#Celebratelu & #SOLC17 & #DigiLitSunday: Experimenting with fiction

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

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

DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche


I have a confession to make.  Although my sixth graders have clamored to write fiction year after year, our enthusiastic forays into  this genre have always ended with a general feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides: I feel as though I have not taught it well, and they feel as though they haven’t written well.

This March, the familiar question of “when do we get to write fiction?” sounded again.  We had just concluded a unit on essay  writing, and were about to get ready for a unit on test prep – a good time, I thought, to answer this burning question once again: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?

I thought carefully about all the things that had led to derailment in the past:

*diving into writing fantasy, which often became convoluted storylines that went on, and on, and on…

*not creating clear parameters for my students, so that some were “all done” quickly and others were unable to conclude because their stories had become so complicated

*not setting up a defined timeframe, so that our “creativity” kept stretching on and on (i.e. story lines were going nowhere, and new characters kept popping up for no rhyme or reason).

And I used those lessons to tighten up the plans for this year:

*we would stick to realistic fiction

*we would think about our storylines in a more limited way:

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*we would spend more time planning before writing:

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*we would have three weeks: two to plan, draft, confer, and peer review, and one to revise and publish.

Last Wednesday was publishing day and our writing celebration.  My kiddos created covers for their short stories, and then sat back and enjoyed each others’ creations:

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And I sat back to reflect upon the initial burning question that had set this particular writing into motion: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?  The answer, I thought, was a qualified “yes!”.    Here’s what we learned in the process:

*writing fiction is a lot harder than it looks (some were able to develop their storylines well, and some didn’t quite reach the mark – hence the above “qualified”).

*having a plan of action is really important in writing fiction, because it’s so easy to go off on tangents (new characters! sudden happenings!) and so hard to get back on track.

*working within a time frame helps us stick to our plans (more or less).

*we could use our reading strategies (Notice and Note signposts) as writing strategies.

*we will take what we’ve learned and keep experimenting – who knows, but that some of these short stories will one day morph into the long novels that some of my kiddos long to write. I celebrate that!





#SOLSC17 and #Celebratelu: Joy

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

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

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The thing about sixth graders is…they leave the best Friday messages.

The thing about sixth graders is that there is no one thing that you can point to and say: that’s it! This is what sixth graders are all about.

The thing about sixth graders is that they are ever morphing, ever zooming from one extreme to another, ever veering off into some new zone of being just when you begin to think that they are settling down.

The thing about sixth graders is that life with them, school day in and school day out, is like looking through a kaleidoscope: you are enthralled by the ever changing view, exhausted by it, but energized by it, too.

The thing about sixth graders is that you just can’t help but love them; even on their worst day (which is consequently also your worst day) they find a way to leave you believing that tomorrow will be a better day, perhaps even the best day.

The thing about sixth graders is they reach into your heart and worm their way into available space, so that you may have to drag your weary body out the classroom door day after day, but you feel strangely good about that weariness, it is a it’s-totally-worth-it kind of weariness.

The thing about sixth graders is that they take you on their journeys of thought every day: a roller coaster, sometimes slightly sick to the stomach kind of journey – you never quite know where that next steep swoop or crazy swerve might be, but you find yourself looking forward to and actually enjoying them any way.

The thing about sixth graders is that they don’t stay sixth graders very long – just from September to Spring Break, really.  Because after Spring Break, they are seventh graders…and entirely different species of middle schoolers, not different in a bad way, but but sixth graders, either.

The thing about sixth graders is that they need to be celebrated.  Yes, they make me want to tear all my hair out upon occasion; yes, they leave me speechless with consternation upon others.  BUT, they mostly make me want to laugh, to think, to enjoy the moment, to cast away cynicism, to be absolutely honest.

The thing about sixth graders is…I was somehow just meant to teach them.


#Celebratelu: Heart mapping our way to revising essay


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

It was a short and rather odd school week.  We had Monday and Tuesday off for February Break, and my kiddos returned to the classroom wearing Spring attire and feeling Spring fever due to weirdly warm temperatures.  I opened all our classroom windows to let in as much fresh air as I could, and we celebrated being able to do that.  Warm breezes and sandals feel odd in February…but we all know that winter is not done quite yet, so we need to enjoy this reprieve while it lasts.

We have been essaying in Room 202, first reading mentor texts, then choosing topics and drafting our own essays, and now beginning to revise and refine our work.  On Friday, we gathered together with our most recent drafts, the ones we were about to finalize for our writing celebration on Monday, to talk each other through how we would peer edit and offer each other constructive criticism.

