Poetry Friday: Be Kind by Michael Blumenthal

Poetry Friday is hosted by Donna at Mainely Write.

I found this poem while scrolling through the archives of The Writer’s Almanac, which I often do when the news of the world fills me with trepidation and rage, and I need words of comfort and beauty.  I loved it instantly…that, and last evening’s sky, put me in a better frame of mind.

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Be Kind by Michael Blumenthal


Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind— but
because it’s good for the soul, and,
what’s more, for others; it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet wander
into a bush before our very houses,
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there’s
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one, so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and
squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust’s certainly all our fate, so why not
make it the happiest possible dust,
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked
witches of our childhood have died and,
from where they are buried, a great kindness
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course,
in the end so much comes down to privilege
and its various penumbras, but too much
of our unruly animus has already been
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure:
It will not drain your limited resources,
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses,
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

Why I love soft starts and what I hope for soft closings

Writing about my “July dreams” yesterday, got me thinking about how valuable it was to experiment with soft starts last year, which makes me want to try to bookend our sixth grade block with a soft closing this year, too.  (You can read more about soft starts by going straight where I did: Sara Ahmed’s book with Harvey Daniels – Upstanders)

Why it worked so well:

  • The kids really needed it. Morning block (three periods-writing workshop,reading workshop, social studies) begins first thing in the day at 7:50, when my kiddos are still half asleep.  They need some time to get into school mode.  Afternoon block begins right after lunch, when my kiddos are either half comatose from all the carbs they just consumed, upset about something that happened at lunch recess, or still hyper from recess activity. They also need some time to get back into school mode.  About ten minutes gives them a chance to collect themselves, so that when we begin our learning time, we really begin.
  • It worked the same way every day: classical or jazz music to set the tone, and both the day’s “order of operations” and the “starting menu” posted so that everyone was always in the know about what to do, and I didn’t have to field a hundred questions first thing:
  • Allowing time for issues settled kids down and eased their minds. If someone had forgotten lunch money, or just had a big melt down at lunch, it was best to address concerns before we began working, rather than have a student worried and miserable and therefore not able to pay attention.
  • Be flexible about the timing.  Somedays we need more time than others, most often it’s the idea that kids know they have some time, rather than sticking to a rigid timeframe.  When time’s up, the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, please meet at the rug to begin our day” is all it takes – they already know what to expect and have, it’s just a matter of picking it up and moving there.

Why a soft closing and what would that look like?

Our block ends with Social Studies, which is discussion based and project oriented.  I find that my kids rarely leave our classroom in a calm way  – they are either still bubbling over with discussion points and ideas, or not quite done putting away their supplies.  Most importantly, they don’t leave in the same frame of mind they had when we began our work day, and I’d like to change this.

I’m thinking that music could signal this time frame, too.  And, perhaps a reference chart for closing that could look like this:


Who knows, maybe this soft close to our day will have as much of a positive effect on me as the soft start does!


Slice of Life Tuesday: July dreams

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers


July has come and gone, and August begins today.  Those were my first thoughts upon waking this morning: July is gone, here comes August…here comes the new school year! Even though I have three more weeks of Summer vacation stretching out before me – somehow, the moment I see August on the calendar, I think about Room 202 and the kids who will be walking in.

July is for dreaming…August is for planning to make those dreams come true; here are some July dreams:

*carving out more time for students to share what they have been reading with each other. My summer book club has been so much fun – lots of reading, and lots of talking about the different books we’ve read and how they have impacted us as readers. I want to give my students a chance to do this, too.

*opening up our reading journals to new ways to experiment with reading responses.  For my summer book club and the PD book groups I participated in, I deliberately experimented with sketch noting and a few other forms of responding to both fiction and nonfiction.  I want to make time to share these with my new students, and to brainstorm with them for ideas they will undoubtedly also have.  It’s time to have more response options in reading workshop!

*our soft start of the day was such a success, that I want to experiment by bookending our block of time (three periods) with a soft closing as well, just to give my sixth graders an opportunity to end their time in our classroom in a calm way as well.

*designing a short unit on “how to think like a historian” before we go on to examine the historical time frame mandated by our curriculum. My friend Julieanne shared this link with me:http://sheg.stanford.edu/rlh, and now I am more excited than ever about opening our year with this unit.

*creating a history blog, so that we are writing about the events we’re learning about, and carrying on with our class discussions after time to think/do some independent research.  This is a work in progress, but that’s what August is for.

