Citing text evidence: “Why do I need to do this?”

At this stage of their reading lives (at the end of the third marking period), my sixth graders are pretty adept at tagging their reading thinking with meaningful sticky notes so that they can “write long” in their reading journals and then discuss their ideas with their classmates:

And, at this stage of their reading lives, I can honestly say that I love reading my kids’ journals; they are thoughtful and reflect the kind of honesty, curiosity, and open-heartedness that is so emblematic about this particular stage of their lives.

However, even as I celebrate all of the above, there is one area of our writing-about-reading-lives that is still cause for much vexation on the part of teacher and student alike:

Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

My kids get the idea of needing textual evidence to support their thinking when they are engaged in conversation about their books either with their book clubs or with me, but they struggle SO much when it comes time to insert these quotes and passages in their written responses.  Often, even after many mini-lessons about how to do this, they simply stick the quote or passage at the end of a paragraph explaining their ideas with an awkward: “in the text/book it said….”.  This week, we sat together on the reading rug and expressed our mutual frustration.

They said: “Why do we have to do this?”  “I’ve already explained my theory, why can’t I just add my evidence at the end?” “Isn’t my thinking more important than the quote?”

I said: “You need to explain why you chose this quote or passage.”  “You need to show how this quote or passage connects to your theory.”  “You need to be able to write about your theories in the same clear way you talk about your theories.” “Also, CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.1 – which you are expected to be able to do.”

They said: “Oh, okay…can you show us how again, but in a better way.

So, I returned to a common text we had read aloud, Alan Gratz’s Refugee.  I thought about an idea we had all discussed, and found a quote that would support our thinking.  Then I wrote about this idea in a way that would cite “textual evidence to support analysis” in the way I was hoping my students would, as well.

I took my response apart, sentence by sentence, working out my thinking and the purpose for each sentence, and came up with something framed and chartable for my students:


My kiddos spent a long time studying this chart and asking questions.  It seemed to help that there was an explanation for each step of the writing process, more importantly, they made a connection between this written response and the way they spoke to each other about their books – their idea, where in the text this idea became clear, what the part was, and the context.  Seeing it this way seemed to inspire a collective ah-ha.

This week, when my students will write about their reading, I will have these mini-charts ready for reference.  Fingers crossed that our mutual vexation will be a thing of the past!



#Celebratelu: Celebrating collaboration

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

Looking back on my teaching life, something I am doing more and more of these days, I count myself lucky to have had the chance to fashion Room 202 into a sort of teaching lab for new ideas.  We took Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s ideas for the “3 Big Questions” and nonfiction signposts for a test run, and we tried out their Book-Head-Heart reading strategy as well; when Katherine Bomer wrote her brilliant book on essaying, my sixth graders dived right into their own journeys of thought; my reading workshop would not be what it is without Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse whose student-centered thinking keeps me honest, or Linda Reif whose practices anchor so much of our work.  In lieu of colleagues in my building to work with, it’s been these teaching greats who have been my virtual collaborators, the ones who’ve kept my teaching life intellectually interesting and rich.

So, I was thrilled when Karen Caine asked if she could try out some writing workshop ideas in Room 202.  Karen’s book on persuasive writing has been the foundation of our persuasive writing unit for many years, and I was excited to learn more about her idea for writing clubs.

Karen worked her magic with my eager kiddos, introducing the idea that we would be writing about our persuasive topic research in a different way; rather than going straight for the 5 paragraph format they’ve been used to writing since third grade, we would reach into our narrative writing toolkits and try to aim for emotion and personal investment.

It was such a pleasure to listen in on Karen’s mini-lesson and her back and forth with my kiddos.  They could not wait to get to work, and I could not wait to read what they were able to come up with.  A few days later, once drafts were completed, Karen returned to explain what writing clubs could be and how we could use them to improve our writing, which I tried to chart in the moment:

Table groups of students went to work right away, as we dashed about the room observing and taking notes.  The next day, I gathered my writers to discuss what the process had felt like, and what they had made of the task:
*they liked that they were able to:
– hear lots of different voices instead of just one (Mrs. Smith) which allowed for  lots of varied ideas about how to tweak their writing.
– have the chance to explain their thinking in more ways than just one allowed them to clarify their writer’s thinking 
-listen to others’ read their writing which gave them ideas 
-get affirmation for what was good writing  which was motivational and just felt good
*things we need to work on:
-too many suggestions were sometimes confusing, so we need to find a way to be more specific in asking for writing advice
-some people wanted to read their whole piece and that made it hard to remember where to give -suggestions, so we need to pick and choose one or two places in our writing 
-(my observation) students were resorting to writing cliches – “you needed more details” was the inevitable suggestion, even though students complain that teachers tell them to do this all the time and they don’t know WHICH details or HOW to provide these
-(my observation) we need to work on the language of writing asks and writing gives; there needed to be a consistent language for the club members so that club time is efficiently spent – i.e. that there is time left for students to return to their desks and write.
Writing clubs in the way Karen has imagined its orchestration and function feels so much more authentic and student driven than the partner peer editing I had tried for some time and abandoned.   I learned so much from our first try at this, and look forward to our next round as much as my kids do.  This, I believe, is know-how they can take into their writing work for years to come, whether in a formal setting as a class or as ad hoc groups they organize for themselves.  Fabulous!

Poetry Friday: First Snow ~ Mary Oliver

Someone in our classroom mentioned that he’d heard another snow storm was coming our way next week.  Instantly, a chorus of groans and moans filled the air.  It seems that even the children of the North East, with their skis and sleds, and dreams of making perfect snow forts and snow angels, have had enough of the snow.  Not so long ago, it seemed, this very same group could not wait for the first snowfall of the year.  Not so long ago, neither could I.  But here we are…  So, rather than complain, I thought I’d reach back in time to those first days of winter, when fresh fallen snow was such a delight.

First Snow ~ Mary Oliver

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found —
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

#ENOUGH: When students raise their voices

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All across the country today, students chose to send a message to the adults tasked with keeping them safe; our children walked out of their classrooms to say, enough:

*to  yet more school shootings

*to the fear that the next time it may well be their own school

*to the insane ritual of lockdowns and active shooter drills which seem to be the only action the grown-ups in charge seem willing to take.

From the moment the walkout was announced, there were many students in my middle school who wanted to be a part of what they could see taking place – a student-generated call to action.  They, too, wanted to be part of the movement to take back their right to go to school every day, free of fear and therefore free to learn.

And from the very same moment, there were the derisive naysayers who were quick to say that middle schoolers were too young to be trusted to be part of any such action: “what do they even know?!”, “they just want to get out of being in the classroom!”, and on and on.  Through it all, these middle schoolers persevered; they organized and they advocated and they sought support from those willing to believe in them.

And today, they did what those who believed knew they were capable of doing – they led a deeply moving and respectful assembly of their fellow students in remembering who had been lost, and hoping for what might be.

I have been re-reading some of the works of the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire ever since the brave students at Parkland took to the streets to say #NeverAgain, and today these words ring especially hopeful and true:

Education always implies program, content, method, objectives and so on….For me it has always been a political question, not exclusively an educational question, at what levels students take part in the process of organizing the curriculum…The more people participate in the process of their own education, and the more people participate in defining what kind of production to produce, and for what and why, the more people participate in the development of their selves. The more people become themselves, the better the democracy.


What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
― Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change





It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Ashes to Asheville & Georgia Rules


In her thoughtful article for the New York Times entitled, What I Learned From Kristi Yamaguchi, Nicole Chung writes movingly about the power of seeing oneself represented in the books we read:

Representation, when you finally get it, can be life-changing, allowing you to imagine possibilities you never entertained before.  If you’re seen as irrelevant, on the other hand, or rarely seen at all-if your identity is reduced time and time again to a slickly packaged product or the same tired jokes and stereotypes-it can be harder to believe in your own agency and intrinsic worth.

As a teacher, I see this play out in my classroom almost on a daily basis when my students choose what they want to read or respond to what they’ve read.  For what seemed like a very, very long time, the list of kids who were not represented in any of our classroom books was a long one.  Although we have quite a distance to travel yet, I am happy to say that this is finally changing.  Last week I found two new books at our town library, both of which featured same-sex parents.

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Sarah Dooley’s Ashes to Asheville begins when twelve-year-old Fella (short for Ophelia) is hauled out of bed late one night by her sister Zany.  Fella has been living with her grandmother ever since her Mama Lacy’s death.  She misses her Mama  Shannon and her sister Zany, but Fella’s grandmother  (and the court) insists that Fella would be better off with a blood relative instead of  Mama Shannon.  All Fella has left of her mother is an urn of her ashes, but Zany aims to change all that with her plan to drive Mama Lacy’s ashes back to the place where they all lived happily together, their hometown of Asheville.

