Slice of Life Tuesday: What did you teach?


It was several years ago, but I remember my Institute sessions with Kathleen Tolan at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project so well.  She brought an intensity to our learning that went deep into my teaching heart – I left each session filled with ideas, enthusiasm, and (most importantly) idealism.   That last bit, idealism, is what gets to me in this stage of my teaching life – new ideas are wonderful and enthusiasm  helps us reach our students, but idealism is something else entirely, it elevates the work we do and gives it a meaning beyond the lesson plan or learning objective of the day. Idealism is the hope that our work will live on in the hearts and minds of our kids long after they have left the four walls of our classroom.

On Sunday, I heard of Kathleen’s sudden passing, and I remembered back to that Summer Institute.  As the evening wore on, I read account after account about her influence over those I consider my mentors: Chris Lehman,  Kate Roberts, Maggie Beattie Roberts, Vicki Vinton, and others.  Then, this post by Tom Marshall stopped me in my tracks:

December 4 at 7:32pm ·

 What did you teach? These were the words Kathleen Tolan pushed us with at the end of every reading conference. Yes, it’s easy to say nice things throughout a conference with a child. Sometimes, it’s easy to be clouded in the complex acts of reading and teaching and say too many things, because there is so much to say when you’re emotionally involved (like I am right now!) However, Kathleen’s words, “What did you teach?” ring true for me in every interaction I try to have today. What meaning does your life as a teacher, as a friend, as a person have? How will this person you just interacted with remember you and feel better, because they spent these moments with you? 
Kathleen taught me and so many of my professional friends so much. She leaves behind a legacy of having helped millions of kids find meaning in their lives through reading. She leaves behind a legacy of hundreds of thousands of teachers who are more empowered to make the world a better place for kids because of all she’s taught them. We can each strive to do just a shadow of that. If we make that our aim, we answer Kathleen’s question, “What did you teach?” so much more than naming a teaching point in a conference…it means we leave behind a legacy. Maybe like Kathleen’s! We’ll all miss you, my friend! Thank you for teaching us so much more than you ever realized!
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
What did you teach?
The question changes as I vary the inflections of each word – but, in essence, the answer remains the same, for it points toward and measures our legacy.  And, of course, the legacy we leave our students stretches beyond how well they can write and read; the legacy work runs much deeper.  It’s about the joy we bring to their learning attitudes, the purpose we reveal their learning lives to have, the habits of kindness and compassion we nurture, and the awareness of the greater world we introduce.
In this post-election apocalypse we now inhabit, where every day there are new revelations of greed, corruption, misinformation, and hate, that legacy work seems to have taken on an added import.  As I drove into school this morning, thinking about what to write my slice of life about, I was filled with gloom.  Every idea seemed trivial, somehow, and unworthy of the time it would take to write.  I felt uninspired…and that felt wrong.
I turned on the radio, something I have stopped doing since the election, and heard the headlines on NPR: Standing Rock, the mistrial in South Carolina, Trump’s Tweets…
…what did you teach?
Today, we will read and write and talk about how we do both.  But today (and every day) we will also engage in the larger world, we will think about how our actions can change and shape a better world.
What will I teach?  I will teach towards a legacy my students can carry with them  into the world.

#celebratelu:Is a writer ever “done”?

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

At the end of writing workshop last week, J. made his way to the inbox on the conference table in our classroom and stood there for what seemed like a long time.  He wanted to drop his writing folder in…then he did not…then he did…then he hesitated…and then he took a moment to leave me a post it note before he did:


His note, when I collected all the folders from our writing day for inspection, made me pause.  I was annoyed and disheartened at first (we are in the second marking period of the school year, for Pete’s sake, shouldn’t J. know by now when he was finished drafting? what have I not been teaching to thus far?!), and then amused and touched (clearly, J. is invested in his work – he wants to get even a first draft right, that’s a good thing…hooray, some things are going very well!).

Later that evening, reading J.’s draft, I noted the following:

*he had reworked his introduction three times, all on his own and without a conference.

*he had left question marks next to some sections of his writing – places where he seemed to know that his writing needed work.

*he had tried out craft moves from the mentor text we’d studied and annotated his draft to correlate to the marked up mentor text  – as though he was keeping track of what he’d tried out.

