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March 13, 2013

1st 30 seconds
beauty, heartache, human truth

After School Friends

March 10, 2011

I haven’t written in a while…

We have jumped over the towers of memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction and I haven’t posted a thing. I suppose that’s what Summer is for.

Today I celebrate beauty in the classroom POST 3pm. I’ve been spending some time with some 4th and 5th graders blogging after school. I’m especially inspired by one student, Anne, who has not 2..3..but FOUR blogs (she corrected me today). Read them. Love them. Be inspired.


Check them out here.

Memoir – heartbreak, sighs, and drafting

October 26, 2010

My kids are breaking my heart with their writing. Don’t they always? I know this about memoir. I know this will happen. And yet, like the first day of school, my heart is surprised by emotion.

Every sigh and heavy exhale  is so helpless. Their worries, wonderings, silenced dreams placed so freely on paper.

The human story doesn’t get old. The inner workings of the heart are precious.


I am honored to be their writing teacher. I am honored to be their reader.


On a practical note, we end our developing tomorrow and we’re on to drafting Thursday.

Last day of developing: Writers dig for the hidden truths within our stories.  We can do this by rereading our writing, highlighting the stuff that just feels so BIG and TRUE. We can ask, “How will I live differently now that I know this truth? If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, how would I do this moment over again?”

Drafting What I HAD planned was to teach was:

Writers study the structure of memoir.  We name possible ways it might go- highlight where writers stop to “talk” to their reader. Then, we can take out our timeline. Before drafting, we can story tell our moment to our partners (including the post its of what’s happening IN us) and mark the places we will stop and talk to our readers about the truth that our story reveals.

What I WANT to teach NOW is simply: Writers can have magic rub off on them. We can read mentor memoirs and write in the wake of that beauty.     I want to do this because I saw miraculous leaps on the day that we did this lesson in the collecting phase. We read a sample from  Jacqueline Woodson’s The Notebook of Melanin Sun. Afterwards, my kids and I wrote. Yes, in a wake. A wake of magic.   Confession: laughed at Lucy’s words. And now I love them. They are true.  Anyway, I want that wake back and I think drafting is the perfect time to bring it again.

My hypothesis is that if students simply read amazing mentors, they can use their timelines and reflections and “write in the wake of power and beauty.”  It’s hands off. It’s risky. But I’m excited.

Alone by Jacqueline Woodson from The Notebook of Melanin Sun Yay for finding online texts! ignore the notes.

10/20   while sitting with the kids. I couldn’t resist writing alongside them.


Somedays I wear new like shiny white sneakers

So shiny and white– but they stick out

Pretty, but they dont’ fit in. Not like the others, worn in and comfortable.

And it’ll take time before I’ll look like them, at home and free.

Other times I wear new like a turtle, protecting myself from what might happen

Uncertainty, danger, fear, hurt…

I hide beneath my shell, afraid to trust- until it is safe.

Safe to peek out.

But new is also peeking out at the sound of a friendly voice telling me it’s safe. Peeking out to see a new best friend. Peeking out to find that being new is also smiles and friends and kids I love.

Memoir Begins!

October 13, 2010

Memoir Day 1:


Our brainstorm of Life Topics


After this, we took the Life topics (issues) that felt like ours and charted them along with people and moments associated with them… “because we usually care about an issue when we’ve had lots of experience with it.”


The next step: pick life topics that belong to you and find moments attached to them.



Then we chose one we could write fast and furiously about and began. This is the rough beginning of my chosen moment.


Other thoughts: As I make my way through this unit (as a teacher and a writer and an individual) I want so much to write both models for my kids and for myself. Oh, if only I had the discipline to do both. For now, I think they merge a bit. Perhaps when we pick our seed idea, I’ll draft one for them and one for me. The truth waiting to rise to the surface is great, I’m sure.

On another note, I had tear stains on the pages of my writer’s notebook within a 1/2 page of my first entry. Writing is one of those subjects that brings us together through truth and vulnerability, but… is this too much for 5th graders? My heart says no, but I’m a little worried. (I did revise my plans today for a few days of writing moments of joy and celebration. i.e. the moment you met your new best friend or accomplished something you’ve worked toward or the times you’ve laughed until your side hurt. That should give us balance, right?)  🙂

Memoir: Seeking Honesty, Beauty & Bravery (alongside our students)

October 12, 2010

Tomorrow we start Memoir. My current favorite of favorites.

