Slice of Life Tuesday: Feedback for the teacher

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


The end of the first marking period has arrived, and with it, piles of stuff to sort through and assess.  Project based learning combined with reading and writing workshop present a particular kind of challenge, for you are assessing the process not just the end product…and that takes a LOT of time.

Many years ago, when I first arrived at our middle school, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to ask my students for some reflective feedback about MY performance as a teacher.  After all, they were with me every day for three periods and three different subjects, so it would stand to reason that they would be in the best position to offer just the kind of real time feedback that I sorely needed.  I remember that my kids were flabbergasted at the idea of grading me (for that is how they saw it, of course), but, given permission to be honest and tell it like it is, their surprise turned into a purposeful glee.  The task I set for them was to first reflect upon the highs and lows of the marking period, and use the latter to set new goals for the next marking period.  Then, and this was the part they loved, I asked them to write about their teacher, me: in what ways could I better address their learning needs, where could my performance be better?

Turns out, sixth graders are great evaluators.  They notice everything, they weigh the good with the not so good, and when they are asked to, they share with insight, honesty, humor, and kindness.  I learned a lot then, and I continue to do so.

In today’s batch of letters, my kids talked about homework, about redesigning the classroom space so that we could have “book nooks”, and mentor texts:

IMG_9448 2

They asked for more time to read (is there ever enough in one school day?), and more opportunities to free write, and made suggestions about poets to look into and books to buy for our classroom library.  Some noted that I walked around less (true: my old lady woes of fibromyalgia and arthritis often get in the way) which they “kinda missed”, and all wished I would type up mini lessons as handouts because their handwriting was such that they had a hard time reading what they had written down (story of my life as their teacher, I will have to say, because I have this problem, too!).

I love the care with which they thought and wrote, I love how carefully they folded their letters and handed them in with tentative smiles, and I love how this gesture on my part seemed to mean so much to them.

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.”
― Stephen SondheimInto the Woods

My children listened, and it was lovely to know that they were watching, too…as it happens, I learn which way to turn and what to be by listening to them, too.


It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Restart, and The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones

Last week’s reading included two books that presented stories which explored different perspectives, and how important issues such as bullying and dealing with the aged with kindness and sensitivity.

Chase Ambrose wakes up in the hospital and can’t remember why he’s there…or who he is.  To make matters worse, there seem to be conflicting  narratives about the kind of kid he was before his accident: the rock star jock of his middle school who was a jerk to everyone, or the rock star jock of his middle school who knew his place and how to have fun.  Some of his classmates (and most of the adults in his town) keep a safe distance because of the former, and his team wants him back in their midst due to the latter.  Chase must navigate a way back to who he was, and in the process figure out who he is.

Gordon Korman tells this story through the many perspectives of the students who knew the old Chase and are adjusting to the new one, as well as the point of view of Chase who is bewildered and then mortified by his past self.  My sixth graders will love Restart, and I can see that many meaningful discussions will ensue when they read this book.

What I’ve always loved about the way  Wendelin Van Draanen crafts her stories is that she is able to explore big truths through engaging and perfectly paced stories.  The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones, her most recent book, is no exception.

Lincoln Jones loves making up stories and filling his notebooks with tales of good guys winning over all the odds.  His own life is less than optimal, as far as Lincoln is concerned – a single mom who has just managed to escape an abusive relationship, adjusting to life in a new town but on the wrong side of his tracks, and (most of all) the afternoons he has to spend after school at his mom’s place of work – an assisted living facility with a cast of characters which includes someone given to breaking out into song…in the nude.  A too-curious classmate who seems to be shadowing him everywhere is the last thing Lincoln needs, but there she is and Lincoln must work even harder to keep his school life separate from his after school life.

I loved the way the senior citizens were written about, with poignant sensitivity and kind humor, and that was the part that I think my students will most benefit from in reading The Secret Life of Lincoln Jonesand, of course, they will love everything else about this book, too.


#Celebratelu: Celebrating The Great Thanksgiving Listen…year three

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 9.25.28 AM.png

As Thanksgiving nears, we are preparing for The Great Thanksgiving Listen – StoryCorps’ brilliant initiative to: “Honor someone important in your life by interviewing them for The Great Listen 2017. Help us create a culture of listening that echoes across the nation.”  You can read all about it, and avail yourself of classroom resources here.