The nature of essay writing demands that  each writer brings their own individual voice to their journey of thought: there is no prescribed formula, for the very idea of this kind of essay is to allow each writer to forge their own creative path through their thinking in order to arrive at their destination.  Some may meander, and some may be more direct, but each will have the freedom to allow their idiosyncrasies, their peculiar writing tics, to be evident on the page as a stamp of who they are as writers and thinkers.  Indeed, this is what we were most looking forward to as we dove into essay writing.   Over the course of the drafting process, I kept these words from The Journey is Everything – my “Bible of essay writing” – of Katherine Bomer’s:

As teachers of writing, if we do agree to abandon the “thug and bully thesis” (Ballenger 2013), and to forestall the use of clever formulas and predictable structures, then we must internalize and extremely difficult first lesson, one that pertains to all of writing: we must learn to trust.  Trust the process. Trust the words and sentences to lead students to the full flowering of their voices. And, finally, trust that students will be able to look back at their drafts fifty times, alone,  in conference with you, and in collaboration with peers, to revise and shape the material so that it makes sense for readers.  For now, rather than trying  to fit material and ideas into prefabricated pyramids, students can let their material speak to them.  What does it want to do? Where does it want to go? What does it want to say? (p.118)

Learning to trust, and leading students to where their topics can speak to them, were central to my purpose in jumping into essaying with my sixth graders.  First, they had to trust that they could care enough about a topic to venture into a journey of sustained and meaningful thought about it; second, they could find their own structure to best lay out their thinking and take their reader on this journey.

Many of my students discovered what they most wanted to say after much meandering; my greatest challenge during conferences was validate that meandering (they were always worried about getting “off topic”) and teach them how to build on that meandering – that that was the essence of the journey of thought!

On Friday, essays in hand, they were still concerned about how effective they had been in communicating important ideas they had thought about as they wrote.  I had created a very loose peer editing form for my students to use, but I recognized right away that my form was irrelevant to their biggest concern.  What to do?

Well, thank goodness for Georgia Heard and her book, which I am currently reading: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.  In it, she argues for an expanded notion of crafting heart maps, and encourages us to use them in more ways than just to collect writing ideas.  What if each of my kids could create maps to answer the question: what is at the heart of my essay?  before they handed over their drafts for peer editing?  Then, a peer editor could read over the essay and respond to this question: what ideas are at the heart of this essay?  Comparing the two, I thought, would be much more beneficial to my writers than the peer editing form I had generated the night before.

My students thought this was a great idea, and jumped into their heart maps with excitement and purpose:

Then, they exchanged essays with their fellow writers and tried to read and identify the heart of these essays.  I asked for one sentence summations, mostly because I wanted these to be as focused as possible to be as helpful as possible.  The results of our peer editing experiment were surprising.  In most cases, there was clear overlap between heart maps and these one sentence summations.  In some cases, there was wide divergence.  So we talked some more.

Because I had conferred through each step of the process and knew what each writer was trying to essay about, I had ceased somewhat to be an effective editor in terms of what was at the heart of each student’s essay – it was clear to me because we had conferred so much! A new set of eyes, however, sometimes revealed a different, less clearly visible, view.  For these students, it was a moment of writing revelation: I need to go back into my piece and figure out how to make my point more clearly!  Writers sat side by side to assist in this figuring out process, and heart maps became a tool for these new conversations.

Moving from group to group, mostly listening in, I celebrated heart mapping our way through revising our essays.  Something new in Room 202!

#celebratelu & #DigiLit Sunday:Classrooms are for relationships, too

#DigiLitSunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  

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

We had an interesting week last week; I was sick and many of my kids were also sick – a visitor to our classroom would have heard coughing and sneezing aplenty, and we went through boxes and boxes of tissues.  On Monday, halfway through the day, I scanned through my lesson plan book and wondered how much we would be able accomplish given the way we were carrying on in Room 202.

But, we carried on.  Each day, my kiddos and I showed up, we acknowledged how rotten most of us were feeling, and then we got on with the business of learning: preparing for a Social Studies unit test, completing the first drafts of our essays, participating in book clubs, and beginning a unit of short story writing.  It was a busy week, yet day after day, we were there for each other.  And, each day, we gave each other our best shot at whatever task was at hand.  At the end of each day, I was too exhausted to think beyond just being grateful that we had not wasted any learning time.  On Friday, however, as my kiddos took their test and I fielded questions and offered little hints about how to manage time, I finally had the time to reflect (and marvel at) what we’d accomplished during this difficult week…and why we were able to do so.

Relationships.  Merriam Webster defines the word with other words such as kinship, relatedness, and connection.  Relationships are fundamental to all we seek to do in our classroom – without that, without being able to trust that we will all show up and give the best of ourselves (well, most of the time) no matter what, the content of what we teach becomes dry, removed, passion-less.  Relationships allow us to learn in spite of feeling under the weather, and even (at times) uninspired.  And relationships grant us permission to be kind to each other so that we can all make it through each learning day in the most positive, constructive way.

