Slice of Life Tuesday: What I would like to hear and do on “Opening Day”

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


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A new year – a new lesson plan book!

Opening day, the first official day for teachers in our school, is about a week away but I am dreading it already.  It is my least favorite day of the school year, which is probably not a politically wise thing to admit to…but true.

Here’s what every opening day of my teaching life has looked like: Everyone arrives to sign in sheets and a breakfast of doughnuts, danish pastry, and weak coffee. Thank goodness for that weak coffee, though.  We move from the cafeteria to the auditorium (more sign in sheets) and prepare ourselves for opening remarks in which someone from the School Board essentially tells us that we must do more with less and that (nevertheless) our school is the crown jewel of our town.  A few inspiring quotes will be shared for that humanistic touch. There may be a PowerPoint. That is followed by someone from the school’s  administration telling us what the district’s new goals will be (remember, we must do more with less) and how important it is for us to keep these goals in mind as we march into the new school year.  There will definitely be a PowerPoint – many with pie charts and graphs so we can visualize how to do more with less.  And inspiring quotes, hopefully not the same ones we saw in the previous one. Then we will troop out of the auditorium and into another meeting just for our particular school.  Sign in sheets, and another PowerPoint to remind us of procedures, rules, expectations, changes in how things are done.  There may be an ice breaker activity so that we can be reacquainted with our colleagues in the most awkward way possible.  There may be additional quotes, one year we even had a pop song thrown in – the less I say about that, the better.  Then we will be asked to meet with our teaching teams so that we can go over said rules, and changes in procedure.  Definitely no PowerPoints to look forward to, thankfully.  Finally…we can go back to the places where the real stuff of our teaching lives happens: our classrooms.

Every year, I sit through all of the above thinking of only that last part: my classroom.  To be honest, I’ve been thinking about my classroom all summer, and I would have been there the week before getting it ready for the year (which is a good thing, because getting a classroom ready for a school year is a labor and thought intensive process).  Our classroom is half of the  beating heart my teaching life – every book, stick of furniture, placement of furniture, wall and corner of this room has been thought out to best suit the other half of the heart: the children.

When I think of these children, and the year ahead, I am filled with so much emotion: they are why I show up every day, they are why I read and think teaching things all summer, they are what will keep me up late into school nights. The children.

I wish Opening Day could be less about procedures and  facts and directives and opining about lofty goals for the school district.  I wish all of that could just be sent to us via email sometime before, so that our first official day back in our building could be more joyful, more nourishing of our teaching souls.  Teaching is hard, hard work.  The school year makes many demands  on our time and on our emotions that vary as wildly from year to year as do the children we are responsible for.  Opening Day should acknowledge that.  I would love for it to be about a quick gathering of building staff and then TIME to get back to our rooms.  I would love it be about being in that space upon which so much depends with time to make that shift of mental gears: from summer time research and planning to school time “here we go” reality.  I would love the luxury of quiet time in which to put the last few things in order and immerse myself in thoughts of hope, and dreams of doing with the children – to get into the teaching zone again in the way I, the teacher, see best fit.

That’s what I would like to do on Opening Day.


#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Picture books and poetry

 #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

AndreaLoney tells the interesting and historically important story of the photographer James VanDerZee in Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee.  Born in small town Lenox, Massachusetts, James was artistically inclined but had difficulty expressing his ideas through drawing. When the only photographer in Lenox brought the only camera in town to take a family portrait of the VanDerZee family, James was captivated by the instrument and immediately began to save up for a camera of his own.

He taught  himself how to both take as well as develop photographs, practicing on his classmates and his family.  The call of Harlem, then in the midst of an exciting artistic and societal renaissance, eventually brought James to New York City, where he continued to hone his craft in a studio of his own.  Over the decades, James took thousands of pictures of middle class African Americans and their pride in the lives they were working hard to make.  These photographs, many years later, became the focus of an exhibition called “Harlem on My Mind” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a moving and important historical record.  Andrea Loney tells this meticulously researched story beautifully, and Keith Mallett’s vibrant paintings made this book visual treat, as well.

