#Celebratelu: Celebrating collaboration

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

Looking back on my teaching life, something I am doing more and more of these days, I count myself lucky to have had the chance to fashion Room 202 into a sort of teaching lab for new ideas.  We took Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s ideas for the “3 Big Questions” and nonfiction signposts for a test run, and we tried out their Book-Head-Heart reading strategy as well; when Katherine Bomer wrote her brilliant book on essaying, my sixth graders dived right into their own journeys of thought; my reading workshop would not be what it is without Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse whose student-centered thinking keeps me honest, or Linda Reif whose practices anchor so much of our work.  In lieu of colleagues in my building to work with, it’s been these teaching greats who have been my virtual collaborators, the ones who’ve kept my teaching life intellectually interesting and rich.

So, I was thrilled when Karen Caine asked if she could try out some writing workshop ideas in Room 202.  Karen’s book on persuasive writing has been the foundation of our persuasive writing unit for many years, and I was excited to learn more about her idea for writing clubs.

Karen worked her magic with my eager kiddos, introducing the idea that we would be writing about our persuasive topic research in a different way; rather than going straight for the 5 paragraph format they’ve been used to writing since third grade, we would reach into our narrative writing toolkits and try to aim for emotion and personal investment.

It was such a pleasure to listen in on Karen’s mini-lesson and her back and forth with my kiddos.  They could not wait to get to work, and I could not wait to read what they were able to come up with.  A few days later, once drafts were completed, Karen returned to explain what writing clubs could be and how we could use them to improve our writing, which I tried to chart in the moment:

Table groups of students went to work right away, as we dashed about the room observing and taking notes.  The next day, I gathered my writers to discuss what the process had felt like, and what they had made of the task:
*they liked that they were able to:
– hear lots of different voices instead of just one (Mrs. Smith) which allowed for  lots of varied ideas about how to tweak their writing.
– have the chance to explain their thinking in more ways than just one allowed them to clarify their writer’s thinking 
-listen to others’ read their writing which gave them ideas 
-get affirmation for what was good writing  which was motivational and just felt good
*things we need to work on:
-too many suggestions were sometimes confusing, so we need to find a way to be more specific in asking for writing advice
-some people wanted to read their whole piece and that made it hard to remember where to give -suggestions, so we need to pick and choose one or two places in our writing 
-(my observation) students were resorting to writing cliches – “you needed more details” was the inevitable suggestion, even though students complain that teachers tell them to do this all the time and they don’t know WHICH details or HOW to provide these
-(my observation) we need to work on the language of writing asks and writing gives; there needed to be a consistent language for the club members so that club time is efficiently spent – i.e. that there is time left for students to return to their desks and write.
Writing clubs in the way Karen has imagined its orchestration and function feels so much more authentic and student driven than the partner peer editing I had tried for some time and abandoned.   I learned so much from our first try at this, and look forward to our next round as much as my kids do.  This, I believe, is know-how they can take into their writing work for years to come, whether in a formal setting as a class or as ad hoc groups they organize for themselves.  Fabulous!

#Celebratelu: Joyful writing

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

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 6.24.15 PM.png

Phase one of our nonfiction writing unit concluded with a lovely writing celebration.  My kiddos cleaned out their writing folders, which were jam packed with drafts and notes and research, and happily stuffed everything into their writing portfolios.

What next? they asked.

Freewriting! I answered.

Instant pandemonium. Instant celebration and delight.

Although my students know that their writer’s notebooks are theirs to fill with any kind of writing, they also know that our workshop year moves from unit to unit, and our workshop week follows the predictable routine: mini lessons followed by writing and conferring time.  Free writing time is something else.  Free writing follows every writing unit; it’s a time without mini lessons or mentor texts or any of the other “stuff” we fill our regular writing weeks with.  Free writing is 100% freedom to create whatever my kids want to write about in whichever fashion they choose and about anything they have an itch to scratch.

They love it.

Here’s what they created this week:

*joke books complete with illustrations


*new chapters for  epic adventures in worlds of fantasy and in a certain dystopian middle school out in a galaxy far away (whose plot line I have given up understanding)

*short stories that only middle schoolers can invent

*an advice book

*a book of excuses for “lost” homework

*super secret writing projects folded into four and placed in a writing folder marked: PRIVATE! BUTTTT OUTTTTT!

All week, all around me, there was joyful writing.  I celebrate that!





#Celebratelu: Celebrating the Zacks in my classroom

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

A couple of weeks ago, I read Eric Bell’s fabulous middle grade novel, Alan Cole Is Not a Coward, and I have been thinking about the main character’s best friend, Zack, ever since.  Zack is twelve, and as equally incapable of sitting still as he is of keeping his every thought to himself.  Zack makes and lives by his own happy rules, he notices everything – especially the stuff his friends and teachers seem always to miss, which often turn out to be (as we discover towards the middle of the book) the important things.  Here’s an excerpt that sums up the Zack’s inimitable “Zackness”:

“It’s funny.” Zack holds his plastic fork to the light like he’s waiting for it to sprout wings and dance the cha-cha. “You know how some things have names that fit them, right? Like, an orange is called an orange because it’s orange. Why is it called a fork?”

