Slice of Life Tuesday: The sound of (summer) silence

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


Summer has just begun, but I still hear the echoes of my sixth grade classroom: the voices of my students talking, the bang and clatter of their movement, the cacophony that is passing time in our hallways.

Summer has just begun, but I still awake with a start at 5 a.m. and wonder if I had taken care of the this and that which will make the school day ahead move as smoothly as can be hoped for when one teaches eleven and twelve year olds.

Summer has just begun, but…I am still in school mode.

This evening I emptied my trusty L.L.Bean back pack – out came student notes to me, reminders from me to me, a schedule of the last week of school, copies of student work I need to analyze over the summer, books I plan to read, scraps of paper with information I cannot remember enough to decode, and one very squished up clementine.

Tomorrow I will begin to fill it up again: summer work, summer goals, summer dreams.

What do I wish for? Here’s a slice of my summer list:

*Quiet time to sit on my porch, unpack my school year, reflect, and think.

*Quiet time to read uninterrupted, undisturbed by the “do this, do that” of the school year.

*Quiet time to write, to make many journeys of thought about who I am as a teacher, a parent and spouse, a human being.

*Quiet time to drive along long stretches of upstate New York countryside, with cornfields and cows and mountains as far as the eye can see, and just be in the moment: to savor what the soul needs.

Summer quiet is a lovely thing…I am so looking forward to it.



#celebratelu: The school year ends

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



My school year ended at about 1 o’clock on Thursday afternoon.  The last bell of the school year had rung at 12:30, followed by the raucous cheer that only the last bell of the school year can bring.  There was the last wave of students swooping into our classroom to say goodbye and catch one last hug of the school year, then the loud rat-a-tat of sneakers and sandals beating their retreat down hallways and stairwells, and finally the receding shouts and whoops of gaggles of kids heading downtown for pizza and ice cream or towards the town pool for the first summer vacation swim.

The school grew quiet in the way that schools do on the last day – a reflective quiet, as though the building itself was thinking about the year just past, and the children who had given it life and meaning from September through June.

The school year seems long in September, with plenty of time to accomplish all we need and hope to do.  But, at the end of June, exhausted and deplete though we may be, we know once again (as we do each June) that a school year is in reality a very short time when it comes to the lives of the children entrusted to our care.  The eleven and twelve year olds who come to me each September are at the very beginning of figuring out who they are and what they can be.

I am reminded of this every time I run into a Smithling alumni: the sensitive poet who returned to my classroom years later as a new Marine shipping out for duty in the Middle East, the “allergic to books” kiddo in pigtails who barged into my classroom years later to announce that she was off to the college of her choice to study literary criticism, the quick-to-tears self-doubter who stops by to announce he’s off to study “neuroscience with an emphasis on researching brain disease” at a university on the opposite coast of the country.

They change, they grow, they become who they are meant to be.  You begin to realize that you were merely at the starting gate – their jumping off point into a future you can’t even begin to guess at.

We raised our own three children with this poem in mind, but it applies just as well to the children I teach:

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Being that stable bow, year after year, is my life’s work as a teacher.  I send them forth into the future, their future.  Sometimes, I get to see where the arrow journeys…most often, I do not.

Which leads me to a moment from last year: sitting on the New York City subway, I look up from my book to notice a very well dressed young man looking at me rather intently.  His beautifully cut suit and tasteful tie catch my attention, but so does something about his smile.  I know this smile.  It belonged to a sixth grader once upon a time who walked into my sixth period writer’s workshop every day with evidence of the lunch he’d just eaten on his sweaty T-shirt.  Our joyful reunion is a reminder that he lives in that house of tomorrow.  I cannot visit it…but I was a small part of all that it took to get him there.

So, at the end of my 18th. school year, I celebrate the work of teaching.  I am glad for it, for it is the work of the “house of tomorrow”.


Slice of Life Tuesday: Another year…another multi genre project

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

We’ve been working towards Monday’s multi genre writing celebration for the last month. Day after day, and evening after evening (thanks to the wonders of GoogleDocs), my students worked at writing about a topic of their choice in four of the ten genres we had explored in writing workshop, and I worked at commenting on their writing and offering my suggestions.

Some days were productive, and some days were less so.  Summer beckoned from our classroom windows during the week, and it was even harder to focus on the weekends. But, we kept at it, chipping away at what seemed at first a huge and hard to manage task.

Sometimes we loved our topic of choice and they ways in we had chosen to write about them, and sometimes (especially in the middle of the process), we were much less enthusiastic.  But, we kept at it, trying our best to do our best.