In Martí’s Song for Freedom , Emma Otheguy writes about the Cuban poet, revolutionary hero, and journalist José Martí.  Having witnessed the cruelties brought by Spain when they colonized Cuba as a young boy, Martí began writing poetry and thinking about ways in which he could use his words to fight for justice.  Exiled because of his activism, Martí travelled the world with his message about equality and Cuban independence, eventually settling in New York.  But his homesickness for his beloved homeland, and its continued fight for freedom brought him back home.  Martí was killed in the Battle of Two Rivers early in this new war for Cuban independence, and did not live to see it succeed, but his poetry and writings inspired his people then and continue to inspire all those who believe in freedom, equality, and justice.

I loved the way Emma Otheguy wove Martí’s verses into this story, and I loved Beatriz Vidal’s stunning illustrations.  This will be a wonderful addition to my classroom library of picture books dedicated to social justice.

I found this anthology of interviews Bill Moyers conducted with poets presenting at the annual Mabel Dodge Festival of Poetry in New Jersey.  Moyers is an insightful and informed interviewer, and I learned so much from each of these conversations with some of my most  favorite poets – what the act of writing means to each, how they go about practicing their craft, and what they hope their words will inspire.  I especially loved the way each poet spoke about specific poems, analyzing their process and sharing thoughts about what brought these poems about.  This will be a fabulous book to draw from in the new school year, and to share with my students.

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Mary Lee Hahn had blogged about Bob Raczka’s Lemonade some time ago, and I finally got around to reading it last week – what great fun!  The idea is, literally, squeezing poems from a single word, which is quite challenging, I must say (after having tried and failed multiple times).

I’m going to share this book with my kiddos at whichever point in our poetry year that calls for something completely different…something fun to take a swing at.  I can just imagine the classroom when I project Raczka’s word gymnastics up on our screen – I just know that after all the oohs and ahhs, my kiddos will want to take a crack at creating single word poems, too.

#celebratelu: A summer of listening

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

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This is the last Sunday of summer vacation; next Sunday, at this time, I will be packing up and preparing to make the drive from our farm in upstate New York to New Jersey, and a new school year.  This last Sunday of  vacation, I celebrate a summer of listening…

I read a lot this summer and listened to the voices of so many characters trying to teach me about how to live, love, remember, question, and heal.  If I listened carefully, I could hear the conversations these characters will inspire among my soon to be sixth graders.

I listened, too, to the voices of my teaching heroes; from Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, there was this: “Ultimately, we are teaching children to read the text of their own lives.  We want them open to possibility; open to ideas; open to new evidence that encourages a change of opinion. We want them using reading and writing as tools that help them in the re-vision of their own lives. We want them to have a better tomorrow.”

And, from Vicki Vinton: “This work also does something for us as teachers: It creates opportunities for us to be big picture thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers, too…it allows us to reclaim the status of professionals in a world that too often sees us as the problem.”

Their words filled me with new ideas and hope for the school year; and new resolve, too. In teaching, as in everything else, the more you allow yourself to grow and change, the more empowered and affirmed you feel about the work at hand.

I went many days without speaking to another soul, but there was so much to listen to. I listened to the corn grow in the hills and valleys around our farm, to the crowing of roosters at the dawn of every day, and the call of coyotes echoing through the deepest parts of the night.  I learned what it is to be still and simply listen.

Soon, there will be the happy cacophony of the children in my classroom; and the thunder and clamor to the way each school day begins and ends.  Soon there will be Google hangouts and Twitter chats with colleagues far and near, all of which will get me talking…and talking.

But, for now, on this porch facing a valley of golden corn, green hills, and blue sky…I am content to celebrate a summer of listening.

#celebratelu: What to say?


On weekends, I love contributing to #celebratelu with Ruth Ayres Writes, to celebrate moments big or small from the week.  But, this weekend I am struggling about what to write.  No, scratch that, I am not struggling at all…I know exactly what I want to write about: the events at Charlottesville.  There is nothing to celebrate as I try to make sense of the evil that was allowed to transpire, and the inevitable tragedy that took place.

