Honor the work

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The week began with treats and writing celebrations – a fitting way in which to mark Halloween.

At the end of our sharing time, my students collected their compliments and stapled them to their published pieces, and the room was silent for a while.  Writers read what other writers thought about their work:what went well? what needed work? could you identify the “so what?”   This led to conversations, and quiet self discoveries about how to be clearer in what we mean to say, and how to value each other’s voice.

Then, they collected their drafts, and the copies of their many revisions to create “work” folders.  “Wow,” I heard more than one student say, “we put so much work into this.”   Because, yes, over the last few weeks, we have been working hard to make our writing what we hope it can be, what we are learning it can be.

Today, as I begin the process of assessing this work, I see before me stacks of published pieces, work folders, and an open computer screen which reveals 42 writing folders in our writing workshop Google Classroom.  Each folder contains narratives that went back and forth between my kiddos and me: comments shared, resolved, argued over.

Writing well takes time, effort, frustration and resolve. Writing is hard work.  My kiddos have just begun their sixth grade journey of writing, and there is much ground to be covered…but today I will put off the business of assessing, and be content to simply honor their hard work.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Where did October go?

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Where did October go? I asked myself this morning, as I tore it off my office calendar and came face to face with November.

What had happened to October? I wondered, as I put a great big red “X” through it on our classroom school calendar.

Then, the first of my students began walking into our classroom…two ballerinas, one robot, Minnie Mouse, and a pirate…yes, Halloween is here and October is definitely over.

The question remains…where did it go?

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We read Some Kind of Courage, and learned about being brave and staying true to the best in ourselves, the “best” we weren’t even sure we had.  And, somewhere in the listening, and turn and talking ,and note jotting, we became a community of readers.  Our read aloud gave us one story to gather around, experience, and learn through. We came to know  Joseph and Ah-kee, and our journey to learning about them was also a journey of learning about each other: what makes us laugh out loud, what moves us to tears, and what lies between.

At one point in the story, Joseph and Ah-kee trade mementos:

We looked at each other a minute, then we both put the other’s memory into our own pocket.  They were new memories, now, but they were tied up and bound to the old.  That’s how memories work, I suppose; you just go through life collecting them, never let go of the precious ones but leaving room in your heart for more.  Pg. 172

And that’s how great stories shared in readalouds work, too…we’re going through our school year together collecting them, loving them, and leaving room in our hearts for more.  So, there was a piece of October…

…which was also spent exploring our stories and writing our own personal narratives.  We dug into our writer’s notebooks and took some ideas for a spin all the way from a seed idea into drafting, revision, editing and publishing.  This anchor chart became our workshop reality, bit by bit, as we learned together that writing is purposeful, sometimes joyful, work:


And October ended with a Halloween themed writing celebration: kids in costume munching on sweet goodies, sharing stories.

We made room for silliness, too, it being Halloween and all.  When the last bell rang, Batman collected writing folders, Alice in Wonderland helped put things away, and a long-tailed, tutu sporting mouse assisted in sweeping away leftover crumbs.   Writing workshop involves many shared tasks.  So that was another piece of October.

Reading and writing, learning and sharing, doing the work of building community…that was our October.  It was a month, all in all,  well spent.

“Writing to think” with StoryCorps

One of my goals this year is to work towards essay as envisioned by Katherine Bomer in her book, The Journey is Everything.  Week before last, we laid the groundwork by beginning the habit of  “writing to think”, which I wrote about here.  We had brainstormed a chart to launch this kind of writing:


and my students mostly used these ideas to wonder and write about.  It was a great start, but I wanted my kids to reach into the wider world, I wanted to challenge them to think deeper about issues, and to think about their own perspectives on these issues.  My sixth graders are conscious of the larger and more complicated world beyond their safe and lovely suburb, they are curious about what they see and hear about this world, and they want to know their place in it.  Writing to think is one way to engage their imagination, to shift their focus a bit from their world to the bigger world.

