#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!





#DigiLitSunday & #SOLC17: Innovation = choice

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

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


I had fun coming up with a list of possible historical fiction book club project ideas a couple of weeks ago, ideas which (I thought) they would enjoy working with.  We passed this list around, went over the options, asked questions to clarify and then got into our groups for decision making.  As students worked,  I made the rounds to listen in and see if I could be of help in any way as they chose their project and mapped out planning sheets.

I guess I should not have been surprised to find that although my students were sweetly appreciative of the  “creative” list of options I had provided, most of them chose the last option: “Got an idea of you own? Do it!”

Here’s what Lila and Amelia planned to create:


They walked me through their plans patiently, explaining how they had figured out what to do, why they wanted this particular format, and how they hoped to get it all done.  And then they were off to the races: each project day would find them working in their particular corner of the room, talking and referring to the text.  To tell the truth, I wasn’t exactly sure what this project would turn out to be like, but Lila and Amelia knew, and they were happily confident as they worked together day after day, all the way to project presentation day:

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And this was pretty much true for most of the book groups as well, they chose to come up with their own ideas and find ways to execute them.  Project day was so much fun for me, their teacher, as group after group came forward to show off their inventiveness:

We had everything from comic books to stop motion movies to movies filled with all sorts of technical flourishes I couldn’t even imagine how to do.  None of these, of course, had been on the original list.   It was another example of a teaching truism I have come to believe in with all my heart: if you give kids a little bit of scaffolding and a whole lot of choice, they will create amazing things…they will innovate.




#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.







For #celebratelu and #DigiLitSunday: My OLW for 2017


#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.

It’s that time of year again for many of us teacher-bloggers: the time to choose our very own “one little word” – the word we will reach for and seek comfort in, the word we hope distills the best of our wishes and aims in the year ahead.  Just. A. Little. Pressure.  And why?  Because, as Ruth said in the video she sharedour OLW is the word we choose to live with (whether we know it when we choose it or not).  Sometimes the journey to one’s OLW is easy – it just appears and is immediately perfect, and sometimes it’s an agonizing journey – so many shiny and “just right” words to choose from!


This year, I rummaged around in my imaginary word file (the one in which I save likely OLWs) all winter break long, and came up short each time.  At the Concert for Peace last night, standing in front of the Peace Tree and thinking ahead to what is likely to be a year of unrest and fear, it occurred to me that this year’s word was one I was feeling the least, deep down in my heart:


In the larger world, I need to believe that my role as a citizen counts, that my participation matters.  The next four years will bring many challenges to the very fabric of our society, for much of the progress we’ve made as a country stands to be swept aside by  a reactionary and malevolent new administration.  I need to consider that my participation and activism can make a difference…I need to believe.

In my classroom, I need to believe that I can make a difference in the lives of the children I am responsible for.  Sometimes, this is hard to do…and sometimes, this just feels impossible to do.  Teaching never flows in one straight, easy to navigate line: there are stops and starts, false starts, unexpected detours, roadblocks and speed bumps.  And sometimes, even though there is a reliable GPS on hand (for me, that would be my 16 years of teaching experience), one gets lost.  I need to hold fast to the notion that the work we do in our classroom, the investment of time and effort in building a rich learning environment, is our Northstar – we may seem swerve and stop and slow down, but the journey itself is grounded and true.

And, as a writer, I simply need to believe that I have have something of value to say.  All too often, especially in the past few months, I’ve turned away from writing anything because I have felt that nothing I wrote felt fresh and new; I’ve felt as though I’ve been circling around the same ideas in the same way, and what’s the point in that?  I realize, of course, that this is just a convenient excuse not to go through the worthwhile struggle that is the writing life.  I need to believe that I can still find a way to write about what I’ve learned, thought about, and imagined.

So…my one little word for 2017 has arrived at last: believe.


Poetry Friday:At the Beginning of Winter by Tom Hennen

Poetry Friday is hosted by Tabatha Yeatts @ The Opposite of Indifference

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Winter has arrived, and with ferocity.  The trees are all bare now, the lawns are brown, and the piles of leaves waiting for the last pick up are brittle and spent.  Today, the wind howled around every corner, and a snow squall took us by surprise just before lunch.   It is time to reach for the warmest coat even for a quick walk to fetch the morning paper.  And, of course, it is dark for most of the day – sun shine passes quickly.  We are never really ready for winter…even in December…

At the Beginning of Winter by Tom Hennen

In the shallows of the river
After one o’clock in the afternoon
Ice still
An eighth of an inch thick.
Night never disappears completely
But moves among the shadows
On the bank
Like a glimpse of fur.
Flies and spiderwebs
Appear alone in the flat air.
The naked aspens stand like children
Waiting to be baptized
And the goldenrod too is stripped down
To its bare stalk
In the cold
Even my thoughts
Have lost their foliage.

