Slice of Life Tuesday: Six Lessons My Sixth Graders Taught Me




The last day of school , and also the last day of my teaching career, is exactly four weeks away.  It’s a bittersweet time in Room 202, the room in which my teaching life happens.  Amidst all the student work, books, and anchor charts that fill the room early this Tuesday morning, my eyes are drawn to the many photographs of students I have up on our walls and windows and classroom doors.  My kids.  The Smithlings, as one student dubbed us so many years ago.   Today, I’m thinking about what these kids have taught me about the craft of teaching…

Really Listen To Us…Pay Attention and Notice the “Small Things”

Teachers talk a lot. Part of that is in the nature of the work we do, but part of that is also due to the fact that most of seem to feel far more comfortable in the role of speaker rather than listener. Even when we listen, it often seems to our students that we do so with our own thoughts foremost in our minds.  Our kids can tell.  First, they become reluctant to share their thoughts (after all, what is the point?), and then they revert to doodling and checking the clock instead. It is boring to listen to one voice for the entire length of a class period, because listening is only one small part of either engaging in learning or caring about the endeavor in the first place.  I learned to listen, to wait for my kids to muddle through thinking and formulate their ideas, to honor their efforts so that they felt empowered to keep trying.

Listening goes and in hand with noticing.  Our kids show us a hundred important things in small ways.  Their world weighs upon them every bit as much as ours, perhaps even more because they have so little control over their world.  The act of noticing can be life changing, even life saving.  Of course, noticing can be messy; once you notice you are compelled to respond, to get involved.  In a school setting, involvement can mean time, paper work, meetings…in addition to all the other things in our school day which require more time, paperwork, and meetings.  But, our kids make the effort to listen and notice so worthwhile.

Respect us

Respect is one of those words we teachers bandy about with great frequency; we require it of our students without much of a sense of true reciprocity.  There are so many ways in which our kids see their daily interactions with  us as a litany of disrespectful acts: we waste their learning time with irrelevant anecdotes from our personal life and meaningless “seat work”, we ask them to speak politely and take their turn even as we often are dismissive of what they have to say, interrupt their responses, and are quick to be sarcastic or curt.  We expect them to understand the pressures we face in our own school lives without taking the time to know how stress is part of their lives, as well.  We assign tasks that are easier for us to grade but simply boring and mechanical to do.  My kids taught me that respect given them is earned in return, which made our life together all the more pleasant and productive.

Give us Meaningful Work To Do

Kids rise to the occasion when we give them meaningful work.  Even when the work seems beyond their sixth grade grasp, my kiddos will reach for it every time IF they  feel that the work has meaning and relevance.   Kids want to be taken seriously, to be given the opportunity to rise to high expectations, and to have the satisfaction of  (to quote Teddy Roosevelt) “the chance to work hard at work worth doing”.   Students deserve to know why their learning time should be spent doing this or that, and how the task connects to and extends the learning that came before.  I jettisoned workbooks and worksheets long ago in favor of student centered (and often designed) work, and I have my students to thank for that move.

Show us how to do meaningful work

Working hard at work worth doing is a learned thing.  Even my most industrious students struggle with organization and pacing.  It took me time to learn this, and time to figure out the best way to teach the “how” of  our work.  I learned to teach process, to model different strategies of process,  and to make that sort of work as visible as possible.  My students taught me that I needed to make sure that they had consistent practice in this kind of habit building, and that their failures were turned into opportunities to fine tune these habits.

Make our Work Relevant to Who we Are and the World we Live In

I will always be grateful to the students who pushed me out of comfort zones (mine as well as the school’s) to answer the “why do we have to know this?” questions.  They taught me that the social studies lessons I had labored to devise would be soon forgotten unless I could make those lessons relevant to the world outside our building.  In truth, my students taught me that this question was the foundation upon which to build all our learning – it’s the one that opened doors of interest, curiosity, questioning, and wondering.  If I could answer this question, I’ve found, my kids would remember what we we learning, and their learning would therefore matter.

Greet Each Day as a New Day

No matter what had happened the day before, my kiddos always walk in to class each day expecting new chances to learn and grow.  They’ve taught me to leave yesterday’s grievances at the door when I first turn on our classroom’s lights and think about the day ahead.  Each new day is a chance for me to be a better teacher, a chance for them to better students, and that has been an incredible gift.