I swallow a big bite of the chicken sandwich I got from the cafeteria line. “Maybe the color came second.”

“The color fork?” Zack asks.

“The color orange. Maybe the color orange is called orange because it’s named after the fruit.”

Zack slowly lowers his fork. “Wow,” he whispers.

That should keep him quiet for a few minutes……

“If you want my honest opinion,” Madison Wilson Truman pipes up next to me, interrupting my thoughts again, “a fork is called a fork because it’s forked between the points. Haven’t you ever heard of forks in the road? Those are different paths branching off from the same point. That’s where the term comes from.”

Zack looks down at the plastic fork. “I never knew that. I’ve been using forks my whole life! I’ll never eat the same way agai—” He snaps his head to the left and swivels his neck as he looks up at the ceiling; his spiky hair, jutting out at all angles like an electrocuted porcupine, sways back and forth. “I thought I saw a dragon.”

I read this, and other such Zack moments, over and over again…always with a smile and a chuckle.   And, each time, I remembered the Zacks who have made their way through my teaching life year after year: the girls and boys who march to the tune of their own special kind of music.  These are the kiddos whose restlessness and tendency to blurt out their every thought is enough to drive even the most patient teacher to distraction, and yet…and yet…I know that my Zacks have taught me more about being a good teacher than all the un-Zacks in my teaching life.  They’ve taught me to:

~be patient and to be cautious about being over reactive; sometimes it’s wiser to pretend not to hear and see and just carry on.  Zacks tend to get so much negative reinforcement as it is, that it’s important to carve out some safe space – even if it’s the last thing one is inclined to do in a busy teaching day.

~find ways to capture the important ideas in their flights of thought, they need someone to help them pause and reflect, because they don’t know (yet) quite how to.

~honor so many different ways of arriving at solutions, conclusions, extensions, even ones that are delivered at the speed of light and at inopportune moments.  Zacks have a way of being not-heard and feeling not-heard.

~open my heart to that one kid in my room who seems least likely to get a chance anywhere else, even though it means risking that daily migraine…Zacks are worth it.

~believe, really believe, that I can learn from my Zacks, that in seeking to reach them I become a better teacher, a better person.

Today, as I was prepping for school on Tuesday, I re-read a poetry response from one of my current Zacks which began with a line from the poem we’d read and concluded with some theories about space travel and black holes.  I tried, and failed, to see the connections between the ideas…but something about this question will stay with me for a long, long time: wouldn’t it be cool to spin through the stars like a silver Ferrari, Mrs. Smith? 

What can I do but celebrate the Zacks in my teaching life?  They make each of my teaching days something their very own.


#Celebratelu: Celebrating small moments

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

There were no momentous events this week in my living and teaching life, just a series of small moments that, strung together, seem to glimmer and glow never the less.


We spent Sunday night in the company of Neil Young, livestreaming from Omemee, Ontario’s Coronation Hall.  This was the music of my coming of age years, and the music we continued to play when we were raising our kids, so it is also the music of their coming of age.  My husband Scott and my son Ben sang along, (very wisely, I didn’t), and I sat back and rejoiced in the power of great music, family time, and the threads of memory that run between the past, present, and future.


In my classroom, we are reading aloud Alan Gratz’s brilliant book, Refugee.  Before beginning, we studied some infographs to learn a bit about refugees today using Kylene Beers’ and Bob Probst’s “3 Big Questions” (the anchors to so much of our thinking and talking work).  I walked around and listened in, feeling lucky to just be in the moment and recognizing the sounds of connecting and expanding thoughts; there is nothing better than being in the midst of kids pushing each other to think harder and ask big questions.


Our son has been home these past few months, very unwell and with no clear diagnosis as of yet.  Every day I am touched and strengthened by his spirit of courage in the face of physical discomfort and pain.  He never complains, and finds comfort where he can…as in this quiet moment with our dog Sophie.


On Friday, my kiddos made our grammar practice extra fun by imagining the above.  There was great hilarity in the room as they reenacted what this might have looked like and sounded like. There was laughter in the room, but love and a feeling of comfort, too.


Our first snowfall has begun, and we are caught between two seasons again: piles of leaves line the curbsides as the first flakes float down.  I try not to think of this will be like to move out of the way tomorrow, and just celebrate how lovely the leaves look in their soft new coats.

Thank you, Ruth, for giving us this place to collect and share our moments of celebration, big or small.


#Celebratelu: Celebrating The Great Thanksgiving Listen…year three

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 9.25.28 AM.png

As Thanksgiving nears, we are preparing for The Great Thanksgiving Listen – StoryCorps’ brilliant initiative to: “Honor someone important in your life by interviewing them for The Great Listen 2017. Help us create a culture of listening that echoes across the nation.”  You can read all about it, and avail yourself of classroom resources here.

