#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.


#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!

#celebratelu: Books, book communities, and book talk

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


Today serves as a mid-marker of sorts, as of today, I will have been out of school on summer break for exactly one month…with exactly one month to go.  When anyone asks me what I’ve been up to over the past weeks, the first thing that comes to mind is reading.  I have read more over the past four weeks than over the last six months!

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What I’ve read…so far.

This is not to say that all I have been doing is reading, but I am amazed at the pace I’ve been able to keep without losing either the energy or the enthusiasm for reaching for another book the moment I finish what is currently at hand.

Of course, my summer reading has me thinking about the new school year and the readers who will be walking into Room 202 at the beginning of September.  What am I learning about my own reading life that can be put to use for them?

Choice, yet pre-selection: Although I could choose to read whatever I wanted and in whichever order I preferred, every book in my TBR pile (whether YA or middle grade or for professional development) was pre-selected carefully, based on reviews or word of mouth.  This meant that I could count on each reading experience to be a pleasurable one, some more than others to be sure, but not one of them a disappointment – each good reading experience fed the desire for another.   This is what I want for our classroom library as well: it must be consistently good, carefully selected, every read a worthwhile one.

Communities of reading and responding: some of my books were “book group books” and some were ones I read on my own.  But, even in the case of the latter, I had a group to share my thoughts with, enthuse and mull over, problem solve and commiserate with. Our conversations helped spur rich questions and thinking that I would not have had if I had read alone.  This makes me think that in addition to book groups that meet when we do our genre studies, when each group is reading the same text, I should build in some time every week for just “book turn and talks” about whatever it is that my kids are reading.

Latitude in how to respond: There was great freedom in my book groups to find our own ways in which to respond, and to experiment with each response.  We sketch noted, jotted, drew webs, asked questions and wrote long, and in the process we learned new ways of note taking and communicating  ideas.  I want my sixth graders to have this freedom and flexibility as well, which means that I will have to plan for it both in terms of modeling/sharing example as well as assessment.

A sense of responsibility:  We trusted the process, purpose, and value of our reading communities, and felt an obligation to show up prepared each time we participated, so our conversations were always meaningful; best of all, they always pushed our thinking. In my “share whatever you’re reading” group, we could not wait to tell each other (across many miles and a time zone) what had moved us, made us laugh, brought us to tears: it didn’t matter that we did not have a book in common, all that counted was the rich experience we just had to share.  Of course, I would love to see more of this joyful sense of responsibility with my kiddos as well.  I think I will begin laying the groundwork by simply speaking of my summer experiences and how much the fact that others took their reading lives seriously impacted my own desire to show up prepared.

Time: Well, this one needs no explanation.  I have time to read and I am making the most of it.  But, all of the above ensure that I  am using this gift of time to read.  And, for my students, time in our classroom comes down to one person – me. It’s my responsibility to toss aside anything that gets in the way of large blocks of time for my kids to read/confer/share.  That’s on me.

So, this “mid-marker Saturday”, I celebrate all the reading done, the reading to come, for myself…and for those soon to be Smithlings.

#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”.


#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!

#Celebratelu: Celebrating projects!

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

We are closing in on Memorial Day weekend, a big one for us as we “get back” two unused snow days in addition to the usual three day weekend. When we return, it will be June, and my kiddos will be living and breathing summer dreams of swimming, lazing about, and freedom from school…even though we will STIL have three more weeks of school.

Last week, I turned our classroom over to my sixth graders.   They are working on their multi genre writing projects – choosing a topic and writing about it in four of the twelve different genres we have learned to write, starting book partnerships to dig deep and read through two books in the time we have left, and diving into various history projects that will put what they are learning in social studies to the test.

From Monday through Thursday, I stepped back and watched as my kiddos took my simple instructions: create a game of courage and chance that plots out the dangers and sacrifices made along the Underground Railroad this week, honor the brave men and women who were part of this civil rights movement.

Using their class notes and a few additional research tools, my students got to work (some right away, some eventually, and some reluctantly).  It took all of the following to get to our goal – game day:

patience and perseverance: even the best initial ideas need tweaking and refining, nothing ever is as easy as you first think it’s going to be.

communication: no one is allowed to be a show boat or a slacker, but everyone needs to participate and be heard.  Sometimes, may want to scream at your team mates, but that’s the best way to ensure that no one listens to you.  

trade offs: “you can’t always get what you want” is a fact of life not just words to sing, you’ve got to learn to give a little to get a little (that might be a song, too!)…and that’s hard to do.

staying focused on the purpose: it’s all too easy for a group project to run off the tracks if you lose sight of the purpose of the project in the first place.  You may need to take turns reining each other in, but that’s just part of group work.

sometimes the people you really wanted to work with are just the people you’d best NOT work with: this was a tricky lesson to learn, and one that brought no small degree of frustration and tears.  

Game day was great fun.  We took turns rotating around the classroom to play each game, and then having a “say back” at the end.  And, even in this, there was something to learn:

Your ideas may be clear to you but not to others – directions are hard to write. It was interesting to hear how directions could be revised and refined, there is a reason why I stress working towards clarity in our writing workshop!

So, this weekend I celebrate projects: they are messy, noisy, and often frustrating – but we learn so much about ourselves and others when we work together to create something new. Project based learning is so worth the effort (and the occasional headache!).