#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: Celebrating #TheEdCollab and amazing PD (part 1)

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

I love The Ed Collab Gatherings – amazing days of brilliant PD offered to us free of charge and absent the driving, parking, hotel charging of any other PD. Thank you, Chris Lehman and the team you assemble for us every Spring and Fall.  I am still making my way through all the sessions offered on Saturday, but here are my takeaways from two:

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In her opening keynote, Dr. Debbie Reese reminded us that children’s books inform and shape how kids (and the adults who read them) perceive the world, and that teachers should be informed and alert to stereotypes: we can’t teach about stereotypes unless we know them, and we must recognize what we don’t know and aim to inform ourselves so that we can do better.  She offered the following advice:

*look critically at text books and children’s books and the way in which terms are used to erase tribal nationhood and identity. There are over 500 Federally recognized tribal nations, which renders the generic term “Native American” meaningless.

*when we see problematic and stereotypical renditions in text books and stories (Little House on the Prairie!) we should mark the texts up and encourage our kids to do the same.

*we should be aware that native people are most often not “done right” – Mildred Loving, for instance is not part Cherokee as she is depicted in some books, but Rappahannok.  Identity  and citizenship matter.

*stereotypes of Native people abound all around us, in movies and advertisements and toys and books.  We need to accept that these stereotypes do harm and that their misrepresentations need to be addressed.

In addition, Dr. Reese shared her blog: American Indians in Children’s Literature, “a go-to place for anyone interested in gaining critical insights into the ways that Native peoples are depicted in children’s and young adult books.”

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We’ve just begun our first read aloud of the year, so Kate Roberts’ session on this very topic was, really, the highlight of my day.  Readalouds are central to the reading community I want to foster in my classroom, and I was anxious to hear Kate’s take on how to make this a meaningful part of reading workshop as a whole.  Here’s what Kate advised:

*Beware of the difficulty of the text.  Choosing a book that’s too hard is simply unethical – we need to give kids texts they can access, not texts they must cope with.

*Our kids need to see themselves in the books they read – many identities should be represented in the books we choose, and this extends to the authors we choose to read, as well.

*We need to recognize that time is a critical factor in the books we choose and the timetable we set for its reading. A too-long common text (six to eight weeks, which I know happens in classrooms in my school) creates both boredom and a sense of dependence in our kids.  We need to consider our teaching menu:

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and decide what our focus should be, so that our kids emerge from the readaloud experience as stronger readers who can transfer these skills to their own independent work.

My ah-ha moment was the way Kate organized the readaloud so that there were three components: parts of the book were presented as a readaloud to the class, parts were given to students to read independently in class after a mini lesson and as conferences also took place, and parts were assigned for homework.  Here’s Kate’s example:

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I’ve been ruminating over this session ever since yesterday, and I know that it will transform our current readaloud into something more meaningful and manageable.



#celebratelu: Focusing on the culture of our classroom

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

A very long time ago, my business man turned professor father shared that the wisdom attributed to  Peter Drucker (“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”) had held true both in his business as well as in his classroom.  It took me some time to figure out how culture played out in my own sixth grade classroom, and how essential it was to cultivate and shape that culture from the very first moments my students walked into our room. These first two weeks have been all about this kind of slow, bit by bit, holding onto patience, work.

*We are learning what it means to have a “slow” start and end to our learning time together – that it’s quiet time to get ourselves organized and settled, perhaps read or write or check out the next book, and collect ourselves so that we can be our best learning selves.

*We are getting used to really listening to each other and being comfortable enough to ask questions and wonder aloud.

*We are figuring out what it means to be an active learner, to care about what is said and done in our classroom, and to ask why.

*We are trying to adjust to the notion that learning is about taking risks and making mistakes we can learn from.

*We are beginning to see that the aim of our year together really does reflect that quote on the door of our classroom: “…whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.” (The Phantom Tollbooth)

Slowly but surely, we are getting there…and I celebrate that.

#celebratelu: A new year begins!

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

One of the many things I love about teaching is that every new school year is a new beginning: we get to take the lessons we’ve learned and try once again to be our best teaching selves. That’s a gift.

New beginning were on my mind on Tuesday, as I sat waiting in my classroom for a new batch of sixth graders who were, at that very moment, bounding up the stairs and racing down the sixth grade hallway.  I had a list of names…now I would have the chance to begin to know the actual factual kids!

They dribbled in slowly, cautiously.  “Is this room 202?”, “Are you Mrs. Smith?” and then, “Where should I sit?” and “What should I do with all my stuff?”.  In those first fifteen minutes or so, before the official first bell of the first day of the new school year, we took our first measures of each other.   They looked around at each other, at their new classroom, and their new teacher.  I walked around, greeting each of them, answering their questions.

Once the bell had rung, we began to get to know each other in the way I’ve come to believe we do so the best – through our work, and the interactions we need to foster to accomplish our work:

The marshmallow challenge


the room tour, and some book talks


and some chart talk about what we hope for the year, ourselves, the teacher


By day’s end, I could feel the beginnings of a settling in, a sense of “I think I’ve got this!” among my kiddos…a feeling of easing into the promise of a  new journey with a brand new community one has already begun to feel comfortable with.

I celebrate that!

#celebratelu: Creating the space

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

I first learned about the idea of querencia from Writing Toward Home, Georgia Heard’s sublime book inviting writers to write, where she explains it this way: “In Spanish, the word querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.”

From September through June, the place where I find querencia is my classroom – it’s where I want to be, where I feel most at home, for the work I do there defines who I am.  The last week of August is always given over to unpacking last year’s classroom and preparing it for this year’s kiddos – and it is one of my favorite tasks ever.  Because, as I prepare our learning space, I am hoping that it will be also be where fifty new sixth graders feel their querencia lies for the school year ahead: their home base, place of comfort, place they want to be.

In setting up my pods of desks, I thought about all the talk and activity that would transpire there:

In setting up our classroom library, I imagined the way our books would circulate – joyfully passed from one reader to the next:

While putting aside a space for conferencing, I could hear the important book talk and writing talk that I would be privileged to be a part of:


And in setting up my student’s bins, I thought of all the organizational learning this year would also come to mean:


Arranging our easel space for mini lessons and conversations is my favorite thing to do – this space is really the heart of our classroom:


Our walls await the learning we will do together, so they are mostly bare, but our bulletin boards hint at what our first week of togetherness might bring:


And putting together my corner of our room filled me with anticipation for all that will unfold in the year ahead:


Our classroom space, a place of our querencia, is ready for another school year…and I celebrate that!

#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.