*a graphic novel book club.  I think it’s time for this!

I have a few more dreams up my sleeve, but the above seems quite enough to get through for the moment.  After all, three weeks is not that long of a time to make all of those July dreams come true!

#IMWAYR – It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Refugee by Alan Gratz

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

Refugee by Alan Gratz was the most important book I’ve read this summer; its powerful story is timeless, mainly because we don’t seem to be able to heed its message or behave in ways which create unceasing wars that lead to waves of refugees seeking sanctuary from danger and devastation.

Here’s the jacket copy summary:

Three different kids.

One mission in common: ESCAPE.

Josef is a Jewish boy in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…

Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety and freedom in America…

Mahmoud is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe…

All three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers–from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always the hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.

Joseph, Isabel and Mahmoud are all the same age when they must flee their homelands – twelve; they are at that stage of their lives when they are between the innocence and magical thinking of childhood, and a more circumspect and realistic understanding of the worlds they live in.  This kind of dual perspective lends their individual stories a moving poignancy, and makes a powerful impact – how do children who have seen their worlds fall apart in such cruel ways ever return to having hope, to believing in humanity?

Gratz does not hold back from describing what war and persecution looks like and feels like; he is especially careful to also include unexpected acts of kindness, as well as moments when people turn away from doing what little they can to assuage suffering. In other words, Refugee is realistic.  What makes it a difficult book to read, however, is the way we see history repeating itself time and time again, in every part of the world.

I was moved, too, by the way Gratz described the anguish and frustration of the refugee.  Here, for instance, Mahmoud ponders over the predicament of his family as they make one harrowing journey after another trying to find safety:

But Mahmoud wasn’t ready to give up.  He wanted life to be like it was before the war had come.  They couldn’t go back to Syria. Not now. Mahmoud knew that.  But there was no reason they couldn’t make a new life for themselves somewhere else.  Start over. Be happy again. And Mahmoud wanted to do whatever it took to make that happen. Or at least try.

But making something happen meant drawing attention. Being visible. And being invisible was so much easier.  It was useful too, like in Aleppo, or Serbia, or here in Hungary.  But sometimes it was just as useful to be visible, like in Turkey and Greece.  The reverse was true too, though: Being invisible had hurt them as much as being visible had.

Mahmoud frowned. And that was the real truth of it, wasn’t it? Whether you were visible or invisible, it was all about how other people reacted to you.  Good and bad things happened either way.  If you were invisible, the bad people couldn’t hurt you, that was true. But the good people couldn’t help you, either. If you stayed invisible here, did everything you were supposed to and never made waves, you would disappear from the eyes and minds of all the good people out there who could help you get your life back.

Of course, “the people” these three characters encounter across different time frames and continents, are the rest of us – the lucky ones who are not displaced, who live in security, whose lives are not upended by circumstances beyond our control. And, more often than not, we choose to “disappear”   the Mahmouds, Isabels and Josephs because it’s uncomfortable, or because choosing not to do something is easier than speaking up and doing the right thing.

The gift of this book is that we can share this story with our students, and open conversations about what it means to see people, to act on their behalf, to keep ourselves open to the idea that we all own a share of the suffering displaced people face, and we must change the way in which we respond.  Isabel’s grandfather says this:

“I see it now, Chabela. All of it. The past, the present, the future. All my life, I kept waiting for things to get better. For the bright promise of mañana.  But a funny thing happened while I was waiting for the world to change, Chabela: it didn’t. Because I didn’t change it.”

The idea of changing the world, of doing what we can to make it a better place, is one that is especially important now, in Trump’s America, where toxic messages of hate and indifference to suffering are reaching our kids through news every day.  We will be reading Refugee in my sixth grade class, and I look forward to many important discussions with my students – to change.




#cyberpd 2017: Dynamic Teaching For Deeper Reading #4


I was sad to have finished reading Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading.  I know that I will return to it many times to re-read chapters and sections of chapters, and to refresh my memory about the many brilliant ideas and words of wisdom she has to share, and I know that my students will reap the benefits of all I have learned…but I am sad all the same.  The experience of reading Vicki’s book felt very much like a conversation between us, as though she had pulled up a chair to my work table with a notebook filled with the essence of good teaching, and calmly shared what I know in my heart to be really true: teaching in the way Vicki directs us to “… creates opportunities for us to be big-picture thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers, too.  And by not tying us down to a script or a lesson plan that claims students will meet outcomes that are hard, if not impossible, to reach in a single sitting, it allows us to reclaim the status of professionals in a world that often sees us as the problem.” (pg. 216)

In Chapter 9, Vicki sheds some much needed clarity on two areas of non fiction reading that I have been wrestling with in my teaching life: how to help students arrive at an understanding of the important ideas the writer is trying to convey (the main ideas, in teacher lingo) and how to sift through the author’s own feelings about an idea (their bias).

