore, I'm physically stronger than I was on March 1st. That feels good. 

9. When my daughter slices also (which she's done in 3 1/2 of my 5 years, I get a window into her daily life that is wider than the texts and pictures she shares. Some of you have gotten to know Larkin through her slicing--thank you to all who have encouraged her on her writing path. She's minoring in writing, and I know it has a lot to do with this community. 

8. I've made connections I can't imagine ever losing all over the country and even the world. I've met many slicers in person, and they are just as special face to face as they are when they are sharing their lives through writing and commenting and on mine. I've learned about other cultures and other places by reading the daily slices of contributors within our community.

7. During March, I feel more connected with the people I've met. I read what they are doing on a daily basis, and I picture them in their worlds with their families and friends.

6. I'm a better commenter. Some comments inspire me. Some comments do nothing for me. Some comments even leave me confused or defensive. (Those last types are VERY rare in this community.) I've learned that sometimes the best feedback is an emotional reaction. Writers want to know their work matters. 

5. I'm a better teacher. The commitment to slice every day is also a commitment to try out the work we ask students to do, and I pay close attention to how it feels inside my head and what it's demanding my brain to do.

4. I'm also a better teacher because of the amazing ideas other people share in this community. I have no doubt that some of the best educators in the world link into the commitment to write every day. Everyone is so generous with their idea and strategies that empower and inspire learners. 

3. I'm a better writer. I've studied other people's craft moves, and I've tried many techniques out in my own posts. Sometimes people's comments let me know they're working. Sometimes, I just have to know in my own head that my new techniques and strategies are developing. Also, we get better at anything by doing it, and during March, I write. A lot. 

2. I'm a braver person.  I've shared earlier in the year, as well as throughout the month, that my One Little Word for 2017 is brave. Writing still takes so much courage for me. There have been posts I've written where I've felt vulnerable because of the content or insecure because of the craft. The responses and reactions of this community encourage risk-taking. If courage is being brave and scared at the same time, it's a community where I've practiced that almost every day, and the rest of my life benefits well beyond just the writing part of me.

1. Writing makes me a better person. I spend March paying much more attention to life, whether it's in classrooms, relating to my daughters, or spending time outside watching the birds. Even though I spend a lot of time on writing and commenting in March, I slow down, as well. I know I've had realizations and reflections I would have otherwise missed, and those insights have mattered.  

Thank you to all who have grown alongside me--reacting, commenting, and sharing throughout the 31 days of March. I'll look forward to keeping up with you on Tuesdays.

All good things,

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Slice 30 of 31-#sol17: Why do we stop asking questions?

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Day 30 of this 31 day writing challenge!


There was a time when hitting the publish button scared me. (It sometimes still does.) There was a time when public speaking scared me. (It frequently still does.) Yesterday, I realized that asking questions can be scary, too.

Maybe I'm a little paranoid.
Maybe I need a dose of confidence.
Maybe it's good my OLW for 2017 is brave.

But here's the deal. After writing yesterday's post where I developed questions around a topic, I realized that asking questions is a more vulnerable practice than I'd realized. There's the worry that you're asking a stupid question, a question that reveals your incompetency, a question to which everyone else in the room (or in the blogosphere) knows the answer. Yep, there's that. There are all those!

More and more, I've been trying to incorporate inquiry into the curriculum I write, and not just an inquiry lesson where the teacher poses a question along the lines of "What are ways to hook readers in introductions?" and students work to answer it. Instead, I've tried to impress upon our learning communities the importance of students generating questions that spin into learning. Of honoring curiosity, of recognizing meaningful research ideas, of exploring questions and topics that go beyond an affirmation of what the teachers already know.

In a recent second grade class, I introduced the idea of generating questions to launch the students into an information writing project, and I could not write fast enough as students thought of questions. I had to stop them when the chart paper was full:

What impressed me post about this list of questions is that the second-graders had NO closed-ended questions. They loved the activity, everyone participated, and I never had to even remotely manage hurt feelings or put-downs. Let me say again that this was second grade. 

