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?




Slice of Life Tuesday: Slicing about empathy

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

image of 4 elements of empathy by Theresa Wiseman

Last week, as my kids were beginning to get caught up in the “I want-ness” of the holidays (an I-phone! my own laptop! tickets to Hamilton!), I asked my kids to step back a bit and think  about something else:

Slice of Life #11:

This week, we will think about something that we need to make more of: a tradition of empathy, beginning with right here at our middle school. Please watch the two videos, and then post about the following: what does empathy mean to you? what can you do to practice empathy here at the middle school? how can teachers be empathetic to students at our school (do NOT discuss homework in this context, think beyond the question of just homework, please )?

The videos (here & here) were created by and for middle school students, and I had a feeling that the scenes and stories portrayed would resonate with my sixth graders.  I was interested, too, in what they thought of us, the grown ups “in charge” of their school days.  We teachers are very adept at talking the talk about so much (not interrupting,  wearing school appropriate clothes, being kind) but not walking the walk.  Kids, as we know, notice everything…but they especially notice that.  So, as much as I was looking forward to hearing their thoughts about empathy, I really wanted to know their thoughts about us.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed:

They were able to articulate their ideas about empathetic behavior:

Romy: Empathy can change the world, but we have to make it happen. To me, empathy means a path to a better world in which people don’t have to feel invisible, hurt, or scared of everyone around them. Empathy is showing compassion and consideration for the people around you. People can be empathetic by showing kindness and respect each other, understanding that people are different and we should not judge others unless we are in their shoes. You have to care about others but to do so for your own self and not to get noticed.

Empathy is a choice we make and it comes from within. Empathy can always be improved, but we have to “practice” it. We can do this in our middle school by caring and being kind. For example, if someone is sitting alone during lunch or outside, we can invite them to join us. Also, if you seeing someone being made fun of, you can stand up for them and let them know that they are not alone and that you care.

Finally, our teachers can be more empathetic towards the students at our school. Teachers can do this by understanding that not all students learn the same and some students need more time to learn. Teachers can also be more patient when listening to students because sometimes students go through rough times and need to be able to talk to someone. This can make it hard to concentrate and teacher should be more considerate and patient because of that.

Isabella: To me, empathy means showing love, and showing care. It means that the simplest act of kindness like giving  a smile or saying “hi” can change a persons day, change there week, or change their life. They could walk through the door and see their parents fighting in one room, and siblings fighting in the next. At the end of the day no matter how terrible they feel they will remember that someone noticed them.

I think teachers here at the middle school could be more empathetic starting with student-teacher relationships. It should be our job to let our teachers know what we’re going through at home and how we feel. They’re not going to know if someone’s parents are getting divorced or someone passed away. I think if our teachers knew how we felt then we would all be understood a little bit better.

I believe that there is empathy in all of us deep down inside, and I think that we just need to step up, and show it.

They offered me perceptive advice:

Emilia: Teachers can also take part in helping. They should always be open to talking to the student who is feeling lonely or left out. They can also talk about more to convince students to have empathy. Another thing they can do is be more aware. Teachers can do that by keeping a better eye out at lunch. If they did that then they could catch students that are feeling alone or being made fun of.

Natalie: I think teachers can feel empathy for their students when a student is looking tired. Usually, teacher will say this “Please get to work,” what they should really do is walk up to the student and make sure everything is ok. If teachers really want their students to be honest with them they have to try to open up to the student.

 Ben: I think teachers at our school should be more empathetic to their students. If a teacher yells at somebody one day, they should put themselves in the children’s position. What if the child had family issues outside of school. What if they were being bullied that day. How would they feel if they got yelled at? The student already has enough problems to worry about, and the teacher is just making them harder to solve.

Norah: A lot of kids think that not giving homework is the only way for a teacher to show empathy towards a students, but it’s really much more than just that. Teachers should put themselves in students’ shoes by understanding that kids aren’t going to sit still completely quietly for the 7 hours of the school day. Some of my teachers are kind, but only a few, I feel, can really understand their students. Only a few are able to make some jokes to cheer up a student, or answer a student’s question, even if the teacher already answered it, because they understand how one little thing can make a kid’s whole day better.

And some clarified their thinking about what the word empathy really means:

Emily: Before watching this video, I believed that empathy was showing respect and kindness to another person. But when I finished viewing the two videos, my thinking completely changed. Now I think that showing empathy means to put yourself in that person’s place and to consider your actions.

As I read through and left comments for each of my fifty students,  I felt so much better about the “holiday I wants” – and I felt that I had learned a thing or two about being an empathetic teacher, as well.


