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Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” advises that we should “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

I thought of this when I read today’s quick-write on Kate Messner’s Teacher’s Write blog post. I’m often astonished by the beauty of the fields around my house, especially in summer. I’ve written about this in my journals over the years, and Kate’s post inspired me to turn these observations into a poem.

Sometimes, on a summer morning

Grandpa Stuart’s fields are touched

by the rays of the rising sun

so just the top of the grasses

glow in the yellow light.

Goldfinches perch on purple thistles,

breakfasting on seeds.

Sometimes, a deer wanders into the field,

interrupting their feast.

Startled, they rise as one

into the air, darting and diving,

chittering as they fly

before settling down

to the business at hand:

harvesting the glorious sunshine

captured in those thistles.

One of Grandpa Stuart’s fields at sunset. It was hayed this week, so there are no thistles.

What astonished you today?

This post is doing double duty for today’s Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers. Thank you, as always, to Stacey and Ruth for hosting!

Time for Teachers Write!


I’ve been largely absent from Twitter and blogging for the past week or so. The swirl of end-of-the-year activities and responsibilities, plus helping my niece get ready for a bridal shower she hosted on Saturday, demanded my full attention. But today is the last official teacher day (kids finished last Friday) and it’s the first day of Teachers Write, a fabulous online summer writing camp for teachers and librarians hosted by Kate Messner and friends. So it seems appropriate to kick off this summer of writing by setting some goals. Goals and objectives are nothing new in education, but lately it seems like they’re the new black.

Last summer I followed the posts and prompts at Teachers Write and I did a fair amount of writing in my journals.  But I didn’t share a lot online. This year, I hope to share more of my writing here. Notice I said hope. I am my own worst critic. I want my writing to be perfect the first time I write it. I know this never happens. I’ve read countless writing books and interviews with authors reassuring fledgling writers that first drafts are always terrible. I also know that I am not the only person who feels this way, as many of the comments on the Teachers Write Facebook page say pretty much the same thing. Allowing myself to just write is something I’ve gotten better at, but I still have a long way to go.

While I’m posting some of this writing, I’d like to improve my blogging skills. After a year and a half, there are still some technical details related to my blog that I’d like to master. A friend told me to move my picture to the top of the page, but I have no idea how to do this. Sometimes a picture stays where it landed because I can’t figure out how to move it.

Another goal I have is to keep a regular writing schedule. This has gotten easier for me over the past few months. Participating in the March Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers really helped me with this. There are days, however, when life intervenes and not a word is written.

And that brings me to my final goal: Not to worry. If I don’t I polish up that picture book draft from 2004 or turn it into an early chapter book, it will be waiting for me next year. If I don’t post some writing one day, I will the next. Any writing I do is an accomplishment.  Going through this process helps me clarify my thinking. It also provides me with tips and tools to share with my students when they are stuck. Most importantly, being a writer makes me more empathetic to my students as they struggle to find an idea, a word, a voice.

Dr. Thomas McMorran, Connecticut’s Principal of the Year for 2012, was the speaker at my school’s Eighth Grade Graduation last Friday evening. His speech was witty, down-to-earth, and full of wisdom. He stressed the importance of caring for one another and being fully present in our daily lives. McMorran urged everyone to “Be here, right now.” This summer, I hope to do just that: to be here, with all of you, writing and learning together.

A huge thank you to Kate and all the authors who will be participating in Teachers Write this summer!

Reflections on One Year of Blogging


Today is Reading to the Core’s first birthday! Although my posts have been sporadic at best, I’ve learned a lot over the past year. Since birthdays and anniversaries are always a good time to look back and reflect, here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on becoming a blogger.

The blogosphere is filled with friendly, supportive and generous people. While this may not be true of all corners of cyberspace, this describes the kidlitosphere in spades. I’ve been inspired by you all! Kate Messner’s Teacher’s Write summer camp prodded me to write more. While not everything I wrote in response to her prompts ended up here (trust me, that’s a good thing!), she and all the writers who joined in encouraged me to stretch myself and take risks. Thanks, Kate!

It’s Monday, What Are Your Reading (Book Journey), Tuesday’s Slice of Life (Two Writing Teachers) and Poetry Friday (various hosts, but you can always find the line up at A Year of Reading) have also been especially motivating. Thank you to all you equally busy bloggers who’ve found your way here via one of these memes.

I’m also thankful for the kind words people have left in their comments. I especially appreciate my loyal commenters Colette, Betsy, and Elizabeth. Some people may despair that the internet is changing the world as we know it, but I am incredibly grateful that it allows me to connect with faraway friends so easily.

One of the most eye-opening realizations I’ve had from blogging is just how difficult it is to sit down and compose a half-way intelligible piece of writing. Not one of these posts has been completed in less than an hour, and they have usually been rolling around in my head for a day or two before I begin writing. Why we think our students should be able to sit down and hammer out a fluent story or essay in 45 minutes is beyond me. They should have at least an hour! Seriously, without regular, sustained writing practice, it simply isn’t fair to subject our students to the kind of writing assessments that dominate today’s instructional landscape. As a result of this insight, I have been more mindful of my own writing instruction and my support of teachers implementing writing workshop this year.

Over the next year I’m really going to make a concerted effort to post at least once a week. I have lots left to say about books, teaching, and life in general. Which brings me to the name of this blog. In one sense, the “Core” of the title refers to the Common Core. I think about the implications of the CCSS on instruction almost all the time. (Sad, I know.) And yet, much of what I wrote about over the past year had nothing to do with these standards. They were more about what’s at the core of me: curiosity about the world around us and a passion to help all kids find their own true self, to find their own true core.

Write, Write, Write!