This will be the third year in which the students of Room 202 will select an elder they want to interview, decide which burning questions they will want to ask, and prepare to listen to family stories they will be hearing (perhaps) for the first time.   Last week, we previewed a few of the StoryCorps interviews which modeled the  questioning and listening process, the favorite of which is this one:

This weekend, my kiddos will be deciding who they will interview and formulating about twelve questions to ask.  They will also make sure that their interviewees will be aware of the project and ready to set aside the twenty minutes to half hour needed for the interview process.  Some will call grandparents far away (Russia, South Korea, and India are some of the places they’ve mentioned so far), and some will sit across the Thanksgiving table with parents, aunts, or uncles; all will use their phones to record their interviews.

After Thanksgiving, they will listen to these conversations and transcribe their favorite parts. I love watching my kids listen intently to these recordings the day we return from Thanksgiving break.  With ear buds securely in and pens scribbling away, they stop often to rewind and relive those conversations, and to laugh or sigh at what was said.  We learn to lift the best quotes from these interviews and then to craft writing pieces to share with classmates.  So many lovely stories have been shared over the last three years, but the most meaningful aspect of the Listen is that my kids learn about their own histories, and that these histories surprise and move them into a deeper appreciation of who their elders are, and what they have survived.

Last year, E.K. wrote:

This interview was important to me because I felt that I got to know and understand my grandma better, now that I know what she’s been through, and how hard her childhood was. Before this interview, I was just really doing it because I had to, but now I’m glad that I did, because I got to know a side to her that I didn’t know before. I guess I was just a little too late for my grandpa, but at least now, I have my grandma by my side.

(You can read her fabulous piece in its entirety here.)

This weekend, I celebrate getting ready to participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen, and look forward to hearing my students celebrate the stories of their families.


#Celebratelu: Of gardens and classrooms

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


For her Poetry Friday post, Ruth – our poetry friend from Haiti, wrote beautifully about the connection between the crafts of teaching and gardening:

I find teaching like gardening because you can do everything “right,” all the planting and watering and fertilizing, and still there is a large part of the process that’s just a complete mystery.  It takes place out of sight, and it’s out of your control.  In addition, of course, there are all the other factors – the “weather” of your students’ lives, like their home situation, their relationships with other kids in the class, their hormones, whether or not they had breakfast this morning.

Ruth’s musings led her to compose a lovely poem, and led me down the rabbit hole of thinking about how wise and accurate her comparison had been.  Yes, I’ve been thinking ever since, our classrooms are like garden plots, ones we tend to with care from September through June and then ponder over ever after: what went well, what did not, what are the lessons learned, and what do I feel I am ready to experiment with in the year to come.

As I sit before a tabletop covered with my students’ reading and writing lives which need to be commented upon and assessed, I have flashes of memories from our first marking period: the anticipation of setting up our classroom, the excitement of the first day, and the fits and starts with which my kids progressed from nervous sixth graders to ones who have settled in.

Following Ruth’s gardening metaphor, the first quarter of the year feels very much like the very beginning of Spring, when the detritus of winter must be cleared away, the weeds of the Fall cleaned off, and the soil tilled and enriched so that growth might (fingers crossed) occur.  Going into the second marking period feels like the end of Spring: each plant has its own spot in which to grow and thrive, and has begun to grow.  The garden now looks a bit uneven still, for each plant grows at its own rate, but it is taking shape, and that gives the gardener hope.

Reaching for each reading journal or piece of writing by my students has begun to feel familiar – when I read my students’ work I can hear their voices, I can remember the goals we have set, and I can appreciate the ways in which they have grown.   The gardener has come  to know her garden.

As we look ahead and plan for the second marking period, I celebrate the way in which each of my students has claimed their very own place in the learning arc of the year.  They’ve settled in, they are beginning to grow…and I celebrate that.




#Celebratelu: Celebrating sixth graders and memoir

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

Memoir Pic

I have a confession to make, ever since I first read Katherine Bomer’s brilliant how-to-teach-memoir book Writing a Life , I’ve borrowed her line about why to teach memoir when I introduce the genre to my sixth graders: “…people also write so that they can know what they think and feel about their lives, and that is what I want to teach you how to do in these next few weeks.”  Because, my kids are at that stage when they are beginning to think and feel deeply, they want insight into their world and into themselves, and they absolutely sit up a little straighter at the thought of being able to write about these ideas in a way that honors their memories and the people they see themselves becoming.

We came to the end of our unit on writing memoir on Friday with a writing celebration – four weeks of discovering what memoir sounds like and feels like, and what sifting through memories to find ways to make them sing through our writing can gift us: lovely memoir gems.

My kids wrote about friends lost and found, about their grandparents and what they learned in small moments found in their company on ordinary days, and lessons learned at practice, on the playground, and in the school cafeteria.

I love this unit. I love hearing my students practice the habit and language of reflection, I love the realizations they make along the way about who they are and where they are from and who they want to be.  Reaching for Katherine Bomer’s inimitable words again:

The reasons to read and write memoir are as enormous as the world, as ancient as history, as crucial as human life. And they are also as seemingly small as to give one person, reading one story, the hope to keep living.

I think about this experience as I remember our Friday celebration.  Over the last four weeks, we learned to read and write memoir and I celebrate that.