This will be the third year in which the students of Room 202 will select an elder they want to interview, decide which burning questions they will want to ask, and prepare to listen to family stories they will be hearing (perhaps) for the first time.   Last week, we previewed a few of the StoryCorps interviews which modeled the  questioning and listening process, the favorite of which is this one:

This weekend, my kiddos will be deciding who they will interview and formulating about twelve questions to ask.  They will also make sure that their interviewees will be aware of the project and ready to set aside the twenty minutes to half hour needed for the interview process.  Some will call grandparents far away (Russia, South Korea, and India are some of the places they’ve mentioned so far), and some will sit across the Thanksgiving table with parents, aunts, or uncles; all will use their phones to record their interviews.

After Thanksgiving, they will listen to these conversations and transcribe their favorite parts. I love watching my kids listen intently to these recordings the day we return from Thanksgiving break.  With ear buds securely in and pens scribbling away, they stop often to rewind and relive those conversations, and to laugh or sigh at what was said.  We learn to lift the best quotes from these interviews and then to craft writing pieces to share with classmates.  So many lovely stories have been shared over the last three years, but the most meaningful aspect of the Listen is that my kids learn about their own histories, and that these histories surprise and move them into a deeper appreciation of who their elders are, and what they have survived.

Last year, E.K. wrote:

This interview was important to me because I felt that I got to know and understand my grandma better, now that I know what she’s been through, and how hard her childhood was. Before this interview, I was just really doing it because I had to, but now I’m glad that I did, because I got to know a side to her that I didn’t know before. I guess I was just a little too late for my grandpa, but at least now, I have my grandma by my side.

(You can read her fabulous piece in its entirety here.)

This weekend, I celebrate getting ready to participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen, and look forward to hearing my students celebrate the stories of their families.

Poetry Friday: At the Beginning of Winter by Tom Hennen

Poetry Friday is hosted by Jane at Raincity Librarian


bedlam farm winter

Photograph  by Jon Katz


Winter is definitely on its way.  Every morning this week, my feet have crunched across frost encrusted leaves as I’ve made my way to my car.  Among my list of chores this weekend is dragging out my warmest sweaters, socks, and those heavy winter boots.  Only the middle school boys in my school seem impervious to the seasonal change – they are still in their basketball shorts and t-shirts.   Driving to school this morning with the heat blasting all the way and the seat warmer turned up as high as I could manage, I had to shake my head in amazement at the sight of all these legs exposed to a bitterly cold wind.   Middle school boys are impervious to many things, the need for quiet and cleanliness, for instance, and, apparently, winter, too.
At the Beginning of Winter by Tom Hennen 

In the shallows of the river
After one o’clock in the afternoon
Ice still
An eighth of an inch thick.
Night never disappears completely
But moves among the shadows
On the bank
Like a glimpse of fur.
Flies and spiderwebs
Appear alone in the flat air.
The naked aspens stand like children
Waiting to be baptized
And the goldenrod too is stripped down
To its bare stalk
In the cold
Even my thoughts
Have lost their foliage.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Finding gifts in unexpected places

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Flying back from visiting my parents in London, I experienced all that has become common in air travel today: long lines, long waits, and a tiny space in which to spend long travel hours.  Feeling rather sorry for myself, I spent the first few hours of my flight grading papers.  Then,  while shuffling between the “done” pile and the “to do” one, I dropped my pen.  No amount of searching around and under my seat yielded anything more than dirty tissues and candy wrappers.  I stepped over my sleeping seat mate to try to retrieve my backpack (also known as my traveling office) from the overhead compartment, but even that proved fruitless: it was wedged behind bigger bags and beyond my just above five foot reach.

Disgruntled and cranky, I decided to watch a movie…and that’s when my whole evening was transformed.  Among the few good choices available was this:

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 6.36.32 PM

Hundreds of thousands of Turkish cats roam the metropolis of Istanbul freely. For thousands of years they’ve wandered in and out of people’s lives, becoming an essential part of the communities that make the city so rich. Claiming no owners, the cats of Istanbul live between two worlds, neither wild nor tame — and they bring joy and purpose to those people they choose to adopt. In Istanbul, cats are the mirrors to the people, allowing them to reflect on their lives in ways nothing else could.

