#Celebratelu: Celebrating the work of launching memoir

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

I saw this Tweet this morning, which made me sit up and take notice, because it came from my wise friend Katie Muhtaris and it mentioned the also wise Colleen Cruz:

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Teaching eleven and twelve year olds who often come to me feeling that they are writing about nothing, I have sat through more writing conferences than I can remember helping my kids find their something.  So, yes, our kids need us to believe that they have something to say, and we need to believe (i.e. deep down in our hearts, not just pretending to pay lip service to the very idea) that they have it in them to say it.

Believing, of course, is only one part of all that goes into teaching children how to reach into their hearts and souls to find that something.  Katie’s Tweet made me think about all the groundwork my kids and I laid for writing memoir this past week.  Before I describe any of that work, however, I want to be absolutely up front that everything below has been cobbled together from wise books I’ve read and workshops I’ve attended over the past twenty years (Katherine Bomer! Ralph Fletcher! Nancie Atwell! Linda Reif!) and collected in my writing workshop handbook.  I owe everything about the work I do in my classroom to folks much smarter than me…and to my students from whom I learn every day how to transform theory into practice.

First, we talked about how personal narrative differs from memoir:


We spent a long time talking about the difficulties some have had writing memoir in elementary school, and acknowledged how hard it sometimes is to look at the small moments in their lives for whatever it is that their teachers have deemed “memoir worthy”.  Most of my kiddos felt that “memoir worthy” moments to write about were just something dreamed up by teachers with which to torment them (which brought to mind Billy Collins’ lines about what is done to poetry – “But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”).

Next, we moved onto a minilesson about the source of memoir ideas for writers:


And then we examined a list of possible places to venture for memoir “seeds”:

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Every day, after our mini lessons and mentor text studies, we reached into this idea bank to story tell and then quick write.  Some of these forays just might become the writing pieces that my kiddos will choose to stretch out and develop next week, but the purpose of this was simply to think about small moments through the lens of the above “big ideas” and try one’s hand at writing in a “memoirish” (their word!) way.

That led us to the real heart of our memoir study – reading powerful examples of memoir writing and deconstructing each piece for those elements most common to memoir: how the author uses language to convey meaning/how we learn about the memoirist and those important to her or him in this moment/the role of setting/the use of time to lend power and meaning/the “so what?” – the author’s purpose for remembering and writing this experience.  I have always opened with James Howe’s “Everything Will Be Okay”  because it is, quite frankly, the most compelling text with which to begin – it’s a story that somehow always leads my students to an “ah ha moment” of their very own, one that never fails to answer their nagging questions about “what the heck is the difference between personal narrative and memoir anyway???”. With “Everything Will Be Okay” there is immediate clarity.

We read and take it apart collectively, with prompting and noticing by me all along the way.  This messy, in the moment work with my morning and afternoon writing workshops:


coalesce into neater, more easily readable (and therefore more referred to) charts like these (our  other text for this type of work is  “All Ball” by Mary Pope Osborne):



Then we turned to Ralph Fletcher’s “The Last Kiss” (from his Marshfield Field Dreams ), and my kiddos did all this so-smart deconstructing by themselves:

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Every day, we reached into our “memoir idea bank” for storytelling and quick writing after we’d worked with these mentor texts; reading them, talking about them, and taking them apart to analyze the craft with which they were put together helped understand memoir better and helped our quick writing become a bit more focused…a bit more “memoirish”.

By Friday, our working bulletin board was ready for next week, when my kiddos will begin drafting their memoirs and deciding what they want to say.

And that is cause for this sixth grade teacher to celebrate!


#Celebratelu: Time for play

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

We went out to play on the last Friday of September.  Fall was in the air, and we’d been looking longingly out the window at birds and clouds flying free in the the blue sky.

As we raced onto the soccer field, all our cares left in a heap of books and pencil cases at the edge of the field, it did not matter that we didn’t have anything to play with – just a green field, our classmates, and our imaginations.


Duck duck goose.

Who can cartwheel the fastest?

We laughed, we goofed around, we yelled our heads off.  We discovered that Will could run like the wind, that it was impossible for Zach to get tired no matter how much he ran.  We learned that someone we thought was rather quiet actually had a lot to say, and that someone we thought shy was … NOT!  The outdoors, and a whole period to just “be!”, brought us closer together.

We sixth grade Smithlings work hard…but every once in a while, we just need to play.

#celebratelu: Activism


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

I have always been political, and I have always been vocal about my politics.  Ever since high school, I’ve marched for causes, signed thousands of petitions, written an equal number of letters, and done my fair share of contributing my efforts to get the candidates I’ve supported elected.  In my view, this what active citizenry looks like: you stay engaged, you participate, and you educate yourself so that you have a leg to stand on when the opposition comes at you…which they will, for that is also part of participatory democracy.

As a teacher, I wrestle with how vocal to be in my classroom, and also in my social media space: what can I write about? what should I share on Twitter?  This election has presented unique challenges because Trump was so often beyond the pale in terms of what he said and did.  There was no way to present this election in the normal way for my students, as I have for so many elections before, because he was simply not a normal candidate – no normal candidate has ever spoken or behaved the way he did, and I certainly did not want Trump to become the “new normal” for my young students.  Even watching the debates became impossible, for many parents let me know that they would not allow their children view the debates “just in case”, which was their way of saying they did want to expose their children to the language used by Mr. Trump.