Research shows that children's capacity to ask questions drops when they hit about third grade. In fact, a post on the website, A More Beautiful Question  presents this graph:

For a few years, this graph has haunted me. (Maybe now it will bother you, too.) I know there could be many explanations for the drop-off in questions after the age of five, and I've thought a lot about this over the years. Maybe it's because children realize they exhaust their parents. Maybe children react to the idea that teachers ask the questions and students' jobs are to answer those questions. Maybe reading lessens the need to ask questions because children develop the ability to answer their own questions. 

But until yesterday, I hadn't considered the element of vulnerability. What if it has more to with the self-consciousness that develops as children approach pre-adolescence, moving into the stage of life when other people's opinions matter? What if it's more to do with the recognition that other people react to them and form judgements? I was uncomfortable putting my questions out there in yesterday's post because maybe my questions revealed my ignorance or my incompetence or my inferiority. I know people say there's no such thing as a stupid question, but as I tried to produce questions, I wasn't sure this statement is true or that people really believe it. 

I've learned so much about writing from being a writer. Maybe the best way to really, really learn about questioning and how to teach it is by doing more questioning and paying attention to the metacognitive work it involves, as well as the feelings of insecurity and vulnerability it evokes. 

And so I have discovered another reason to be brave in 2017. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Slice 29 of 31-#sol17: When equity and inquiry meet

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Day 29 of this 31 day writing challenge!


The importance of equity has been emphasized in recent conferences I've attended, as well as within my MFA writing program. More and more, this concept surfaces and inspires attention, reflection, and action.

Another theme that keeps coming up in my professional learning is the importance of curiosity, questioning, and skills that align with growth mindsets. How does student inquiry exist in classrooms?

Within the spirit of these two related concepts, I am studying some images that were shared in one of the presentations I attended today. If you want to see more like them, these images were created within a powerful article from Cultural Organizing. 

As participants in this challenge, we are writing and probably learning a lot about the metacognitive processes of writing. Today, I am pushing myself to do the same with asking questions. What does it feel like to ask questions in response to these images? Here goes:
  • How do the people in these images feel?
  • Who created these images and what inspired him? (I know it's a him.)
  • What is happening in the justice picture?
  • How is equity different from equality?
  • How is equity more important than equality?
  • Is equality ever more important than equity?
  • Who would disagree?
  • What is the relationship between justice, equity, and equality?
  • What are the differences/similarities between these three concepts?
  • What can I do to create more equity in my immediate world?
I'd love you to keep asking questions about these pictures--feel free to add on in the comments!

Maybe tomorrow I'll reflect on and write about what it feels like to ask questions. I've found it harder than I'd think, and I feel sort of vulnerable. 

Could it be that's why students ask fewer questions as they move through the grades? 

Happy Slicing,

Slice 28 of 31-#sol17: Sometimes you hear an idea that you have to share

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Day 28 of this 31 day writing challenge!


Sometimes you hear of a practice that inspires you. Sometimes you hear of a practice you can't wait to share. Sometimes you have a post all set and queued up and ready to publish and something comes along that is better than any of it. 

That happened today. 

I got to attend the New England Secondary School Consortium's conference in Hartford today, and throughout the day, educators from around the country shared presentations, resources, reflections, and instructional practices. While I drove home with swirls of new learning spinning in my head, there's one idea I can't wait to share with my SOL community. 

Ellington Middle School calls it the Pineapple Board. 
A pineapple is a symbol of welcome, and Pineapple Week included upside down cake, Hawaiian pizza, fresh fruit, and a Pineapple Board. From an educational standpoint, the Pineapple Board involves teachers posting on an office whiteboard  the lessons they are excited to teach and open for colleagues to come on in and watch, learn, and reflect.  

Getting out of the silos of our teaching lives is so important to professional growth and student learning. As someone who is in many different classrooms, there are many times I wish others could come in and see the great lessons that are happening. What a brilliant way to help districts know what districts know! Love this!

