#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.

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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.

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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.

#Celebratelu: Celebrating book talk

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


On Friday, my students met with their book clubs for the very first time.  Our classroom buzzed with so many conversations going on in every corner of the room.  There was laughter, the rustling of pages as specific passages were sought for, and the occasional raised voice of someone trying to make a point: all the ingredients of lively book talk.

At one point, I paused from my job of going from group to group to listen in, and just sat back to take in the scene.  All the work we’d been doing with our first readloud was in evidence.

Charting and sharing our thinking in our notebooks and as a class:


Working on how to talk about our reading with our table groups so that we could learn book talk etiquette:


Working to piece together the big ideas and craft of the story so that our reading experience would be rich:

Sharing our big ideas and craft noticing with each other so that we could learn from each other:

And, finally, creating book clubs of our own selections:


On Monday, the Some Kind of Courage work which graces one wall will be replaced with book club work: the new questions and theories we want to keep track of, the big ideas that hide within the plot lines of these stories, and the development arcs of new and interesting characters.   Our reading year goes on, and we look forward to many more shared reading experiences. But, somehow, nothing will quite match our first.

So, I celebrate that first read aloud, and all the reading magic that it opens up in our sixth grade classroom.

















#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.