After the election, there have been even more issues to contend with – the Immigration Ban, the farcical confirmation process, Trump’s Tweeting habits, and the rash of hate crimes which my students are really paying attention to, because they are in the news all the time now:

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There is a fine line between informing and advocating in a classroom setting, but I find myself having to cross it often these days because my kids are full of questions and opinions of their own: why are people racist? why does anti-Semitism still exist? why do people say hateful things? why don’t grown ups seem to ever listen to each other? why does everyone always shout at each other on the news? why are we still talking about all this bad stuff these days-haven’t we learned anything from the past?

These discussions always bring me back to something Mamie Till wrote in her book about her son Emmett’s murder: Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America:

That is, after all, how it works. We don’t come here with hatred in our hearts. We have to be taught to feel that way. We have to want to be that way, to please the people who teach us to want to be like them. Strange, to think that people might learn to hate as a way of getting some approval, some acceptance, some love.

Our classrooms and schools have to be places where hatred can be given no quarter, not even by silence:


So, even though I feel as though I am skating on thin ice sometimes, I will continue to open our classroom to difficult questions and discussions.  Truth telling is a form of activism, and I celebrate that.

Celebrate this week: Kindness, learning, and…cake!

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


I wasn’t going to post for “Celebrate this week” – after all, the news of the week left little cause for celebration.  Then…I thought of my students, and of the morning I spent learning from brilliant and passionate educators.  In doing so, I realized that I had cause to celebrate, after all.

We began our Friday current events discussions this week, and my kids were both curious and fearless.  They wanted to engage in the events of their world, to ask questions, to wonder.  At the heart of all they asked was kindness.  I celebrate that innate kindness, our work in all the learning we will do this year will lean on and draw from that kindness.


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I spent most of today at my desk, glued to my laptop and The EdCollab Gathering.  Chris Lehman opened with words that spoke right to my heart, and answered some of the questions my teacher self had been struggling with last week: how political can one be in these times, how political should one be in any times?  And then Chris said this: “Say the things that you believe-hold on to your humanity even when it’s scary.”  Yes. I celebrate the clarity of that truth.


And then, there were hours of learning at The Ed Collab Gathering following Chris’ remarks.  How can I not celebrate a Saturday spent in the company of so many inspiring and dedicated educators? I thank my friend Fran McVeigh for putting it best: “A day w/ is like 3 layer cake of many flavors.” I celebrate having a taste of  this kind of cake!

Celebrate @ #clebratelu : November 29th., 2014

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

Today, I’m celebrating:

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Time with my three children.  I don’t blog much about them because their lives are not my story to tell, but I am grateful and proud of the people they are.  Spending time with all three of them in one place is hard to do these days, when they are busy building lives of their own outside the circle of our family life.  So I celebrate this Thanksgiving break, when the sounds of their voices and their laughter filled our home once again.


My memories of presenting with the Two Writing teachers team (sans Beth Moore, who was much missed) at NCTE 14. This was such an exhilarating experience, especially since it was in the company of so many of our SOL writing community.

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And my memories of meeting anew the many amazing and dedicated teachers I blog with and link up through Twitter every day.  Teaching can never be a lonely profession when it is shared with such people.


Being in the room to hear Jacqueline Woodson speak about Brown Girl Dreaming.  I was spellbound by her grace and humanity, her sense of humor and  her utter honesty.  We are fortunate to have her voice crafting stories for us today.

Celebration Sunday: Great books, rain…and October baseball

celebrate link up

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

A few celebrations:

1.  We are busy…too busy to be clockwatchers….


So, where exactly did this week go?!  A month into the school year, and my kids are already saying, “Wait, block is over already?! Where did the time go?”  And that is something to celebrate…there are no clock watchers in my classroom! We are busy, and time flies.

2. Great group work:

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Here are my kids teaching each other what they have learned about events leading up to the American Revolution.  Walking around the room, and listening to their conversations, I was filled with such pride and hope.  Each student worked hard to research and present, better still, they were interested in making sure that their classmates’ questions and concerns were addressed.  They are committed to their learning – which is a wonderful thing to witness.

3. Great books:

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I read and reviewed  Brown Girl  Dreaming” at the beginning of the week, and am getting ready to do the same for “Revolution”. I feel so lucky!

4. A rainy day:


A rainy Fall day in New Jersey – perfect for reading, grading, figuring out the next few weeks in sixth grade.

5. The playoffs:


My beloved Red Sox finished in last place this season. Pretty depressing. But, I’m over it and have the Orioles to root for now.  I love October baseball!

Celebrate this week @ #clebratelu :August 16th., 2014

Discover. Play. Build.

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

It’s back from vacation, back to school (or, getting ready to do so).  But, I wanted to take this Celebration Saturday to mark a few of my summer celebrations…before they fade into  all the “stuff” of my daily working/living  life:

I am so thankful to have been able to see my parents this summer: we live an ocean apart, and even though the phone lines are always buzzing between London and New Jersey, there is nothing quite like seeing them first thing in the morning and last thing at night again.

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After thirty two years, my husband Scott remains my favorite travel companion. Who else could be so much fun to be with, whether we are in search of  obscure but fascinating historic sites, theater in all its forms, perfecting the at of the selfie, or a morning spent looking over ancient manuscripts?  So, I celebrate Scott.

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And finally, I celebrate the fact that I will soon be walking through my classroom door, ready to greet another crop of sixth graders and begin a year of learning and growing together.  My room has a long way to go before I can sort the boxes and recreate our learning space, but I am ready. So, I celebrate that!

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Thank you, Ruth, for giving us this lovely Saturday event – check out other celebrations here!