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!


Poetry Friday: Nightingale by Tony Morris

Poetry Friday is hosted by Violet at Violet Nesdoly | Poems

When my children were little, we took many late-at-night drives to soothe their restlessness and lead them into sleep.  Now that they are adults with lives of their own and bedtimes beyond our reach, I often look back on those rambles through pitch black neighborhoods with one or two babies in their car seats with a weird nostalgia. We have two of of kids home temporarily as they deal with medical issues, and there are no more late-at-night drives I can offer.   Sometimes, I realize that I am not even fully aware of all their symptoms and how they have (being responsible adults already) learned to cope and soothe themselves.  From time to time, over the past few days, I have come downstairs  in search of my morning coffee to find car keys flung on the  kitchen island. Perhaps one of them has rediscovered late night rambles.


When our daughter was a baby,
she’d sometimes cry and cry,

raw-throated nightingale heavy
on evening’s shoulders,

no solace in the rocking lullaby,
warm milk, blue velvet blanket,

nor in the whispered words,
the quiet shush we’d loose

while pacing back and forth
across the wooden floors.

Until one night, by chance,
we needed diapers,

and my wife, as tired
as I and needing, if not rest,

at least another’s voice to soothe
the small disquiet in her chest,

lifted Morgan from the crib,
bundled her against the cold,

and together we walked out beneath
the stars that pulsed

against the winter’s crisp
and piled into the car.

And halfway to the store,
heater blowing warm against our feet,

we noticed the muffled
wind that faintly buffeted the glass,

the slapping, even rhythm
of the concrete seams we crossed,

and the silence—but for heavy breathing
coming from the car seat in the back.

Slice of Life Tuesday: A visit with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

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What could be better than seeing Amy Ludwig VanDerwater in person again? Why, watching Amy teach third and fourth graders, of course!

I felt like such a lucky duck to be able to step out of my middle school during my lunch period and make the short drive over to one of our elementary schools to be able to visit with their visiting teacher: Amy.  Many, many moons ago, I had begun my teaching career in a second grade classroom, and although my teaching heart found its place in middle school, there is something sweet and delightful about elementary school-ness that I will always miss: the sound of little voices, the splash of color every where, and the way elementary schools just seem to reverberate with the irrepressible spirit and energy of the younger student set.

Amy was teaching a group of fourth graders when I tiptoed in.  They were clustered around the rocking chair, writer’s notebooks in their laps, listening intently to her story telling.  Amy’s magical button box sat beside her, and I could see piles of buttons sitting on every desk in the classroom, hinting of stories just waiting to be told.

In the way the children were gathered around, the way they listened, the way they were bursting to share their stories, and (especially) the way they watched Amy, I could tell that Amy had made this writing community hers in a very special way.  After all, it takes a special person to be able to walk into a classroom full of never-met-before children, and connect with them in such a way as to make it their own.

One by one, the children shared their stories, poems, lists of favorite and unusual words. I loved watching Amy lean in to listen, kindly gesture to redirect, and celebrate these eager young writers.

When it was time to move on to a third grade classroom, I noticed the care with which these fourth graders brought back Amy’s buttons, the way they lingered to say goodbye, and the way they tucked away their writer’s notebooks – as though they could hardly wait to get back to Amy-inspired writing when it was workshop time again.

Those third graders remembered Amy from her visit the year before, and they scampered to the rug full of delight.  Balancing a pile of notebooks on her lap, Amy shared some of their contents – entries, sketches, lists, bits of paper.  I loved the way she drew the children into the way writers notice, remember, mull over, and invent.

Soon, it was time for them to write, and for me to make it back to the land of middle school.  When I turned to leave, Amy was on the reading rug and deep in conversation with a young writer whose pony tail was swishing excitedly as she let Amy in on her plans to write.  Some children had begun working, but most were watching this writing conference in action, wanting in on some Amy time.

Lucky kids…and lucky me for having had the chance to watch teaching magic.  Thank you, Amy!