Last week, in an effort to present slices of the bigger world for my students to consider and write about, I reframed our “writing to think” objectives a bit:


I shared a StoryCorps podcast I had just heard and been moved by.  These were stories about belonging and trying to find one’s place, they were personal and yet they intersected with the bigger world of race, learning disabilities, and prejudice.  These were stories, certainly, to think and write about:

https://storycorps.org/embed//I paused after each story (there were three), so that we could think, write, and share.  I modeled my own writing thinking for the first one, so that my kids had a frame of reference for the kind of writing we were aiming for:

“I’m thinking about the courage it must have taken for a 17 year old to be a trail blazer for civil rights.  His parents fought for his right to attend LSU and I’m, wondering about the resistance they must have struggled through from the white community and from the people at LSU, and I want to research this case to understand it better. How did they prepare A.P. for the prejudice he would face? And how does a parent even do that? I’m wondering what A.P. must think about the America he lives in today, so much of the promise of what his parents hoped for has been realized…and so much has not.  What is L.S.U. like  today in terms of integration and race relations?”

I wanted my kids to extrapolate beyond the personal stories of each of these individuals to the bigger issues they faced, and to write to think through those issues.  Here’s what one student had to say about Eileen’s story:

“Eileen was not stupid, she had a learning problem.  I’m wondering how come none of her teachers ever figured that out and tried to help her. I mean, that’s what teachers and school is for.  I’m wondering what she could have done if they had figured out her problem, she could have maybe gone to college cause she seems really smart and hardworking actually.  I’m wondering if she went to  poor school, if that happens in poor schools that kids don’t get help. That’s just wrong.  School is supposed to help every kid.”

As we shared our writing, I could see my students reaching for ideas beyond the personal and of the bigger world: education, disease, medicine, race, prejudice, inequality.   They empathize, they want to know more, and they are beginning to see how writing allows a thoughtful exploration of ideas to begin.  Somewhere in these explorations, I have a feeling, are topics they will feel moved to write essays about.

At the end of the podcast, the editors play voicemails they have received for previous broadcasts.  We didn’t listen to these in class, but they made such a powerful impression on me that I intend to do so this Friday (our “writing to think” day), and to invite my students to leave messages for the podcast we will listen to.  Students who wish to do so will write them out on index cards first, and then record their messages on my iphone so that I can call them in.  It will be, I think, a powerful lesson in how to connect and be compassionate in the wider world.






Slice of Life Tuesday:Planting the way for essaying

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Katherine Bomer’s book, The Journey is Everything was one of those transformative professional books that stopped me in my teaching tracks and made me want to do better right away.  All Spring and Summer long, I read and re-read this book, joining in on book groups, Voxer discussions, and Google hangouts in an effort to figure out how I could lead my students towards the beautiful writing that  Katherine envisioned: essays to help them think in reflective, open-minded ways, to stir their emotions, teach them about life, and move them to want to change the world.

We’ve spent our first three weeks of school planting seeds of the stories of our lives in our notebooks, and writing narratives based on these seed ideas.  Now, it was time to look beyond writing about small moments, and think about what Katherine Bomer calls writing to think.  In her fabulous keynote for The EdCollab Gathering last Saturday, Bomer shared a bit of the “how to” of this kind of writing with this slide:


and some generative questions in this slide:


which formed the basis of our writing workshop discussion and charting on Monday:

And then, both my students and I opened our writer’s notebooks and created lists of our own.

Today, we threw ourselves into a “try it” – reaching into our lists, finding an idea, and then writing to discover where our thinking would go.  It took all of us a little time to get going, but when we did, we discovered that the writing came quickly and led us into unexpected places.  Here’s where I went today (first for my morning block and then for my afternoon one):


I sketched some thoughts, then wrote…and in each case, my ideas began small (rude drivers, cut down trees) and journeyed towards something larger (kindness, civic responsibility).  I shared my writing with my kids, showing them that it was messy and rambling in parts, but seemed to get somewhere by the last few sentences.

My kiddos shared that this had been (for the most part) their writing experience,too.  We talked a bit about this journey, and then we tagged our entries with sticky notes with writing plans/thoughts/audiences should we ever want to return and extend our pieces.  It was, we agreed, interesting work – work we will return to this week, and from time to time in the weeks and months to follow.

