Choose kind…

It is a hot, hot day.

Our Memorial Day assembly was solemn and lovely, but now my kids are restless, and anxious to talk.  It is physically impossible for sixth graders to be quiet for more than ten minute spans, and the assembly lasted almost two periods.  They try to settle in and begin the reading/writing/conferring work that is our multi genre writing workshop now…but our classroom ripples with hard-to -contain- in- one- seat energy.

It is a hot, hot day. And there is a lot to do.

As we close in on the last weeks of school, I am ever conscious of the clock and the work to be done.  I catch myself beginning the period before the bell has rung, and ending the period after it was supposed to be over.  There is never enough time in any given school day as it is, but at this time of year the clock seems to be ticking faster.  Today, as we break for the Memorial Day weekend early (those unused snow days!), I can hear an unpleasant pitch to the tone of my voice: it’s the sound of an anxious teacher, a teacher too conscious of the ticking clock, and lessons still needing to be taught.

It is a hot, hot day. And there is a lot to do. But, the children need me to choose kind.

I thought about that this morning, when a student came to our room early to discuss her photo essay (what she said she needed help with), but spent half an hour talking through a  “friend situation” instead (what she really needed help with).  This is the time of year when friendships have frayed, and long summer days without friends to hang out with loom large.

I thought of my first  writing conference of the day in which my student let drop that he was “actually, really not looking forward very much to summer after all”. One of his parents is moving out of the house and across the state. It will be the summer he has already begun to call “the divorce summer”.

I thought of an eighth grader who had walked me to my car the other day. He is going to attend high school elsewhere, leaving all his friends behind and having to start all over again.  “I will be a nobody,” he said, mournfully, “and where I am a somebody, they’ll just forget all about me”.

I thought of the student who  stopped by our classroom at lunch to announce that the boy she’d had a crush on all year (the one she’d called “the devil’s spawn” just the other day) had finally asked her out.  I took in her  beaming face, and the way she hopped around with delight, and I let myself “forget” (just for a few minutes) that she is quite behind in her writing project.  We’ll get to that later, I felt, right now this kiddo needs a happy  hug.

It is a hot, hot day. And there is a lot to do. But, the children need me to choose kind.  Especially now.


Slice of Life Tuesday: Lilacs…

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lilac tree

We’ve planted lilac trees in every garden wherever we’ve lived.  Sometimes, we’ve lived in the house long enough to see our trees grow and thrive, and sometimes not. Lilacs are notoriously fickle and temperamental, and their blooms last a very short time.  Still, we love them, plant them, and hope.  Each tree we planted represented something of the love and hope with which the Smith family settled, once again, in a new house.

When we bought our farm, I noticed lilac bushes growing by one of the barns. My heart sang.  We closed on our purchase last July, long after lilac season had come and gone. Every time I walked by the trees, I would imagine them in all their Spring glory.  Spring seemed a long way away. Last week, finally, we were rewarded – every tree was in full bloom.  All weekend, as we worked to mow knee high grass and clear flower beds of winter debris, we did so with the fragrance of lilacs wafting through the air.

I kept meaning to get my camera to take pictures … which I did not get around to until night time, when I had stolen a few blossoms for our dinner table:


which now sit by our kitchen window back in New Jersey, and on my desk in Room 202. These flowers have a story before our life at the farm, and now they have become part of ours.

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Photograph by Jon Katz

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It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading #IMWAYR: The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

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7th wish

Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish is one of those stories that begins in expected, middle grade oriented ways, and then swerves unexpectedly into uncharted territories.  Spoiler alert: I’ll be referring to those uncharted territories, so don’t read on if you want to discover these for yourself as you read the book.

Here’s a synopsis of the story, from the jacket copy:

Charlie feels like she’s always coming in last. From her Mom’s new job to her sister’s life away at college, everything else always seems to be more important than Charlie’s upcoming dance competition or science project. Unsure of how to get her family’s attention, Charlie comes across the surprise of her life one day while ice-fishing . . . in the form of a floppy, scaly fish offering to grant her a wish in exchange for its freedom. Charlie can’t believe her luck until she realizes that this fish has a funny way of granting wishes, despite her best intentions. But when her family faces a challenge bigger than any they’ve ever experienced, Charlie wonders if some things might be too important to risk on a wish.

Charlie is your typical middle school kid: she wants to do well in school, she loves her self-chosen extra curricular activity with a passion, she has an unrequited crush, and she feels good about the close bond she shares with her family (they even have a word association game they’ve invented just for themselves – what’s not to love about a family who can do that?!).