And then, the end came into view: our multi genre writing celebration, the day we open our doors to parents, and share our work.  First, we signed up for celebration day jobs:


Then we made invitations:


And then we set up for presentation day:


I  stood to one side  of the classroom, taking in the scene. Parents milled about, reading and chatting, students answered questions about process and intention: this was what an authentic audience looks like and sounds like.  My kiddos looked happy, proud, and just a bit abashed at the attention their writing was garnering.

All that work was worth this.




NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:


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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.

#celebratelu: Restarting writing

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


It’s been a while since I’ve joined the Celebrate This Week community, not because I did not have moments to celebrate (thankfully, there were many), but because I’ve been a long writing drought.  I started many blog posts and Googledocs with this or that intention or idea in mind, only to find it go nowhere.  Soon, I stopped starting any writing at all, which made me sad.

Once, somewhere in our daily Voxer conversations, my friend Julieanne reminded me that even though I wasn’t putting words on the page, I was busy planting seeds for future writing – they were right there, she said, in the threads of what we were sharing about books, teaching, kids, and life.

Then, in the midst of the multi genre writing marathon that is the last month of our sixth grade life, a student said this when I took note of what appeared to be his constant need to  walk about the classroom: “I’m writing in my head, Mrs. Smith. Sometimes I need to write in my head before I can write on a page.”  Bingo! Yes, that is also what I had been doing these past few months – writing in my head as I drove around, gardened, walked the dog, or cleaned up my classroom.  I had snippets of lines about some topics, an whole paragraphs about some others stored away, ready to be reached for when the right time presented itself.  That made me feel SO much better!

This week, for no particular reason that I could put my finger on, I began to write again: a blog post, the beginnings of an article , the outlines of a story…not so much a beginning of new writing, but the restarting of already thought out writing.

This weekend, I celebrate that!

Before the Blight by Ruth Stone

Poetry Friday is hosted by Carol at Carol’s Corner



Growing up in upstate New York, my husband Scott always associated scorching hot summers with the cool green shade of towering  Elm trees.  Those trees of his youth are all long gone now; one by one each fell victim to Dutch Elm disease and had to be cut down many years ago.

Still, when the first really hot days of summer arrive, Scott is often given to reminiscing about those summer days and those magnificent trees.

Before the Blight by Ruth Stone

The elms stretched themselves in indolent joy,
arching over the street that lay in green shadow
under their loose tent.
And the roses in Mrs. Mix’s yard pretzeled up her trellis
with pink Limoges cabbage blooms like Rubens’ nudes.
My lips whispered over the names of things
in the meadows, in the orchard, in the woods,
where I sometimes stood for long moments
listening to some bird telling me of the strangeness of myself;
rocked in the sinewy arms of summer.


Choice in writing workshop

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We are winding down our sixth grade life here in Room 202.  This week, we wrote our last Slice of Life,  much to the sorrow of our class for we (surprisingly, to some) grew to love our once weekly sharing of the stories of our lives.  For this week, I asked my students to reflect upon how they’d grown as sixth graders, and to think about the goals they would be setting for themselves as seventh graders.

Many of my kids wrote about the way they had learned how to be organized and manage their time, and felt that this would be a goal to focus upon next year, as well.  And many wrote about the way they had learned to prioritize assignments and carve up longer projects into smaller, more manageable pieces.  Some wrote about learning how not to “freak out” when presented with something new and challenging, and others wrote about learning how to ask for help.

Since this was not our end of the year writing survey, where I ask for focused responses to our sixth grade writing workshop year, I was a bit taken aback by how many students chose to write about their writing lives as part of their reflection.

Here’s what Sasha had to say:

I think that my biggest achievement of the school year was my writing. It makes me proud knowing that have done my very best and that people apparently like it, from my novels, to my SOL’s. Let’s think back to when I was an average joe-shmo, trying to find his way in a big middle school, before the time of my novels and stunning stop motion movies that gained me so much recognition back before my famous dance move (If you are in my dance class). Back when I had no clue of my talents. Back to the first S.O.L….  

I slowly clicked on the classroom page, sighed as I were a sloth and came face to face with boring text, the bane of my existence.  It might have seemed like normal instructions for some, but for me, it seemed more like this: “He-he-he, welcome to the torture chamber, where nightmares come true! Right about a random time in your life, I don’t care, just write something! Oh, and remember, make sure to suffer! This message is brought to you by the executor of fun.” “well, I might as well just do it, staring at it won’t make it go away,” I thought as I set to work.