This evening, as I think about our writing day, I return to this passage in Bomer’s book:

In our classrooms, we can create experiences that enable kids to literally see and touch the process of idea generating as it unfolds before them.  The writer’s notebook works supremely well for this – a tangible version of a mind that contemplates, sparks connections, remembers, and changes course.  (Pg. 65)

It’s exciting to think ahead as we make our own journey towards meaningful essaying with these first steps…

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Zone of Discomfort

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We were in the zone of discomfort yesterday, and it did not feel good.

All of last week, we had worked hard to create writing lists and visual writing tools.  All of last week, I had heard my students storytelling as they worked to create their lists and maps.  And all of last week there was a confidence and a sense of joy in this storytelling.  They were comfortable with storytelling, which is the foundation of our writing workshop.  That’s wonderful, I thought to myself on Friday, we are ready to move from collecting writing seed ideas to stretching those ideas into writing entries.  

On Monday, I walked my kids through my process of sifting through my lists and visuals, weighing the merits and interests of a few selections, and then deciding upon one to write about.  I thought aloud, modeling my quick-sketch of the seed idea, and the way I tried to think through the narrative once more, just to make sure that I had at least a tentative road map.  Then, I asked my kids to sift through their own lists and decide on their own writing topics and plans as they sat at our meeting area.  Once they felt ready to begin, they were to return to their seats and begin writing in their writer’s notebooks.  I looked around at attentive faces, seemingly ready to begin writing.

So far, so good.

I took my perch on the stool in front of the classroom, my own notebook open and began to write.  Deep into my first paragraph, I glanced up to check in on the progress my students were making.  A few had begun sketching out writing game plans, but many were gazing up the ceiling and out the windows, and some were beginning to make the first of many treks to sharpen their pencils or grab a tissue.

But, writing takes time, and gazing about or getting up to stretch is all part of my writing process as well.  I went back to my own writer’s notebook.Ten minutes in, I glanced up to see more of the same…a few writers, many gaze abouters.  My students seemed lost, their story telling desire extinguished.

We were settling into a zone of discomfort.

I knew that many of my kids wanted me to confer with them right away, to provide a nudge, or the beginnings of a plan.  Some had a title, some had the first few sentences, some had erased what they had written several times over…now, they had nothing.

The writing part of my brain continued to work on my entry, but the teaching part of my brain began to ponder the options.  Should I let those struggling to begin writing continue to struggle? Or should I let my kids feel their way through  this part of the writing process, the hardest part  – making a choice and getting started?

It was uncomfortable.

But, my writer self also knows that this struggle is something every writer, from beginning to expert,lives through and learns from.  Experience has taught me that each student finds their way through this struggle in their own way and in their own time.  A conference nudge may get them going this one time, but not the next.  If I swooped in to offer assistance, they will come to expect and rely upon it.  It would be the easy way out for my kids (who were looking rather hopefully in my direction) and for me (who was beginning to feel guilty).

So, we stayed in the zone of discomfort.  We muddled through…as all writers do.

Assessing the writing survey to plan for a new year

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I’ll be honest, I was very nervous about what I would find when I opened up the writing surveys, because the beginning of the year survey revealed two things: most of my kids hated to write, and most of my kids were sure that they would continue to hate to write. But, hooray hooray, not once was this hatred mentioned in the end of the year surveys.  No one really spoke of loving to write, but they all seemed surprised that it wasn’t quite as awful as they’d expected.  Score one for Mrs. Smith.

What changed in the way you choose what to write about this year?

Not surprisingly, almost all my students mentioned choice of topics and exposure to many writing genres two big changes in the way they chose to write.  In response after response, my kids spoke about the importance of getting to write about topics that mattered to them, and how this had given them an opportunity to discover why writing matters.

I used to make essays in 5th grade. Just essays. All the time. I really didn’t know there were other types of writing than just essays until 6th grade. Now I learned about many different types of writing and now instead of choosing essays all the time I choose Feature Articles, Poems, Short Stories, and more. My three favorite pieces of writing we did this year was Short Stories, S.O.L, and Memoir.

The way I choose what to write has changed this year because I am definitely choosing more topics that matter to me . Not topics that I just came up with in my head and that I thought may be interesting, but stuff I really cared about.

I became more open and comfortable with writing multiple different genres.

Name two ways in which you have grown as a writer this year.