Happy Slicing!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Slice 26 0f 31-#sol17: Finally a ten!

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Moving into the 20's of the 31 day writing challenge!


At the end of our tutoring session, Ethan asked me if I wanted to know my rating. 

When I first started working with him a few weeks ago, he was less than thrilled to have Saturday morning tutoring. To try to make sure it was as good as it could be, I started asking him how it was on a scale of 1-10. The first couple of sessions ran me an eight and a nine. My husband got a kick out of this. 

"When are you going to come home with a ten?" he'd ask.

As we walked downstairs, I laughed at Ethan's question. I had actually forgotten to ask him. We'd both enjoyed our lesson. We read 74th Street by Myra Cohn Livingston together, and I surprised him when I said I didn't think the little girl was resilient and persevering--I actually thought she was fairly foolish. We spent a fair amount of time reading closely and debating. Ethan also had a couple opportunities to act out the poem. If you want to see something funny, get an eleven year-old boy to pretend to fall repeatedly while wearing roller skates, skin his knee, wipe the dirt, and spit on it. 

"That was a ten," Ethan said as I put on my sneakers in the mudroom. 

Looking forward to telling that doubting husband of mine!

Happy Slicing,

Slice 25 of 31-#sol17: Paper bags and purposeful play

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Moving into the 20's of the 31 day writing challenge!


"You're giving him that bag?" Cecily asked.
"Sure," I said. "What's he going to do with it?"

For the next twenty minutes, a paper bag was all our six month-old puppy needed for complete entertainment. By the time he was done, the bag was shredded, and he was happy to take a nap. 
As I thought about my morning post, and what I had to say about the fun Okie had chewing up the bag, I remembered the wise messages from Alison Porcelli in a workshop I'd attended on Purposeful Play. Some of the messages in that workshop had to do with the importance of constructivist play, although I'd have to say that Okie is more of a destructivist. Children need materials to work with and invent things. Sometimes the best toys for developing creativity, innovation, and resourcefulness are boxes and paper bags. 

Okie has plenty of bones and puppy toys, but isn't it amazing how much he loves a paper bag? And isn't it amazing what kids will build and invent with an assortment of materials and not a lot of direction?

Happy Slicing,

Friday, March 24, 2017

Slice 24 of 31-sol#17: Am I an accidental diminisher?

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Moving into the 20's of the 31 day writing challenge!


One of my colleagues suggested that the Multipliers Quiz is a great conversation starter for instructional coaches and anyone in a similar role. I usually like her ideas, so this afternoon, I registered at the Multipliers website, and I took the quiz to determine if I am an accidental diminisher.
I scored a 22 which puts me into the land of likely for being an accidental diminisher. Hmmm. The questions that seemed to get me my negative points had to do with having ideas and working hard. I took some time to reflect on this, and I thought about an interaction I had just today. One of the teachers I work with was struggling with the structure of one of the Units of Study writing books, published by Heinemann. These books give detailed sessions for every lesson within a unit, and the minilesson is fully elaborated--even scripted--with a connection, teaching point, active engagement opportunity, and a link. This teacher was looking for a simpler chart, and I suggested that we create one. I also shared the series of videos I've made for each session that teachers can use to see how the minilesson could go or to use with students who miss instruction or need a refresher. 

Maybe I was being an accidental diminisher. 
Maybe I was making it too easy.
Maybe productive struggle is a good thing. 

But it's conference time.
And there's so many other priorities and pressures.
And isn't it my job?

Where's the balance? 

This accidental diminisher thing has me thinking. That's a good thing. Maybe sometimes less is more. 

Happy Slicing,

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Slice 23 of 31-#sol17: Thinking about author's craft

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Thirty-one days of writing during the month of March, here we go!


