Slice of Life Tuesday: Show time!


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I heard the click of Bonnie’s keyboard, and then there we were: cued up to the projector and ready to present our workshop.  It felt so strange to be up there, in front of the room, with expectant eyes focused on the two of us, as though asking: so, what do you have to share with us? how can you help us on our respective teaching journeys?

Bonnie took the lead, as planned, and began the first half of our presentation: teacher as writer.  The ease of our friendship, and all the work that we had poured into this year long collaboration, made for a wonderfully natural back and forth dialogue between us and our audience.  The teachers in our audience dove right into writing slices of their own, and we learned so much from them when they shared what this writing felt like, and how it might better inform their teaching of writing.

I was slowly finding my way as “presenter”, trying to gauge how much to talk, how much to listen, how much to question.  And then we were in the second half of our session: student as writer.  This segment began with Bonnie’s brilliant video recap of our Slice of Life year.  Pharrell’s “Happy” began to play over the speakers, our theme song, and then there they were – my class from last year.  I wasn’t prepared for the wave of emotion that took over at the sight of those faces. I was almost undone.

What a year we’d had!  So many wonderful memories to hold on to, to celebrate. And yes, I could see those sixth grade faces change from September to June.

When it came time to speak of how we’d built our writing community, I felt the presence of my kids all around me. The memories of our year together were deeply embedded in all I shared with the teachers and teachers-to-be before me.  How lucky I am to be engaged in the work I do!

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It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Brown Girl Dreaming

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It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted byJen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers and Sheila at BookJourney

I finished one of my most need-to-get-to books last week: Brown Girl Dreaming.

brown girl dreaming

It is hard to say anything new about  Brown Girl Dreaming; all summer long, those lucky ones who were able to get advance copies raved about the power of this book, and I felt privileged to get my own copy at last so that I could experience it as well. In this memoir, Woodson writes of growing up in two worlds – the South Carolina home of her beloved grandparents, and the Brooklyn home of her mother.  

As her family’s needs shift and change, Woodson moves North to South and back again.  America is changing slowly in those days of Civil Rights marches and the still-present vestiges of Jim Crow, and Woodson’s family embodies the journey we made (and are still making) towards “all men are created equal”.  Her mother looks forward to a future of equal opportunity, her grandparents are wary of such promises.  And Woodson, herself, is caught in between – there is the comfort of what is known in South Carolina, and there is a sense of empowerment and hope in Brooklyn.  As she moves between these worlds, she notices everything; and she comes to recognize her gift with words, with which she can (and does in Brown Girl Dreaming) make us understand how her story is, really, our story.  I was especially moved by the scenes in South Carolina, evocative vignettes of what is noticed by the senses (the magnolia scented heat, the texture and taste of collard greens and cornbread), and what is known through the heart and mind of an unusually discerning young girl.

Irene Latham had shared this excerpt last Poetry Friday on her blog, which, I think, speaks to this traveling between two worlds and showing us the way between that Woodson does so hauntingly:

the fabric store
- from BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson

Some Fridays, we walk to downtown Greenville where
there are some clothing stores, some restaurants,
a motel and the five-and-dime store but
my grandmother won’t take us
into any of those places anymore.
Even the five-and-dime, which isn’t segregated now
but where a woman is paid, my grandmother says,
to follow colored people around in case they try to
steal something. We don’t go into the restaurants
because they always seat us near the kitchen.
When we go downtown,
we go to the fabric store, where the white woman
knows my grandmother
from back in Andersons, asks,
How’s Gunnar doing and your girls in New York?
she rolls fabric out for my grandmother
to rub between her fingers.
They discuss drape and nap and where to cinch
the waist on a skirt for a child.
At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.

Here she is, reading an excerpt herself:

And here she is, being interviewed by NPR:

My own copy of Brown Girl Dreaming has begun its journey through a long line of readers, beginning with a former student, Lizzie, who  was so excited to have the book over the weekend.  We had worked through a social justice book club together when she was in my sixth grade class, and she had read and loved Hush and Miracle’s Boys ; now she was eager to read about what had informed the author’s perspective, how Jacqueline Woodson’s past had shaped her voice and her stories today.  It was lovely, really, to place the book in her hands knowing the spell it would cast.