In my minds eye, I flashed back to the scene where J. stood by the in box, trying to figure out whether he was “done” or not.   I thought of all the work he’d done to make sure this was his “best first draft” – the goal we aim for in writing workshop.  And I re-read that endearing post it:

I think I’m done drafting but I don’t know

Doing the work of writing never feels “done”.  As a writer myself, I know this.  J. does too, it seems, for in spite of all the work he has already put into his “best first draft, he feels that writer’s uncertainty: am I done? I don’t think I’m done…I think I could do better…right?

As a writer, I feel J.’s pain…but, as his writing teacher, I am (secretly) celebrating.


Poetry Friday:Things by Lisel Mueller

Bridget has the Poetry Friday roundup this week at wee words for wee ones.


Because the chair made such a ghastly sound as it was being dragged from one spot in our classroom to another, I asked my student to please lift it by its back instead.  It will be so much quieter, I reasoned, thinking about my gnawing migraine, mostly.

So, of course, he asked. “Its back? The chair has a back?”

Which led to an interesting conversation…and the memory of this poem, which I remembered to look up only after school was long over


by Lisel Mueller

What happened is, we grew lonely
living among the things,
so we gave the clock a face,
the chair a back,
the table four stout legs
which will never suffer fatigue.

We fitted our shoes with tongues
as smooth as our own
and hung tongues inside bells
so we could listen
to their emotional language,

and because we loved graceful profiles
the pitcher received a lip,
the bottle a long, slender neck.

Even what was beyond us
was recast in our image;
we gave the country a heart,
the storm an eye,
the cave a mouth
so we could pass into safety.

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing TeachersThe Great Thanksgiving Listen

It’s mostly quiet in our writing workshop this morning. Except for…

…the occasional giggles, the sighs, the laugh out loud moments, and the thoughtful “hmms”.

My students are listening in, hearing the voices of their grandparents, parents, aunts or uncles, the subjects of their Great Thanksgiving Listen of 2016.   Some listen to what they have recorded on their phones over the Thanksgiving Break, and some have their ear buds in.  So, we can also hear the low buzz of Grandpa Joe and Great Aunt Louise reminiscing,  pausing to guffaw here or blow their noses there.

I move around our classroom and through the hallway where they have spread themselves out in order to work in comfort, and to listen.  I watch their faces closely, and am moved by the way my kiddos are moved by their family stories, by these voices taking them down paths of distant memory.  Stories move us, and teach us, and connect us.  We need to make time to hear them, we need to listen in.

When my students first returned to school, this is what they said:

“I never knew…”

“I learned that…”

“It was amazing to hear…”

“I was so glad that I asked…”

They listened.

Today, they are listening again, writing down what they most want to remember, and thereby writing these family stories, most of them unknown, into their memories and their hearts. This is how we come to know who we are and what our place in the world is:

“My grandmother brought a box of tissues to our listen in, and boy did we need them…”

“I had never really talked to my Uncle Al before, but this Thanksgiving I made a point to ask him all the questions I’d secretly always wanted to ask…”

“I thought my Maryland grandpa was so boring, but then I starting asking him questions and found out that he had done so many amazing things in his life…”

It is mostly quiet in our writing workshop this morning…we are listening in.

#IMWAYR: The Wolf Keepers, The Wild Robot & A Hound’s Holiday

imwayr-2015-1-2It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

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Zoo life, the mysterious ways of wolves, a new friend who turns out to be a runaway, and a hiking adventure  deep into the wilds of Yosemite in search of John Muir’s lost cabin – put them all into one book and you have Elise Broach’s exciting new title: The Wolf Keepers. Here’s the jacket copy synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Lizzie Durango and her dad have always had a zoo to call their home. Lizzie spends her days watching the animals and taking note of their various behaviors. Though the zoo makes for a unique home, it’s a hard place for Lizzie to make lasting friends. But all this changes one afternoon when she finds Tyler Briggs, a runaway who has secretly made the zoo his makeshift home. The two become friends and, just as quickly, stumble into a covert investigation involving the zoo wolves who are suddenly dying. Little do they know, this mystery will draw them into a high-stakes historical adventure involving the legend of John Muir as they try to navigate safely while lost in Yosemite National Park.

This was a lovely story about friendship and trust, and the backdrop of Yosemite and the fascinating yet tangled issue of releasing wolves into their natural habitat made this a hard-to-put-down adventure story as well.


I adore everything Peter Brown writes, so I was especially keen to read his first middle grade novel, The Wild Robot.  This was such a beautiful and unusual story to lose myself in: haunting, moving, and unforgettable.  Here’s the jacket synopsis:

Can a robot survive in the wilderness?

