Digilit Sunday: Curving towards social justice through song

digilit sunday

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  Today, Margaret asks us to reflect on the word “curves”.

At first, I was not sure what to do with Margaret’s word, and so I borrowed Julieanne’s habit of allowing myself to simply mull over the idea to see where my thoughts would lead.  And I found myself gravitating to this image, a postcard on my bulletin board from a years ago visit to the Met, Vasily Kandinsky’s Free Curve to the Point – Accompanying Sound of Geometric Curves:

I have always loved the way this represented thought (to me, that is), and the way thoughts curve here and there in random ways at first, and then reach some sort of decisive point.

This led me to think about the way our year long poetry study has followed curves of its own: we began by examining the various craft moves in a poet’s tool box, then moved on to investigating poetry as a means of expressing personal thoughts, feelings, imaginings and perspectives.  Finally, in the waning days of the school year, we seem to be moving decisively into  the realm of the larger world: poetry as a call for social justice.  
A few weeks ago, a student wanted us to discuss Macklemore’s “White Privilege II”.  And so we did.  Our classroom crackled with important ideas and many perspectives; there was some agreement, and some disagreement, but our conversation (like Kandinsky’s curves), led to a decisive point: race relations cannot be ignored, and it is clear that equal justice under the law is something we are still working towards in our nation.
On Friday, we dug into the lyrics of Blowin’ in the Wind and If I had a Hammer.  My kids thought about each song first as individuals:

and then as a group.  They added lines and verses, sketched their thoughts, and asked questions about themselves and the world they live in:

At the end of our classes, my kids arrived at some decisive points in our conversations: we must not ignore the injustices we see, we must act more out of love than hate, we can make a difference.   We curve towards truth and the cause of social justice.






Digilit Sunday: Focusing on function

digilit sunday

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  Today, Margaret asks us to reflect on the word “function“.

The other day, on her must-follow blog, Caroline Starr Rose shared her thoughtful  interview with the writer Julie Berry.  I read this with particular interest because we are smack in the middle of our historical fiction genre study at the moment, and (even though we’ve “done” this genre every year for the past four years) I am also smack in the middle of tweaking this unit and trying to infuse it with a greater sense of relevance and urgency. Perhaps this need for relevance springs directly from the quote with which we opened our genre study…

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
Robert Penn Warren

…or perhaps it is the result of the current presidential election, when most of the candidates seem to be sorely lacking in any grasp of history.   This part of the interview really resonated with me, since it connected so deeply with my central hope in teaching this unit:

Why is historical fiction  important?

I’m not sure how many people would ever decide to study the past, preserve it for future generations, and distill what it has to teach us, if they didn’t learn to care about it, somewhere along the line. I think historical fiction, especially the highest quality historical fiction for young readers, helps link young minds to the past through the caring they come to feel for real and fictitious characters, now dead. The hallmark of good fiction is how it tells the truth and enables empathy. By pointing that understanding and caring toward the past, we help young people – not just the future historians, but future thinkers of every kind – see themselves as heirs of a tremendous legacy and the forebears of a hopeful future. In other words, as a part of, but not the center of, humanity.

I guess it is fair to say that what I am grappling with in this unit are these questions: what is its primary function in my broader plan for our sixth grade year of study? how will it function to help my kids see how historical fiction “tells the truth and enables empathy”? how can our thinking work function in a way that encourages discussion and leads us to a better understanding of the past and how it connects to issues in our present?

In the past iterations of this unit, we took copious notes and wrote many responses.  This time, I wanted to experiment with writing less and focusing on discussions and finding pathways of connection more.  We used the lens of “what I know/what I wonder” from Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s seminal book, What  Readers Really Do to chart our thinking:

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The know/wonder chart was the perfect means by which to get my kids to think deeply about the historical events in our readaloud (The War That Saved My Life,by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley), how they impacted the more personal worlds of the main characters, and the ways in which we, the readers,  could connect to the past.   The know/wonder anchor allowed us to do the important work of gathering meaning across the span of the text, to note our “first draft” ideas and then to revise our thinking as we continued to read.  The aim was to arrive at this kind of thinking through reading:

…where a reader begins to read beyond the literal story and into some of the deeper layers an author might be exploring throughout a text…readers do this thinking: Their minds journey back and forth across pages, connecting and accumulating details that begin to come together to reveal patterns.  These patterns “show” what are often called issues, ideas, or themes that might be woven throughout the text.”  (What Readers Really Do; pg. 108).


So, we read, we drafted our thinking across the book:

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and tried to dig deep into  connections between the world at large and the world of the characters:

And, finally, to talk about whether this particular story about history had led us to: “a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity“.  

I think that by using our reading journals to write less but think more (i.e. our know/wonder charts) we found some answers to the questions I had had about the function of reading journals in our historical fiction unit of study.  Now…onto historical fiction book clubs, and the thinking work there!