Once again, the freedom to write in many genres was appreciated.  But, beyond that, my kids learned to see value in developing writing stamina (I am proud to say that they could write for 45 minute stretches by the end of the year, which is pretty darn awesome for 6th. graders), and in the writing process itself – which includes multiple drafts and revision. I loved that many spoke of gaining independence, coming to rely on themselves to understand when and where their work needed revision or elaboration.   Many saw the purpose of writing plans, and all appreciated the feedback I provided.  Consistent feedback is one of the hardest things to make time for in a middle school setting when you have so many students, but my student surveys drove home the message that this was time well worth spending.

I have grown as a writer this year because I have written in different styles of writing, and because we wrote A LOT this year.

I have done more revision of my work this year, and I have improved in editing my writing, and adding details and stretching out the story. I also have also learned to develop more complex ideas.
This year I have learned to be more independent, and more able to revise my own work.
1) I have grown to realize that it is possible to change the genre of writing you are doing so that it fits better with the situation. 2) I now go through MANY stages of writing and revision before I turn it in.
I have been able to revise my own work and become a better writer by reading books and getting ideas from books
What changed in your writing habits this year? Be specific and give examples.
I was so happy to learn that my kids loved and valued their weekly Slice of Life writing.  As a writer, I know that that weekly discipline is important to the way I notice and make note of the world around me – knowing that I will have to write a Slice of Life every week just makes me live a more observant, and therefore more writerly, life.  So, score two for Mrs. Smith that her kids felt the same way.  Most spoke of the habit of planning their writing, and many learned that revision was a natural and necessary part of the writing process.
I wrote a lot more than last year, and therefor, my writing improved. Writing an SOL every week helped me a lot.
What changed in my writing habits this year was that rather than websites I used books for research more often, I wrote more often, I was more decisive in what I would write about, and I procrastinated less.
Before, I would plan my writing, but now I have learned to plan my stories in more depth. This helps me A LOT because when I am having trouble writing a story, I can look back at my plan to help me.
What surprised you about your year of writing in sixth grade?
Most of my kids were surprised by their own abilities to write in many different ways – that writing is flexible and therefore empowering. I think that the answers to this question were the most moving for me to read; my kids learned what they were capable of.  What more can a teacher ask for?
I am a better writer than I thought I was, and I like it more than I used to. Writing well is also much more work than I had thought. Now I can try new styles of writing, and experiment with what I do. I can have fun with it.
I was surprised at how easily writing came to me by the end of sixth grade. I used to hate it and try to avoid it because it was hard for me to find a topic and write a page about it, but now I can pick a topic quickly, and I can write pages and pages about it!
What do you know about yourself as a writer now that you didn’t know when you began sixth grade?
I asked this question because I knew that none of my kids thought of themselves as writers when the year began, and this was an intentional teaching point and goal for me all year.   The responses to this question also moved me to tears (what can I say? thinking about my no-longer-sixth-graders makes me tear up, because their year with me is now a thing of the past) because what they had to say was unexpected.
I know that I have to keep practicing if I want to be a writer .
I know that I am a better writer than I thought I was. I know that I really like writing poetry, because I am more free to do whatever I want. I don’t have to follow a format. I can be creative, follow or break rules, and just be free to let my ideas go.
I know now that I am a pretty good writer and it takes practice.
I can’t put myself inside limits and I need to expand.
I’m a good writer. I thought I was a terrible writer because I didn’t write a lot last year.
I didn’t know that i liked poems and was good at them. It was a new talent in writing that I found this year, and really amazed and excited me.
I can write more than I think.
Something that I learned about myself is that when I am really passionate about something, I tend to write well on the topic.
I developed a passion for writing memoirs. I like writing memoirs because it helps me relive my memories from before and all the fun and sad times I had.
What are some things you wish we had done in writing workshop this year? Why?
The answers to this question vary greatly from year to year, they reflect (as is to be expected) the personality of a particular group of students in a particular year.  This year’s class wanted more time to free write, and write poetry.  Poetry? That made my heart sing!
I wish we did more pieces like the one about Mrs. Smith coming into the classroom with weird clothes and a bag of something. It was fun to imagine what could be in the bag and what happened the rest of the day.
Free time writing. I feel like we just need time to write about something and not get graded on it.
I think that it would’ve been cool if we had tried to do something like a graphic novel and created it on google slides or draw. This is really outside of the box, but students would like it.
I wish we had written more poetry. Poetry allows the writer to be creative and free.
What were TWO of the most helpful ways in which Mrs. Smith helped you become a better writer?
I hoped to learn what my kids thought was helpful to them, as opposed to my own ideas about what I could do to move them along as writers.  In typical sixth grade fashion, they let me know what worked i pretty blunt terms.  The mini lessons I had labored over proved to be winners, proving that sixth graders value instruction almost as much as fun.  Writing conferences and mentor texts were also appreciated, as well as feedback and the practice of giving compliments.
You taught mini lessons which showed me how to do one specific thing. Sometimes I was confused about something, but the mini lessons helped me understand it better.
All of the comments you gave me/ advice and mini lessons.
Mrs. Smith commented on our writing and sent it back to us with suggestions. She pushed me constantly to do more, even when I handed in something that I thought was well written, I learned that I could always do more.
TWO ways Mrs. Smith helped me this year is by first making me really notice my very bad spelling problem. Two Mrs. Smith really helped me with my revision and learning how to slow down and go back and read over my work so it was my best.
One was definitely when she gave me feed back on my writing, and the second one was when she taught us using the mini lessons.
1. By going through the editing process with me on all genres. It pushed me to become a better writer. 2.By having writing conferences with me whenever I needed help or I was stuck while drafting.
I always feel that I learn more from my students than I teach them.  Certainly, their honest and forthright answers help me understand where I need to focus my time and attention in the coming year.  Teaching writing workshop sometimes feels like an impossible task – so many kids, so many voices to nurture and nudge forward.  It is a daunting task to keep up with each student and give the consistent feedback necessary to maintain momentum and growth.  My students’ writing surveys showed me what I needed to know: they want to be writers, they need my instruction to honor that desire.