That means if I’m to do this well.. If I’m to seek honesty and chase beauty like I will charge my kids to do, I’m going to have to write about Grandma.

That scares me.

I can write about the songs. The porch swings and the stories in the rain. I can write about the way she curled my hair with her fingers while she sang to me, but I don’t know if I’m ready to write about the last years. My grandma stories end at age 8.  But if I’m brave like I ask my kids to be -like a writer has to be- I have to write the grandma stories at 14.

Those are the ones I’m scared to write.

The ones I’ve never written.

I am notoriously vulnerable in my models. Honest. Heart-breaking sometimes, but I’ve never written about this, these untouched territories.

But. . .  no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, right? That is the truth I will carry with me, their teacher, in this unit. Perhaps I’ll write through it all here.


Today we immersed ourselves in the genre of Memoir by reading lots of it and collectively defining memior.

-Memory of a significant moment + Reflection

Tomorrow, we begin brainstorming.

The week’s lesson are below. I’m (loosely) setting a goal to post here alongside my students through these lessons. 🙂

  • Writers write the moments that matter.  We can find the moments that matter in our lives by thinking about the issues that kids face, and finding the ones that belong to us.

*We will generate chart of issues…circle the ones that matter to US.  Circle the ones that are really big for me a couple of times.   (Go to issues/moments/people chart)      We can think about moments and people that are attached to those issues. We think, “Which one can I write fast and furiously about right now?” Then we go write that one!

  • We can find moments that matter in our lives by thinking about the ‘icky’ stuff.  What are the moments that you DON’T like to remember?  Writers push themselves to figure out why those memories bring up the ick.  (Mid-workshop:  take a colored pencil… in the margin, stop to reflect:  why does this experience bother you?  How did you feel then?  How do you feel about it now?  WHY don’t I like to remember this?  What does this teach me about myself?”
  • Writers bring an artifact, picture, or memory to our notebooks.  We can describe that image (and tape it in/draw it) and then think, “WHEN was the time that this _____ really began to matter?”  -Write long the story of that moment!
  • Writers can sometimes rely on the magic of a particularly powerful piece to rub off within our own work.  (Mentor text/inspiration day).



Give the People What They Want #1

September 13, 2010

If I worked in advertising (which would be the absolute worst job in the world for me–I’m more the “You don’t want it? you don’t have to take it… and if you need it, you can find it cheaper here…”  kind of a person.) ANYWAY- if I DID work in advertising, I would open a blog. Each day, it tells you what people search for that lead them to your page.  So basically I see a lot of what you teachers out there google. (Ps, many of you are quite famous. You are googled a lot.  And thank you for the blog traffic, by the way.)

If I were smart (and had time) I would perhaps start an ongoing series and give it a clever title like “Give the people what they want MONDAYs.”    On each Monday, I’d write about the topics most searched for.   Because I’m still in beginning-of -school-year mode,  I resist starting ANYTHING that is not sustainable and hesitate to commit to an every monday post.  However. . . I am finding that writing continues to give me life even on the busy days, so why not… Why not give the people what they want?

Ideas so far. . .

1. The best of ______________. (enter your favorite keynote speaker/staff developer here.)

2. How to create a welcoming and fun environment. (LOTS of you google how to make a beautiful classroom!

3. Beginning of the year routines/building community (This could be a BOOK!  …maybe one day.)

MOST of you found my blog by googling “how to make a beautiful classroom.” Let’s start there.

As I reflect on my own classroom creations, I think I can name a few things that pass through my mind as I get a vision for a room. I can make a list of them, from practical to more big picture.

1. Get out all the trash or unused paper. (Do you have a hundred copies of a revision checklists and a million left over reading logs from 2002? Then recycle those mounds! No need for them. Start from scratch. Every year is different. The old has gone, the new has come! If you want or need a new feel/vibe, you need to take down the old.

2. Double border. I learned this from my angel mentor, Claire Mundy. What a DIFFERENCE!!! It’s like the difference between a  plain picture frame and a matted picture frame.

3. Pick themes and colors you love. If YOU adore your room, your kids will too. You will want to be there, and so will they. (Read Debbie Miller. Read lots of Debbie Miller.. for the reading instruction, but also for the climate she created in her class. Glorious.

4. Get rid of clutter. Just moving books from stacks to bins makes such a difference.

5. Quotes. What truths to you want embedded in your kids’ hearts and minds? Put them up!  “Poetry is not words that rhyme. It’s words that feel true.” -Georgia Heard  These words (even if I don’t TEACH this until Spring, which I hope isn’t the case) will reiterate to kids a timeless (and maybe surprising) truth about writing.

