Slice of Life Tuesday: A Teaching Break

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When I boarded my flight to San  Francisco, I was in a panic…the book I’d been reading (a book about teaching, naturally!) while waiting to board had somehow gone missing.  I dug about in my backpack and discovered that I had also somehow managed not to pack the second book (also about teaching) I had intended to read on my journey.

By the time San Francisco came into view, I had watched three silly movies and two interesting documentaries.   I was slipping out of teacher mode.


While in San Francisco, I took long walks with my brother, played tennis with my sister in law and niece, lounged by their pool, and enjoyed lovely meals in chic restaurants.  In between all of that, I read  books about silly people making messes of their lives in hilarious ways…and always in lovely settings: the Hamptons, London, the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I was definitely out of teacher mode.

I left  San Francisco with one of these books, and began reading it as the city disappeared from view:


I watched a movie that terrified me and followed that with one that made me laugh out loud (yes, literally).

Then, I opened my planning notebook and began to sketch out my summer learning plans.  A much needed teaching break in hand, I can now get back into my real world again, and back into the teacher mode.


Slice of Life Tuesday:Whew! Another multi genre writing celebration to celebrate!

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Monday morning. My students charge into our classroom, intent on setting up their writing museums: sports and sailing paraphernalia jockey with posters of DNA helixes and NJ Transit schedules. There is an air of excitement as my kiddos cast one last glance over their writing pieces ( each student wrote four genres of their choice on topics of their choice), adjusting their displays and checking for missed typos.

Students responsible for greeting parents and putting up our invitational posters scurry around and get into position.  It’s show time: our multi genre writing celebration!


Parents begin to file in, and my kiddos attend to their “meet and greets”, settling parent into their seats and then beginning their presentations: what did writing workshop look like this year? what genres did we study? what did it feel like to be a sixth grade writer? I watched as each student made their presentation, marveling at their confidence and humor – but, especially, at the message that came through each time: we are writers, and today is all about celebrating that.  Soon, parents were invited to read, as our favorite jazz music played in the background (the soundtrack of our writing lives this past month):

And, just like that, another writing year came to a joyous close.


My teaching life take aways:

Choice matters: My kids wrote about topics that were close to their hearts.  Sometimes, this meant a leap of faith for me  – is a sixth grader capable of writing knowledgeably about DNA? or meaningfully about chewing gum? The answer is a resounding “yes!”…with a bit of direction, some reorientation, and a lot of faith.

“Teach the writer not the writing”: If memory serves me, this was a Lucy Calkins bit of wisdom, and it is so very true.  Each of my 41 students presented themselves as individual writers with unique needs. Each had their own take on memoir or poetry or anything else, and I had to find a way to teach the genre without losing each kiddos voice.  It’s hard work, inexact, sometimes fraught with frustration, but worth it – my kids now see themselves as writers. That’s the aim of writing workshop, after all.

Audience matters: There is always something special about inviting parents to read the work of a class.  I believe parents need to see what writing workshop is all about, we teachers need their buy in about the importance of daily writing, and learning the habits of the writing process – there is so much about the workshop model that seems invisible and unknowable to outsiders. The writing process, with its many multi layered steps, needs to be made visible in order for parents to understand its complexity, its worthiness of time and effort.  Most of all, my kids were primed for an audience beyond just their classmates, they had worked all year towards this public forum: parents other than their own reading their work.  The bar was set higher, but they were ready.  They were, actually, excited about sharing their writing.

It was a glorious day!  All that work was so very worth it!

Slice of Life Tuesday:Summer rejuvenation

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Just as our school day was ending today, I chanced to see this message from Dr. Mary Howard dance across  my Twitter feed:

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It had been a long day, and I was still recovering from a nasty bout of the flu.  “Rejuvenation” was certainly a word which stood out right away…but Mary’s question stayed with me as I cleaned up our classroom and headed home from work.  It stayed with me as I logged on to Google classroom and finished up one more round of revision suggestions for my students as they wind down their multi genre writing pieces.  It is with me still, as I pack up my back pack for tomorrow’s school day:What commitment will you make to elevate your work in the coming year?”

It is hard to think of making anew a fresh new school year at the tail end of the old school year, when grading and filing and cleaning and saying goodbye are the order of the day.  I find myself looking longingly at pictures of our farm, my summer home, and doing just as my kiddos are wont to do: counting the days until summer is here at last, and I am there. Both my students and I definitely need some personal rejuvenation!

But,  I often find the seeds of summer professional rejuvenation in the routines of the last days of school: consolidating writing portfolios, evaluating reading journals, assessing the last writing pieces, composing the goodbye letters.   Each of these tasks reveal areas in which, if I’m paying attention and being honest, I can make commitments to elevate my work in the coming year.  Even as I celebrate the hard work we’ve done, and the distance we’ve traveled as a class, I can jot notes about what fell through the cracks or was not followed through.   I am out of teaching ideas and very low on teaching energy in these last days of school, but now is when the “what if?” and “why not?” and “maybe if?” questions begin to dart about in my weary head.  So, I make note of these, right now, as ways in which to explore a commitment to elevate my work in the coming year.

