#ENOUGH: When students raise their voices

Related image

All across the country today, students chose to send a message to the adults tasked with keeping them safe; our children walked out of their classrooms to say, enough:

*to  yet more school shootings

*to the fear that the next time it may well be their own school

*to the insane ritual of lockdowns and active shooter drills which seem to be the only action the grown-ups in charge seem willing to take.

From the moment the walkout was announced, there were many students in my middle school who wanted to be a part of what they could see taking place – a student-generated call to action.  They, too, wanted to be part of the movement to take back their right to go to school every day, free of fear and therefore free to learn.

And from the very same moment, there were the derisive naysayers who were quick to say that middle schoolers were too young to be trusted to be part of any such action: “what do they even know?!”, “they just want to get out of being in the classroom!”, and on and on.  Through it all, these middle schoolers persevered; they organized and they advocated and they sought support from those willing to believe in them.

And today, they did what those who believed knew they were capable of doing – they led a deeply moving and respectful assembly of their fellow students in remembering who had been lost, and hoping for what might be.

I have been re-reading some of the works of the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire ever since the brave students at Parkland took to the streets to say #NeverAgain, and today these words ring especially hopeful and true:

Education always implies program, content, method, objectives and so on….For me it has always been a political question, not exclusively an educational question, at what levels students take part in the process of organizing the curriculum…The more people participate in the process of their own education, and the more people participate in defining what kind of production to produce, and for what and why, the more people participate in the development of their selves. The more people become themselves, the better the democracy.


What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
― Paulo Freire, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change






#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!





Slice of Life Tuesday: What I teach and what they learn

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

It’s been a long day, I am teacher tired, and there are lessons for tomorrow which still need tweaking.  In other words, I am just about resigned to the idea that yet another Tuesday would pass without a slice of life entry.  But a moment from today is still much on my mind, and in my heart; it’s a moment that has prompted this line of thinking for me today: what do I really teach, and what do they really learn?

Sometime this morning, somewhere between writing workshop and social studies, a student left this note on my desk:


I’m not sure what prompted this, because our morning was pretty run of the mill: we talked, we read, and we wrote: the basics.  It was not a great teaching morning, I did not catch myself reflecting upon any one moment as being a particularly brilliant or transformational.  It was just another learning day in our classroom.

But, the longer I’ve been pondering K’s note, the more I’ve come back to this question: what do I  teach, and what do they  learn?

As teachers, our plan books are filled with lessons culled from the very best PD we can find; we try to fill each learning day with as much good teaching as possible, always on the lookout for our kids’ learning needs and how we are going to meet them (clearly, K. still needs to work on her spelling).   And, yes, they are tuning in to as much of those carefully crafted lessons as they can on any given day…depending on what else is going on in their lives.

K.’s sweet note had such an impact on me.  Her words reminded me that the true power of our teaching lives can most often be found between the lines of our lesson plan books: the side conversations, the quiet moments, the way we choose to bring “real life” into our classroom life. It’s the basics, true, but also the answers to these questions: what do I teach, and what do they learn?




#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.




The Year’s First Read Aloud

Related image


“Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters – the saints and the sinners, real or imagined – reading shows you how to be a better human being.”

Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

My most important goal every new school year is that I want my sixth graders to leave our classroom more invested in their reading lives in June than they were in September because they have come to know the value of “wild reading” – the kind of reading that Donalyn Miller’s quote above describes.  To achieve this goal I will have to effectively organize time, assemble a library of great books, communicate the joys of my own reading life, talk to my kids about the books they are reading, and find opportunities to nurture a community of readers who love nothing more than a lively conversation about what they are reading and how it speaks to them.  

The surest tool in my reading teacher toolkit to lay a foundation for all of that is the read aloud, and this is why I spend so much time choosing and planning out that first read aloud of the school year.

Choosing that first shared book is both joyous and nerve wracking – after all, there are so many fabulous books to read, how is one to choose?!  Here are a few things I look for:

*length: the first read aloud has to be on the short side, a book I can finish reading to my kids in two weeks.  Kids hate it when we teachers begin a book with great gusto and then peter out, either reading a chapter a week or just abandoning the book entirely.  So, I go all in – I make it as intense and theatrical as I can, so they remain engaged in and remember the story.

*a mystery or an adventure: I find that these books work really well for the beginning of the school year, when my sixth graders are usually distracted by all their concerns about middle school life and are not looking to be worried by books that tackle topics like bullying and learning differences.  A mystery or an adventure is somewhat escapist, and you have to pay close attention for clues – that’s a perfect combination for those challenging first two weeks!

*heart:  the story and characters have to have heart – they need to pull each reader into the story, and make them care about the outcome.  I look for positive characters who show a capacity for growth – characters my students can find believable but can also emulate.  The struggles and victories of these characters must stick with my students in ways that they will remember across the span of the school year, for they will be the touchstones we will refer to many times and for many reasons.

*content: we will spend the year reading many books about difficult and timely topics, books that present challenging  circumstances in our past and current history, and books that explore all manner of personal issues – from bullying to divorce, learning differences, and gender identity.  I find that my sixth graders are consumed with stress about their first year of middle school, a book focuses on something they are privately struggling with and are not yet able to speak about in their new classroom community (divorce or gender identity for example), might just add to that stress.  So, I reach for books that touch upon such difficult issues in a tangential way which allows for broader discussion.

*humor: it helps to have reasons to laugh together at the beginning of the school year, it’s always reassuring for both students and teacher to know that they can count on the fact that everyone in the room (to varying degrees) has a sense of humor.  We are ALL going to need this!

*sorrow: it also helps to have reasons to sniffle a bit together.  When I choke up or have to reach for a tissue, it gives my kids permission to know (right away) that it’s okay to cry – great stories reach into our hearts and make us want to cry, too. I choose books that have moments of sorrow so that reaching for that tissue is a collective experience; after all, we bond through laughter and tears alike.

*addressing “the curriculum”: The first read aloud of the school must also touch upon certain foundational teaching points which we will address as we read – the story arc, character development, the role of setting, and the Notice & Note signposts.  In our school, we move from the first read aloud to realistic fiction book clubs where our students will dig deeper and elaborate further in smaller groups; that first read aloud must also serve the mandates of our curriculum.

Two past selections:

Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings: Set in the Chesapeake Bay area, this is a story of friendship, and choosing between what is true and what is safe.  Cummings does a wonderful job setting up the problem and developing the main character’s moral plight – it is a true page turner.  This served as our first book for many, many years.

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart: Set in the wilderness of 1890s Washington State, this is a grand adventure.  Eleven year old Joseph Johnson has lost everyone in his life but his beloved horse, Sarah, and then she is stolen, too.  Joseph has no choice but to face whatever stands in his way to getting Sarah back – bears, murdering thieves, or dangerous terrain.  This was our read aloud last year, and my kids were thrilled to follow the experience with a Skype visit with Gemeinhart, which was a wonderful experience for us.

This year, after mulling over several excellent new books, we  returned to, and just finished,  Some Kind of Courage. My students were thoroughly engrossed in the story, once again, and the whole experience of following the highs and lows of Joseph’s adventures has brought our class closer together as community of readers and learners. 



#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.