#Celebratelu & #SOLC17 & #DigiLitSunday: Experimenting with fiction

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

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

DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche


I have a confession to make.  Although my sixth graders have clamored to write fiction year after year, our enthusiastic forays into  this genre have always ended with a general feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides: I feel as though I have not taught it well, and they feel as though they haven’t written well.

This March, the familiar question of “when do we get to write fiction?” sounded again.  We had just concluded a unit on essay  writing, and were about to get ready for a unit on test prep – a good time, I thought, to answer this burning question once again: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?

I thought carefully about all the things that had led to derailment in the past:

*diving into writing fantasy, which often became convoluted storylines that went on, and on, and on…

*not creating clear parameters for my students, so that some were “all done” quickly and others were unable to conclude because their stories had become so complicated

*not setting up a defined timeframe, so that our “creativity” kept stretching on and on (i.e. story lines were going nowhere, and new characters kept popping up for no rhyme or reason).

And I used those lessons to tighten up the plans for this year:

*we would stick to realistic fiction

*we would think about our storylines in a more limited way:

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*we would spend more time planning before writing:

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*we would have three weeks: two to plan, draft, confer, and peer review, and one to revise and publish.

Last Wednesday was publishing day and our writing celebration.  My kiddos created covers for their short stories, and then sat back and enjoyed each others’ creations:

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And I sat back to reflect upon the initial burning question that had set this particular writing into motion: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?  The answer, I thought, was a qualified “yes!”.    Here’s what we learned in the process:

*writing fiction is a lot harder than it looks (some were able to develop their storylines well, and some didn’t quite reach the mark – hence the above “qualified”).

*having a plan of action is really important in writing fiction, because it’s so easy to go off on tangents (new characters! sudden happenings!) and so hard to get back on track.

*working within a time frame helps us stick to our plans (more or less).

*we could use our reading strategies (Notice and Note signposts) as writing strategies.

*we will take what we’ve learned and keep experimenting – who knows, but that some of these short stories will one day morph into the long novels that some of my kiddos long to write. I celebrate that!





Poetry Friday & #SOLC17: A Dog by the Sea by David Salner

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

Poetry Friday is hosted by Catherine at Reading to the Core

Yesterday was #NationalPuppyDay, so the Twitter universe was flooded with photographs of puppies of all sizes and shapes with one thing in common: adorableness. This was my favorite Tweet of the day, of Congressman John Lewis and two versions of one thing – puppy cuteness:

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Our Sophie is no longer a puppy, which she is inclined to forget from time to time, especially early in the morning when we take her on her first walk of the day.  It’s a daily chore that we enjoy when the weather is not freezing cold, and we have time to take in all that surrounds us: the way the breeze blows, the tint of the sky, the sounds of leaves rustling, and the comfort of holding hands.

A Dog by the Sea by David Salner

Just after dawn, we get up,
without coffee, and let the dog lead us
through a grove of wind-stunted trees,
spiked succulents, red-berried holly,
and over the dune ridge out of the gray
of still sleeping minds. A line of pink
from the not yet risen sun
reminds me of the lilac shadows
caught in the radial grooves of shells.
I take up your hand and feel the blood
warming your fingers, as the dog bounds off
dragging her leash through wet sand.
She’s after gulls and a line of waves
that repeat themselves, she seems to think,
because they want to play.
A morning breeze
stirs the now turning tide, breathing over it,
sighing toward bayside. As the waves come in
whorls of light unfold on the sand. How I want
for us to repeat ourselves, on and on,
you holding the leash of a silly dog, me
feeling the beat, the blood in your hand.

#SOLC17: Maker Day – a new take on learning

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community

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Today was Maker Day in our middle school.  A dedicated and talented group of our faculty acquired a range of materials for our students for our students to explore, learn, and make all kinds of “stuff” with: creating circuits, building race courses, programming animation, and learning how 3D printers work – there was chance to work with all of this and more.

My own learning and teaching world is steeped in reading and writing workshop, and even though I’ve read and heard a lot about MakerSpaces and the remarkable learning that goes on when kids get their hands on all kinds of cool tools, I’d never seen one in action.  More importantly, I’d never seen own  my students working in such a space – and doing so was quite a revelation.