Of course, their road trip turns out to have more twists and turns than either of them could have anticipated, and it takes the unlike partnership of Mama Shannon and Grandma Madison to bring Zany and Fella back home again – home to the mama they have left.

I loved the humor in this story, and the way Dooley writes about life with two mamas: not everyone was kind, and there were some places where they were more accepted for the loving family they were.  But, they were a real family, no question about that.  Ashes to Asheville is a wonderful book for any classroom library, and I’m glad to have added it to mine.

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Nanci Turner Stevenson’s Georgia Rules is set in country I personally love and hold dear – the North Country of upstate New York and Vermont.  The story, however, begins in Atlanta.  Maggie’s mother and step-father’s divorce leads mother and daughter back to the Vermont farm Maggie’s late father had willed to her.  It’s the farm that has been in the family for many generations, and Maggie’s father seemed to have an inkling that Maggie would love it too, and come home to at last.

At first, neither Maggie nor her mother (a Southern belle from head to toe) find anything about the farmhouse or rural Vermont to like one bit.  But, little by little, Maggie discovers more to know and admire in the father she hardly knew, just as she comes to treasure the landscape and serenity of the farm.  Georgia Rules is full of vividly imagined characters and lively action – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.




Poetry Friday:Honey At The Table by Mary Oliver

Poetry Friday is hosted by  Renée M. LaTulippe of No Water River.

We’ve had a warm day or two this week, which made me think that Spring might just be closer than the calendar promises.  Perhaps this is what made me reach for the honey jar for my after school cup of tea, the yearning for warmer days.  The tea was delicious, and that touch of honey so soul satisfying.

Honey At The Table by Mary Oliver

It fills you with the soft
essence of vanished flowers, it becomes
a trickle sharp as a hair that you follow
from the honey pot over the table

and out the door and over the ground,
and all the while it thickens,

grows deeper and wilder, edged
with pine boughs and wet boulders,
pawprints of bobcat and bear, until

deep in the forest you
shuffle up some tree, you rip the bark,

you float into and swallow the dripping combs,
bits of the tree, crushed bees – – – a taste
composed of everything lost, in which everything lost is found.


It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Draw the Line, Lillian’s Right to Vote & Long Armed Ludy


Reading middle grade novels as a final round judge for Cybils was an all-consuming task, but now that that has passed, I feel free to read picture books again.  What a delight to be able to walk out of my town library with a bag full of new picture books!  Here are three:

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All of Kathryn Otoshi’s brilliantly conceived and executed picture books have a place of honor in my sixth grade classroom, because  they never fail to engage us all in exploring important ideas through our talk and writing.  Draw the Line  begins with two boys discovering that the separate lines they are creating can merge and become wonderful new creations. A misstep halfway through their game causes misunderstandings and disaster, until they learn to look at things in a different way.  Draw the Line is all the more powerful for being entirely wordless and allowing the reader to infer, invent, and imagine.

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Draw the Line is all the more powerful  for being entirely wordless and allowing the reader to infer, invent, and imagine.

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African Americans won the right to vote in America (the land of “all men are created equal”) in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  It is hard to believe that now more than ever, under this present Trumpist regime, these rights are jeopardy.  Sometimes it feels as though this country first takes giant leaps forward, and then begins to slowly but inexorably pedal back.

Jonah Winter, the author, was inspired to write this story by the real-life Lillian Allen.  Born in 1908, Lillian lived through all the changes that brought about her opportunity to cast the ballot for Barack Obama.  The fictional Lillian stands at the bottom of a steep hill, and with every step she takes she remembers all those who marched and sacrificed  so that she could vote.

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This is a wonderful book to share with children, many of whom are not aware of the struggle to get the right to vote.  Remembering words, people, and deeds, Lillian inches ever upward to exercise her right to vote.  Shane W. Evans’ gorgeous paintings are the perfect accompaniment to  Winter’s moving text.

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In the spirit of the Olympics, I discovered this marvelous book: Long Armed Ludy: And the First Women’s Olympics.   This is the (mostly) true story of Lucile (nicknamed Ludy) Godbold,  a college track star who discovered that her extra-long arms made her the perfect shot put super star.  Ludy makes it all the way to the Olympics where she collects a gold for her main event and medals in a whole lot of other track events as well.

Jean L. Patrick writes with a humorous folksiness that  makes this book extra fun to read aloud, and Adam Gustavson’s whimsical illustrations find a way to highlight the way Ludy’s long armed awkwardness  was perfectly suited to the sports she learned to expertly play.





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