I always admire people who admit when they're not sure of something, and recently one of our teachers asked what we meant when we talked about author's craft:
  • How do we teach it? 
  • What do we mean by it? 
  • Is there a list of craft moves we should be responsible for?
  • What if we say the wrong thing?
  • How do we teach something we don't really understand ourselves?
She really got me thinking about author's craft and the high leverage moves to teach a complicated subject. I sat with her and another teacher at the end of the day, and together we studied The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson. We chose this one because it is a picture book they both owned and had read before. (Hat tip to Clare and Tammy who wisely pointed out how powerful it is to use the books in the classroom, rather than appear with our own that the teachers don't have once we leave! If you missed it, check out this post.) As we read through the pages of The Other Side, I began to point out some of the craft moves I noticed, including:
  • sentence variation
  • repetition
  • beginning sentences with conjunctions
  • the repeated use of the word "that"
  • intentional paragraphing and use of white space
The teachers caught on quickly, realizing that they did know about author's craft; they just hadn't realized they did. The interesting conversation happened when we talked about the impact these craft moves have on readers. Yes, in the case of this story, repetition could be to emphasize a point or draw readers' attention to an idea. But no, that's not always the case. Sometimes authors might use repetition to create playfulness or create a rhythm in their prose. No, there's not an answer that is necessarily the right answer. It's interpretive. 

When I first started teaching, I had a principal who asked us to debate whether teaching is an art or a science during a faculty meeting. If you ever have the chance to engage colleagues in this discussion, I recommend it. This work session with these teachers was a great example of teaching as an art without clear, readily available answers and formulas. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Slice 22 of 31-#sol17: A puppy pace

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Up to Day 22 of the 31 day writing challenge!


"Let's see what he notices if we let him walk at his pace," my daughter said. We were at the local reservoir, a popular place for walking, and it was sunny and (relatively) warm. We both decided to take a break from our work and take Okie for a walk. 

At six months old, the whole world interests our little black lab. Sights, smells, sounds--they're all fascinating. When we let him set the pace, Cecily and I did a lot of waiting. We even let him stray from the pathway when there was a particularly enticing scent. Here's what happened: we slowed down and lingered, laughing and paying attention to the world and to each other. A puppy pays attention to so much more than people who are focused on completing their walks. Sometimes maybe we should be more like puppies.

When I came home, I went back to work on my model lessons for literary essay. My work involved reading and re-reading a short text by Cynthia Rylant, leaving patches of thinking--the results of all I noticed. Even though I've read Spaghetti many, many times, I came up with new ideas as I pushed myself to linger with different questions and concepts. Maybe it was the thinking stems, but maybe it was the change in pace that Cecily and I experienced when we let a curious puppy be in charge. Probably my new ideas were the result of a combination.

So often, I'm in a rush, even when I know I'm supposed to slow down. I even try to rush through a close read--this seems like an oxymoron as I write it! Tonight, I noticed the different work that I do and the different ideas that emerge when I slow down and really, really take notice, ask questions, and linger. 

A puppy pace can be a good thing. 


Monday, March 20, 2017

Slice 21 of 31-#sol17: The third quarter laundry folding syndrome

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Thirty-one days of writing during the month of March, here we go!


I always look forward to March and the brackets that come along with it, and we watch a lot of basketball in my house. Here's what I've noticed about myself. I enjoy the beginnings of the games when players and teams vie for an early advantage, and I'm a pretty close watcher for the first half. During the third quarter, I tend to fold laundry, do the dishes, or take the dog out with a little less attention to the game. I love the ends, especially the close ones, but I even like the ends when it's not terribly close because I like to watch the celebrations.

I've made a connection to myself as a basketball game watcher and as a SOLSC participant. I started off strong with plenty to write, and it lasted for the first half of the month. This third quarter that we're now in gets a little tough for me. My posts feel a little flatter, a little less engaging. And then we hit the home stretch, the fourth quarter when the shots posts really matter. During the last week or so of the Challenge, I feel the pressure--and it's a good pressure--to write really well, to create meaningfully. 