6. Think about the feeling you want to be tangible as people enter. For me, it is PEACE. I want kids and adults alike to walk in and feel something different. Feel a haven and a place of safety…a place of unconditional love and excitement. One year, I put up a poster by the door that simply said, “Do you know how much I love you?”… ANYTHING that, again, reiterates what you want students to know. This year, I have “Work Hard. Be Kind” in HUGE colorful letters along the wall. Your classroom should have your beliefs all over it.

7. Make it theirs. Kids love Chuck E. Cheese (Don’t worry, I just asked them why today, so it’s current) because it has everything that is for THEM. So make the classroom THEIRS. Give them ownership over where things should go…decorate it with their names and pictures and hang them at their eye-level. (I just bought frames and can’t wait to put random art in them!) Let them decorate their self-portraits and line them along the wall. Make it a kid’s paradise. My goal is to create an environment where kids come in and don’t want to leave!

8. Ok, this might seem superficial, but this is for you people who love decoration. I put border around my board and cabinets… and sometimes large posters. I adds a little something.

9. MUSIC.  yes, music. I prefer Bach in the mornings and Jack Johnson (if needed) in the afternoon. A little Vivaldi during writing (Baroque/Fugue-like music is fabulous for writing. Perhaps it’s the systematic patterns that keep the focus, who knows?)  Regardless, I think music adds beauty to any environment, so why not a classroom?

10.  YOU. I believe we bring more than our creativity to our classrooms, we bring our hearts and souls. You are in education because you love children. That love is going to permeate your room. Period. You make it beautiful.

Ps, Annie, here are pictures for you. Hopefully you can see the double border. 😉

Double Border

I Am From

September 12, 2010

Thank you to my beautiful colleague who reminded me today of one of my favorite writing activities: the I Am From poem.  I love that we don’t teach alone for this very reason! If it weren’t for her, the inside of our Writer’s Notebooks would be bare tomorrow…and worse, stories untold.

Here’s to sharing and remembering-

i am from. . .

i am from front porch swings in Georgia
watching the rain come down

i am from Grandma Shirley holding me tight
curling my hair into ringlets with her fingers (even though it curled on its own)

i am from “scrunching” with my mama and drawing pictures on her back
when i was too scared to sleep

i  am from chasing fireflies and picking blackberries
down long dirt roads

i am from loud kitchens full of stories and laughs
but a quiet  room of melodies and words on a page

i am from a divorced Christmas Day
with Spanish rice on one side
and turkey on the other
Loving, but exhausting

i am from music stands and metronomes
from dreams and dreams come true
i am from the corner of my favorite street with my favorite bakery
from a river that shares its sunsets and sailboats

from the hills of Carolina to the Upper West Side
i am from dreams still coming true

Piedmont, SC

My spot in Riverside Park (that I sometimes share with others)

The Song of a Classroom: How music is just like good teaching

September 4, 2010

I started playing guitar around the time I dropped my music major. Well, play is a generous word. I’ll say strum. I started strumming the guitar about 10 years ago. I have a repertoire of 8 or 9 chords – enough for me to play a few songs. I often slip into my acoustical trance on late afternoons and Saturday mornings (and other times I find myself alone in an empty apartment). It satisfies this corner of my heart that is unquenched by the other things I love like people or teaching or sunsets or shores.

While playing this morning, I couldn’t help but be mindful of students I will be teaching in a few days. Every year, something happens to my heart about 2 weeks before students come. I either get hyper-tender hearted or I turn everything that happens into something about teaching.  I’ve realized it’s my teacher version of nesting, preparing the heart and mind space for the little people that are about to inhabit it.

Today, it’s a little of both.  And because it’s a gorgeous Labor Day weekend and because I should be putting my writing energy into something  I actually need to write,  I’ll go fast. Here are this morning’s random thoughts:

1. After strumming (playing all 6 strings at once) for many years, I’ve just started refining my “plucking” skills. The difference is heavenly -it’s where the heart comes in… a baseline of beautiful melodies with tiny voices singing in and out. Each string plays a part that achieves a sweet spot where each voice is capitalizing on the other. Rather than being dictated by the strum, the melody is now transferred to the individuals.  THEY carry it.