Thank you, Smithlings, for lessons learned…I will carry them with me always.


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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Monday Memories: “The Good Old Days”

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As my teaching life winds down, I find myself delving into the reams of student writing that I’ve collected through the years.  Many of these students are now out in the great wide world, living lives far removed from the twelve year old selves they once were in Room 202, but their twelve year old writing lives on in the form of scraps of paper and Google folders I have saved.  I am so grateful for these – they are tangible reminders of all the young people I have had the pleasure of working with, all the young writers I endeavored to fill with the writing spirit.

Some writing ideas sparked more interest  than others, and some revealed aspects of my kiddos which I was not privy to in the context of our classroom life.  I loved these the best, of course, and can’t count the number of hours I spent thinking of new ways to nudge my young writers this way and that.  Ultimately, what I really hoped for was that my kids came to see writing as something that was worthy of doing on their own, for themselves.  After all, that was what I had discovered about writing for myself, far away from the confining strictures of a long line of English teachers.  I found my writing voice on my own, and for myself.   And deep down, in spite of all the mini lessons I labored over to craft and deliver, I knew that my kiddos would only learn that lesson  if  I gave them freedom and an authentic venue that allowed for some nudging and shaping from me, their guide to a writing life.  Enter our Slice of Life writing: a writing blog (Google Classroom in our case) – once a week, sometimes free choice and sometimes driven by a prompt of some sort, always open to a supportive community of responders: our fellow classmates.

Today, scrolling through an old set of Slice of Life writing,  I chanced upon one centered around the phrase “the good old days”.  If memory serves me right, one student began talking about ” the  good old days” back in elementary school when life was full of fun and sweetness (also, no homework), which began a litany of similarly themed “good old days”, and which became our SOL writing for the week and took on the form of a poem.  I have a feeling there was a poem like this which served as a mentor text idea, but I can’t seem to remember what it was.  Here are a few of my kids’ versions, which bring me close to tears:

The Good Old Days by Mia

Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
when the weather was nice
and the sun was blazing hot.

I would ride my bike
to the pool,
to camp
and everywhere else.

And I didn’t think about anything else
except for the crisp breeze, cool water
and jumping into the frigid pool.
Playing with my friends
in the lush green grass
and laughing and having so much fun.

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.


The Good Old Days by Shelley

Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
sitting at the kitchen table,
surrounded by my family,
drawing and painting with such concentration,
that my tongue stuck out.

My dad would notice, laugh,
then tell my mom.
Later I would pick my head up from my picture,
only to notice my family grinning at me.

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.
The Good Old Days by Alexander
Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
jumping through the sprinkler on summer afternoons
my brother and I,
the sun beating down,
its powerful rays, stinging our skin,
and the water cooling us off,
cold and smooth,
like  water thrown over a fire.
The soft wet grass
soothed our feet
like a massage.
I felt so happy and free,
….free as a bird,

I want good new days,
like these
good old days.

The Good Old Days by Lauren
Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
sitting around the fireplace
On a cold, winter night.
Roasting a marshmallow
on a single wooden stick,
surrounded by friends, family.
The one’s I love.

My only stressful event
Was when the marshmallow,
just burned away.
I had no worries, then,
of schoolwork,

                                               school shootings,
                                                                               mean “friends”.
Just sitting peacefully,
with rose-red cheeks.

But that was then,
and this is now.

The Good Old Days by Gavin

Sometimes I remember
“The Good Old Days”.

In the depth of a frigid winter night,
warmed and comforted by the crackle of a fire,
with a blanket,

She would come downstairs soon enough,
and I would be there.
She would  sit next to me on the sofa,
and I would eagerly sink into her soft embrace.
She carried a book, a surprise of magical words,
in the nook of her arm.

Then…she would start to read,
and I would soak up every word
and anticipate the next one…

My Mom and I would get lost in other people’s stories,
we would lose track of time and place.
I loved every second of our warm, full adventures,
on those cold, cold nights.

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.
I still can’t remember
Anything better than that.

These are stories that seem to carry so much more weight in hindsight.  I am all the more conscious of how aware my kids were, at twelve, that childhood is fleeting, and innocence is subject to loss.  They were wise, at twelve, and I learned so much from their twelve year old wisdom.

