Slice of Life: Grattitude

Billboard by Peter Tunney
Billboard by Peter Tunney

I saw a sign similar to this from my seat on the train as it rumbled into New York City on Sunday afternoon. It went by so quickly I didn’t process the spelling, just the word. Yes, I thought. That is the perfect word for today.

More than twenty-four hours later, it’s still the perfect word. I am full of gratitude to have the opportunity to attend the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s August Reading Institute. After just one day, Lucy Calkins has inspired me to do everything I can to “make reading the best thing it can be” for my students.

In her opening keynote in the soaring nave of Riverside Church, Lucy encouraged the 1300 teachers and administrators present to create classroom and school communities where this can happen. Communities were students feel safe to take risks, where they know their voice will be heard and counted. Communities where they feel connected to something bigger than themselves. These communities are critical, Lucy explained, because “learning to read involves more risk than we often acknowledge.” 

“Embrace the “F” word,” she admonished. We have to be willing to “fail early and fail often.” For it is only through our failures that we grow. “Sharing our work in progress can give us strength.” Lucy continued with Brené Brown‘s wise words: “vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” (Which, coincidentally, I wrote about here.)

Lucy went on to share findings that David Brooks reported on his his column in the New York Times a few years ago. Brooks stated that studies done by Google have found the use of words such as patience and compassion in books published over the past fifty years has fallen dramatically. The implications of this are frightening, but sadly are playing out daily on the front pages of newspapers from around the country.

We have the power to change this trend in our classroom communities. Lucy urged us to make our students feel included in this mission by inviting them to “co-create” their classroom. These spaces will be places where students will feel safe “to do their best work” and “role-play their way into being the readers (and people) they want to be.”

Books are tools that help us envision what these communities can look like, Lucy reminded us. Books like The Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater and The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes can help us “teach kids how to empathize and make others feel good.” Books like this year’s Newbery Award winner, Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Peña that help kids sense a “… feeling of magic” in the world around them and gratitude for the communities that nurture them. Books have the power to help us all “grow into the people we want to be.” What a gift. 

I am always grateful to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice of Life: A Day at Teachers College


Four days of conferences in three different locations in one week sounds like too much, doesn’t it? But I did it, and survived! From a day at Teachers College with six colleagues for a day-long immersion into the Writing Units of Study to the Connecticut Reading Conference with Peter Johnston, Lester Laminack, Christine Hertz, Mary Howard, and Linda Hoyt, my brain felt like it was ready to explode as I drove home Friday afternoon. But in a good way!

Our day at Teachers College was a huge success. I spent the day with my two first grade colleagues learning more about writing workshop in K-2 from the amazing Shanna Schwartz, while four teachers from our school spent the day learning about 3-5 writing workshop with Lucy Calkins. Needless to say, we had plenty to talk about on the drive home.

3-5 teachers loved meeting Lucy Calkins.
3-5 teachers loved meeting Lucy Calkins.

I took nine (!) pages of notes, so I’m not going to attempt to distill them all into one post. Rather, here are a few of my key takeaways.

“Writing Workshop Bill of Writers”
“We apprentice children in the life of a writer”

All children have the right to…

Time to write
Units based in authentic genres
Knowledge of conventions
Skills and strategies for writing
Understanding of the writing process

In other words, our students deserve nothing less than to do “what real writers do in a writing life.”

Shanna stressed the importance of collaboration and feedback, and I love this idea: “Our best writing is the writing we work on on our own and with feedback from others. Feedback is a gift.”

On revision, Shanna had this to say: “Revision is a complement we give our best work.” Isn’t that a wonderful idea?

The importance of read alouds and mentor texts was also emphasized: “A writer can’t write what they haven’t heard or read.” and “Read alouds help readers/writers think about what writing can sound like.”

Shanna also talked about the importance of beginning the year with narrative writing. She explained that narrative is the “first way we exist in the world” and that “when we meet people, we tell them our story.” Shanna reminded us that “story is the first kind of reading we do.” Finally, she pointed out that “story is the building block of every other kind of writing…small stories are often included in informational and opinion writing.”

When conferring with children, Shanna suggested we begin by saying, “Tell me about what your working on in this story.” After listening to the writer’s response, “think about what will make this writer stronger and more independent.” She also urged us to “give compliments that are productive by noticing a behavior and tell them the effect that behavior” has on their writing. This type of praise will “encourage them to do it again,” and thus help them become more independent. Independence is the goal, after all.

