Slice of Life Tuesday: Teaching and sheeping

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Photograph by Grace Cannan

Early last Saturday morning, the first morning when Fall felt as though it had really arrived, I showed up at Wing and a Prayer Farm for sheep shearing school with Tammy White and the gentleman in the photograph: shearing legend Fred DePaul.  Perhaps because I am still in the mindset of a classroom teacher (it will be a while before I can call myself a shepherd, the new profession I have chosen), I saw so many parallels between the way I learned what I learned that day, and what I know to be great teaching in practice.

First, there was Fred himself.  It is no small feat to wrestle a sheep into shearing position, methodically go about the process of taking its coat of wool off in such as way as to render the wool most useful for spinning, and explain the process to a group of people who have never done this before so that they would be willing (excited even!) to get in line and have a go right away.  Oh, I forgot to add to the above list the act of storytelling, which Fred is a master at.  That is great teaching.

Once he had shown us the way, he guided each of us through the process, encouraging and advising, prompting and cajoling.  It couldn’t  have been easy to watch us stumble over the steps, and struggle to maintain control of the sheep (docile as they are, they are also stubborn and wily).  But, never once did Fred waver in his patience, in his faith that we could accomplish the task.  We made many mistakes, but Fred never made us feel that any of those mistakes made us failures.  That, too, is great teaching.

Then there was Tammy herself, fiber farmer extraordinaire, who had opened her farm and cleared her very busy day so that farmers-in-the-making could have first hand experience in a low-stakes way.

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Tammy is in the foreground, in red flannel.

She conferred with each of us, got to know our interests and concerns, managed shearing school even as she managed the work of the farm (with over 100 animals in her sole care, she is a woman with a LOT going on), and opened every aspect of what she does (did I mention that she does a LOT?) to her visitors for inspection and query.  She was honest about the hard work involved, but also about the joy inherent in that work – and that joy was so evident and genuine, that it could not but inspire each of us to want to take on the mantle of that work as well.  That’s great teaching.

As someone brand new to fiber farming, the moment I stepped onto the grounds of Wing and a Prayer Farm, I was both in awe and ready to learn.  Like a great classroom, the farm revealed the messy and fascinating intricacies of the day-to-day work in progress, everything had a purpose, and was used and cared for.  Like a great classroom, it represented the work unique to those who lived and worked there:

There are a wide variety of living things on Tammy’s farm, but should a sheep, goat, alpaca, donkey, or dog wander past, she will know exactly who it is and what they are all about and let them know this with a quick pat or a gentle word.  Having  a caring, genuine relationship with those you work alongside every day is painstaking but essential work – whether it is running a farm or leading a school.

I learned a lot about sheeping from my day at Tammy’s farm…and re-learned some lessons in teaching.





Six wishes: A first day letter to my students…from afar


Dear Smithlings,

The new school year began today, and my thoughts are very much with you.  I imagine it is a busy day, I imagine that you are in the midst of putting aside summer thoughts for those of homework (ugh, that dreaded word!) and navigating your way through the old school with a new schedule, and I imagine that you are already looking forward to next summer with longing.

Room 202 is now in another teacher’s hands, and I know that the sixth grade hallway will take some getting used to – no more alumni candy, books, and hugs :(.  And, though I may be far away from that room and hallway, I’m thinking about all of you today, and I’m wishing the following for you:

* I wish you a year of owning your learning.  Your learning lives are precious, don’t let anyone waste this time.  Call out classmates and teachers who seek to divert this time with rambling diversions and classroom shenanigans.  Ask (politely, of course) for the purpose behind assignments – how will they advance your powers of reading, writing, and thinking? Challenge (politely, of course) busy work, for you deserve better than that.  Don’t allow your fellow classmates to waste time in ways you are already wise to, for you deserve better than that, as well.

*I wish you a year of great reading.  Amazing books are out there – books that will help you find insight into the happenings of your heart, your world, and the world. A wise teacher, Rudine Sims Bishop, wrote this:

“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books. “

Find those books, stick with them, learn and grow from them.

*I wish you a year of continued writing.  We wrote a LOT in Room 202, we learned to write in many ways, and for many different reasons.  The most important reason is for you to learn about how you feel and what you think.  We learned how to write essays from another wise educator, Katherine Bomer, whose words about essay writing can be applied to all writing:

“In the electric, pulsating world around us, the essay lives a life of abandon, posing questions, speaking truths, fulfilling a need people have to know what other humans think and wonder so we can feel less alone.”

Keep  writing – keep discovering what moves you, what interests you, and how you can change the world with the power of your words.