This is teaching. The “strumming” is insufficient at BEST. But when each student is recognized and is given the opportunity to learn and do and BE according to their own strengths, it is heavenly. In the “plucking” classroom, students learn that while each one is different and plays a different role, they are all needed… better together as individuals than together as the same note …and obviously better together than apart.      I could sit in this analogy forever.

2. To understand this next part, you don’t need to be musically gifted. You just need to be able to whistle. Whistle. (yes, do it.  right now.) As you continue to whistle, move your tongue back and forth from the front of your mouth (where the air is coming out) to the back of your mouth. Back and forth. You hear that? You are changing the pitch of the note.  That’s what happens when you tune an instrument. You find the right pitch for each note- and the instrument is in tune so that it can be a part of a community of notes.

When just 1 of the 6 strings of the guitar is out of tune, it’s off.  Off in a way that resembles having a bad taste in your mouth. And no matter how GORGEOUSLY in tune the other 5 strings are, it doesn’t matter because the chord is ruined. It’s not what it’s meant to be.      (Aw, let’s just pause for a moment envisioning that kid who comes in who is having an awful day. ) 😦     When there is dissonance in a chord, a musician’s attention goes directly to the ailing note. You determine what is making it out of tune. It is an outside force? Is your finger in the wrong place? Or does the actual string need some attention and care?

As we start the year, let’s always remember that our classrooms are these beautiful melodies and songs and chords. And if one tiny person is off, we feel it. We need to inquire and restore and love.We also need to be ready to turn our eyes to ourselves. What have we done/not done that may be affecting the whole?

Then we do what we must to restore the beauty.

3. I’d love to take the time here to talk a little about how dissonance can only be discovered in the context of community, but I think that may take another post.

In the mean time, I wish all of you teachers a most glorious new beginning. I hope your community grows into one of BEAUTIFUL MELODIES.

Moving Kids (and our Teaching) Along a Trajectory of Non-Fiction Goodness

August 30, 2010

The Glorious Strands of Non Fiction

(Most of this information comes from workshops led by Cory Gillette and the TCRWP. Thank you, Cory!!)

This past season has been one of great strides in the teaching of Fiction. The research on Bands of Text Difficulty changed my life as a teacher. Small group work (and my own clarity) has never been more consistent and effective (and JOYFUL) as it was this year. I believe it’s because we are really starting to understand the nuances of teaching students through Fiction. My brilliant heroes at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project have worked hard this year trying to do the same for Non-Fiction. Finding similarities among levels in Non-Fiction books, however, proved to be much more difficult. The answer was not in BANDS, rather in STRANDS, predictable patterns of increased difficulty. There are three: Elaboration, Vocabulary, and Main Idea.

Students spend the majority of their time in 1st and 2nd grades reading Non-Fiction. They LOVE it. Yet as they enter the upper grades, the love affair ends. Reading NF (for some) becomes a point of dread and anxiety. I honestly believe this new work may alleviate that and bring the joy back to Non-fiction.

Predictable problems in Non Fiction:

Students take the stance as detail holders, memorizing details as little facts and  miss the big idea (often drowning in anxiety).

The GOAL is to get the big idea. We as non-fiction readers need to SYNTHESIZE. To constantly move in and out from tiny details to BIG IDEA.

In lower level non-fiction texts, the BIG IDEA is obvious. (For example, the big idea is often given as 1 sentence on 1 page: Sharks are dangerous.) As texts become more complicated, ideas become embedded in more elaborate details. The reader is expected to dig through the information to find or infer the bigger idea. As texts get harder, we have to keep caring about the BIG IDEA.

So our task then is to help students become able to deal with more difficult texts. (And maybe re-evaluate what we expect from them along the way. We don’t want them to read like researchers, collecting every tiny fact… we want them to synthesize!)

In order to understand HOW non-fiction texts get harder, it helps to think of strands of text difficulty. According to the brilliant comrades at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Non-fiction text difficulty can be broken down into 3 major strands:

  1. Elaboration
  2. Tricky Words
  3. Determining Main Idea
Elaboration Tricky Words Determining Main Idea

More Difficult




Main Idea is obvious and written on the page Text is in small chunks. Ex: 1 Sentence: Sharks are dangerous.

Size of chunks increase (paragraphs).

Main Idea is inferred from more words. (Here we need to teach what’s most important. The reader has to be able to let go of detail to get to the main idea.)

Certain words in NF carry weight:

-this, that, these, those, for example

We must notice and determine extraneous details

Words are defined plus text feature support:

In lower level texts, new vocabulary is often taught with a picture, caption, title, and text. The meaning is obvious.