If there was any common thread to all I learned last week, the idea of independent learners is it. As Lucy Calkins wrote in A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Primary Grades (Heinemann, 2015), “the goal…is not only to teach kids to read [and write], but to help them grow up to be people who value reading [and writing].

By the way, look who got a shout-out:


Pretty good company, don’t you think?

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOLC: My Day at the Teachers College Saturday Reunion, 2014 Edition


This morning, I left my house at 6:30 and drove to Teachers College at Columbia University for their spring Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. I spent the day with thousands of dedicated teachers soaking up the wisdom of the amazing presenters. Because I am now quite tired, here is my day in pictures.

Diane Ravitch delivering the opening keynote.
Diane Ravitch delivering the opening keynote.

Diane Ravitch’s keynote was a call to arms. Lucy Calkins, in her introduction, described Ravitch as “the single most important defender of public education” and “our hero, inspiring all of us to speak out and tell the truth.

Anna Gratz Cockerille sharing strategies to help children improve their informational writing.
Fellow Slicer Anna Gratz Cockerille sharing strategies to help children improve their informational writing.
Cynthia Satterlee had great advice for helping kids craft personal opinion essays.
Cynthia Satterlee had great advice for helping kids craft personal opinion essays.
Stephanie Harvey shared her wisdom about nonfiction.
Stephanie Harvey reminding teachers that “there’s a difference between thinking and knowledge. We have to teach kids to think so they can acquire and use knowledge.”
Kathleen Tolan describing how to "take an ordinary idea about a character and make it extraordinary."
Kathleen Tolan describing how to “take an ordinary idea about a character and make it extraordinary.”
The wisdom of Kathy Collins: "Children should believe that  when they give something to texts, they will get something back from the text."
The wisdom of Kathy Collins: “Children should believe that when they give something to texts, they will get something back from the text.”
Having coffee with friends and talking about our wonderful day.
On my way to Brooklyn, my first view of the Freedom Tower.
The view from Brooklyn.
Dinner with my son and his girlfriend.
Dinner with my son and his girlfriend.

What an amazing day, filled with learning, laughter, family, and friends. Thank to everyone at Teachers College for hosting this amazing event!

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice of Life: Thoughts About Writing


For the past six days, I’ve worked with an amazing group of teachers making revisions to our writing curriculum. The dedication and passion these men and women brought to this work made my job of facilitating much easier. I feel good about what we accomplished and know that these teachers all feel prepared to launch the writing workshop in their classrooms next week.

We still have so much work to do, but thanks to the Units of Study developed by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, we have a good grasp of the process and new expectations. Everyone is excited for school to start so we can begin working with students and help them become capable, confident writers.

Teachers often ask me about the purpose of the writer’s notebook. They are uncomfortable with the idea of letting kids write about a self-selected topic. They want to know what they’re supposed to do with this writing. Do they grade it? Does it have to become a story or some other kind of a polished piece. I always explain that no, this writing is not graded. It doesn’t necessarily have to become something else.

Because of these questions and the discomfort some of them have with writing itself, I began our work days by giving the teachers time to write. Some days I offered a photograph or piece of art; some days I shared one of Corbett Harrison’s Sacred Writing Time slides. It was interesting to watch how the teachers reacted to the prompts and how they worked. (I did write, also.) But the real revelations came when the teachers shared their writing.

Everyone had approached the task from a different angle, an angle that was meaningful to them. Some were surprised by the direction their writing took. Others were grateful for the opportunity to sit quietly and be reflective after a hectic morning trying to get to school by eight o’clock. We talked about the importance of giving our students choices about their writing and about the importance of feeling comfortable enough to share our work. We all agreed that going through this process ourselves would help us as we guide our students in the weeks to come.

The most valuable insight for me came from what I wrote this morning. Harrison’s slides always include whatever “National” day it is. Today happened to be National Radio Day. This made me remember a record album of old time radio programs that my mother used to listen to when I was little. Like links in a chain, this thought led to other ideas, which led me to an insight about a character in a story I’ve been writing this summer. This cascade of memories reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Ratatouille, when Anton Ego takes his first bite of the dish Remy and Colette have lovingly prepared for him.

Why wouldn’t we want our students to have this same kind of opportunity to see where their writing takes them? Who knows what they might discover about themselves?

