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!



#Celebratelu: Time for play

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

We went out to play on the last Friday of September.  Fall was in the air, and we’d been looking longingly out the window at birds and clouds flying free in the the blue sky.

As we raced onto the soccer field, all our cares left in a heap of books and pencil cases at the edge of the field, it did not matter that we didn’t have anything to play with – just a green field, our classmates, and our imaginations.


Duck duck goose.

Who can cartwheel the fastest?

We laughed, we goofed around, we yelled our heads off.  We discovered that Will could run like the wind, that it was impossible for Zach to get tired no matter how much he ran.  We learned that someone we thought was rather quiet actually had a lot to say, and that someone we thought shy was … NOT!  The outdoors, and a whole period to just “be!”, brought us closer together.

We sixth grade Smithlings work hard…but every once in a while, we just need to play.

#celebratelu: Celebrating #TheEdCollab and amazing PD (part 1)

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

I love The Ed Collab Gatherings – amazing days of brilliant PD offered to us free of charge and absent the driving, parking, hotel charging of any other PD. Thank you, Chris Lehman and the team you assemble for us every Spring and Fall.  I am still making my way through all the sessions offered on Saturday, but here are my takeaways from two:

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In her opening keynote, Dr. Debbie Reese reminded us that children’s books inform and shape how kids (and the adults who read them) perceive the world, and that teachers should be informed and alert to stereotypes: we can’t teach about stereotypes unless we know them, and we must recognize what we don’t know and aim to inform ourselves so that we can do better.  She offered the following advice:

*look critically at text books and children’s books and the way in which terms are used to erase tribal nationhood and identity. There are over 500 Federally recognized tribal nations, which renders the generic term “Native American” meaningless.

*when we see problematic and stereotypical renditions in text books and stories (Little House on the Prairie!) we should mark the texts up and encourage our kids to do the same.

*we should be aware that native people are most often not “done right” – Mildred Loving, for instance is not part Cherokee as she is depicted in some books, but Rappahannok.  Identity  and citizenship matter.

*stereotypes of Native people abound all around us, in movies and advertisements and toys and books.  We need to accept that these stereotypes do harm and that their misrepresentations need to be addressed.

In addition, Dr. Reese shared her blog: American Indians in Children’s Literature, “a go-to place for anyone interested in gaining critical insights into the ways that Native peoples are depicted in children’s and young adult books.”

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We’ve just begun our first read aloud of the year, so Kate Roberts’ session on this very topic was, really, the highlight of my day.  Readalouds are central to the reading community I want to foster in my classroom, and I was anxious to hear Kate’s take on how to make this a meaningful part of reading workshop as a whole.  Here’s what Kate advised:

*Beware of the difficulty of the text.  Choosing a book that’s too hard is simply unethical – we need to give kids texts they can access, not texts they must cope with.

*Our kids need to see themselves in the books they read – many identities should be represented in the books we choose, and this extends to the authors we choose to read, as well.

*We need to recognize that time is a critical factor in the books we choose and the timetable we set for its reading. A too-long common text (six to eight weeks, which I know happens in classrooms in my school) creates both boredom and a sense of dependence in our kids.  We need to consider our teaching menu:

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and decide what our focus should be, so that our kids emerge from the readaloud experience as stronger readers who can transfer these skills to their own independent work.

My ah-ha moment was the way Kate organized the readaloud so that there were three components: parts of the book were presented as a readaloud to the class, parts were given to students to read independently in class after a mini lesson and as conferences also took place, and parts were assigned for homework.  Here’s Kate’s example:

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I’ve been ruminating over this session ever since yesterday, and I know that it will transform our current readaloud into something more meaningful and manageable.



