Slice of Life Tuesday:Planting the way for essaying

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Katherine Bomer’s book, The Journey is Everything was one of those transformative professional books that stopped me in my teaching tracks and made me want to do better right away.  All Spring and Summer long, I read and re-read this book, joining in on book groups, Voxer discussions, and Google hangouts in an effort to figure out how I could lead my students towards the beautiful writing that  Katherine envisioned: essays to help them think in reflective, open-minded ways, to stir their emotions, teach them about life, and move them to want to change the world.

We’ve spent our first three weeks of school planting seeds of the stories of our lives in our notebooks, and writing narratives based on these seed ideas.  Now, it was time to look beyond writing about small moments, and think about what Katherine Bomer calls writing to think.  In her fabulous keynote for The EdCollab Gathering last Saturday, Bomer shared a bit of the “how to” of this kind of writing with this slide:


and some generative questions in this slide:


which formed the basis of our writing workshop discussion and charting on Monday:

And then, both my students and I opened our writer’s notebooks and created lists of our own.

Today, we threw ourselves into a “try it” – reaching into our lists, finding an idea, and then writing to discover where our thinking would go.  It took all of us a little time to get going, but when we did, we discovered that the writing came quickly and led us into unexpected places.  Here’s where I went today (first for my morning block and then for my afternoon one):


I sketched some thoughts, then wrote…and in each case, my ideas began small (rude drivers, cut down trees) and journeyed towards something larger (kindness, civic responsibility).  I shared my writing with my kids, showing them that it was messy and rambling in parts, but seemed to get somewhere by the last few sentences.

My kiddos shared that this had been (for the most part) their writing experience,too.  We talked a bit about this journey, and then we tagged our entries with sticky notes with writing plans/thoughts/audiences should we ever want to return and extend our pieces.  It was, we agreed, interesting work – work we will return to this week, and from time to time in the weeks and months to follow.

This evening, as I think about our writing day, I return to this passage in Bomer’s book:

In our classrooms, we can create experiences that enable kids to literally see and touch the process of idea generating as it unfolds before them.  The writer’s notebook works supremely well for this – a tangible version of a mind that contemplates, sparks connections, remembers, and changes course.  (Pg. 65)

It’s exciting to think ahead as we make our own journey towards meaningful essaying with these first steps…

It’s Monday! What are you reading? The Three Lucys & Rhythm and Resistance


It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.


The Three Lucys is a gentle story about how war, relentless and unmerciful, impacts a child’s life.  Luli lives in the hills of Lebanon, above the city of Beirut.  He loves his home, his school, and his three cats – Lucy the Skinny, Lucy the Fat, and Lucy Lucy – just as children would.  A weekend trip to Beirut, however, changes all that.  On their way back, rockets fall screaming from the sky – and this bombing continues all month long.  By the time Luli and his parents are able to make it back to their home, much of the familiar landscape has changed…and one of his Lucys has vanished.

The beautiful illustrations by Sara Kahn allow us to see what Luli loves about his homeland, and what war can do to the loveliest of landscapes.  Luli’s dreams of a time “where there are no more bombings and the world is at peace” echoes those of so many children around the world today, and every day.


My teaching lens for this year is social justice, and one of the cornerstones of my summer work into researching what this would look like and sound like in my classroom was Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, edited by Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson.

Presented as a series of lessons, this book is a rich resource of ideas and poems to bring into our classrooms and begin conversations about identity, self, story, and history.  Each lesson is prefaced with a “so what?” that encourages us as teachers to think more deeply about what we want to teach our children about community and their roles in preserving democracy and social justice.  I loved the variety of poems collected in this book, especially the ones by students.  This is an important book, especially for teachers in the middle grades and above.





DigiLit Sunday: Agency begins with responsibility


DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  Today, she asks us to consider the word “agency”.


Among the big stack of professional reading I did over the summer, was Upstanders by Harvey Daniels and Sara Ahmed.  I was drawn to the work illuminated by the book – growing empathetic and socially responsible young citizens even as we seek to teach them about reading, writing, science, and math.  And, I loved Sara’s “soft starts” to her day, described this way:

When we come in, we have to get in “the Zone” right away. That means our bodies and minds are focused and ready to take on the day. The same way we get ready before a big game or a performance, our actions show we are ready to be our best selves.