Poetry Friday: Spring in the Classroom by Mary Oliver

Thanks to Irene at Live Your Poem for hosting Poetry Friday today.

Image result for spring trees in bloom

Spring has finally arrived with a vengeance, and we have been bathed in warm sunshine and Spring blossoms all week.  After weeks and weeks of  February-like gloom, it’s a joy to be able to glance out of our classroom windows and see blue skies and lovely cherry blossoms.   All that  Springtime beauty comes at a price, however, which is the immediate loss of my sixth graders’ attention spans.  They long to BE in all this Spring goodness, as in BE OUTSIDE in the midst of it.  I guess it’s time to turn to Mary Oliver’s wise poem about  what it’s like to be a student at the onset of Spring, so that I can turn back to my kiddos  and their book learning with a keener awareness of their suffering:

Spring in the Classroom
Elbows on dry books, we dreamed
Past Miss Willow Bangs, and lessons, and windows,
To catch all day glimpses and guesses of the greening woodlot,
Its secrets and increases,
Its hidden nests and kind.
And what warmed in us was no book-learning,
But the old mud blood murmuring,
Loosening like petals from bone sleep.
So spring surrounded the classroom, and we suffered to be kept indoors,
Droned through lessons, carved when we could with jackknives
Our pulsing initials into the desks, and grew
Angry to be held so, without pity and beyond reason,
By Miss Willow Bangs, her eyes two stones behind glass,
Her legs thick, her heart
In love with pencils and arithmetic.
So it went — one gorgeous day lost after another
While we sat like captives and breathed the chalky air
And the leaves thickened and birds called
From the edge of the world — till it grew easy to hate,
To plot mutiny, even murder. Oh, we had her in chains,
We had her hanged and cold, in our longing to be gone!
And then one day, Miss Willow Bangs, we saw you
As we ran wild in our three o’clock escape
Past the abandoned swings; you were leaning
All furry and blooming against the old brick wall
In the Art Teacher’s arms.
Mary Oliver

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: Celebrating a Smithling tradition: “Beckoning the Lovely”

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

At some point in each school year, most usually when we are nearing the dreaded PARCC or feel that winter will never end, we turn to Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s “Beckoning the Lovely” :

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The invitation to summon up “the lovely” is usually met with bemusement, the sixth grade “huh?”.  But, left to their own devices, my kiddos usually figure out unique and meaningful ways in which to do exactly that:

This one moved all of us to tears:

“Beckoning the lovely”. When I first heard the phrase, I was confused, how do you beckon the lovely? Well, I can now say I understand it. To me, beckoning the lovely means that we need to make the world lovely. And we need to do it step by step. Beckoning the lovely means being selfless and making someone smile. And after they smile, hopefully they will do something lovely too. The world lovely is such a beautiful word. It is the word that rings from people’s voices and sounds just right in people’s ears. But being lovely isn’t just talking, being lovely is doing.

For my act of loveliness, I decided to focus on my home life. Me and my dad had a talk about this project and I asked him if he had any ideas for lovely things I could do, and he told me this “if you want to do something lovely, focus on your home life. There are people all over the world that volunteer in so many places, and leave the people at home behind no matter how hard the life they lead is.” I thought about the people who have it hardest in my life. My brother for instance. His name is Uri, I talk about him a lot because he is the smartest, sweetest, most sensitively charming human on earth. Except, he has ADHD, ODD, and minor epilepsy. Sometimes, people judge him by his not-so-good moments and forget that he doesn’t know how to express his feelings. With Uri, it’s either he expresses his feelings too much, or doesn’t express them at all. He is older in his mind, and understands things that most sixth graders do not. But he has it hard in school, so I decided to take him for a day of “fun” with my babysitting money. We went to the library to read, got ice cream, went to the Francesca’s, and then I took him to the mall and we went to watch a movie. We are typically very close, but it was still an experience for us to talk with each other. He doesn’t hang out with many people, because most people don’t understand him. Even I sometimes have to remind myself that he is, after all, only human. I’m happy to do something lovely for him anyday! Attached is a photo of us at the park😂

This one was met with an ovation;