I learned that some of the greatest risk avoiders in my classroom, the ones who want to know exactly how many lines to every paragraph and how many paragraphs there needed to be in whatever it was that we were writing, were the biggest risk takers in this new setting.  They approached each new maker space with enthusiasm and often did not bother to read the directions, preferring to dive right in and figure their way through. I was surprised to see that these students, the ones who want very explicit directions (ones that are repeated many times) in my classes, felt such a degree of freedom in this space.

I learned that students who were the first to say “I’m done!” in reading and writing workshop, were often the ones who just kept going in our maker spaces.  They kept reaching for new pieces to try out, new combinations to manipulate together, and new limits to test.

And I paid close attention to the vocabulary of this new learning space:

“I wonder what would happen if…?”

“How about if I tried it this way instead of what the diagram says to do?”

“What if I flipped the whole circuit around?”

“Well, it didn’t work that way so I’m going to try this way.”

“I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m gonna  keep trying new combinations.”

“This started out being one thing, but I thought ‘why stop there?’ and kept adding stuff – and look, I made this, which is way cool!”

This is the vocabulary of curiosity, wonder, perseverance, and risk taking: the vocabulary of growth mindset.  How to bring all of that, or some of that, into my classroom? Well, that is what I have been thinking about all day…and will be thinking about for days to come.

#SOLC17: Moon stories

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

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On Monday, Alan Wright wrote about moon moments and memories.  I’ve been thinking about the moon ever since, and a moon memory of my own.

I must have been four or five, because I was still living with my grandparents and this memory is anchored in their house.  The monsoons had just come to an end;  after a month of  unrelenting rain, even the air felt sodden and drenched.  But the moon was full, and my aunt I were at a window together taking in the  silvery landscape –  wet leaves and  pathways reflecting  moonlight.  I must have been standing on the low wall surrounding the veranda, because I am cheek to cheek with my aunt in this memory, cocooned within the warm embrace of her arms.

We talk about the rains, the trees and the moon…and the shadows on the moon.  I was the kind of child who wrapped herself in stories – and I wanted to know the story of these shadows.  I was also the kind of child who asked a lot of questions, and this is the story I remember – each part the answer to a question, like so many beads on a Rosary:
….there was once a rabbit, a lonely rabbit who was so very sad…
…for days and days, weeks and weeks, years and years, this rabbit had longed for a friend…
…at last, rabbit met fox – handsome, clever fox…
…fox told the best stories, he made rabbit roar with laughter and cry rivers of tears…
…fox showed rabbit hills and vales, new places to roam and live..
…every day, rabbit waited for fox until he would suddenly appear under the banyan tree by the waterfall…
…everyday, rabbit would bid goodbye to fox under the banyan tree by the waterfall…
…one day, rabbit waited and waited, but there was no fox…
…day after day, week after week, month after month, rabbit waited..
…then one day, rabbit saw monkey watching him from the banyan tree…
…”Are you waiting for fox?” monkey asked with a smile…”for, I know where he went”…
…rabbit begged monkey to tell her where, where did fox go? she wanted to know…
…”That way” said monkey, pointing over the water fall…”fox jumped right over the waterfall”…
…rabbit looked at the waterfall – it was wide and the other side looked very far away…
…rabbit was frightened, but fox was on the other side…
…so rabbit jumped…
…she put her heart and soul into that jump…
…she jumped so high that she soared into the sky – all the way to the moon…
…and there she still waits for fox…
 I loved that story. I told it to myself time after time, especially when the moon was full and bright and clear – when I could see the shadows of rabbit, still waiting patiently for fox.
When my children were young, I passed the story along to them.  They had ideas and questions of their own, as children are wont to do, which led to new versions and diversions of their own.
And now that  I am much older than my aunt was at the time she invented this story, I wonder about the storyteller, too.   Rabbit’s story is full of  longing and sorrow, faith and hope.  What was in my aunt’s heart at that particular time in her life, I now wonder, as she pieced this story, bit by bit, in answer to each  childish question that was itself in search of a story to own?
The stories we love, the stories we tell, the stories we remember…the stories we are.