Digilit Sunday: Tour Builder

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Digilit Sunday was created and is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche - join us and share your

digital teaching ideas

At a Google Seminar this summer, I was introduced to Tour Builder.  Here is how Google explains the site:

What is Tour Builder?

Tour Builder is a new way to show people the places you’ve visited and the experiences you had along the way using Google Earth. It lets you pick the locations right on the map, add in photos, text, and video, and then share your creation.

What inspired the creation of Tour Builder?

We originally created Tour Builder to give veterans a way to record all the places that military service has taken them, and preserve their stories and memories as a legacy for their families. But we also thought it could be a useful tool for anyone with a story to tell, so we made it available to everyone.

I’ve been meaning to experiment with it ever since, knowing that it would lend itself to new ways of making my Social Studies lessons more engaging for my students.  Well, I finally got around to creating my first effort for tomorrow’s lesson on the Magna Carta:

It’s just a start, and I know that teachers far more creative than me will be able to do amazing things with this site.  It’s definitely one worth playing around with.  Better still, it’s definitely one worth turning over to our students – they will amaze us!

Poetry Friday: Emmylou Harris – “My Name is Emmet Till”

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Poetry Friday is hosted by Laura Purdie Salas 

On Wednesday night, I had a chance to see the one and only Emmylou Harris at the Tarrytown Music Hall, on the banks of the Hudson River.   She opened with some much loved favorites, ones that made our feet tap, and our bodies sway.  We were all smiling and settling into our “concert zone” when Emmylou segued into a  song I love, and have shared with my students when we are in our social justice unit.  This is a song that never fails to move me…especially these days, the days of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.  This is a song that we need to keep singing, to remember them all…and to keep working towards a day when we can:

Watch him grow into a kinder world
Than I had known
Where no child would be murdered
For the color of his skin
And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men

“My Name Is Emmett Till”

I was born a black boy
My name is Emmett Till
Walked this earth for 14 years
One night I was killed
For speaking to a woman
Whose skin was white as dough
That’s a sin in Mississippi
But how was I to know?I’d come down from Chicago
To visit with my kin
Up there I was a cheeky kid
I guess I’d always been
But the harm they put upon me
Was too hard for what I’d done
For I was just a black boy
And never hurt no one

They took me from my uncle’s house
Mose Wright was his name.
He’d later stand and, without hesitation
Point the blame
At the ones who beat and cut me
And shot me with a gun
And threw me in the river
Like I was trash when they were done

I was sent back to my mother
At least what was left of me
She kept my casket open
For the whole wide world to see
The awful desecration
And the evidence of hate
You could not recognize me
The mutilation was so great

There came a cry for justice
To be finally fulfilled
All because of me, a black boy
My name was Emmett Till

Oh, but I’d have rather lived
Till I was too old to die young
Not miss all I left behind
And all that might have come
Summer clouds above my head
The grass beneath my feet
The warmth of a good woman
Her kisses soft and sweet

Perhaps to be a father
With a black boy of my own
Watch him grow into a kinder world
Than I had known
Where no child would be murdered
For the color of his skin
And love would be the only thing
Inside the hearts of men

They say the horror of that night
Is haunting Heaven still
Where I am one more black boy
My name is Emmett Till

Slice of Life Tuesday: Live theater on a park bench


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Afternoon plans to visit a friend having gone awry, I found myself at Riverside Park with a wonderful bag of books:

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a lovely park bench:

and three hours to read and think and perhaps walk until my Elizabeth was free for dinner.  I plunged right away into Jacqueline Woodson’s amazing Brown Girl Dreaming, losing myself entirely in its beauty for the next two hours.  Then, full of thoughts, I  slowly put away the book and contemplated a long walk to let the power of the book sink in and rattle around in my imagination.  Before I could move, however, I was drawn into a quintessentially New York City experience – the park bench across from me came alive with tableau after tableau of living city theater: 

First, a young man wheeled over an elderly gentleman.  They sat on the sunniest side of the bench, and the young man gently fed the older man some yogurt.  As he did, he launched into a tirade against his landlord.  “He thinks I’m nothing but a cockroach!” he said, “nothing but a New York City cockroach! Imagine that!!”  Even though his voice rose and some his language was pretty rough, he was gentle as gentle could be with the man in his care – attentively tucking the blanket around the old man’s knees, adjusting his cap against the wind, softly dabbing at his mouth after every spoonful.