*I wish you a year of asking questions.  We learned to ask the “three big questions” (thanks to my teaching own heroes, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst):

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keep these in mind when you read or hear something new, know the difference between what Dr. Beers called “a question that needs to be answered versus a question that needs to be explored”.  A lot of class time will be spent on the former, but you will learn much more if you pursue the latter, even if it’s on your own time and out of school.

*I wish you a year of paying attention to what is happening in the world around you, bring what you learn into the classroom, make it matter.  George Orwell has been much on my mind ever since the election of 2016 (we had some lively political discussions as you may remember – all of us fearless about stating what we thought and what we questioned), and these lines of his really stop me in my tracks time and time again:

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell

Aim to understand your history, and the history of our nation.  Soon enough, you will come of age to be able to vote and to change the course of our country; what you know, and allow yourself to know, will determine our future.

*I wish you a year of kindness.  School life is hard, and small acts of intentional kindness just makes the experience better for everyone.  Don’t forget to be kind to yourselves, too  – learn from your mistakes and failures, don’t beat yourself up over them.  Words are hard to take back, so take that moment to think about their power before you text, post, speak.

Have a fabulous new year!  Let me know how it goes…

I love and miss you,

Mrs. Smith


Poetry Friday: Hippocrene by Elizabeth Smith

Poetry Friday is hosted by Jama Rattigan at Jama’s Alphabet Soup

Packing up the house where one raised one’s children is a tricky business.  This is what I’m discovering as I delve into closets, under beds, and through stacks of papers my three children have left behind in their journey from childhood to independence.  School projects, English papers, love letters, knick knacks picked up on travels here and there…all the detritus of growing up and growing into the beautiful souls they are today.  Some things I open up and then put away quickly in boxes labeled for each of my three, these are their private detritus, which they can choose to keep or toss away as their private selves dictate.  Some things are just meant to be lingered over, revisited for the glimpses they provide for each child at some particular stage of their development.

Elizabeth’s AP English poetry project falls into this latter category.  I never saw these poems or this booklet in real time.  So, it was all the more meaningful to stumble upon it at this stage, the stage of packing up the home she grew up in.  On the eve of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share this relic of our past, where she pays homage to all the words we celebrated together when we lived together, and then creates something that is indelibly her own, as children are wont to do.

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Slice of Life Tuesday: PARCC-ing


The room is weirdly silent as our students work on their PARCC assessments.  It’s an old room in our building complex, the “all-purpose” room.  Gym equipment is shoved into one corner, wrestling mats are rolled away into another, and rows upon rows of desks with rows upon rows of laptops command the rest of the cavernous space.  The majority of our school’s sixth grade class is in here now, testing. We are about 3/4 of the way through this morning’s PARCC ELA assessment.  90 minutes of test taking if you are a student, proctoring if you are a teacher.

Here’s what I’m seeing:

*a student with  his head resting on his chair, looking at the ceiling with odd intensity.  He is one of my students, and I know that much is on his mind, most of which has nothing to do with school and testing.  What is on his mind, and how he resolves those issues, will determine whether school is a successful endeavor for him in the long run.  PARCC has no relevance in his struggles, and he feels it.

*another one of “mine” has been done for some time now.  Instructed not to bring any reading material into the testing room, she passes her time writing on the scrap piece of paper provided.  I walk by to see what it is, and take note of the elaborate story plan she is mapping out – it has nothing to do with why we are all here in this room, but everything to do with why we really teach: to excite the imagination, to help foster the skills our kids need to become who they are.

*one student takes off her sweatshirt and balls it up into a comfortable pillow upon which she promptly falls asleep.  She looks so much at peace that I haven’t the heart to be the proctor to wake her up.

*I notice that a student has used  scrap paper to make the outline of both her hands. Inside, she writes names. So many names!  Here they are, she says, all the people in my life contained within my outstretched palms: an offering of love.

*I round the corner to see a drawing of a fearsome robot.  Big, with a huge open mouth, the robot seems to advance with menacing arms outstretched. “Who is this?” I whisper.  “The PARCC eating monster”, the artist responds with a sly smile.  “Oh”, is all I can think to say, “that’s interesting!”

*across the room, I see a student eying a water bottle.  There was a very fancy Bat Mitzvah  on Sunday.  Everyone who was invited has brought this into school, a token of their popularity which they must (by some unspoken code of sixth grade conduct) bring in for the week .  This kid does not have one, and that is what she is mostly thinking about this PARCC testing day – by the rubrics that govern middle school life, she has already failed.

