#SOLC17: Jedi teacher makes “the groups”

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.


We are getting ready for our annual field trip to Philadelphia: all the reservations have been made, field trip T-shirts have been ordered, and chaperones have been cajoled into joining us for a day of visiting historic Philly in the company of rambunctious sixth graders.  There is only one thing left to do, the hardest thing to do…

…make the “field trip groups”…

This is middle school.  Making groups, like seating charts, is a serious business.  It can be make or break.  It can be “totally the best thing” or “oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-die- on-this-trip-I-hate-my-life”.

And, it’s all on me, the group maker – the decider of best thing vs. I-hate-my-life.

I sit at the kitchen island with day-glo colored sticky notes covered with desperately phrased messages:

“It would be great if I could be with A., and C., but NOT okay to be with B. and D.”

“L. and M. and also N. and O. It’s okay not for N. and M. but definitely L. and O.”

“I’m okay with anyone.  But NOT K., Q., R., S.,  and T. And also U. and V.  But, I’m okay with anyone.”

“I don’t want to be in any group. I’m good on my own.”

It’s getting late.  Pretty soon it won’t make any sense to go to bed at all because it will be time to get up and face the music anyway – to make the big reveal to 42 sixth graders anxious to know who is with who.  I summon my inner jedi teacher spirit – the one who can see into the future (well, as far as that day in Philadelphia at any rate) and know what will work best.  I call upon my seven months of daily observation, what I know about each child, what I’ve seen, heard, and surmised.  Then, I make my final moves. The sticky notes coalesce into six groups.  I take out six pieces of construction paper and a rainbowed assortment of markers, and transform each stack of  sticky notes into the “Philadelphia Groups!!!”.

A short while later, the first bell rings and I hear my kiddos coming up the stairs and making their way to our classroom.  “Do you think she’s done them yet?” asks one, “I dunno, let’s go check it out.”  They enter the room in twos and threes and make a beeline for the board…silence…and then they erupt in shouts and squeals:

“Oh my god, you’re in my group!”

“This is going to be the best group!”

“You’re in my group, you’re in my group!”

“This is going to be the best trip ever!”

I sip the last of one cup of coffee already feeling the need for another.  Philadelphia, here we come!


#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Loving vs. Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts


The story of Mildred and Richard Loving has been very much in the news recently.  A critically acclaimed movie, a sensitively told picture book, podcasts, and the re-airing of documentaries are just some of the ways in which the Loving’s extraordinary battle to challenge Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws has been revisited and retold.

For those not familiar with the Loving’s story, here it is in a nutshell: Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in the same town, Central Point in Caroline County, Virginia. Things went awry when their friendship blossomed into love, for Richard was white and Mildred was black, and interracial marriage  was against the law in  Caroline County (anti-miscegenation laws, in fact, existed in 24 states at the time).  The young couple have to travel to Washington D.C. to be married, and are arrested immediately upon their return. It takes time in jail,  many years, and many court battles before the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Lovings, and they are allowed to live in peace and raise their children in the place they called home – Central Point, Virginia.


Patricia Hruby Powell’s Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case is a welcome addition to this collection, especially because of the way in which it tells the  story: in verse, and through the voices of Mildred and Richard.  The two perspectives allow the reader to better understand how both Richard and Mildred processed the events as they unfolded, and gives us some insight into what they thought and how they felt. 


I loved that the book included snippets of history (the Civil Rights movement, the Brown vs. Board of Education case) which allow us to put the Loving case in its historical context. Shadra Strickland’s delicate artwork adds so much to the experience of the book, as well:


Our students take so many of the advances made by the Civil Rights movement for granted today, even as many of those advancements (voting rights, for instance) are under assault. Books like Loving vs. Virginia remind us of the sacrifices made by individuals like the Lovings for such rights and for progress, and they remind us that the fight for civil rights is an ongoing struggle in which we must all participate. Loving vs. Virginia is a must have book in middle and high school classrooms, it would make for an important readaloud, especially now.

#Celebratelu & #SOLC17 & #DigiLitSunday: Experimenting with fiction

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche


I have a confession to make.  Although my sixth graders have clamored to write fiction year after year, our enthusiastic forays into  this genre have always ended with a general feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides: I feel as though I have not taught it well, and they feel as though they haven’t written well.