It’s often been difficult for me to just write for the sake of writing. I’ve always thought I needed some larger purpose, like turning images from my morning walks into poems. Or scenarios that pop into my head while observing other people becoming short stories. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that all this writing is valuable, whether it eventually turns into something larger or not.

These thoughts were validated recently thanks to several posts from Kate Messner’s Teachers Write! Summer Camp. Last week, Kate shared her secret that “Not everything  you write has to grow up to be something else.” (Read the whole post here.) Today, guest author Amy Ludwig VanDerwater strikes a similar note in her post Hummingbirds on a Wednesday. Her point is to step away and let your mind wander. Trust it to find what you’re looking for.

Both of these ideas have implications for the classroom. Students need to have time to write about their thoughts and ideas, not necessarily to turn them into a published piece, but to practice composing, organizing and clarifying their thinking. As teachers, we must ensure that our students are given this time. Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris have devoted several excellent posts to this very topic on their blog recently. They conclude that the CCSS does provide room for this time for in Anchor standards 4 and 10. Unfortunately, as they point out, these standards aren’t expectations until third or fourth grade. I agree whole-heartedly with their conclusion that this is a mistake, and that students in K-2 are completely capable of meeting this standards. Indeed, if we don’t give our youngest students time to develop as writers, it will be that much more difficult to develop these habits when they’re 8 or 9 years old.

I’ve read many excellent books on writing and the teaching of writing. Most of them are pretty adamant that the only way to become a better writer is to write. I even had this poster up in my classroom when I first started teaching:


However, it wasn’t until I actually started writing on a regular basis that I understood the truth in this. A truth that Leo Leoni’s Frederick (Knopf, 1967) captures perfectly. The other mice scoff at Frederick when he tells them that he is working when he gathers “sun rays for the cold dark winter days” and as he gathers colors, “for winter is gray.” But it is Frederick’s words, his poem of the “Four little field mice who live in the sky. Four little field mice…like you and I,” that save the mice from their bleak and gloomy winter.


     Go and gather images and colors and words. Give your students, not matter how young or old, time to write their thoughts, their hopes, their dreams. We’ll all be richer for it.

Lava Falls

Our raft heading into Lava Falls.

How did it get to be the last weekend in July? I’ve been whittling away at my to do list, but haven’t devoted the time I’d hoped to writing and participating in Kate Messner’s Teachers Write! Camp. I have been reading her blog every day, though. This post, Tuesday Quick Write  really resonated with me.  I’d been thinking about  this very idea; that it’s okay to write something for the sake of writing it. So I took Kate’s advice and wrote a campfire story. Here it is:

Lava Falls

Hands down, the best vacation my family and I ever had was our trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Everyone has seen the postcard-perfect views of the canyon from the south rim, the river a tiny green and brown ribbon snaking its way around the canyon walls far below. But in reality, the Colorado is a mighty river. Rapids formed by boulders as big as houses dot the 277 mile length of the river through the canyon. My husband and I have been kayaking and rafting down rivers since we were teenagers, and my children have been around rivers since they were born, so everyone was really excited as we got into our rafts and kayaks one hot August morning. The water was cold, about 45 degrees, but we didn’t mind. It was a fabulous trip. Rapids were scouted and run successfully. Hikes through side canyons brought us to clear, cool streams where we could splash and swim. Everything was perfect. Until we got to Lava. Lava Falls is the biggest, baddest rapid in the canyon, and we were appropriately humbled by it.

As we had with most of the other larger rapids, we pulled into an eddy and went ashore to scout the rapid. Because I was in a raft, I wasn’t concerned with the technical aspects of scouting; I just gaped at the roiling water in front of me. But our guide had done a fine job throughout the trip, so I really wasn’t too worried about his ability to navigate safely through Lava.

We piled back onto the raft. As I settled myself into my spot near the back, I cinched my life jacket and made sure there was something nearby to hold onto, just in case.

When you’re heading into a rapid, there’s an almost imperceptible pause at the top, just before the current sweeps your boat into the froth of water that is created when the river narrows or drops quickly. At that moment, you can see the foaming whitewater about to swallow you, but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

Our raft plunged ahead. People at the front of the raft whopped and hollered as the water hit them. Then, walls of water poured over me as we went down. And  down, and down. I remember thinking that I didn’t expect to drop for so long, or to be covered by so much water. It seemed as if the bottom of the raft had completely fallen away. Then, all at once, we were out from under the foam, back in the sunshine. But something was wrong. “Karen’s out! River left!” someone was shouting. I saw Karen, a tiny blur in the rushing water, struggling to keep her head above the waves.  We managed to pull her back into the raft only after she swam most of the rapid.

Then I noticed we seemed to be drifting, just floating along the smaller waves at the bottom of the rapid. The engine wasn’t working! There was nothing for me to do but pray at that point. Panic has no place in this kind of situation. Somehow, the guide maneuvered the raft safely to shore.

We were all pretty shaken up as we stumbled onto land to figure out what happened and assess the damage. Apparently, our guide had changed course at the last second and had taken us through the worst part of the rapid. When I was thinking, “We’ve been going down for a long time,” the raft was actually bent in half, like a taco. When we came out of the hole, Karen, who was sitting at the back of the raft, popped out  like someone being shot out of a cannon. The engine hit a rock so hard it bent the propeller. It couldn’t be fixed, but we had a spare. Fortunately, Karen’s injuries were minor. She had a broken finger and had several scrapes and bruises on her legs. Our guide injured his arm when he sailed through the air, hanging onto the engine control for dear life.

Ten years later, we took another rafting trip down the Colorado River. When we got to Lava Falls, I said to our guide, “Please get us through here safely.” He was puzzled by my concern. When I told him about my past experience with Lava, he replied, “You were on that raft!?”

We had become the stuff of legend!

Brian in Lava ten years later.