On Friday night, I was aghast at the sight of white men and women carrying burning torches and chanting racist filth.  It was a clan rally, but without the robes.  I think it was this point that horrified me the most – here were these men and women, boldly walking just as they pleased, without a care in the world about being recognized, being seen. In fact, they wanted to be seen – they were proud to be seen.  And, they felt safe – there were no police in riot and with tear gas at hand to make them disperse, to show that our government stands opposed to racism.  All the fears I had had since the election seem to come to fruition on Friday night – Trump’s America, the people who voted him in, were at last emboldened to make it plain that this is what they meant by “make America great again”.

On Saturday, I followed the news on Twitter with increasing dread.  Peaceful demonstrators were gathering to protest against the evil on display the night before, and armed Nazi militias were on their way, too.  There was no word of caution or restraint from the President of the United States – why would there be? these were his people and he knew it.  After all, there was David Duke naming it on television, for all to hear: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

Then there was that horrific moment when there was news that a car had plowed into a crowd of protestors, followed by the tragedy that was, by now,  inevitable – someone had died.  As I waited for word from the President (and it was a long wait, because Trump certainly took his time), this is what he had to say: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

Many sides????   Is this what we have come to as a country, when an evil act can be downplayed because there are “many sides”?  The choice between good and evil, justice and injustice, love and hate, is simple to name and make. How, pray tell, can there be “many sides” to the events in Charlottesville?

Today, I’m thinking about two people: the man who chose to drive that car, and the young woman he murdered.   Both, most likely, had grandfathers or great uncles who had been part of the American army that had fought Nazi Germany, liberated death camps, and been witness to the human cost of white supremacy.  Both, most likely, had learned about the war and its causes in history middle school or high school history classes, watched documentaries and  read books which made evidence of that human cost indisputable.  And yet…one chose evil, and one chose good. Heather Heyer is the name of the young woman.  She was 32 years old. It has been reported that her last FaceBook post read: “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.”  Heather was paying attention. For her, there were not “many sides”.

I’m thinking about Heather as I try to imagine how I will teach in this coming school year.  So often, we teachers are programmed to encourage our students to look for complexity and nuance when they engage with the world, to be aware of their own narrow perspectives and to look at issues from all sides.  At the moment, this stance, when it comes to issues of justice and race, seems to hew perilously close to “many sides”.   In this matter, we have to begin  teaching the false equivalency of “both sides” – and that there is no such thing as the alt right movement, there are only Nazis. We need to name the hate, and ensure that our children can do so as well.

Last night, President Obama, Tweeted out this quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

At this moment in history, this becomes my teaching mission for the school year: teach to raise up more young people like Heather Heyer, who knew there was only one choice between good and evil, and paid so dearly for it.  If there is one thing I can celebrate this weekend, there is this – soon I will have the chance to teach that lesson to a new group of sixth graders.  I take hope from that.


Slice of Life Tuesday: What I learned about my writing life this summer

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

That’s Vita Sackville West’s writing desk at Sissinghurst, and the building in which it sits overlooking the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle.  This, to me, is the ideal writing spot, and I have always believed that I would be a much better writer had I a place like this to write every day.

I don’t, of course, but I found this summer to have been a rather wonderful writing summer anyway – I learned a lot about myself as a writer, and I found myself writing in new and unexpected ways.  Some of what I learned works just for me as a writer, but I have a feeling my lessons could have implications for my classroom, as well.

Setting a specific time frame:  I found it helpful to set aside a particular time stretch in which I knew I was free to write; there would be no interruptions either planned (they would always be set at another point in the day) or unplanned (I would work on having the discipline to ignore the phone, and turn off every single notification on my laptop).  I started small (a half hour) and worked towards big (three hours – which is “big” for me!). Knowing that I had carved aside this time had an interesting effect, in that it allowed me to enjoy my non writing time without feeling guilty about gardening instead of writing, for instance.   My writing time is very early in the morning, it’s when my writing brain seems to want to function in best.  Even though this will have to change once school begins and I am on my way to work before 7 a.m., knowing this makes me want to reserve  some time in my first prep period of the day for my own writing.