We began our new school year with a soft start, both in my morning as well as in my afternoon blocks: five to ten minutes of quiet, get “in the Zone” time.   This will, I am sure, help my students gain a sense of agency in their learning lives.  That is my my hope, but the truth is that we are getting there slowly.  We are learning that agency begins with responsibility – to our classmates, and to our selves.  And this is proving to be a harder lesson than I had anticipated.

We are learning that a soft start is not….

an opportunity to goof off

time to finish off disagreements begun in the lunch room

time to begin new disagreements

the chance to play

the moment to begin wrangling for the best comfy reading chairs in the classroom.

Agency begins with responsibility…and we are still learning about that.


Celebrate this week: Kindness, learning, and…cake!

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get!


I wasn’t going to post for “Celebrate this week” – after all, the news of the week left little cause for celebration.  Then…I thought of my students, and of the morning I spent learning from brilliant and passionate educators.  In doing so, I realized that I had cause to celebrate, after all.

We began our Friday current events discussions this week, and my kids were both curious and fearless.  They wanted to engage in the events of their world, to ask questions, to wonder.  At the heart of all they asked was kindness.  I celebrate that innate kindness, our work in all the learning we will do this year will lean on and draw from that kindness.


Author: janineharrisonphotography

I spent most of today at my desk, glued to my laptop and The EdCollab Gathering.  Chris Lehman opened with words that spoke right to my heart, and answered some of the questions my teacher self had been struggling with last week: how political can one be in these times, how political should one be in any times?  And then Chris said this: “Say the things that you believe-hold on to your humanity even when it’s scary.”  Yes. I celebrate the clarity of that truth.


And then, there were hours of learning at The Ed Collab Gathering following Chris’ remarks.  How can I not celebrate a Saturday spent in the company of so many inspiring and dedicated educators? I thank my friend Fran McVeigh for putting it best: “A day w/ is like 3 layer cake of many flavors.” I celebrate having a taste of  this kind of cake!

Poetry Friday: Poetry of Social Justice

Poetry Friday is hosted by Catherine @ Reading to the Core


More police shootings. More protests. More anguish and more rage.  This has become a sickeningly depressing occurrence in America these days, our new normal: a person of color is gunned down by a law enforcement officer, and protestors gather to decry what they know will happen…nothing, for justice will not be served.

So, this Poetry Friday, I turn to poetry and find two that speak, in powerful ways, to what I see playing out on my television.  First, this one by Langston Hughes – succinct and true: 

Justice by Langston Hughes
That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
And this, from Jacqueline Woodson, which speaks to the rage of people no longer willing to wait quietly long past their turn:
what everybody knows now  by Jacqueline Woodson
Even though the laws have changed
my grandmother still takes us
to the back of the bus when we go downtown
in the rain. It’s easier, my grandmother says,
than having white folks look at me like I’m dirt.
But we aren’t dirt. We are people
paying the same fare as other people.
When I say this to my grandmother,
she nods, says, Easier to stay where you belong.
I look around and see the ones
who walk straight to the back. See
the ones who take a seat up front, daring
anyone to make them move. And know
this is who I want to be. Not scared
like that. Brave
like that.
Still, my grandmother takes my hand downtown
pulls me right past the restaurants that have to let us sit
wherever we want now. No need in making trouble,
she says. You all go back to New York City but
I have to live here.
We walk straight past Woolworth’s
without even looking in the windows
because the one time my grandmother went inside
they made her wait and wait. Acted like
I wasn’t even there. It’s hard not to see the moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
perfectly clasped
between her gloved hands—waiting quietly
long past her turn.
Jacqueline Woodson, “what everybody knows now” from Brown Girl Dreaming.

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Zone of Discomfort

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We were in the zone of discomfort yesterday, and it did not feel good.