Slice of Life Tuesday: Writing advice from author George O’Connor

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


One of the very best things we can do for our young writers, is to invite in the voices of  gifted and passionate writers.  Many of our students (especially in middle school) are  quite vocal about how much they dislike writing, and it is always an eye-opening experience for them to meet writers who have given over their  lives to the very venture they wish to avoid: sitting at a desk, and writing, writing, writing.

Why? they ask.  Do you ever get mad and just hate it? they wonder.  Do you ever want to quit and just do something else? they persist.

I can see looks of skepticism, the old middle school talent of eye rolls to express disbelief., when it emerges that actually, no, the writer is doing exactly what he wants to do, even though there are moments of deep frustration.  But, and this happens every single time,  at the end of our time with the invited author, my students have come around to a place of belief in the idea that writing can be purposeful, enjoyable, and even life-sustaining.

Today, George O’Connor told our students that he first became interested in mythology, when he was in the third grade.  Obsessed with Hermes, Oconnor did his first ever book report on this Greek god, and delivered it to his class costumed as Hermes.  What struck me about this story was the way his teacher permitted him to write about a topic that was clearly his abiding interest – there was no injunction to rely only on whales or dead Presidents.  And O’Connor’s family was also accepting and nurturing of his passion to draw and tell stories, it was a family saying that, “Georgie is going to grow up and tell stories with pictures.”  With that kind of support, it’s no wonder that he did, or that he had the persistence to keep at it until his passion also became his life’s work.

O’Connor also made it a point to tell our students that they should not be so quick to erase their drawings: “I don’t erase, when you erase you eradicate your mistakes.  But, it is important to make mistakes and learn from them.  When I draw, I sketch quickly, then I go back to trace over just the lines I really like- the ones that really work.”   Listening to this, I thought of the application of this wisdom to the writing process, and how important it is to tell our students to cross out rather than erase – to value the first attempts because they gesture toward the final products, and reveal the path of our thinking.

O’Connor demonstrated his quick sketching, which is something of a marvel to behold.  I could see that my kids were impressed at the speed at which he worked, and the fact that the outcome (in under a minute) was pretty darn good.  When one student asked if O’Connor had ever thought of ditching writing because he was clearly so good at drawing, he said something that made my kids sit up a bit and pay attention: “Drawing is much easier for me, when I write something the work is much harder, but that’s what makes it more rewarding. ”  That hard work (which writing definitely is) can be rewarding  is a message my sixth graders need to hear time and time again…especially from an author they so admire.


Slice of Life Tuesday: Feedback for the teacher

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


The end of the first marking period has arrived, and with it, piles of stuff to sort through and assess.  Project based learning combined with reading and writing workshop present a particular kind of challenge, for you are assessing the process not just the end product…and that takes a LOT of time.

Many years ago, when I first arrived at our middle school, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to ask my students for some reflective feedback about MY performance as a teacher.  After all, they were with me every day for three periods and three different subjects, so it would stand to reason that they would be in the best position to offer just the kind of real time feedback that I sorely needed.  I remember that my kids were flabbergasted at the idea of grading me (for that is how they saw it, of course), but, given permission to be honest and tell it like it is, their surprise turned into a purposeful glee.  The task I set for them was to first reflect upon the highs and lows of the marking period, and use the latter to set new goals for the next marking period.  Then, and this was the part they loved, I asked them to write about their teacher, me: in what ways could I better address their learning needs, where could my performance be better?

Turns out, sixth graders are great evaluators.  They notice everything, they weigh the good with the not so good, and when they are asked to, they share with insight, honesty, humor, and kindness.  I learned a lot then, and I continue to do so.

In today’s batch of letters, my kids talked about homework, about redesigning the classroom space so that we could have “book nooks”, and mentor texts:

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They asked for more time to read (is there ever enough in one school day?), and more opportunities to free write, and made suggestions about poets to look into and books to buy for our classroom library.  Some noted that I walked around less (true: my old lady woes of fibromyalgia and arthritis often get in the way) which they “kinda missed”, and all wished I would type up mini lessons as handouts because their handwriting was such that they had a hard time reading what they had written down (story of my life as their teacher, I will have to say, because I have this problem, too!).

I love the care with which they thought and wrote, I love how carefully they folded their letters and handed them in with tentative smiles, and I love how this gesture on my part seemed to mean so much to them.