#DigiLit Sunday: Working on those craft moves as student and teacher


#DigiLitSunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  Today, Margaret asks us to think about craft.

I’ve been working with a student I’ll call Jason since the very first day of school on many things: reading, writing, conducting himself in a classroom, and simply “doing school”.  We are making progress, little by little – which is the way of learning in middle school, where teachers have to be willing to accept this truth: your students are only capable of engaging half of their brain power when it comes to “doing school”, the other , and more insistent half, is engaged in “doing life” – middle school life, to be exact.  Which is its own overwhelming thing, and often requires the attention of all the brain, regardless of what the teacher hopes for.

Jason is a natural story teller; he’s great fun to watch and listen to because he puts his entire body into his story telling – demonstrating action, creating the voices, using props he can find among our classroom stuff.  This is wonderful, of course, but there is the writing aspect to writing workshop to consider, and this is where Jason and I run into difficulties.  Here is where the oral telling of the story (which can occasionally meander and be a bit stream of consciousness-y) meets some of the restrictions of the pencil and paper.  Here is where the discipline and craft of writing must come to terms with the imagination.  Here is where Jason and I are still figuring things out and trying to find a path to craft.

Take this personal narrative which Jason turned in.  It was late.  Very late.  And this was also the third iteration of this particular narrative.  Jason and I sat down to confer, and he seemed happy with what he’d done, and how he’d improved upon his previous drafts.  So he began to read his work aloud, highlighting the first sentence because we had determined in the previous conferences that that would be his focus (not the entire week).  But, as Jason read, the enthusiasm in his voice slowly began to diminish. When we came to the end, he asked me to put an “X” across the page…BORING!

fullsizerender-4It bothered him, he said, that he had lost his small moment somewhere along the way.  Part of me was bothered, too.  We had worked on identifying small moments since September, here it was December, and those small moments were still hard to pin down and write about.  Also, to be perfectly frank, I was utterly done with Jason’s summer holiday as a topic (boring!) but Jason was not – he was determined to write about this vacation.

But, a part of me was celebrating: Jason had come to understand on a deep level what a small moment sounded like (which is why he was bothered by his piece), and he also knew that it was important to care about his topic (which is why he held on to this vacation as his seed idea no matter how many times we had to visit it).

Jason understood two key facets to the craft of writing…he just needed to work his way towards being able to do this himself. We were moving along the writing journey, slowly but surely.

So, we talked through his piece, and Jason decided that the lost small moment in it was the last day there with his grandfather, and three things they did together that he wanted to commemorate by writing about…writing well about.   This, too, took some more talking through and breaking down from generalities (we had breakfast)  to specifics (a pool contest):


Each post-it would be a scene, and then we would decide which scene to keep and grow, and which scene would be saved for another time (yes, sigh, I will be hearing about this holiday all year long).

Jason went off with his writing folder and began working right away.  He is working on honing those writing craft moves…and I am working on my writing teacher craft moves. Together, we are making progress, little by little.

Craft takes time.


#DigiLit Sunday: Coming into focus


Join the #DigilitSunday authors at Margaret Simon’s blog here. This week’s topic is “focus”.


The trees are mostly bare in upstate New York. Everywhere I look, I see new outlines and vistas – the trees in the forest, to use the familiar adage.

This reminded me of my classroom, specifically, my own view of the children in my classroom.  When the school year started,  our classroom felt like a deep forest. So many children to get to know – how to begin to tell them apart? How to get to know the outlines of each individual child amidst the crowd jostling for attention?

By November, each child has emerged distinctly, just like the outlines of the landscape which have come into sharper focus  in the hills and valleys of upstate New York.  Now I know each student: the way one looks when I need to rephrase a question, the way another needs an extra word of encouragement, and how the next sounds when he is anxious.  I know what each likes to read, and where they prefer to write.  I know, just by the way they walk into the room, what I need to do to get us off to a smooth start.

By November, each of my students has come into focus.   The way ahead, in our sixth grade journey, seems just a bit clearer, and we are all glad for that.