Thank you, as always, to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? The Day the Crayons Quit


Last week, I was busy with lots of reading and writing. Our TCRWP Units of Study arrived, so I began reading A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop. In this overview of the series, Lucy Calkins lays out the hard work ahead. But, as always, her reassuring voice lets us know that she and her colleagues are there to guide us as we help our students learn to become the best writers they can be. My favorite nugget of wisdom so far is this:

“When you provide students with constant opportunities to write and when you actively and assertively teach into their best efforts, their development as writers will astonish you, their parents, the school administrators, and best of all, the youngsters themselves.” (p. 3)

Who can argue with that?

I also made a trip to the library to see what was new and grabbed an armful of picture books. (I did leave some for the kids, I promise!) I enjoyed them all, but one stood out for me.


I’d heard much praise for The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (Philomel Books, 2013), and it is well-deserved. In his first picture book, film-maker Daywalt tells the story of a boy’s crayons going on strike. Each crayon writes to Duncan to express its feelings about how it’s being used (or not). Red feels overworked, while pink thinks Duncan should be more open-minded when it comes to using this “girls’ color.”

Daywalt gives each color a distinctive voice, which often matches our expectations, and these come through loud and clear in the letters. Oliver Jeffers’ expressive illustrations reinforce these personalities, yet retain a child-like quality that kids will identify with.

I can imagine all elementary grade students loving this book, but it seems especially well suited for second or third grade. After sharing the book for fun, The Day the Crayons Quit could be used to address Anchor Standard 6: “Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.”

Children could also use the letters as models for their own writing. Narratives could be written from the point-of-view of their favorite color crayon, or some other familiar object. They could also write opinion pieces about a particular color.

This book could also be paired with collections of poems organized around colors such as Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill or Color Me a Rhyme by Jane Yolen. The possibilities are endless. Which, in the end, is the point of this completely original picture book.

Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

Mon Reading Button PB to YA

Have you ever gone looking for a book and found a different book, one you haven’t thought about in a while, instead? That happened to me the other day when I came across Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship, by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu, with amazing photographs by Peter Greste (Scholastic, 2006).


This book tells the story of Owen, a baby hippo, who was left stranded on a coral reef off the coast of Kenya after the 2004 tsunami. Separated from his pod, Owen was too young to be released into the wild on his own, and wouldn’t be accepted by another pod. Arrangements were made for him to be taken to Haller Park, a wildlife sanctuary near Mombasa. Almost immediately after he arrived, Owen began to follow a 130-year old Aldabra tortoise named Mzee. Mzee had a reputation for being a loner, and everyone at the park was sure he’ll rebuff Owen. But, to the amazement of everyone, Mzee accepted Owen, and the two became inseparable. There are a number of other books that recount the story of Owen and Mzee, but this is my favorite.

This story of a most unlikely friendship made me think of another tale of two very different creatures becoming devoted friends. Amos & Boris, by William Steig (Farrar, Straus & Giroux,1971) was one of the first picture books I read as an adult that opened my eyes to the power and depth of children’s literature. Children enjoy listening to the mouse Amos’s efforts to build and supply his boat, the Rodent. But events soon get serious, and a happy adventure turns into a matter of life and death in an instant.


Rescued by Boris, a kind whale, Amos professes his thanks and pledges to help Boris anyway he can, whenever necessary. Boris laughs at the thought of a tiny mouse being able to help a huge whale, but he accepts the offer. Of course, years later, Amos’s help is needed, and is gratefully accepted.

Both of these books offer children a picture of pure generosity. There is never a “what’s in it for me” thought; never a hesitation to help a soul in need. This alone is a good reason to share these books with children. There are others though, including the fact that these books both address a number of CCSS objectives. (Amos & Boris is listed as an exemplar text in Appendix B, but that is not why I love it.) Anchor standards 1-3 in both Literature and Informational text are easily met, and pairing these books seems like an obvious choice for anchor standard 9, “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” There are also plenty of opportunities to develop vocabulary (Literacy Anchor standard 4 and Language Anchor standards 4-6). Steig’s writing is filled with rich, descriptive language, as one of my favorite lines from the book shows:

“One night, in a phosphorescent sea, [Amos] marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water…”

Owen and Mzee have their own website, and video clips of them are available.