All of last week, we had worked hard to create writing lists and visual writing tools.  All of last week, I had heard my students storytelling as they worked to create their lists and maps.  And all of last week there was a confidence and a sense of joy in this storytelling.  They were comfortable with storytelling, which is the foundation of our writing workshop.  That’s wonderful, I thought to myself on Friday, we are ready to move from collecting writing seed ideas to stretching those ideas into writing entries.  

On Monday, I walked my kids through my process of sifting through my lists and visuals, weighing the merits and interests of a few selections, and then deciding upon one to write about.  I thought aloud, modeling my quick-sketch of the seed idea, and the way I tried to think through the narrative once more, just to make sure that I had at least a tentative road map.  Then, I asked my kids to sift through their own lists and decide on their own writing topics and plans as they sat at our meeting area.  Once they felt ready to begin, they were to return to their seats and begin writing in their writer’s notebooks.  I looked around at attentive faces, seemingly ready to begin writing.

So far, so good.

I took my perch on the stool in front of the classroom, my own notebook open and began to write.  Deep into my first paragraph, I glanced up to check in on the progress my students were making.  A few had begun sketching out writing game plans, but many were gazing up the ceiling and out the windows, and some were beginning to make the first of many treks to sharpen their pencils or grab a tissue.

But, writing takes time, and gazing about or getting up to stretch is all part of my writing process as well.  I went back to my own writer’s notebook.Ten minutes in, I glanced up to see more of the same…a few writers, many gaze abouters.  My students seemed lost, their story telling desire extinguished.

We were settling into a zone of discomfort.

I knew that many of my kids wanted me to confer with them right away, to provide a nudge, or the beginnings of a plan.  Some had a title, some had the first few sentences, some had erased what they had written several times over…now, they had nothing.

The writing part of my brain continued to work on my entry, but the teaching part of my brain began to ponder the options.  Should I let those struggling to begin writing continue to struggle? Or should I let my kids feel their way through  this part of the writing process, the hardest part  – making a choice and getting started?

It was uncomfortable.

But, my writer self also knows that this struggle is something every writer, from beginning to expert,lives through and learns from.  Experience has taught me that each student finds their way through this struggle in their own way and in their own time.  A conference nudge may get them going this one time, but not the next.  If I swooped in to offer assistance, they will come to expect and rely upon it.  It would be the easy way out for my kids (who were looking rather hopefully in my direction) and for me (who was beginning to feel guilty).

So, we stayed in the zone of discomfort.  We muddled through…as all writers do.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? “Lucy” and “Olivia’s Birds”


It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

We had a wonderful guest today – Brenda Powers of Choice Literacy stopped by to visit our reading and writing workshops.  Lucky for me, she came bearing the best gifts this teacher could ask for – great books.  Here are two I fell in love with instantly:

Image result for olivia's birds

Olivia Bouler is an eleven year old ornithologist and artist on a mission:

The message I keep telling everyone is that all animals are special and important to our ecosystem.  We need to work together to protect them.  Imagine if a hundred years from now, children wouldn’t get to see the variety of beautiful creatures on this planet. We can’t let that happen.

Olivia’s Birds: Saving the Gulf is her guide to the extraordinary world of birds.  From Fierce Birds to Endangered & Extinct birds, Olivia writes about these categories in engaging detail, and her lovely illustrations bring each variety to life.  The story of Olivia’s mission to help birds of the Gulf, and the scope of her reach also makes for interesting reading.  This is a great book to share with our students – first as a mentor text for informational writing, and second as a powerful example of a writer reaching out to make a difference in her world.  Here’s a link to Olivia’s site, in which she shares her artistic process, and provides updates about her activism.


Randy Cecil’s Lucy is just an absolute treat 0f a picture book – a story about a stray dog (Lucy) who remembers her past home and longs for a new one, Eleanor who feeds Lucy from time to time and longs to give her a home, and Eleanor’s father who longs to juggle for ecstatic audiences but panics when he is in front of one.  Told in three parts, the story feels like a delightful old timey movie – but perhaps that’s because of Cecil’s lovely black and white illustrations:


Here’s a trailer that captures this old world, cinematic charm:

There are a few more books tucked into the bag Brenda left for me, and I can’t wait to get to them!