“…readers don’t really find ideas in texts; they construct them from the details they notice…Readers of this kind of nonfiction (which includes magazine articles, investigative journalism, and many kinds of essays) have to actively draft and revise their thinking as they move through a text, adding on to their own ideas as they do…These cumulative understandings are, by their very nature, more deep and penetrating -and more nuanced and complex-than those focused on readily apparent features..” (pgs. 170, 171)

Rather than focusing on text structures and trying to use “box and bullets” to tease out the main idea and supporting details, Vicki asks us to consider ideas, sort and group these ideas, combine like ideas, consider the author’s perspective as well as one’s own reactions, in order to construct meaning.  This chart frames the work in such a problem solving approach, one that involves active engagement with the text as one reads through chunks, stops to consider and synthesize, before moving on to continue the process, which is, as Vicki points out, “the invisible thinking work involved in determining importance”:

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I loved the inclusion, once again, for opportunities for low stakes writing through out this process, in addition to turn and talks, since it allows every student a chance to anchor their thinking and experience their reading thinking made visible.

My students often arrive at non fiction thinking that they are either going to learn all facts (i.e. the “truth) or all only what the author wants you to think of as facts (i.e. a biased point of view), to help them formulate a more nuanced stance, Vicki guides us to ask our kids to consider the following:

*the arrangement of facts

*parenthetical comments

*word choice

*the selective inclusion or omission of facts or points of view

*the structure of the piece, including how much space is given to different aspects of a topic or issue

*the last note struck by the ending  (pg.184)

Reading this section, I was struck by the way this nuanced work was reflected in a nonfiction book group I am taking part in at the moment.  The process Vicki describes is exactly what my group seems to be doing – sorting ideas, combining and connecting them, trying to synthesize information even as we transact and react to our book.  Our engagement in this process is exactly the sort of reading experience I wish for my own students to have.

Chapter 10 gets right to where I spend a good chunk of my teaching day – conferring as my students read their independent books.  What will my reading conferences look like/sound like in a problem based approach? is a question I’ve been asking myself in chapters one through 8, so I was delighted to find that exploring this is how Vicki chose to conclude her book.

Here, I was thrilled to see Vicki take on the teacher focused ideas that seem to prevail in many conferring methodologies, i.e. not coming to each conference with an agenda in advance or a pre-decided focus:

“In a problem based approach whose goal is meaning…you’ll want to hold off on deciding what to teach until you have a sense of how a student is navigating the problems he’s encountering and what meaning he’s making as he reads.”

Such a conference would look like this:

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The repetitive presence of “research” is a key one in this process, for this acts to:

“shift the focus of a conference from what students are reading to how they are making meaning, which sends out the message that the thinking students are doing with the book is as important, if not more so, than the book itself…” (pg.198)

in a way that allows our kids a “new sense of competence and purpose”, because our students:

“need many opportunities to have their thinking listened to and validated before they begin to consider that they may, in fact, be insightful readers.” (pg. 210)

Conferring in this problem based way will require us to suspend some of the neatly packaged ways in which we sit down to confer with our students, it requires us to really listen and to be flexible in our thinking.  This work neither sounds easy, nor looks easy:

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But, I see tremendous value in setting our students up to be problem solvers and deep thinkers, to read with the consciousness that they are actively constructing meaning which will “both illuminate their understanding of the world and lead to that ‘education of the heart’.”

My first read through of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading has given me a new framework for reading workshop in the new school year, now, for the second read through….

It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: The Ethan I Was Before & Walking With Miss Millie

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

I continue to make my way through my boxes of summer books, enjoying each of them for different reasons, but these were my standout books of last week, books I know my sixth graders will love to read and talk about:

Ali Standish has created so many wonderful characters in her debut book, The Ethan I Was Before, beginning with Ethan himself.  The “before” Ethan was a happy middle schooler whose life was all about the Red Sox, skate boarding, and hanging out with his best friend and partner in escapades, Kacey.  Then there was a terrible accident involving Kacey, and Ethan’s parents decided to leave their lives in Boston and move to Florida to live with his ornery grandfather.  This was supposed to be a new beginning for Ethan, but there is no getting way from his memories of Kacey for Ethan – or the guilt he feels for causing her accident.  Lonely and sad, he meets Coralee, who seems to have sad secrets of her own.  Finding an unexpected treasure leads them to adventures which help both of them discover what love, truth and friendship really mean.