Sharing short informational video segments on any of the animals in these books before or after reading would help teachers meet Literacy Anchor standard 7, “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”

Lucy Calkins recently stated that teachers have a responsibility to build our knowledge base and to be wary of packaged programs. Revisiting books already in our libraries, as well as staying abreast with all the wonderful books currently being published is one way to do this. Teachers working in the classroom have better ideas about how to use books with their students than textbook publishers do.

Be sure to visit Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts to find out what others are reading today.

Slice 16 of 31: An Afternoon at the Opera


Today I went to the local movie theater to see an HD simulcast of this afternoon’s performance of Riccardo Zandonai’s opera Francesca da Rimini by the Metropolitan Opera. The tragic story of Francesca and her lover, Paolo, which was immortalized by Dante in The Inferno (and which I wrote about briefly here), has inspired numerous plays, operas, and paintings over the centuries.This production, which was last performed in 1984, is stunning. Francesca and her attendants wear gorgeous gowns in rich, deep colors covered with sumptuous embroidery. The sets transport you to 13th century Italy, and the music is filled with the passion of these desperate lovers.

T.S. Eliot wrote that “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” The numerous versions of this story speak to the unending influence of its original source, which in turn contains countless references and allusions to other works of literature. In his brief telling of Paolo and Francesca’s story, Dante includes lines about Lancelot and Guinevere. While a reader or viewer of the opera doesn’t have to have knowledge of these works to understand what’s going on, having that knowledge deepens their appreciation of the story.

Last weekend, in her closing remarks at the TCRWP Saturday Reunion, Lucy Calkins urged teachers to build our knowledge base about the CCSS. She urged us to be wary of the Publishers’ Criteria, written by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, which directly contradict the standards and intentions laid out in the original document. Anchor standard nine of the CCSS expects that students will be able to “analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics.” Eighth grade readers are specifically asked to:

Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new. (RL.8.9)

Yet in the Publishers’ Criteria, Coleman and Pimentel demand that readers “focus on what lies within the four corners of the text.” How will students successfully meet standard nine if they can’t leave the confines of the text in front of them? Why would we make them try?

I’m glad I didn’t have to stay within the four corners of Zondanai’s opera this afternoon. I had a much richer experience.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!

Slice 2013 12 of 31: Revisiting a Classic: Miss Rumphius


This afternoon I spent some time developing a unit of study on characterization for 3rd grade. Common Core Standard 3.3 states that students will “Describe characters in a story (e.g. their traits, motivations, feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.” We currently use William Steig’s Brave Irene to introduce the idea that readers learn about characters by noticing their actions, their thoughts, and what they say. For now, we’re not going to change this. The CC standard goes deeper, though. Examining a character’s motivations isn’t something we’ve taught before. Thinking about how a character’s actions contribute to the sequence of events sounds like cause and effect, but this can be challenging for third graders. I know we’re going to have to model this more than once, and provide lots of opportunities for students to practice this deeper thinking.  With this in mind, I went through a shelf of picture books looking for another appropriate text and found Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney’s gorgeous story of a woman who wanted to make the world a more beautiful place. This book is one of my all-time favorites. I lived in Camden, Maine for two summers during college, and I have vivid memories of driving down Rt. 1 for the first time and seeing all the lupines growing wild. Needless to say, I think this book is an ideal choice to share with students to address this or any other standard.


I did check the Lexile level (although I have many misgivings about this metric; more about these in another post) and Miss Rumphius, with a Lexile level of 680, is within the 2-3 grade level band. I also used the “Qualitative Measures Rubric” for literary text to evaluate the story in terms of its meaning, text structure, language features, and knowledge demands. As is often the case with rubrics, it was difficult to pinpoint where this narrative falls. Miss Rumphius is a frame story, which increases its complexity. Yet the story within the frame is told chronologically. There is some archaic vocabulary. Students are probably unfamiliar with words such as “stoop,” “figurehead,” and “prow.” Allusions to the cultures of the far-off lands Miss Rumphius visits also increase the complexity level of this story. After going through this process, I felt my instinct to use Miss Rumphius was validated. It may seem that this was a waste of time, but, as Lucy Calkins pointed out in her closing remarks at Saturday’s TCRWP Reunion, teachers have to build their knowledge base about the CCSS. Being familiar with this qualitative rubric is critical if we are to keep appropriate books in the hands of our students. Relying on Lexiles alone would be dangerous and unacceptable.