SOLSC: March 13, 2016 & Digilit Sunday:Transition is hard for all of us


This DigiLit Sunday Margaret invites us to reflect on the word transitions.  At first, I was happy to reflect  and write about transitions in our classroom, since that is where we are as a learning community: after all, we are transitioning from dependent sixth graders to independent almost seventh graders.  But then, I thought back to Friday, and then I wasn’t so happy at the prospect of writing about transitions in our classroom…Friday was hard, and here’s why.  

In my mind, we had worked hard since September and we were ready to transition into a new phase of independence and empowerment. With each passing week and month, it seemed that my students were slowly but happily building towards self reliance: our routines were locked into place, every phase of learning had been designed with scaffolds in place, and my kiddos were moving from day to day with a greater sense of autonomy in everything from what our read aloud should be to the choice of poems to unpack for Poetry Thursday.  When I envisioned what transition would look like as we approached the last marking period and a half of the school year, this is what I saw:


In other words, I saw my kids ready to leave behind the old (help and guidance every step of the way) for the new (independence! assurance!).  Last week’s homework was designed with this “new life” in mind – I explained, but not too much.   And, on Friday (the day these assignments were due), we also sat down to write a narrative about the Trail of Tears based on a movie we’d seen, taken notes on and discussed in class, and a first person account.  Here was the task: you are a journalist reporting on the Trail of Tears, write an account giving background information about the events that led to the Trail of Tears, what the experience of the journey had been like for the Cherokee, and  reflect upon the consequences of this event.

First, I need to say that there had been undercurrents of unhappiness with the homework assignments, which we had spent a good deal of Friday discussing and clarifying.  I was puzzled that my kids, who are not shy about expressing themselves at all, had waited that long to clarify their questions.  By the time we got around to our Social Studies narrative, one I thought would give them the freedom to jump into as enthusiastic writers, there was a certain sense of unease in the air.

No one jumped in with enthusiasm. Instead, there was an eerie silence…followed by a flurry of raised hands and then a multitude of questions:

Do you mean…???

Should I say…???

What should I….???

How would I…?

With each question, two things began to occur simultaneously: my kids became more anxious, and I became more annoyed.  After all, I thought, how much clearer could the directions have been? Why were my sixth graders all of a sudden such puddles of doubt?   Bit by bit, I answered questions and put information on the board that would guide them as they wrote.  Bit by bit, I began to understand the source of their anxiety.  I had transitioned too abruptly; my students did not feel the exhilaration of “the new”, instead they felt this:


With a few clarifications, and a tiny bit of guidance, however, they were ready to rock and roll with those narratives – they were more than able to complete the task.  What I had forgotten, in my haste to transition to the last phase of our sixth grade life, was that even independence requires this:


Lesson learned!

SOLSC: March 6, 2016 & Digilit Sunday: Being flexible in writing workshop


Write. Share. Give. Join the March Slice of Life Story Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers

digilit sunday

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @Reflections on the Teche as an invitation for educators to share ideas for digital literacy and learning.

This DigiLit Sunday Margaret invites us to reflect on the function of the word technique in the writing process, and since my slice of life today is about making the final revision suggestions on my students’ feature articles in preparation for our writing celebrations tomorrow and the day after, I looked for (and found!) connections between the two.

Ever since September, we’ve been exploring techniques of great writing: show not tell, specific nouns and verbs, creating beautifully described scenes for the reader to visualize, incorporating vivid sensory details and meaningful dialogue, crafting effective leads and conclusions, using punctuation intentionally and effectively.  And these are just some of the writing techniques we have studied, played around with, and then stored away in our writing tool boxes.

I was up early this morning to read through my students’ final pieces, one last time before I click “Return All” .  In feature article after feature article, I was struck by how often my kids had chosen to reach into their writing tool boxes and try out a technique we had learned about and practiced.  Some of these techniques were put to use where expected, but the real joy was in discovering how and why my students had done so in unexpected places, and to surprisingly good effect.

In our writing workshop, we hold true to two things, one of them is choice – my kids have complete freedom in choice when it comes to what they want to write about.  Most often, choice of topic leads to great satisfaction: the writing piece shines and lives up to  our expectations.  Sometimes, though, choice of topic leads to something less than satisfaction: the topic was hard to research, or the passion for it faded.  We learn that there is a technique to settling on a topic, no matter how passionately we first feel about it.  Even in disappointment, there are lessons to be learned.

 The second thing we hold true in our  workshop, is that we must be imaginative about using the tools in our writing toolbox: “creating beautifully described scenes for the reader to visualize” is a technique that belongs as much in our memoirs as it does in our feature articles.   We don’t compartmentalize our writing moves, we learn to be flexible about our writing techniques.

It was great fun reading through my students’ work this morning, especially because it seemed that for all the sweating out that was our revision process (never fun, but always necessary) they had take our two truisms to heart, and had written, to quote Ralph Fletcher , “downhill, with the wind at my back.”



Digilit Sunday: Safe Classrooms

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @Reflections on the Teche as an invitation for educators to share ideas for digital literacy and learning.  Today, Margaret  invites us to think about safe classrooms.

We begin every sixth grade school year in our classroom with a read aloud of this book:

followed by a discussion based around the question: why this book to start our school year? Sooner or later, we all arrive at the same answer-we want Room 202 to be a safe space in which we can learn and grow and BE.  