How to resist? Within moments, I was transported to Istanbul, and cats, cats, cats, everywhere.  Gentle and shy cats, brazen and aggressive cats, and cats of varying sizes and hues.  As different as the cats were, the response of the citizens of Istanbul were universally accepting, delighted, amused, even loving.  About halfway through, I came upon these lines, and just had to take the following still shots  :






This in-flight, made from a movie  poem has stayed with me ever since.  You can find gifts in the most unexpected places, when you least expect it.

It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Forever is a long, long time


Caela Carter’s Forever, Or A Long, Long Time is one of those books which stay with you long after you’ve  turned the last page and returned it to the library – the characters are memorable, the story is captivating, and the writing just achingly beautiful.

Image result for forever or a long long time

Flora and her brother Julian have spent their young lives moving from one dysfunctional foster home to the next.   A forever home finally becomes theirs, but Flora is convinced that this good fortune will not be theirs for long:

I have to be a good girl. I have to try to pass fourth grade. I have to make Person happy.

Person is my mom now.  My very own human mother.  I call her my mom when I’m talking to her or anyone else, but in my head I call her my person because there have been too too many mommies and they have faces that  blend together in my brain until they’re one ugly face that doesn’t make sense and some of them were nice but others weren’t very nice and they’re all gone now anyway and Person says she’s here forever.

She’s not. Nothing is forever…

The world is often a confusing place for Flora, and her words often get jumbled up and stuck when she tries to explain what she feels and thinks.  She wants to believe that Person and home are forever, but when she learns that Person is going to have a baby, all her fears and uncertainties return.  Will there be room enough in Person’s heart to still love Flora?  After all:

It’s so hard to believe in Forever when it only counts for some people and not all of them.

Caela Carter writes movingly about the damage the foster system does to children, and the endless hope children have that a forever family somehow still exists for them.  I loved  Forever, Or A Long, Long Time so much, and know that my students will, too.

#Celebratelu: Of gardens and classrooms

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


For her Poetry Friday post, Ruth – our poetry friend from Haiti, wrote beautifully about the connection between the crafts of teaching and gardening:

I find teaching like gardening because you can do everything “right,” all the planting and watering and fertilizing, and still there is a large part of the process that’s just a complete mystery.  It takes place out of sight, and it’s out of your control.  In addition, of course, there are all the other factors – the “weather” of your students’ lives, like their home situation, their relationships with other kids in the class, their hormones, whether or not they had breakfast this morning.

Ruth’s musings led her to compose a lovely poem, and led me down the rabbit hole of thinking about how wise and accurate her comparison had been.  Yes, I’ve been thinking ever since, our classrooms are like garden plots, ones we tend to with care from September through June and then ponder over ever after: what went well, what did not, what are the lessons learned, and what do I feel I am ready to experiment with in the year to come.

As I sit before a tabletop covered with my students’ reading and writing lives which need to be commented upon and assessed, I have flashes of memories from our first marking period: the anticipation of setting up our classroom, the excitement of the first day, and the fits and starts with which my kids progressed from nervous sixth graders to ones who have settled in.

Following Ruth’s gardening metaphor, the first quarter of the year feels very much like the very beginning of Spring, when the detritus of winter must be cleared away, the weeds of the Fall cleaned off, and the soil tilled and enriched so that growth might (fingers crossed) occur.  Going into the second marking period feels like the end of Spring: each plant has its own spot in which to grow and thrive, and has begun to grow.  The garden now looks a bit uneven still, for each plant grows at its own rate, but it is taking shape, and that gives the gardener hope.

Reaching for each reading journal or piece of writing by my students has begun to feel familiar – when I read my students’ work I can hear their voices, I can remember the goals we have set, and I can appreciate the ways in which they have grown.   The gardener has come  to know her garden.

As we look ahead and plan for the second marking period, I celebrate the way in which each of my students has claimed their very own place in the learning arc of the year.  They’ve settled in, they are beginning to grow…and I celebrate that.