When I watched to video, I was very inspired to do something like Amy Krouse Rosenthal had done. I found it really interesting how her unique ideas brightened a total stranger’s day. This clip sparked my imagination and gave me the idea to try to brighten someone’s day, someone less fortunate than me. So I decided to make a lunch, write a note and give it to a homeless person (i gave the stuff to my Mom who works in the city to give to the person). I got this idea because I have always wanted to give back to the less fortunate than me and my Mom always tells me about the times she tries to help the homeless people. The bag contained….a peanut butter sandwich, a bottle of water and an inspirational note. When my Mom came home, she told me that the Man said “Thank you” and was very thankful. But I didn’t just stop there, I then made a list of 5 things that I will try to complete this week. Some of them where….Making a wood sculpture with my dad and putting it on display, breakfast in bed for my parents and helping my grandma.

Overall, I am very glad that we got assigned this because it gave me a chance to give back and I strongly urge others to do the same.

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There was so much to love about this one, so many layers of love and meaning, from a student who is rather shy and reserved:

My grandmother has always loved plants. Growing up in the same house as her, we kept rows and rows of plants behind our couch, and there was always something blooming in her garden. We even had cacti in our house. As in more than one. But there was something special about the way my grandmother raised plants. She found flowers that didn’t bloom, plants that should flower but didn’t, and yet she somehow found a way to make the plants that did not show any signs of beauty become even more beautiful than the plants that bloomed on their own.

I think that this origami flower represents the way that my grandmother treated all plants. The flower started of as a plain old cube, but turned into an alluring flower. Many people in the world are like my grandmother. They don’t see what is happening, they see what can happen, and that it what makes my grandmother special. Amy Krouse Rosenthal at the “Beckoning of the Lovely”, along with everyone there, acted similar to how my grandmother always does. They did not look at each other and think, “Wow, this person has no talent and can’t help us.” Instead, they thought, “Okay, we have all these people here, so let’s make something incredible.” My grandmother is like Amy Krouse Rosenthal. They looked at what they had, and made something worthy of being called a “Beckoning of the Lovely.”

Some of my kiddos did chores around the house, made dinner for grateful parents, and two paired up to make something for a very surprised me:

Screen Shot 2018-04-22 at 9.48.32 AMScreen Shot 2018-04-22 at 9.48.06 AMAs usual, I was touched and gratified by the way my kids take any teaching idea I may happen to have and fill it with their very own spirit.  To me, this is the magic of teaching, this is why we need to remember all through the teaching day that it is all about the kids.  This is why we must invest our teaching energies in what inspires and energizes our kids to beckon their own  lovely in their learning lives – meaningful work that engages them, and asks them to stretch their imaginations as well as their souls.

Even as I get ready to leave my classroom for good, I  know that every teaching day has been all about the beckoning of lovely: my beloved, always eager to try something new, students.  Today, I celebrate that.


Poetry Friday: Two Set Out on Their Journey Galway Kinnell, 1927 – 2014

Image result for two little kids walking on a road vintage

When my children were young, it was rare to see them apart wherever we went and whatever we did.  No matter where we moved (and we moved a lot), or where we traveled (and we traveled a lot, too), the three of them kept themselves amused and happy with elaborate games and story lines of the “to be continued” variety.

Even in the throes of cranky adolescence, they turned more often to each other than away from each other – allies, always, against unreasonable and unimaginative parents.

These days, they have each other on speed dial, and since they all live in various parts of Brooklyn, they see each other with some frequency.

Of the many blessings my husband and I count ourselves lucky for having, is this: the bond between our three, on a journey of “ten thousand acts” :

Two Set Out on Their Journey  –   Galway Kinnell

We sit side by side,
brother and sister, and read
the book of what will be, while a breeze
blows the pages over—
desolate odd, cheerful even,
and otherwise. When we come
to our own story, the happy beginning,
the ending we don’t know yet,
the ten thousand acts
encumbering the days between,
we will read every page of it.
If an ancestor has pressed
a love-flower for us, it will lie hidden
between pages of the slow going,
where only those who adore the story
ever read. When the time comes
to shut the book and set out,
we will take childhood’s laughter
as far as we can into the days to come,
until another laughter sounds back
from the place where our next bodies
will have risen and will be telling
tales of what seemed deadly serious once,
offering to us oldening wayfarers
the light heart, now made of time
and sorrow, that we started with.