On Friday, I celebrated relationships in our classroom:

We made gifts of winter poems for our pen pals at an assisted living facility in upstate New York, in response to their Valentine’s Day cards:

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We allowed ourselves to get carried away and silly, too:

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We welcomed alumni from years past:


We shared book talks and book love:

We left for our February Break needing rest, but feeling good.







#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.

#celebratelu:Conversations about kindness


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

We had a great week in Room 202:our Mock Caldecott unit  was a wonderful experience, and we are inching our way towards learning the purpose and process of revision as we work to improve our feature articles.

But, when I ruminate over what I want to celebrate this teaching week, my thoughts come to rest on Friday, and our once a week exploration of “Stories From Our World”, and these two podcasts in particular:

Both were stories about kindness, unexpected and spontaneous kindness, the type of kindness that springs from doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do…not because you are being watched and expect praise, and not because your kindness will have any reward other than knowing it was the right thing to do.

We have been talking all year about this sort of kindness.  We’ve looked for it in the books we read.  We practice it in the way we treat each other as we make our way through the learning day.  We watch for it in those around us, so that we may emulate what we admire.  We pay attention to its absence and ask questions why.

But, there was something about these two stories on Friday that seemed bring all of the work above together in one beautiful conversation.  My students heard these stories, and reflected about  the meaning of this version of kindness; they talked about how transformative  such acts of compassion can be, and how little they require of us, really, other than the imagination to be open to someone else’s needs.

It was a lovely conversation, one worthy of celebration.  Today, I celebrate my students and the way they have opened their hearts to kindness.

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#celebratelu:Finding my own reasons to say, “It’s all good”


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

This was the week to get back into the rhythms of school life, post-winter break.  Some of us in Room 202 were able to ease back into business by day 2, and others were still making the transition at 3:05 on Friday afternoon (or, in the words of one student, delivered with a shrug: “still working on it”).   “Yes,” I said in return, “I guess we’re all working on it, truth to tell.”

This snowy morning, I read Ruth’s  poignant tribute to her friend Kim.  Her last lines have been rumbling around in my head and my heart:

My ordinary is evolving.
I celebrate that through the hard, we can find good on the other end. I celebrate, like Kim, that

It’s all good.
Outside, a snowy curtain falls over our brown lawns and muddy flower beds: winter’s bleakness is becoming something rather magical.  Inside, I am at my desk surrounded by work to grade and books to read, and the week to sort through: what went well, where to go next.  I think back to these moments, and I feel the power of Kim’s words –It’s all good:
On Tuesday morning, I snipped off the remains of the drooping Christmas poinsettias all around our house and brought them to school.  Their presence allowed holiday memories with our three children to linger just a bit longer…and I celebrate that.

We’ve been peer editing our feature articles all week, and beginning the revision process which my kiddos love to complain about (that, and homework, of course!).  I loved walking around our classroom and eavesdropping as they sought to listen carefully to, clarify, and question their partner’s work.  Best of all, they came around (as they usually do)  to seeing the value of reading their work aloud and having a peer share feedback…I celebrate that!



Inspired by Jess Lifshitz,  we’ve immersed ourselves in our sixth grade version of her Mock Caldecott unit.  It’s been the perfect way to get back into our reading community.  All weeklong, we’ve gloried in discussions about picture books, art work, story telling, and the joy of finding meaning in words, pictures, and their intersections.  It was just what we needed to get back into book love…and I celebrate that.

We left our New Jersey classroom a few times this week for a virtual field trip to Monticello. I’ve done this every year as part of our “Age of Jefferson” unit, and I never tire of wandering through the rooms and grounds, learning about the boundless curiosity of this deeply flawed but brilliant man.   It felt so rewarding to pass along  my love and awe for this special place to another class of sixth graders who will now want to visit it, too…and I celebrate that.

On a personal note, my youngest daughter sought out and secured an internship with The Innocence Project on Friday:

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We’ve raised our kids with the values we hold truest, among which is the the call to make a difference in the lives of others.  But, Livy’s altruism runs deeper than existing just because she grew up hearing her parents say that this is an important value to strive for. It’s the center of who she is, and it is so moving to see her now, as an adult, stay true to the causes she she believes in and figure out how she can make an independent life doing altruistic work.   When I picked her up from the train station last night, fresh from her interview and job in hand, I felt a great rush of pride and joy because of her, and for her.  Livy believes that she is on a path to make a life of making a difference in the lives of others…and I celebrate that.

It’s been a week of ups and downs, as it always is.  But, in the greater scheme of things, I agree with Kim: It’s all good.