To that end I have summer reading and learning planned:IMG_4967

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which is a great way, really, to end the school year: looking backwards with affection and reflection, and looking forwards with anticipation and purpose.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Field trip!

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Dear Smithlings,

In a few hours, we will be boarding a bus bound for the Bronx Zoo.

On the journey there, I will be listening closely to your chatter and your laughter, your sing alongs and your silly jokes.  I will try to manage your cannot-sit-still-in-one-place energy, and your we-are-not-in-school-today exuberance.   I will answer those are-we-there-yet questions with as many variations as I can muster, this seems to make the journey that much more fun.

As we spend the day wandering through this remarkable place, I will be listening closely to your questions and your wonderings – our trips outside school seem to get you thinking all the more about the world and your place in it.  You notice so much that I have learned to pass by, and you are curious about things I have learned to take for for granted.  Being with you today will be a lesson in paying attention, living  in wonder, taking joy in the moment.

On the journey back, I will walk the length of the bus many times, listening to your stories of the day.   You will be slightly less energetic than your morning selves, but just as filled with that special sixth grade mix of goofiness and thoughtfulness.  As our bus pulls into the middle school driveway in the waning hours of late afternoon, I will feel the tug of all the memories we have created this sixth grade year.  As you hop off the bus and race to your waiting parents, I  will bid each of you the first goodbye  of the last days of school.

Our school year, in that moment, will seem far too short.  I will have begun missing you.

Mrs. Smith


Slice of Life Tuesday: Lilacs…

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lilac tree

We’ve planted lilac trees in every garden wherever we’ve lived.  Sometimes, we’ve lived in the house long enough to see our trees grow and thrive, and sometimes not. Lilacs are notoriously fickle and temperamental, and their blooms last a very short time.  Still, we love them, plant them, and hope.  Each tree we planted represented something of the love and hope with which the Smith family settled, once again, in a new house.

When we bought our farm, I noticed lilac bushes growing by one of the barns. My heart sang.  We closed on our purchase last July, long after lilac season had come and gone. Every time I walked by the trees, I would imagine them in all their Spring glory.  Spring seemed a long way away. Last week, finally, we were rewarded – every tree was in full bloom.  All weekend, as we worked to mow knee high grass and clear flower beds of winter debris, we did so with the fragrance of lilacs wafting through the air.

I kept meaning to get my camera to take pictures … which I did not get around to until night time, when I had stolen a few blossoms for our dinner table:


which now sit by our kitchen window back in New Jersey, and on my desk in Room 202. These flowers have a story before our life at the farm, and now they have become part of ours.

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Photograph by Jon Katz

Slice of Life Tuesday:Letting go…

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Letting go has been the theme of so many of my recent conversations with my students, my own children, and myself.  Sometimes, we just need to bite the bullet and do what needs to be done…let go.  After all:

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One of my students, at the high school these days,  came our room late one afternoon.  He didn’t have much to say at first, choosing to look at the photographs on our walls as I cleaned up the classroom and prepared it for the next day.  Then, he took a seat. This was his seat, so many years ago when he was in sixth grade.  He meant to sit there, and so I stopped my cleaning and tidying up, and took the seat beside him.  We talked about sixth grade, middle school and high school.  We talked about mistakes made and where he wants to go next.  “Is it too late?” he wondered. “Let it go, and try and start again”, I said, “just let it go.”

One of my children called to talk about grief.  A beautiful relationship has come to an end. I have no words of solace to offer…grieving is a solitary affair.   You love deeply, you love well, but sometimes that is simply not enough.  You have to let go.

Today, a long day of meetings away from my classroom, I trudged up the familiar staircase back to my classroom.  My bones ached from a day of sitting in one place, and every nerve was on fire – the curse of fibromyalgia.  I took in all that this room has come to mean to me: children I’ve loved, taught through the years, nurtured and nudged towards their better selves.  This place that encompasses the very heart of my teaching life… I will have to find a graceful way of letting go.


Slice of Life Tuesday:A tiny music box…so many memories

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When my children were young, they did not sleep much.  Not ever during the day, and not much at night.  In later years, my daughter Elizabeth would claim that this was due to all the stories I read to them at every opportunity.  It was, after all, story time all the time at our house.

Very late at night, sometimes very early in the morning, they would wake.  They would toss and turn. They would call for us.  And we would attend to each of them…room by room, wakeful child by wakeful child.

Sometimes, all that was needed was a quick hug, a soothing voice, a drink of water. Sometimes, not even the wakeful and fussy child would know what was the matter. But, always, the one thing that guaranteed solace was my husband, Scott, singing “Edelwiess”.

Our kids grew out of their wakeful stages the moment they learned to read.  After that, they could always reach for a book in those middle-of-the-night hours to provide a diversion from their worries, or simply someplace to travel to in their imaginations until the need for sleep took over once again.

“Edelwiess” was seldom heard again in our house, but the memory of it has lingered on…we have just to hear the first strains of it to be transported back in time to cribs, pajamas with footsies, and soothing our  little ones back to sleep to the sound of Scott’s voice.  We never hear it without tearing up.

For the last two weeks, Scott has been touring Austria with our youngest, Livy.  And, on their last day there, she gifted him with this:


We unwrapped it together the evening he returned.

And we listened:

And we remembered…