Later, the author assumes you are brining a certain amount of knowledge to the text and you must look further to find the meaning of the word.

In more difficult texts, the reader has to be even more flexible. Vocabulary shifts; it may become more figurative.

Readers must expect synonyms. Vocabulary could be defined 1 way and referred to in another. Ex: Station/Depot/Terminal

Main Idea is directly stated with support of features.

Main Idea is stated without support of features. (As texts become increasingly more difficult, notice that features stop being retells and more ENHANCEMENTS. It may not have anything to do with Main Idea.)

Main Idea becomes implied.

There may be more than 1 main idea.

The title becomes less literal and more figurative. Readers now need to read to figure out the meaning of the title, not the other way around.

It is helpful to tackle this work by taking on certain identities or STANCES as a reader. We are readers who. . . _______________________ as we read.

Introducing Strands

We need to teach students how to move through strands by showing them the work with will be doing. For example, you could say, “ Look! You were reading books like this…. (point out pages from text). Now, you’re reading stuff like this… (point out pages from text). So now, you have to be a reader who…”


The goal in NF is to interact with and make sense of the text. In expository text, you don’t have personal connection with text, so we need to give kids opportunities to interract with the text.

The way to make meaning and gain knowledge through NF is to merge YOUR thinking with the content. Readers need to work, play with, mess around with, and manipulate facts.

Three big ways to Synthesize

  1. Make a comparison
  2. Have an inference (often a trait)
  3. Form a judgement

Comparison is the most common. Kids can use their past knowledge to form a connection to the subject or idea. Ex: Sharks teeth are like puppy teeth … because… Camel humps are like pantries…because…

Inferring means that we might watch the subject like we’d watch a character.

*It’s important to remember that the assignment is to Synthesize, not to compare, judge, or infer. The reader needs to determine what works for her. (It’s a compare OR judge OR infer kind of thing.)

Comprehension is NOT about memorizing facts. It’s about interacting. Use whatever you need to glue the bigger parts of the text together. Play! mess around with! manipulate!!  I truly believe doing this will help us discover the joy in Non Fiction again!

Oh, How we Love our Charts!

August 24, 2010

Buried in my philosophy of education among the pleas for social justice and renewing the world is this simple fact: Teaching is SO MUCH FUN.

It’s fun for a million reasons but one of those is that I get to make charts. There is nothing like ripping open a brand new box of sharpie bold point flip chart markers and going to town on a teaching point. Perhaps it’s the creation and creativity (or therapy) of it all, but chart-making, for me, ranks up there with decorating a classroom. After all, they serve such vital purposes WHILE making the environment beautiful!

Charts are an interesting beast. When visitors come into my classroom , it’s the charts that get the most attention. I’ve seen people copy and take pictures of the most random charts. (And I do the same thing when I visit others’ classrooms!) It’s funny, right?  So what’s the deal with the chart?

Two weeks ago, Majorie Martinelli gave a talk on this very issue. Here are some key points I loved.

CHARTS..they aren’t just for wallpaper.         Closing Talk by M.Martinelli


Routine: What to do when…
Strategy: Today you can do… OR….
Procedures:  “How to”
What makes a memorable chart?
1. Visuals (pictures, stick figures.)
2. Headings
3. Point to the chart often. “They’ll use it as much as you touch it.”
4. Decide which  charts to keep, retire, pull out when needed…
I loved Marjorie’s words about charts. Naming what makes a chart memorable was KEY. As I reflect on the charts my kids actually used, I realize they were CLEAR, SIMPLE, and USED OFTEN!   A powerful moment for me was watching my students look up to places on the walls where charts used to be as they talked to their partner or used “sparkling words.” This was how I knew they were worth making. I tried to use charts in Read Alouds and Mini Lessons as much as I could. And when I felt like the information on the charts had merged with their thinking, it came down.
Thanks to my dear literacy coach, this year I was able to have more of a structure to my chart madness. Each part of the wall/room held certain types of charts. For example, the front of the room held Partner Language, Helping Words, and Sparkling Words (synonyms for boring words like “nice” or “good”). The left wall was for the current writing unit, the right wall for the current reading unit, and a separate space for “all year” charts. This made it SO much easier to keep up with, rotate, and refer to.
I’ve included some charts I found at the end of the year. These poor charts didn’t make it into my unit binders, but I feel like I will want to revise them or use them in some capacity in the future.