*someone sneezes, and I immediately walk over with a box of tissues and the waste can.  It’s allergy season, and this kiddo’s eyes are swollen and red.  He is miserable.  All he wants is to crawl into bed and sleep.  “Five more minutes,” I tell him, “hang in there.”  He nods, still miserable.

So there we are.  Three days this week, three days next week. Testing hell.  What is actually measured in such an antiseptic setting?  What do we actually learn about what our kids are capable of?  What does this kind of testing take into account and leave out?  And, what are we teachers expected to do with the data we receive from all this testing, which is long after our students have already left our classrooms?

My kids are so much more than a test score.  My kids deserve so much more than being reduced to a test score.  We will make it through the test, because we are all about so much more than the test.

#Celebratelu: #justanotherordinarymiracle

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


I’ve been thinking about my OLW from last year and trying to remember what it was. Not a good sign.  So, in trying to make a wiser choice for this year’s OLW, I have been trepidatious… and also (I’ll be honest) indecisive.  I love reading about what other people have chosen, especially how they made their journies to their OLWs, but, that only seemed to make me even more indecisive.  Then, Franki Sibberson tweeted that she was opting for a #hashtag rather than an OLW (I wish I could remember where I saw this Tweet, for I would love to share…but I can’t seem to!), and I knew immediately that that was the direction for me.

But… what hashtag??? I was back at square one again.

I went for long walks, read many blog posts, but inspiration only struck while I was scrolling through Tammy White’s fabulous Instagram pictures.  Tammy runs an idyllic farm in Vermont which I aspire to emulate some day, she can be found here:

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She had shared a moving post about having to say goodbye to their beloved family dog, Jackie.  As is her way, Tammy found the gift of grace even in this grief – quoting from a Sarah McLachlan song she found “especially and perfectly meaningful”, she asked her readers to keep these words in mind in the new year ahead:

‘When you wake up everyday
Please don’t throw your dreams away
Hold them close to your heart
Cause we are all a part of the ordinary miracle.’

Since this song was unfamiliar to me, I went first in search of the song:

and then its lovely lyrics:

Ordinary Miracle
It’s not that unusual
When everything is beautiful
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
The sky knows when it’s time to snow
Don’t need to teach a seed to grow
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
Life is like a gift they say
Wrapped up for you every day
Open up and find a way
To give some of your own love
Isn’t it remarkable?
Like every time a raindrop falls
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
Birds in winter have their fling
They always make it home in spring
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
When you wake up everyday
Please don’t throw your dreams away
Hold them close to your heart
Cause we are all a part of the ordinary miracle
Ordinary miracle
Do you want to see a miracle?
It seems so exceptional
The things just work out after all
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
The sun comes up and shines so bright
And disappears again at night
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
It’s just another ordinary miracle today
(Songwriters: Glen Ballard / David Stewart / David Allan)
There they were, the words I knew were mine for the year: #justanotherordinarymiracle.  Not an OLW, exactly, more a #littlewords, but the right ones for me at this particular time in my life.  For, inspite of whatever does not go right on any given day, there are so many more ordinary miracle to take note of and find joy and comfort in:
*the way a student hands back a book to say it’s the best thing she’s ever read, and can she still keep it to read again?
*the excitement of another when the connecting threads of a history dicsussion come together for an ah-ha moment
*the way my dog greets me at the end of every work day, as though she’s missed me so much that it felt like forever
*the spiderweb I see glistening between two tall blades of grass
*that cup of tea my son made for me just because…

Poetry Friday:November Fifth, Riverside Drive by Katha Pollitt

Poetry Friday is hosted by Linda @ TeacherDance


My Facebook memories page popped up this morning with a photograph I had taken with my daughter Elizabeth five years ago on a Fall evening at Riverside Drive.  It had been  a Teacher’s College  day of learning for me, and we met at Riverside Park after Elizabeth was done with her own graduate classes at Columbia.  That photograph brought back many memories, most of which really centered around what it is like to be at Riverside Park late on a Fall afternoon, when what is left of the sun perfectly illuminates what is left of the leaves.

Fall in New York City is magical.

November Fifth, Riverside Drive by Katha Pollitt

The sky a shock, the ginkgoes yellow fever,
I wear the day out walking. November, and still
light stuns the big bay windows on West End
Avenue, the park brims over with light like a bowl
and on the river
a sailboat quivers like a white leaf in the wind.

How like an eighteenth-century painting, this
year ‘s decorous decline: the sun
still warms the aging marble porticos
and scrolled pavilions past which an old man,
black-coated apparition of Voltaire,
flaps on his constitutional. “Clear air,
clear mind” -as if he could outpace
darkness scything home like a flock of crows.


#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!