Will subjecting this beloved story to lessons based on the CCSS ruin it? Only if we let it. Again, if we know what the standards say, and design lessons that incorporate best practices to meet them, our students should be able to gain deep insight into a character who is generous and warm-hearted, motivated by her desire to have adventures, and to fulfill her grandfather’s directive to “make the world more beautiful.”

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!

Slice 2013 9 of 31: My Day at Teachers College Saturday Reunion


This morning, I left my house at 5:30 and drove to Teachers College at Columbia University for their spring Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. I spent the day with thousands of dedicated teachers soaking up the wisdom of the amazing presenters. Because I am now quite tired, here is my day in pictures.

The sky was just beginning to lighten when I pulled out of my driveway.
The Nave of Riverside Church when we arrived.
People choosing which sessions to attend as the Nave fills up.
Katherine Patterson begins her keynote address, “The Richness of Creation”
“In this bleak time, what our children need is beauty.” Katherine Patterson
Chris Lehman urging us to use our literature instruction to build social emotional skills.
Elizabeth Moore modeling how to use demonstrations and experiments as the basis for shared or interactive writing.
Brooke Geller explaining how to immerse students in articles to prepare them for a research-based argument essay unit.
I was so excited to meet fellow slicer Melanie Meehan at Brooke’s session. She was sitting right behind me!
Amanda Hartman reading Seymour Simon’s Super Storms during her session on deeping students’ comprehension of informational text.
During her closing remarks, Lucy Calkins urged us to treat each other with kindness as we weather “the perfect storm” that is about to hit education.
Last stop, Bank Street Bookstore!

As you can see, Saturday Reunions are an incredible experience. I learned so much today! You can also explore what others learned by checking out the #TCRWP hashtag on Twitter.  Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at Teachers College for a fabulous day!

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!


Poetry Friday: Something Told the Wild Geese

ImageAs I was walking my dog this morning (thanks to another no-power day at school), a flock of geese flew overhead. “Something told the wild geese…” came to mind immediately. It is a typical November morning here in western CT: low, gray clouds, a light, chilly breeze and trees that are mostly bare. So even though the weather isn’t exactly like that in the poem, it still seems like a perfect poem to share today.

Something Told the Wild Geese

by Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese

It was time to go,

Though the fields lay golden

Something whispered “snow.”

Leaves were green and stirring,

Berries, luster-glossed,

But beneath warm feathers

Something cautioned “frost.”

All the sagging orchards

Steamed with amber spice,

But each wild breast stiffened

At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese

It was time to fly,

Summer sun was on their wings,

Winter in their cry.

Although I’ve never “taught” this poem, I’ve had a poster of it hanging in my classroom many times. Today, rereading it with the CCSS in mind, this poem seems tailor-made for the second grade Reading Literature standard: “Describe how words and phrases (e.g. regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.” The repetition of the word “something” adds an element of mystery. What is this force that’s urging these geese away from the golden fields and summer sun? Vivid verbs personify the inescapable coming of winter in a way students will easily relate to at this time of year. (At least here in the northeast.)

I would begin a discussion by asking simply, “What’s going on in this poem?” As Calkins, point out in Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012), “…the absolute first order of business (Reading Literature Standard one) is that students need to be able to grasp what a text actually says and suggests.” (p. 39) Letting the students gather the details that point to autumn is excellent practice in inferring. I’d also ask the kids what questions they have, and hopefully they’ll wonder about “sagging orchards.” If not, pointing to this line and asking “What would make the orchards sag?” will get them thinking about trees heavy with fruit.

This poem also offers wonderful opportunities for vocabulary learning. The demands aren’t heavy, but “luster-glossed” and “amber spice” are marvelous phrases and are perfect for discussions of word choice. (Language Standard four and five)

A Google search turned up at least two different musical versions of “Something Told the Wild Geese” and many performances of the Sherri Porterfield tune. I prefer this clip, sung by a group of very talented fifth graders. Repetition of “winter” at the end of the song offers a chance to discuss why the musician made the decision to emphasize that word.

I’m anxious now to share this poem with our second graders next week. I have some other ideas about how to follow up the discussion of the poem and song, but want to try them out with the kids first. I’ll share the results of our work next week.

For those of you who were affected by Sandy, I hope you’re lives are getting back to normal.