This March, the familiar question of “when do we get to write fiction?” sounded again.  We had just concluded a unit on essay  writing, and were about to get ready for a unit on test prep – a good time, I thought, to answer this burning question once again: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?

I thought carefully about all the things that had led to derailment in the past:

*diving into writing fantasy, which often became convoluted storylines that went on, and on, and on…

*not creating clear parameters for my students, so that some were “all done” quickly and others were unable to conclude because their stories had become so complicated

*not setting up a defined timeframe, so that our “creativity” kept stretching on and on (i.e. story lines were going nowhere, and new characters kept popping up for no rhyme or reason).

And I used those lessons to tighten up the plans for this year:

*we would stick to realistic fiction

*we would think about our storylines in a more limited way:

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*we would spend more time planning before writing:

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*we would have three weeks: two to plan, draft, confer, and peer review, and one to revise and publish.

Last Wednesday was publishing day and our writing celebration.  My kiddos created covers for their short stories, and then sat back and enjoyed each others’ creations:

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And I sat back to reflect upon the initial burning question that had set this particular writing into motion: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?  The answer, I thought, was a qualified “yes!”.    Here’s what we learned in the process:

*writing fiction is a lot harder than it looks (some were able to develop their storylines well, and some didn’t quite reach the mark – hence the above “qualified”).

*having a plan of action is really important in writing fiction, because it’s so easy to go off on tangents (new characters! sudden happenings!) and so hard to get back on track.

*working within a time frame helps us stick to our plans (more or less).

*we could use our reading strategies (Notice and Note signposts) as writing strategies.

*we will take what we’ve learned and keep experimenting – who knows, but that some of these short stories will one day morph into the long novels that some of my kiddos long to write. I celebrate that!





Poetry Friday & #SOLC17: A Dog by the Sea by David Salner

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

Poetry Friday is hosted by Catherine at Reading to the Core

Yesterday was #NationalPuppyDay, so the Twitter universe was flooded with photographs of puppies of all sizes and shapes with one thing in common: adorableness. This was my favorite Tweet of the day, of Congressman John Lewis and two versions of one thing – puppy cuteness:

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Our Sophie is no longer a puppy, which she is inclined to forget from time to time, especially early in the morning when we take her on her first walk of the day.  It’s a daily chore that we enjoy when the weather is not freezing cold, and we have time to take in all that surrounds us: the way the breeze blows, the tint of the sky, the sounds of leaves rustling, and the comfort of holding hands.

A Dog by the Sea by David Salner

Just after dawn, we get up,
without coffee, and let the dog lead us
through a grove of wind-stunted trees,
spiked succulents, red-berried holly,
and over the dune ridge out of the gray
of still sleeping minds. A line of pink
from the not yet risen sun
reminds me of the lilac shadows
caught in the radial grooves of shells.
I take up your hand and feel the blood
warming your fingers, as the dog bounds off
dragging her leash through wet sand.
She’s after gulls and a line of waves
that repeat themselves, she seems to think,
because they want to play.
A morning breeze
stirs the now turning tide, breathing over it,
sighing toward bayside. As the waves come in
whorls of light unfold on the sand. How I want
for us to repeat ourselves, on and on,
you holding the leash of a silly dog, me
feeling the beat, the blood in your hand.

#SOLC17: Maker Day – a new take on learning

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community

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Today was Maker Day in our middle school.  A dedicated and talented group of our faculty acquired a range of materials for our students for our students to explore, learn, and make all kinds of “stuff” with: creating circuits, building race courses, programming animation, and learning how 3D printers work – there was chance to work with all of this and more.

My own learning and teaching world is steeped in reading and writing workshop, and even though I’ve read and heard a lot about MakerSpaces and the remarkable learning that goes on when kids get their hands on all kinds of cool tools, I’d never seen one in action.  More importantly, I’d never seen own  my students working in such a space – and doing so was quite a revelation.

I learned that some of the greatest risk avoiders in my classroom, the ones who want to know exactly how many lines to every paragraph and how many paragraphs there needed to be in whatever it was that we were writing, were the biggest risk takers in this new setting.  They approached each new maker space with enthusiasm and often did not bother to read the directions, preferring to dive right in and figure their way through. I was surprised to see that these students, the ones who want very explicit directions (ones that are repeated many times) in my classes, felt such a degree of freedom in this space.