Soon, I had chosen a topic and decided on my choice of words. I would focus on the main idea and leave everything else sort of in the background.  After about 20 minutes I completed my masterpiece, it was glorious. In fact, I found myself happy and proud. I even showed it to my parents, who were very pleased, though my sister just scoffed. Ignoring my sister, I proudly hit the post button and beamed with awe as my work got posted for everybody to see and enjoy.

And that, my friends, was the start of a new Sasha, a Sasha that loved writing, he adored it. And with after lots of mini lessons, I couldn’t be any more proud.

And here’s what Sam shared:

Ever since I was in 2nd grade sitting at my table typing up a story that I had just wrote, writing was hard. I had 6 teachers that tried to help me get through the difficulties of being able to sit down and write a narrative, fictional story, or persuasive essay. I think that this was because they never presented topics that were fun to work with, and most of all, we did not get to pick our own writing to do. I always hoped that one day I would be able to write a killer essay…Once the first day of school came I already felt like I was learning, and I guess that I was, because my writing started to get better and better until finally I started to feel at home while writing. Now I am writing this off the top of my head, but I am not worrying, I am not scared to fail, I am confident that my writing skills will get better and better, hopefully this will continue until I am an adult.

The year seemed to move by faster and faster and I learned more and more about writing, one of the things that I learned was that Latin roots can really help with very “perplexing” words that are “laborious” to “enunciate.” (See what I did there?!;))  I guess I made a transition from stressing about even writing a paragraph long draft to now writing killer essays off the top of my head!

I read over these comments and thought about what was really behind the growth that these writers had made; what was at the root of their change of heart about writing itself?  To be sure, we read a lot of inspiring mentor texts, and worked through a number of mini-lesson or conference driven strategy sessions, but I sensed that there was something more at work.

Both Sam and Sasha are rather eccentric writers (and thinkers!).  They are both obsessed with certain topics (robotics, infectious diseases, aeronautics), and really enjoyed playing around with writing craft (they love asides, sly jokes, inventive punctuation).  Although they, and writers like them in our class, were willing to conform to structured writing when needed, they really blossomed when allowed to take the time to figure out how to say what they wanted to say the way they wanted to say it.

My students have always chosen what they wanted to write about.  But this year, more than ever, I stepped back and gave my kids much more leeway in deciding how they wanted to write.  Much of this I owe to the work of Ralph Fletcher, who has been speaking out about this at every conference of his that I’ve attended, and every recent book he’s written.  At the end of each conference and book, I would ask myself some hard questions about what I was doing (unintentionally or not) to limit choice in writing workshop, and to confine my students too much with checklists, rubrics, mentor texts, and forced structure.

Fletcher has this to say about such forced structure:

a pertinent section of which is this:

We think sometimes about choice in a limited way. Choice is not just a matter of what to write about. I mean that’s part of it, and I really think it’s important that students can decide what they want to write about and choose topics that are passionate to them, that matter to them, that they’re interested in, but also choice includes how to write about something. How do you start? Do you start with sound effects? Are you going to start with some dialogue? Are you going to start by setting an ominous mood? That’s something that the writer has to decide. What words you’re going to include, is it going to be funny or snarky or serious. There’s a million different choices.
One of the things that I always say is that a writer is somebody who is making decisions, and I say that to kids in kindergarten all the way up to high school. “A writer is somebody who makes decisions, so what decisions are you going to make today? As I come around and confer with you, I’m going to be interested in seeing what you’re deciding.” That question is legitimate and ongoing and vibrant if kids really can make those decisions. But if they’re following a format, or following a heavy anchor text or rubric where they really are sort of checking off the things that have to be in there, that’s not a format, that’s not an environment that really encourages choice.

Thinking  again of writers this year like Sasha and Sam, who walked into our classroom less than confident and sanguine about the writing experience, I think that this is what made the greatest difference: they had a lot of freedom both in what they wanted to say and how they went about saying it.  To be sure, we had our mini lessons and all the other fixtures of what is considered the writing workshop process, but then they got to decide how to go about the rest.  This made our writing conferences so much more interesting, because they were really more like conversations about craft than my telling them exactly what to do.  True, this also made it trickier when it came to rubrics and assessment (how much value to place on inventiveness and a willingness to take writing risks, for instance), but, judging from our last SOLs, it was  worth it.  Or, as my sixth graders would say, “That was TOTALLY, like TOTALLY, worth it!”.