Charlie also has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, which makes the first person narration of this story one that is filled with chuckles and laugh out loud moments.  Her discovery of this magic fish, unlikely in size and unpredictable in his accuracy at wish granting, give the first part of the story a fantastical and funny quality.

Then, the story swerves into darker territory when it comes to light that Charlie’s older sister Abby, off to college for the first time, has developed an addiction to heroin.  This explains the changes in Abby: she is hard to get ahold of when away at school, and tired and unwell when she visits home.  Charlie is devastated.

But, Charlie and Abby are blessed with parents who remain steadfast in their love – they do what is necessary to help Abby regain her health, without getting hysterical and judgemental.   They see that their daughter needs help, they make sure she gets it. And they help Charlie to understand that sometimes the best people, the ones who seem to have it all together on the outside, just take the wrong path and need love and support to find their way back.

In her “Author’s Note”, Kate Messner writes that this book was scary to research and write.  It is scary to read, too, because it reveals that addiction can happen in the most “normal” families, and that this disease knows no socio economic boundaries.  It is no secret that heroin addiction is on the rise today, and its link to opioid pain killers (which is over prescribed to children and adults) is also a well established fact.  Kate Messner’s brave book will allow young readers to learn of these important issues in a gentle way.  It’s a book to share with our middle school kids, a cautionary story which does not offer a “happily ever after” ending.  Young readers will learn, as Charlie did, “…that addiction is a real thing that can happen.  That good people make awful mistakes…”.

Poetry Friday:On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial – Linda Pastan

Poetry Friday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche

Being a Social Studies teacher in an election year is a tricky business. This is especially so when you teach U.S. history from the Revolution through the Civil War, as I do.  We move from the elevated language of our Declaration of Independence to the high hopes and compromises of our Constitution to slavery and the horror of Civil War.   When we study history, we learn that people are complicated and contradictory, that “heroes” often have feet of clay, and that the search for truth can lead us to troublesome discoveries.   We need heroes, but we need truth even more.


On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial –  Linda Pastan

We invent our gods
the way the Greeks did,
in our own image—but magnified.
Athena, the very mother of wisdom,
squabbled with Poseidon
like any human sibling
until their furious tempers
made the sea writhe.
Zeus wore a crown
of lightning bolts one minute,
a cloak of feathers the next,
as driven by earthly lust
he prepared to swoop
down on Leda.
Despite their power,
frailty ran through them
like the darker veins
in the marble of these temples
we call monuments.
Looking at Jefferson now,
I think of the language
he left for us to live by.
I think of the slave
in the kitchen downstairs.

“Hey, I got this.” – Our writing workshop in its final iteration

We are in the home stretch of the school year – five weeks to go before “freedom day”, which is what my kids have taken to calling the last day of school.  In the meantime, we are neck deep in all the “stuff” of our curricular year: doing projects and learning about the Civil War, finishing up book clubs and making summer reading plans, and writing for our multi genre project.

I know my kids have grown because the classroom now seems very small, they just take up more physical space than my little room can sometimes handle, no matter how creatively I keep moving the furniture around.

I know my kids have grown because their conversations are deeper, their questions braver, and their wonderings more inspiring.

But, in the last two days, as our multigenre writing project goes into full swing, I can see how my kids have grown by the way they approach their work and take charge of the writing process we have worked so hard to name and practice all year long.  In place of mini lessons and mentor text work, planned and designed largely by me, their writing teacher, my students are planning the shape and direction of their own writing.

We borrowed Ralph Fletcher’s idea for Exploratory Notebooks  to sketch ideas, form writing plans, collect information and bits of quick writes.  This had worked so well for our nonfiction writing unit, that my students were excited to go this route again.  These personalized notebooks were a great way to brainstorm topic ideas, settle on genres, and decide on time frames to get this all done by June 20th. (the day we invite parents and share our work):

 I was so proud to see how my kids took charge of their calendars, and were able to articulate how long they thought it would take to research, draft,and write their four writing pieces.  Here is Alex’s game plan, thought out entirely by Alex:


For the past two days, as I sat with my two blocks of writing workshop kiddos debriefing them about their topics and plans, I was so impressed with the way they were able to articulate what their individual writing processes would entail: the steps they would need to take, the time they would need for each stage, the way they would juggle this multi step process of research and writing, and how they could multi task:

Student after student came to the conference desk ready to rock their multi genre writing project.  They loved their “big” topic, and were both focused and excited about the way each individual piece of writing would fit together and contribute to this topic:

My kiddos blew me away with their sense of purpose and also their confidence, their quiet,   “Hey, I got this.”