I think it would be helpful for my students to practice this at home with their Slice of Life writing.  Perhaps by sharing my summer experience, and giving them a specific aspect of their writing life to think about, I can start them on the journey I’ve only just learned how to give timed structure to.

Looking for inspiration:  As a pretty voracious reader, I tend to think of going to other writers for inspiration.  Sometimes, though, picking up a book you love and re-reading a favorite passage tends to stifle my own urge to write and makes me feel self conscious about what I write  –  how am I ever going to write as well as Arundhati Roy? does the piece I’m working now sound too much like Arundhati Roy?  This summer, I discovered that Instagram can be a fabulous source for writing ideas – many a friend’s glorious pictures of travel, food, and nature inspired me to imagine and then have a story to tell, or something to describe.  Bodega Cats of Instagram, which I find hilarious, became a surprising source for storytelling ideas, for instance.   I also discovered that podcasts were an excellent place in which to find essay topics. The thoughtful, history oriented  Back Story, my podcast discovery of the summer, jump started essay pieces on everything from summer travels to the history of fake news (yes, we have suffered through this, too, before).

I want to get my students thinking more about where they could turn for inspiration, to look at their own forays into multimedia and social media and think (as even old I did) about how these might be reservoirs for writing ideas.

Experimenting: I had fun experimenting this summer.  For a few weeks, I experimented writing a haiga every morning as a “flex your writing muscles” enterprise.  Sometimes I shared these efforts on Instagram, most often I did not.  I liked the fact that it was a task I set for myself for a short period of time, rather than some must do that would soon become tiresome…and therefore not done, which would cause writer’s guilt, which would (you get the picture).  The only point of experimenting was to give myself a stress free way to try something new for a short period of time, and I loved it.

I need to think about how much space I give my own students to experiment this way. Again, I want to share my summer experiments with my kids and encourage them to find their own avenues to explore.

Giving my “lost voice” time to regroup: I had completely lost my teacher writing voice – the ability to write a cogent and organized piece for a site like Choice Literacy  (which I write for).  After many false starts and stops, I gave myself permission to give this voice a rest and allow it some time off.  Last week, when my friend Kimberley Moran asked me to write a couple of pieces about things we had been discussing all summer, I hesitated at first.  It had been a while, would I be able to write something good enough?  I don’t know how good those pieces were, but I found that the writing muscle for this kind of writing had returned.  It had needed some time off.

This is another point to discuss with my students in September.  What kinds of writing do they feel they need to set aside for a bit to regroup, and to find pleasure in again?

Two weeks from today, I will be packing up all my notebooks and getting ready to head back to New Jersey and my teaching life.  It has been a glorious summer, tailor made for me.  I will have many lovely summer memories to hold onto in the whirlwind busyness of the school year, but I think I will hold on to what I learned about my writing life this summer for a long, long time.

#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: See You In The Cosmos & Short


   #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 

I’ve come to the last two books in my summer to-read book bag, and happily loved both of them.

See You In The Cosmos is Jack Cheng’s first novel for middle grade readers, and it is such a great read!  Eleven year old Alex Petroski has a lot going on in his life – his mother has disappeared into her own world after the death of his father, and his older brother is too busy with his own life many states away to seem to want to bother with him.  But Alex has his great love of astronomy and rocket making, his faith dog Carl Sagan (named after his hero), and his plan – to use his iPod to record what human life is like, and launch this into space so that other life forms there can become well informed about life on planet Earth.

With his home built rocket and Carl Sagan in tow, Alex sets off for Albuquerque, New Mexico and the SHARF Rocket Festival, where he intends to set his plan in action.  The journey is filled with adventures and people Alex could never have imagined, in the process of which Alex comes to learn more about himself and the real meaning of love and bravery and truth.