Soon after they had left, two middle school aged kids scootered over to the bench, flung down their backpacks and traded their after school snack – apples for potato chips, juice for a soda.  As they munched they plotted about how to get to the next level of their video game, and texted friends for some higher level advice.  I loved the ebb and flow of their conversation – two friends, talking easily about video games, the merits of salty potato chips, the best route to scooter back home.

Just as I was ready to gather my books and head over to the restaurant for dinner, a young mother strolled over with two toddlers and a chocolate brown lab in tow.  She sank down onto the bench with a deep sigh, the kind that wells up in moms everywhere as dinner time, bath and bed time stories near.  “Mommy just needs a minute, okay? Play with Geoffrey for a bit!”  Geoffrey, it turned out,  was their chocolate lab, and he was just as beat from the day’s activities as Mom.  He stretch out by the side of the bench, heaved a sigh of utter exhaustion, and promptly fell asleep. For the next fifteen minutes,  Geoffrey’s human siblings tried everything they could to get him to play. The examined his ears, checked out his teeth, poured a bit of their water bottles down his velvety back. No response.  They offered him bits of apple and bits of animal crackers. Still no response. They sat on him. Geoffrey shifted his weight, rolling them off without  lifting a sleepy eyelid.  Finally, Mom had had enough. “Alright guys, let’s go!” she said.  And then, finally,  Geoffrey  slowly rose, stretched, and was ready, too, to be off.

And so was I.

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: September 17th., 2014



   Alyson Beecher hosts this non fiction picture book round-up @  KidLit Frenzy.

all diff now

All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom is Angela Johnson’s beautiful story of Juneteenth – the day the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation finally came to slaves of Galveston, Texas – June 19th., 1865. Told through the experience of one little girl who woke a slave and went to bed knowing that both she and her people were now, truly,  “forever free”.  E.B. Lewis’ beautiful illustrations make this book a real treasure to read and share.

white house is burning

I teach the War of 1812 in my Social Studies curriculum – and this event always captures the attention of my sixth graders.  Jane Sutcliffe has written an arresting narrative of that day in The White House Is Burning: August 24, 1814, drawn from the first person accounts of those who were there – First Lady Dolley Madison, a British officer, and a nine-year-old slave. Paintings, political cartoons, and maps give this book lots of visual interest, as well, making this a wonderful text with which to teach history as well as the use of primary source documents.

Slice of Life Tuesday: The 9/11 assigned letter


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Last Sunday evening, I spent some time talking over the phone with my lovely niece Chloe. Our conversation shifted to the homework assignment she was working on.  I know no other 7th. grader who has as much homework as Chloe  – here’s what she had for just one night in language arts, day 2 of the school year:

  • Write 20 compound sentences beginning with “I am”
  • Compose a 20 line poem on any topic
  • Write 20 compound sentences using each of 20 spelling words
  • Complete 3 pages of vocab exercises (sentence completion, synonyms, antonyms etc) using a completely different set of 20 words to the 20 spelling words

On Sunday night, though, Chloe was grappling with a new assignment: write a four paragraph letter to the NYPD and the NYFD to thank them for their work on September 11th.  This seems to be an assignment  that crops up at this time of year in classroom after classroom.  Children who were not even born then, or who were just babies on that dreadful day, are asked to write letters and essays about the significance of those events.

Chloe had some meaningful things to say, but she definitely struggled – the assignment had to be four paragraphs long.  How many different ways to say “thank you”, “I admire your dedication”, “I will never forget”?  I saw immediately, of course (as a writing teacher), that the main issue here was that Chloe was struggling to write about something she knew very little about. She’s in 7th. grade, she lives in California, and what she knows about 9/11 all these years later is filtered through images and stories she hears most often just around that date. No unit of study was planned around the event, no thoughtful discussions had been had in class, there was just this assignment to be completed. Perhaps, collectively, these letters would make a nice bulletin board for her class’ back-to-school night?  Why do teachers assign these letters?

We brainstormed a bit, and then Chloe was off and running.  She wrote her letter.  But I still wish she had had a different writing assignment…or had been given the freedom just to read.