And now I'm thinking about school and students. We're in the third quarter. The newness of the year is over. The end is still a distant horizon. Do you have students who are feeling as I've described? Do you hit a point in the year when learning feels flat? When it feels more like going through the motions than exciting and inspiring? In some ways, it's the most consistent stretch of learning we have throughout the year, but how do we keep the energy up for learning? What do you do?

I'd love to hear from you!

Happy Slicing!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Slice 20 of 31- #sol17: Happy Birthday to Julia!

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Thirty-one days of writing during the month of March, here we go!


Yesterday, this little girl turned nineteen. I've been reading so many posts reminding us to savor the moments, that time goes by, and yes it does! For the most part, I've handled having my girls leave for college, but I have to say that I had a bit of a lump in my throat today, as I really missed her on her birthday. Her care package should arrive tomorrow, but even so, several times I thought about texting someone to surprise her with a cake. I resisted though. I'm glad I did, because stay tuned... someone really special took care of making sure she had candles!

It seems like not too long ago that she had rolls and delicious cheeks and a belly laugh. 

Although the body shape has changed significantly,

 if you look closely, you'll see the determination in her face that led to this:

How I love this girl!

The picture above was actually taken by Lisa Keeler during a recent visit. I share this because not only do I know Lisa because of the reach and power of the TWT community, but also it was Lisa's text that ended my stoicism for the day. I thought I'd make it through March 19th without tears, and I would have until Lisa's message came through:

Lisa not only made sure my girl had a cake, but also a home-cooked meal on her birthday. 

My tears weren't sad tears--they were tears of gratitude and celebration. 

Thank you, Lisa, and thanks to all of you for creating and nurturing and being a part of this community!

Happy Slicing,

Slice 19 of 31-#sol17: Using Google Forms for Conferring

This is the 10th year that Two Writing Teachers has hosted the Slice of Life Challenge. Thirty-one days of writing during the month of March, here we go!


On Sundays, Margaret Simon invites bloggers to share ideas that somehow relate to the world of digital learning on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. I have been meaning to link up for weeks, and today, during the March Slicing Challenge, it seems a perfect time to do it. (The only catch is that today is one of my daughter's birthdays. Tomorrow, I will wish her a happy birthday.)

Last Friday, I presented to a group of teachers about workshop efficiencies and conferring. One of the practices I shared involved using Google Forms. During the last two weeks, I've been forced to use Google Forms twice, once to collect responses from teachers about choice workshops and once for the slicing world--many of you may be about to fill out the Participant Form for the Weekend Slicing Challenge. When you do that, think of me--it was my second ever Google Form! If you use Google Drive, and you've made a document, folder, or slide presentation, just go a little further in the drop box, and make a Google Form.

I've since made a few more, and I have to say that this tool is a conferring game changer. Check out what you can do:

Create a form. In my case, I made a sample one for a second grade opinion writing unit. For the first question, I entered names. Mine are hypothetical, but I plan on making one that includes all of the students I am targeting in my coaching work. A teacher could enter the students in a classroom. I made this list a checklist form so that if I were doing a partner conference or a small group, I could enter the information all at once. 
At the top, you can see the questions and responses

On the right, there's a + button to add another question, and I made that one be a compliment. Because I want to make sure that students hear the language of the standards whenever they can, I entered learning targets from the second grade opinion writing standards. I made these also a checklist because sometimes I may give more than one compliment, although not often! I entered the same terms in another question that is the teaching point. For this, I used the drop down option to remind me to ONLY TEACH ONE THING in a conference. (I still need to yell that at myself!)

This form is shrunk down so you can see more of it.

It's so easy to get results and create a record in various forms of my conferring! You can click on responses, which is at the top right of the form, and you can also make a spreadsheet. It's automatically date-stamped, and it can be sorted and manipulated however you'd like!

What an amazing way to keep instruction focused, track teaching, and maintain records. Love this!

Thank you for hosting this community, Margaret. 

Happy slicing everyone,