Today, we got to work.  We hauled in our cart of ancient laptops, brought in our smart phones to do some smart research, found comfortable places to work, and went at it:

My kids have grown…they own their learning.  They are on their way, and I am beginning to miss them already.

Slice of Life Tuesday:Letting go…

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Letting go has been the theme of so many of my recent conversations with my students, my own children, and myself.  Sometimes, we just need to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done…let go.  After all:

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One of my students, at the high school these days,  came our room late one afternoon.  He didn’t have much to say at first, choosing to look at the photographs on our walls as I cleaned up the classroom and prepared it for the next day.  Then, he took a seat. This was his seat, so many years ago when he was in sixth grade.  He meant to sit there, and so I stopped my cleaning and tidying up, and took the seat beside him.  We talked about sixth grade, middle school and high school.  We talked about mistakes made and where he wants to go next.  “Is it too late?” he wondered. “Let it go, and try and start again”, I said, “just let it go.”

One of my children called to talk about grief.  A beautiful relationship has come to an end. I have no words of solace to offer…grieving is a solitary affair.   You love deeply, you love well, but sometimes that is simply not enough.  You have to let go.

Today, a long day of meetings away from my classroom, I trudged up the familiar staircase back to my classroom.  My bones ached from a day of sitting in one place, and every nerve was on fire – the curse of fibromyalgia.  I took in all that this room has come to mean to me: children I’ve loved, taught through the years, nurtured and nudged towards their better selves.  This place that encompasses the very heart of my teaching life… I will have to find a graceful way of letting go.


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It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading #IMWAYR:You Can Fly-The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford

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I am so proud to host author Carole Boston Weatherford here today. Carole’s books have long been treasured read alouds and share togethers in my classroom; she writes luminously and informatively about our nation’s history, and the remarkable people who have shaped that history by fighting for justice, freedom, and beauty.

A New York Times best-selling author & prize-winning poet, Carole’s work has won many accolades over the years.  To name just a few: Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (2006), illustrated by Kadir Nelson, won a Caldecott Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and an NAACP Image Award. Becoming Billie Holiday and Before John Was a Jazz Giant won Coretta Scott King Honors. Birmingham, 1963 won the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, the Jane Addams Children’s Literature Honor and the Jefferson Cup from Virginia Library Association.

I love this particular interview in which Carole shares her history, and how that inspires her writing:

Carole’s latest book is You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmenfor which her son, Jeffery Boston Weatherford created the stunning scratchboard illustrations.  

Tuskegee Cover

Carole was kind enough to answer a few questions about You Can Fly:

Why did you want to write this book?

When I first learned of the Tuskegee Airmen, their story resonated with me. Decades later, I thought the history begged for a poetic treatment.

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Describe your research and writing process.

I used several reference books, viewed films and perused primary sources—military reports and photographs—online.

The manuscript began as picture book and grew into a poetry collection that went from third to first to second person.  I added an epilogue to show progress since the Jim Crow era. Then I added poems about Dorie Miller, Joe Louis and Lena Horne and one chronicling black troops’ march through history.

What did you learn that surprised you?

I was surprised that boxer Joe Louis and entertainer Lena Horne were so involved in the war effort. Joe Louis raised funds for the war effort and pushed the Army to admit Jackie Robinson and several other black soldiers into officer candidate school. And Lena Horne made numerous trips—at her own expense—to perform for troops at Tuskegee Army Air Field.

This book was a family affair. What was it like to collaborate with your son?

Working with Jeffery was a dream come true. I shared my picture research with him, but he also did his own. We put our heads together and decided on scratchboard as the medium. At first, Jeff showed me individual illustrations as he completed them. Then, he showed me batches of illustrations. By the end, however, he was bypassing me and sending illustrations directly to the publisher.

What do you want young readers to take away from the book?

I want the Airmen’s story to lift the ceiling off of young people’s dreams.


You Can Fly will become an important addition to our classroom library, for it is a powerful story, poetically told.  It will inspire great discussions, and lead my students to want to know more about these brave pilots who fought a war on two fronts: the one abroad against the Nazis, and the one at home against racism.

WWII by the numbers:

In 1,500 combat missions, Tuskegee Airmen blasted 262 German planes, 950 vehicles and one enemy destroyer.

Of their 205 missions, the Tuskegee Airmen flew 200 without losing a bomber.

Of nearly 1,000 Tuskegee pilots, half went overseas and fewer than 10 were captured or killed.

Here is a wonderful book trailer to share with students:

And here are teacher resources gathered together by the author:

For a chance to win a copy of You Can Fly, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 20th.Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.