Poetry Friday: Making Peace by Denise Levertov

Poetry Friday is hosted by Amy at The Poem Farm


Yesterday was International Day of Peace, which I mark this Poetry Friday with a poem which asks us to live in a way that makes peace possible, rather than simply yearning for it…

Making Peace by Denise Levertov


A voice from the dark called out,
             ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
                                   But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                                       A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                              A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                        A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

#IMWAR: The Unicorn Quest & Jabari Jumps

 #IMWAYR is hosted by  Jen at Teach MentorTexts & Kellee and Ricki at UnleashingReaders 


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Generally speaking, I tend to stay away from fantasy series, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying  Kamilla Benko’s The Unicorn Quest,   the first book in an exciting, brand new series.  

Claire and her family move into Great Aunt Diana’s treasure-stuffed mansion for the summer, hoping to box its contents up for an estate sale.  No one knows what happened to Great Aunt Diana, who spent her life traveling the world and collecting beautiful and rare things for her home, Windermere Castle.  Claire hopes that this time together will help restore her close relationship with her older sister, Sophie, who has just recovered from a serious illness.  But, their summer gets off to a terrifying start when Sophie convinces Claire to climb up the ladder hidden within a fireplace in one of the mansion’s most daunting rooms.  That ladder leads to another world – one that is both enchanting and terrifying.

Sophie and Claire barely escape from their first foray into this world, so when Sophie is missing Claire knows that she must travel there, too, and rescue her sister.  Claire discovers that Arden, the name of this magical land, is in the midst of great troubles: the Unicorn Harp has been stolen and her very own sister has been accused of the crime.  But, where is Sophie? And how can Claire, who knows nothing about the complicated customs. laws, and geography of Arden, find her?

I love the way Kamilla Benko is able to write the world of Arden into existence, so that bit by bit it becomes very real to the reader.  I know that my sixth graders will love the twists and turns in this story, as well as the engaging and well crafted characters.  They will be looking forward to the next book with just as much anticipation as their teacher!

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Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps is one of those  lovely picture books one can read at any age and fall completely in love with.  Jabari is not quite ready to jump off the diving board.  His father reassures him that it’s okay to feel a little scared when trying something new, and that sometimes trying something scary can feel like a surprise.  That convinces Jabari to try, because he loves surprises…and he learns that he loves diving, too! 

This sweet story is enchantingly illustrated,  and I can see reading it aloud in classrooms of all ages and extrapolating on the central idea: we learn all sorts of important things about ourselves when we are brave enough to try.

we learn all sorts of important things about ourselves when we are brave enough to try.



#celebratelu: Focusing on the culture of our classroom

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

A very long time ago, my business man turned professor father shared that the wisdom attributed to  Peter Drucker (“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”) had held true both in his business as well as in his classroom.  It took me some time to figure out how culture played out in my own sixth grade classroom, and how essential it was to cultivate and shape that culture from the very first moments my students walked into our room. These first two weeks have been all about this kind of slow, bit by bit, holding onto patience, work.

*We are learning what it means to have a “slow” start and end to our learning time together – that it’s quiet time to get ourselves organized and settled, perhaps read or write or check out the next book, and collect ourselves so that we can be our best learning selves.

*We are getting used to really listening to each other and being comfortable enough to ask questions and wonder aloud.

*We are figuring out what it means to be an active learner, to care about what is said and done in our classroom, and to ask why.

*We are trying to adjust to the notion that learning is about taking risks and making mistakes we can learn from.

*We are beginning to see that the aim of our year together really does reflect that quote on the door of our classroom: “…whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way.” (The Phantom Tollbooth)

Slowly but surely, we are getting there…and I celebrate that.

Poetry Friday: Morning by Mary Oliver

Poetry Friday is hosted by Michelle Heidenrich Barnes at Today’s Little Ditty 

Rushing around  on a Friday morning, feeling that I had already fallen behind on the tasks of the day, I happened to catch a glance at our cat. Cat (that’s his name, since our family could never arrive at a friendly consensus on any other name) was stretched out by the back door, luxuriating in a patch of sunshine warmth.  Something about his serene stillness made me pause, take a deep breath, and take a few moments to enjoy the peaceful tableaux right in front of the rushing around me: a silky black cat, divinely contented with the breakfast he’d just had and pleased to lounge in the warmest place he could find.  Sometimes, it takes a cat to show us the way…

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