I loved the compassion woven into each character in this book, and the way the adults step up to the needs of the children they are responsible for and do their best to be there for them.  We need books with kind adults, especially these day.

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Walking With Miss Millie is one of those lovely stories that unfolds gently and fills you with a quiet comfort.  Eleven year old Alice is not happy about having to move to a little town in Georgia so that her mother can take care of her grandmother, who seems to be getting more forgetful by the day.   Rainbow, Georgia seems backwards in every way compared to where she grew up in Ohio, especially when it comes to the issue of race – it’s the late 1960’s after all, and yet the people in this  town seem not to be making much progress.  Meeting Miss Lillie, her grandmother’s neighbor, and taking daily walks with her dog Clarence everyday, begins to open Alice’s eyes to many things: segregation, kindness, forgiveness, and sometimes having to accept that people are sometimes just who they are and not what you hope they can be.  I love the sense of humor  which Tamara Bundy weaves into the dialogue, too, which had me chuckling many times.



#celebratelu: Books, book communities, and book talk

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


Today serves as a mid-marker of sorts, as of today, I will have been out of school on summer break for exactly one month…with exactly one month to go.  When anyone asks me what I’ve been up to over the past weeks, the first thing that comes to mind is reading.  I have read more over the past four weeks than over the last six months!

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What I’ve read…so far.

This is not to say that all I have been doing is reading, but I am amazed at the pace I’ve been able to keep without losing either the energy or the enthusiasm for reaching for another book the moment I finish what is currently at hand.

Of course, my summer reading has me thinking about the new school year and the readers who will be walking into Room 202 at the beginning of September.  What am I learning about my own reading life that can be put to use for them?

Choice, yet pre-selection: Although I could choose to read whatever I wanted and in whichever order I preferred, every book in my TBR pile (whether YA or middle grade or for professional development) was pre-selected carefully, based on reviews or word of mouth.  This meant that I could count on each reading experience to be a pleasurable one, some more than others to be sure, but not one of them a disappointment – each good reading experience fed the desire for another.   This is what I want for our classroom library as well: it must be consistently good, carefully selected, every read a worthwhile one.

Communities of reading and responding: some of my books were “book group books” and some were ones I read on my own.  But, even in the case of the latter, I had a group to share my thoughts with, enthuse and mull over, problem solve and commiserate with. Our conversations helped spur rich questions and thinking that I would not have had if I had read alone.  This makes me think that in addition to book groups that meet when we do our genre studies, when each group is reading the same text, I should build in some time every week for just “book turn and talks” about whatever it is that my kids are reading.

Latitude in how to respond: There was great freedom in my book groups to find our own ways in which to respond, and to experiment with each response.  We sketch noted, jotted, drew webs, asked questions and wrote long, and in the process we learned new ways of note taking and communicating  ideas.  I want my sixth graders to have this freedom and flexibility as well, which means that I will have to plan for it both in terms of modeling/sharing example as well as assessment.

A sense of responsibility:  We trusted the process, purpose, and value of our reading communities, and felt an obligation to show up prepared each time we participated, so our conversations were always meaningful; best of all, they always pushed our thinking. In my “share whatever you’re reading” group, we could not wait to tell each other (across many miles and a time zone) what had moved us, made us laugh, brought us to tears: it didn’t matter that we did not have a book in common, all that counted was the rich experience we just had to share.  Of course, I would love to see more of this joyful sense of responsibility with my kiddos as well.  I think I will begin laying the groundwork by simply speaking of my summer experiences and how much the fact that others took their reading lives seriously impacted my own desire to show up prepared.

Time: Well, this one needs no explanation.  I have time to read and I am making the most of it.  But, all of the above ensure that I  am using this gift of time to read.  And, for my students, time in our classroom comes down to one person – me. It’s my responsibility to toss aside anything that gets in the way of large blocks of time for my kids to read/confer/share.  That’s on me.

So, this “mid-marker Saturday”, I celebrate all the reading done, the reading to come, for myself…and for those soon to be Smithlings.