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.”
― Stephen SondheimInto the Woods

My children listened, and it was lovely to know that they were watching, too…as it happens, I learn which way to turn and what to be by listening to them, too.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Finding gifts in unexpected places

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Flying back from visiting my parents in London, I experienced all that has become common in air travel today: long lines, long waits, and a tiny space in which to spend long travel hours.  Feeling rather sorry for myself, I spent the first few hours of my flight grading papers.  Then,  while shuffling between the “done” pile and the “to do” one, I dropped my pen.  No amount of searching around and under my seat yielded anything more than dirty tissues and candy wrappers.  I stepped over my sleeping seat mate to try to retrieve my backpack (also known as my traveling office) from the overhead compartment, but even that proved fruitless: it was wedged behind bigger bags and beyond my just above five foot reach.

Disgruntled and cranky, I decided to watch a movie…and that’s when my whole evening was transformed.  Among the few good choices available was this:

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Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.

How to resist? Within moments, I was transported to Istanbul, and cats, cats, cats, everywhere.  Gentle and shy cats, brazen and aggressive cats, and cats of varying sizes and hues.  As different as the cats were, the response of the citizens of Istanbul were universally accepting, delighted, amused, even loving.  About halfway through, I came upon these lines, and just had to take the following still shots  :






This in-flight, made from a movie  poem has stayed with me ever since.  You can find gifts in the most unexpected places, when you least expect it.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Why slice? Here’s why…

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

My weekend plans were gathered and focused in one place, the only spot with the room for it all, my dining room table:


Here were poetry notebooks, reading journals, charts to copy from the in-the-moment mess of student sharing to something useful we could all refer to, lesson plan book, lesson hand books, movies to screen for Social Studies, and books to read for the Cybils Awards (I’m a second round judge for middle grade fiction 🙂 ).  But, the task I was itching to get to was still buried in my laptop: my students’ slice of life writing.

Of all the “stuff” that anchors our year of learning, it’s this weekly posting that brings us together and knits it into what we will will always be, even after the school year is over: a community.  When I first present our Slice of Life writing project to my sixth graders, they are less than enthusiastic.  “We have to do this every week?” they ask,  “Why???”, they wonder.  So, I show them the community of teachers who assemble every Tuesday here at TWT, I tell them about what it feels like to write for this community, and how doing so makes me a better writer.  I tell them that hearing stories from all over the world expands my view about writing, yes, but also life and the way human beings can bring grace and pleasure and comfort into each other’s lives through sharing their writing.  They look at me, that first day, utterly unconvinced. “Right…” they say, “Uh..huh.”

And then we begin, and so too does the magic.  This was some of the magic I entered when I began reading what my kids had to say:

From Naomi, something important she felt we ought to know:

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From Ethan, a nerve wracking chess match:

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From Lisa, the only bit she wished to share about her recent surgery:

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From Miriam, a slice of middle school life:

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And, from Romy, who has been sad of late, the reason why:

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By the time I’d read fifty slices of life and the thoughtful comments my kids had left for each other, I knew that my kids had already come to change their minds about this writing project.  For, when we share a slice of our lives we do so much more than just practice writing…we become part of something much, more more: a community.

Slice of Life Tuesday: My teaching philosophy – summed up in two Tweets

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

I’m a week into the new school year, a time of excitement, trepidation, and exhaustion. It always takes a few weeks to regain teaching stamina, and I’m not even close to being there yet.

The new Smithlings are settling into life in our classroom: we know each other’s names, we share our stories, we chime into discussions about reading and writing and politics, and we laugh.  I love the laughter…it will see us through the year, it will be among what we  remember best.

I’m slowly learning about the children I have the privilege of teaching this year – it’s a watchful, close listening time for me, a time of observing small gestures and quick glances, for there is so much to be learned about my kids by simply being quiet and listening to them.

My slice of life today is really anchored by two Tweets.  I came across each of them at the end of my block teaching time, when my kids had left the classroom but echoes of our time together were still reverberating in our space.  At times like this, I sometimes feel a sense of panic: the work of a school year is so enormous, the responsibility of being part of what shapes a child’s progress as a learner and as a person is so great.  Am I up to this task? And what is it that I truly want to accomplish as an educator – beyond just “the skills”.

So, these Tweets spoke to that sense of panic:

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Yes, what my kids need to know from me is that I am here for ALL of them – I choose to teach ALL of them: no labeling, no sidelining, no ignoring.  Each child deserves to feel that she has a place in our learning community, each child deserves to know that I’ve got his back.

And this:

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I happened to see this Tweet after a particularly wrenching discussion about Charlottesville.  My students had many questions and opinions, but mostly they were scared and wanted some form of reassurance that the world is still a good place.  Listening to them, I was reminded of the words of Anne Frank: “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”  Children want to know that good is good, and evil is evil, and that the grownups they trust will work to ensure that it stays that way.   To care about what I am saying and what they are getting from what I am saying…that’s part of my work, too.

I found these messages reassuring and empowering – they helped anchor my teaching thinking in these early days.  For that I am grateful.