I learned that students who were the first to say “I’m done!” in reading and writing workshop, were often the ones who just kept going in our maker spaces.  They kept reaching for new pieces to try out, new combinations to manipulate together, and new limits to test.

And I paid close attention to the vocabulary of this new learning space:

“I wonder what would happen if…?”

“How about if I tried it this way instead of what the diagram says to do?”

“What if I flipped the whole circuit around?”

“Well, it didn’t work that way so I’m going to try this way.”

“I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m gonna  keep trying new combinations.”

“This started out being one thing, but I thought ‘why stop there?’ and kept adding stuff – and look, I made this, which is way cool!”

This is the vocabulary of curiosity, wonder, perseverance, and risk taking: the vocabulary of growth mindset.  How to bring all of that, or some of that, into my classroom? Well, that is what I have been thinking about all day…and will be thinking about for days to come.

#SOLC17: Moon stories

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

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On Monday, Alan Wright wrote about moon moments and memories.  I’ve been thinking about the moon ever since, and a moon memory of my own.

I must have been four or five, because I was still living with my grandparents and this memory is anchored in their house.  The monsoons had just come to an end;  after a month of  unrelenting rain, even the air felt sodden and drenched.  But the moon was full, and my aunt I were at a window together taking in the  silvery landscape –  wet leaves and  pathways reflecting  moonlight.  I must have been standing on the low wall surrounding the veranda, because I am cheek to cheek with my aunt in this memory, cocooned within the warm embrace of her arms.

We talk about the rains, the trees and the moon…and the shadows on the moon.  I was the kind of child who wrapped herself in stories – and I wanted to know the story of these shadows.  I was also the kind of child who asked a lot of questions, and this is the story I remember – each part the answer to a question, like so many beads on a Rosary:
….there was once a rabbit, a lonely rabbit who was so very sad…
…for days and days, weeks and weeks, years and years, this rabbit had longed for a friend…
…at last, rabbit met fox – handsome, clever fox…
…fox told the best stories, he made rabbit roar with laughter and cry rivers of tears…
…fox showed rabbit hills and vales, new places to roam and live..
…every day, rabbit waited for fox until he would suddenly appear under the banyan tree by the waterfall…
…everyday, rabbit would bid goodbye to fox under the banyan tree by the waterfall…
…one day, rabbit waited and waited, but there was no fox…
…day after day, week after week, month after month, rabbit waited..
…then one day, rabbit saw monkey watching him from the banyan tree…
…”Are you waiting for fox?” monkey asked with a smile…”for, I know where he went”…
…rabbit begged monkey to tell her where, where did fox go? she wanted to know…
…”That way” said monkey, pointing over the water fall…”fox jumped right over the waterfall”…
…rabbit looked at the waterfall – it was wide and the other side looked very far away…
…rabbit was frightened, but fox was on the other side…
…so rabbit jumped…
…she put her heart and soul into that jump…
…she jumped so high that she soared into the sky – all the way to the moon…
…and there she still waits for fox…
 I loved that story. I told it to myself time after time, especially when the moon was full and bright and clear – when I could see the shadows of rabbit, still waiting patiently for fox.
When my children were young, I passed the story along to them.  They had ideas and questions of their own, as children are wont to do, which led to new versions and diversions of their own.
And now that  I am much older than my aunt was at the time she invented this story, I wonder about the storyteller, too.   Rabbit’s story is full of  longing and sorrow, faith and hope.  What was in my aunt’s heart at that particular time in her life, I now wonder, as she pieced this story, bit by bit, in answer to each  childish question that was itself in search of a story to own?
The stories we love, the stories we tell, the stories we remember…the stories we are.

#SOLC17: Monday morning bag(s)

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

On any given morning, in the hour before school begins, our middle school parking lot becomes a parade of teachers and their bags walking from their cars up the stairs and through the school doors.

Monday mornings are the busiest, in terms of teacher bags.  Here, for example, is what I hauled from my end of the parking lot all the way up two floors of stairs to Room 202:

My trusty backpack, filled with my own notebooks for each of my subject areas, PD books, picture books, and our current read aloud…oh, and also my lunch:

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One bag filled with my morning class’ reading journals, and the week’s supply of coffee (thank you Trader Joe’s!):


Another bag filled with my afternoon class’ reading journals and my week’s flower selection:


My Monday morning haul…


…is there any teacher out there who knows how to “pack lightly”?!