Thank You, Mr. Falker sits on the chalkboard for a bit, and then it is quietly re shelved to make way for new book talk books, and new additions to the classroom library.  Every once in a while, I’ll notice that a student will reach for it during recess or independent reading time; and every once in a while I’ll notice that a student has checked it out to read at home.  

Last Friday, to celebrate World Read Aloud Day , I discovered that one of my students had chosen this book as his choice to read aloud to his classmates.  Sam (not his real name) has had some issues in our classroom. He is bright and engaging, a sweet soul with a zany sense of humor.  BUT, he struggles to contain his high spirits and can easily zoom off target…and take the entire class with him. Our year together has been a work in progress: how to let Sam be Sam, but also how to teach Sam to rein himself in when he needs to – for his own growth as a student, and so his classmates can learn, as well.  And this has been our work as a class.  It was not always easy to be patient and understanding, and we needed sometimes to remind each other to be kind in moments of exasperation.  

It has been a challenge, but Sam has come a long way.   So, when he chose this particular book, in his particularly deliberate way, I had to take notice…we took notice.

On Friday, Sam took to the reading chair, book in hand, and read with all his irrepressible spirit.  He created voices for the characters and read with real emotion.  He finished with a flourish, bowing deeply and smiling ear to ear.  His classmates clapped and whooped and high fived Sam. As he made his way back to a spot on the reading circle, I noticed that  Thank You, Mr. Falker stayed in his hands and then on his lap.   In his spot on the reading rug, in a circle of classmates who had shown patience and kindness and helped him grow, Sam sat…content, and safe.

It takes every single soul in a classroom to create a safe learning space for one and for all.  




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

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Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @Reflections on the Teche as an invitation for educators to share ideas for digital literacy and learning.

This evening, Margaret Simon Tweeted out her prompt for Digilit Sunday: What do you treasure?  just as I was about to begin a post for Ruth Ayres’ Celebrate This Week!  Luckily, what I celebrate this week coincides entirely with what I treasure, too, so here goes:

Time to write: both in my classroom as well as for me personally.  My kids took charge of their writing time this week, more so than usual, and watching them work with satisfied energy was so meaningful to me.  I talk to my kids all the time about how gratifying it is to live a writer’s life, and this week I feel they really got it…they really understood this:

“Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeTime to read

My online writing group: writing is a solitary endeavor, but it needs nourishing and encouragement, too.  I treasure and celebrate our writing group, which has now evolved into something more. We encourage each other to write, of course, but we pay attention to those other aspects of each others’ lives which interconnect and intersect and form the foundation of what we write about: our teaching lives, our own children, the books we read, and the noticings of our daily lives.  We live in different states and time zones, but we are on the same wavelength, and that is the magic of the digital age and its tools: Voxer, Google docs, etc.

Time to disconnect: I realize that this is my second reference to the inimitable Anne Lamott in one post, but I am finding ways to make time for this:

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I put my various devices away, free myself from the signals of each incoming message and notification, focus on being quiet and present, and find some gift left for me to  discover. Yesterday, it was a collection of bird nests high in a tree a few doors away.  Now I know where our blue jays and cardinals reside!









Digilit Sunday:Balance

digilit sunday

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @Reflections on the Teche as an invitation for educators to share ideas for digital literacy and learning.

Today, Margaret Simon invites us to think about balance – in our classrooms, and in our lives.  I thought immediately, of course, of my classroom – specifically of Thursday in my classroom: the day of our Social Studies test.

We have just concluded a unit on the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, and we have been exploring our unit’s Essential Question: How did the new nation begin to live out the ideas and ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? We covered many ideas, learned about such things as the construction of the nations’s capital and the Alien and Sedition Acts.  We had many, many discussions tying the events of those years with events of today, and then it was time for the unit test.


How to find a balance between my responsibilities (in addition to teaching my kiddos history, I need grades for my gradebook), and my “true north” as a history teacher – how does learning about history inform and inspire us as citizens?

I don’t do multiple choice, fill in the blank, true or false, tests.  I don’t want my kids to look at history in a narrow, paint by numbers way.  And yet, I must assess.  I would say that 75% of my assessment is through projects, even so…there are the tests.   Much as I hate them, I need to prepare my students to take these hated tests, because that is what they will encounter in the years ahead: various types of history tests.


My answer:

We  created our own box and bullets of the big  ideas and important details in the unit (minus the construction of the nation’s capital city, which we’d already addressed through a project).

We used the above to craft essay questions, and I typed them up on GoogleDocs and printed them for each student out right there in class.

Voila – the study guide and the test!  On Thursday, my kids came in and took their tests.  They were a bit nervous, but they were confident, too.  They wrote…a lot.  In fact, it took them two periods to finish their tests.  Why so long? I wondered. Well, said one, I learned a lot and I have a lot to say!

Today, halfway through grading these tests, I see that they did indeed have a LOT of interesting, relevant, and accurate things to say.  They know the stuff of our unit.

We found balance: I have grades for my grade book, they really learned about our history.