Alex is a wonderful character – he is an innocent and yet he is wise beyond his years in many ways, an open and easy to love boy who has a way of bringing out the best in others.  Each secondary character has also been beautifully crafted, and the way in which they connect and communicate with each other rings poignantly true.  This would be a great readaloud or book club selection. You can hear the audio to Chapter One  here,for a sense of what Alex is like – unforgettable!

I loved Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting By 7’s, which soon became a classroom favorite, too. Short, her most recent book, is every bit as memorable.  

Julia may be short and small for her age, but she makes her presence known anyway.  Her mother insists she try out for their town’s summerstock theater production of “The Wizard of Oz”, along with her younger brother, as a way to be gainfully occupied while her mother works.  Julia knows she can neither sing nor dance, but (to her great despair and indignation) is cast as one of the Munchkins anyway.

Events take a turn for the better when she meets Olive, one of three adults with dwarfism cast as Munchkins, too.  Olive has much to teach Julia, who comes to realize that “this is going to be the summer when the little people call the shots.”  I love the way the ways of the theater and theatrical folk are written about, and I fell just as much in love with Julia Marks as I did with Counting By 7s’ Willow Chance,she’s honest to a fault, hilarious without knowing it, and perceptive about the quirkiness of adults; I enjoyed this book, its laugh out loud moments, and its engaging story.  This would make an excellent first readaloud for the school year, too

Here is an interview with the author, in which she shares the inspiration for Short.

#celebratelu: Celebrating fresh starts

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

This year, I’ve decided to go old school with my plan book. I’ve been working with Google docs for the past few years, and have loved going paperless.  But…some part of me has missed the old way of  sharpening my pencils and actually writing down those plans, so I ordered a planbook via Etsy which would give me the layout I needed and the option to customize the cover:


This quote by Kylene Beers and picture (created from a Waterlogue photograph of my classroom and Picmonkey) has been on the wall behind my desk for a long time, but this year it felt appropriate to have it in front of me  – a quote that defines my teaching spirit every day of the school year: each day is a new opportunity to affirm the hopes and dreams of the children in my classroom.

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I’ve been thumbing through the blank pages of this new plan book – looking ahead to ideas I have for each day, month, and the year as a whole.  I love the blankness of it all and the opportunity for a fresh start that it represents, and I love the fact that it is neatly contained with a sturdy cover and spiral, which suggests both resolve and flexibility (two necessary and key ingredients in any school year).

Every September, I choose two excerpts from my summer PD reading as new guideposts – wise words I want to live up to in my planning, in my teaching, and especially in the way I listen and guide my kids along in their sixth grade year.

From Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s new book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters :

We argue that the ultimate goal of reading is to become more than we are at the moment; to become better than we are now; to become what we did not even know we wanted to become.  The transactions we have with texts might enable us to do that.  If we read actively, assertively, thoughtfully, responsibly, then any text we read may offer us the possibility that we can reshape ourselves…

Our students, however, too often go to reading expecting a grade not growth.  So, we want to disrupt the thinking kids are doing as they read, thinking that is primarily focused on helping them extract evidence from a text.  We want them aware of the possibility that reading may – perhaps should – give them the opportunity to reshape themselves.  We want them to realize that reading should involve changing their understandings of the world and themselves…We want to ask students to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and that it is this disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow. (pgs. 59-61)

And from Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

…it’s my hope you feel something akin to that as you emerge from this book: excited, reenergized,and eager to take this work into your classroom…It creates opportunities for us to be big-picture thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers, too.  And by not tying us down to a script or a lesson plan that claims students will meet outcomes that are hard, if not impossible, to reach in a single sitting, it allows us to reclaim the status of professionals in a world that often sees us as the problem.” (pg. 216)

July has been a time of reading, reflecting, discussing, and writing.  As I gaze upon my new planbook, freshly unwrapped and fragrant with “new paperness”, I celebrate fresh starts – how lucky we teachers are to have this opportunity every September!