Slice of Life Tuesday:Whew! Another multi genre writing celebration to celebrate!

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Monday morning. My students charge into our classroom, intent on setting up their writing museums: sports and sailing paraphernalia jockey with posters of DNA helixes and NJ Transit schedules. There is an air of excitement as my kiddos cast one last glance over their writing pieces ( each student wrote four genres of their choice on topics of their choice), adjusting their displays and checking for missed typos.

Students responsible for greeting parents and putting up our invitational posters scurry around and get into position.  It’s show time: our multi genre writing celebration!


Parents begin to file in, and my kiddos attend to their “meet and greets”, settling parent into their seats and then beginning their presentations: what did writing workshop look like this year? what genres did we study? what did it feel like to be a sixth grade writer? I watched as each student made their presentation, marveling at their confidence and humor – but, especially, at the message that came through each time: we are writers, and today is all about celebrating that.  Soon, parents were invited to read, as our favorite jazz music played in the background (the soundtrack of our writing lives this past month):

And, just like that, another writing year came to a joyous close.


My teaching life take aways:

Choice matters: My kids wrote about topics that were close to their hearts.  Sometimes, this meant a leap of faith for me  – is a sixth grader capable of writing knowledgeably about DNA? or meaningfully about chewing gum? The answer is a resounding “yes!”…with a bit of direction, some reorientation, and a lot of faith.

“Teach the writer not the writing”: If memory serves me, this was a Lucy Calkins bit of wisdom, and it is so very true.  Each of my 41 students presented themselves as individual writers with unique needs. Each had their own take on memoir or poetry or anything else, and I had to find a way to teach the genre without losing each kiddos voice.  It’s hard work, inexact, sometimes fraught with frustration, but worth it – my kids now see themselves as writers. That’s the aim of writing workshop, after all.

Audience matters: There is always something special about inviting parents to read the work of a class.  I believe parents need to see what writing workshop is all about, we teachers need their buy in about the importance of daily writing, and learning the habits of the writing process – there is so much about the workshop model that seems invisible and unknowable to outsiders. The writing process, with its many multi layered steps, needs to be made visible in order for parents to understand its complexity, its worthiness of time and effort.  Most of all, my kids were primed for an audience beyond just their classmates, they had worked all year towards this public forum: parents other than their own reading their work.  The bar was set higher, but they were ready.  They were, actually, excited about sharing their writing.

It was a glorious day!  All that work was so very worth it!