When robot Roz opens her eyes for the first time, she discovers that she is alone on a remote, wild island. She has no idea how she got there or what her purpose is–but she knows she needs to survive. After battling a fierce storm and escaping a vicious bear attack, she realizes that her only hope for survival is to adapt to her surroundings and learn from the island’s unwelcoming animal inhabitants.

As Roz slowly befriends the animals, the island starts to feel like home–until, one day, the robot’s mysterious past comes back to haunt her.

At the heart of this story is the unlikely way in which Roz comes to become a mother to Brightbill: first as a caretaker to the solitary egg she is able to rescue, and then to the duckling who emerges and demands both love and guidance. Is a robot capable of either? Well, Roz discovers that she is capable of that and so much more, and in doing so she becomes a character we grow to love as well.  Brown’s illustrations grace the book perfectly, adding just the visuals the reader needs to help imagine the world of the book. Here’s a fascinating  post Peter Brown wrote about what moved him to write “a robot nature story”.   I imagine many wonderful classroom conversations about the lessons learned from Roz and her fellow island dwellers.


I chanced upon A Hound’s Holiday at an art show, and fell in love with this charming holiday story, written in verse by Kim Spensley.  Old Bowser the dog is left at home while his family pack their sleigh with holiday fare and drive off through the snow to share a holiday feast.  But Bowzer will not be left aside so easily, and he manages to free himself and gallop off through a New England winter in search of his family…and the feast. Heather Bellanca’s enchanting scratchboard artwork brings warmth and delight to each page, and add just the kind of Christmas season nostalgia one always looks for at this time of year.  A treasure of a book!

Poetry Friday: Echo & Echo

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Carol Wilcox @ Carol’s Corner

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Writing poetry does not come easily to me no matter how hard I try to wrestle carefully chosen words, weighted with meaning, into well proportioned lines and stanzas.  So, poets and the poetry they create remain on an never to be attained pedestal for me.  Then, there are those poets who are able to take this craft and create a new invention of the form, which leaves me all the more envious and dumbfounded: such is the invention of reverso poems by Marilyn Singer.  This is how she describes what reverso poems are:

A reverso consists of two poems. You read the first poem from top to bottom.  Then, you read the poem again with the lines reversed, with changes only on punctuation and capitalization, and that second poem says something completely different.

Echo & Echois Singer’s third collection of reverso poems, here are the previous two, which I now need to order as soon as possible:

Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reverso Poems  Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems

Seeing two sides to every story is habit we as a country would do well to cultivate, especially, it seems, these days.  In my classroom, we encourage each other to share and explore  perspectives, it is one way to become more empathetic to each other, to discover deeper meanings in what we say and what we do.  This is the power of Singer’s poems, too.  Read one way we see one experience, reversed, we see the same words shape shift into another, equally important meaning.

Here’s my favorite one, the story of Icarus and Daedalus:


and here is the same poem as it appears in the book, gorgeously illustrated by Josee Masse:

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I can’t wait to share this collection with my students – and to try this form of poetry, however poor the efforts, in my own poetry notebook.

Nonfiction Wednesday:The First Step & The Great Gift

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Join the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2016 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy.

Image result for the first step susan goodman

The march toward justice is a long, twisting journey. Three steps forward, one step back.  One step forward, three back. Laws change and the march moves forward.  People resist change, and the march slows to a standstill, waiting for a better time.  Then, at last, ideas have changed enough and people have changed enough.  Finally, the march cannot be stopped.

I read this passage, from Susan E. Goodman’s picture book The First Step: How one Girl Put Segregation on Trial, with a sad sense of deja vu, because this is where we seem to be as a nation at this very moment, once again.  Sarah Roberts fought for the right to attend her neighborhood school in 1847 and lost;   and then came a better time, so that Linda Brown could fight the same fight in 1950, and win – the march moved forward.  It is important for us to read this story with our students now to remind ourselves that the fight for social justice is one that we can never step away from: there is always resistance to change, but we must move forward.

E.B. Lewis’ beautiful paintings set the scene for these parallel stories:

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Another timely book, is Their Great Gift: Courage, Sacrifice, and Hope in a New Land by John Coy, with photographs by Wing Young Huie:

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This is a sparely written but eloquent photo essay into the sacrifices people make for their families in bringing them into the United States in search of a better life.

They kept going day after day

so we’d have choices they didn’t have.

We read this in class today, in order to reflect upon what we are as a nation of immigrants many of  whom sacrificed their presents for their children’s futures.  Each photograph told such a rich story, and allowed for deep conversations.

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