#SOLC17: Monday morning bag(s)

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

On any given morning, in the hour before school begins, our middle school parking lot becomes a parade of teachers and their bags walking from their cars up the stairs and through the school doors.

Monday mornings are the busiest, in terms of teacher bags.  Here, for example, is what I hauled from my end of the parking lot all the way up two floors of stairs to Room 202:

My trusty backpack, filled with my own notebooks for each of my subject areas, PD books, picture books, and our current read aloud…oh, and also my lunch:

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One bag filled with my morning class’ reading journals, and the week’s supply of coffee (thank you Trader Joe’s!):


Another bag filled with my afternoon class’ reading journals and my week’s flower selection:


My Monday morning haul…


…is there any teacher out there who knows how to “pack lightly”?!


#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Words With Wings

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Day dreamers have a special place in my teaching heart.  It is true that they need extra doses of reminding, and that one can never be sure if they are with us or hundreds of miles away even as their bodies are right there in our classroom.  And it is also true that sometimes the questions they ask and the answers they give bear little relevance to the material we happen to be studying at that very moment.  But the thoughts they share, they things they say and write, often take us to unusual places; daydreamers are special people.

In her verse novel Words With Wings, Nikki Grimes gives us Gabby –  a memorable daydreamer, who finds comfort and delight in words.

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Gabby’s world comes apart when her parents divorce: her daydreaming, word-spinning father moves across town, and her practical, take-care-of-everything mother has little time for Gabby’s daydreaming ways.  As she adjusts to a new school, and a new home, and now a deep hole in her heart where her father used to be, Gabby finds that her daydreams protect her and give her both solace and hope:

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But, buckling up for her word rides gets Gabby in trouble in school – it’s hard to pay attention to her teacher when her own thoughts beckon to magical places.  Her teacher is patient, to a point: “Dreams are great things, Gabby,”/he finally says…”Still, sometimes you have to/slide your daydreams/in a drawer/and let them wait until later…”.

So, Gabby tries to still her imagination and be the kind of student (and daughter) that everyone seems to prefer, even though stilling her imagination makes her feel sad and dull. She finds a daydreamer classmate who pins his flights of fancy down in drawings, and one day she puts her own words with wings down in writing.  Those words are snatched away by her teacher, but they become the key to how Gabby can keep her word dreams until later: he makes time every school day to daydream and write. Gabby’s notebook is soon “thick with daydreams”, with words taking flight:


Words With Wings covers just a year in Gabby’s life, an important year. But Nikki Grimes’ verse is packed with  a spare power – you feel the full range of Gabby’s experiences and emotions.  And, of course, I loved that her teacher found the perfect way for Gabby to let her imagination take flight during the school day – he made time to dream and write!


#DigiLitSunday & #SOLC17: Innovation = choice

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche


I had fun coming up with a list of possible historical fiction book club project ideas a couple of weeks ago, ideas which (I thought) they would enjoy working with.  We passed this list around, went over the options, asked questions to clarify and then got into our groups for decision making.  As students worked,  I made the rounds to listen in and see if I could be of help in any way as they chose their project and mapped out planning sheets.

I guess I should not have been surprised to find that although my students were sweetly appreciative of the  “creative” list of options I had provided, most of them chose the last option: “Got an idea of you own? Do it!”

Here’s what Lila and Amelia planned to create:


They walked me through their plans patiently, explaining how they had figured out what to do, why they wanted this particular format, and how they hoped to get it all done.  And then they were off to the races: each project day would find them working in their particular corner of the room, talking and referring to the text.  To tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly sure what this project would turn out to be like, but Lila and Amelia knew, and they were happily confident as they worked together day after day, all the way to project presentation day:

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And this was pretty much true for most of the book groups as well, they chose to come up with their own ideas and find ways to execute them.  Project day was so much fun for me, their teacher, as group after group came forward to show off their inventiveness:

We had everything from comic books to stop motion movies to movies filled with all sorts of technical flourishes I couldn’t even imagine how to do.  None of these, of course, had been on the original list.   It was another example of a teaching truism I have come to believe in with all my heart: if you give kids a little bit of scaffolding and a whole lot of choice, they will create amazing things…they will innovate.