Popcorn kernels, clouds, and ripples-why play is important

photo of blue sky
Photo by Elia Clerici on Pexels.com

Full disclosure. I love magazines. The New Yorker. Vanity Fair. Time. Real Simple. In Style. But I especially love People. I don’t  read it in tiny little bursts at my dentist’s office or while I’m waiting in the grocery store checkout line. That’s right…I am an actual annual subscriber! It comes to my mailbox every Saturday, and then my whole family fights over it.

I especially like stories about Brangelina. Don’t ask me why. The new royal couple is pretty gripping as well.

Sometimes people are surprised to hear this about me. But it’s part of my reading life. It’s part of my choice as a reader. While I love reading books that challenge my thinking, my vocabulary, and my beliefs, honestly, I don’t want to read them all the time. I need to loosen up and let my brain wander. I need me a little Brangelina sometimes.

While I am mentioning this in reference to reading, and many teachers and fellow readers would admit that they have ‘guilty pleasures,’ taking breathers with our writing are just as vital.

I need quick bursts in my writer’s notebook as well as more sustained implosions where I allow my thoughts to flow freely. It’s fun to shape quick thoughts I have on a run or a hike, explore them more in a blog, and see where they go. I enjoy crafting my young adult novel, and I also like the writing I do along with my students, especially during genre studies and writer’s notebook practice. So many parts of writing are challenging, and I need to feed the creative, curious, wondering parts of my thinking. It helps me push through the hard stuff-the blockages, the frustration, the self-doubt. Playful writing is restorative, it is rejuvenating, and it is important.

Choice also feeds my writing life. If I was writing ‘classics’ all the time, if I kept writing analytical persuasive essays or informational pieces, it might feel like too much. I might  not even feel like writing any more. But if I choose to write a science fiction poem, or respond to some data about a seven pound hamburger they sell at the Arizona Cardinals stadium (it’s true: I read about it in Time), or attempt to imitate a passage from a John Green novel, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like fun. And this playful approach often leads me to a topic I feel passionately about, whether it’s social justice, literacy, or Glacier National Park.

Sometimes my thoughts are like popcorn kernels exploding in the microwave, or like clouds dissipating into the sky, or like ripples in a pond. They are unruly, and I like it that way. It’s how I stretch and grow as a writer. I don’t ever want to lose them. I need to keep it loose. I need play. And so do my students.

water ripple
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Tight, precise writing is important, too, but it’s not everything, and it can limit or even stifle our thinking if overdone. Writing is thinking, as stated by many, many teachers and writers. Allowing kids to follow some, and actually, I would argue, MOST, of their own whimsical, playful trains of thought helps them see all the threads and possibilities in their own lives. It helps them see patterns in their thinking and their writing. It helps them understand that their words do not all have to be perfect right away. And, it empowers them to keep seeking, to keep playing, to keep questioning and wondering and remaining curious. 

I began my school year with a choice writing unit. It has gone well, and it is setting exactly the groundwork I would like it to: my students are taking risks, experimenting, and then crafting their unruly thoughts into something a little different, a little more polished. We’re practicing how we take our thoughts from kernels or clouds or ripples to words that move someone else. We’re not there yet, but this is good stuff. Choice is powerful. So is play.

I want to capture my thinking on this choice writing unit in another blog and will write about how I approached it this past month. I loved it. It stretched my teaching, my thinking,and my writing.  My students adjusted their expectations, realigned their thinking, and tried. That’s all I can ask.

Now it’s time for a little Real Simple!

Opening the doors

pexels-photo-792032.jpegSometimes, I am all too apt to close my classroom door and teach. It gets noisy out there in that pod, though truthfully, I think the noise is usually coming from my exuberant, easily excitable learners. My classes easily win the prize for Loudest Class Breaks, which I realize is on me!

However, sometimes, we all shut our doors and forget there are opportunities out there beyond our four walls. I’m guilty of that for sure. I get in my own little routine and my own little head space. I forget who’s out there and what they have to offer us. It’s all too easy to close off and tune out. 

Yesterday, I opened our doors and welcomed the visitors. It just kinda happened! It enhanced my classroom, and it was a heck of a fun way to end my teaching day, especially because the rest of my day was spent on the dreaded standardized SBAC testing.

My neighbor teacher, one of the funniest, big-hearted women I know (and it is not an exaggeration to say our kids ADORE her), asked if I was doing a Fishbowl discussion any time soon.She was interested in observing one and seeing different approaches to discussion.  I hadn’t planned on one, but then I thought, “Sure, why not?”

My Language Arts students were reading different examples of conclusions for critical reviews and commented on their ‘noticings’ in Google Classroom. I was going to have them briefly discuss it in class anyways, so it was an opportunity to push their thinking more.

Just for the record, if you want the smiliest, most supportive, enthusiastic teacher to watch you teach, get my teacher neighbor. And follow her lead if you ever go and watch another classroom. The whole time, she grinned, leaned forward, smiled at the kids, and listened hard. She was a warm, open, curious presence. Afterwards, she made some observations, praised the kids, and asked some questions. It all took maybe twenty minutes. And she told me afterwards, “Now I get it!” She is doing all sorts of totally engaging activities with her social studies and reading kids, and I want to pop in and watch her in action, too.

It also made us both think, “Why aren’t we all observing each other all of the time?”

I have been hearing about schools who use professional development days to observe other teachers in other schools. I read about another school who has teachers visit other subject areas on a regular basis so that science teachers can see what’s happening in math, or English teachers can watch band (I can testify to its benefits, having observed our band teacher). And I also read about a ‘Pineapple’ chart. Every day in a common area, teachers can post a strategy or technique that might be beneficial to another colleague. It is optional rather than required. During prep time, teachers can drop in and watch another teacher instruct for a few minutes. Often, it’s all we need to get something great we can use with our own students. 

It’s good to be reminded of how much we can learn from each other. There are hundreds of years of teaching experience in my building. Okay. THOUSANDS of years…we’re on the old side!

The next cool visit came from two delightful former eighth grade students. Often, before class begins, they joke with me about wanting to come into our Language Arts class again. Before class today, right before my neighbor teacher popped in, I half-jokingly invited them to visit towards the end of class when my students are peer-revising critical reviews.

Lo and behold, there they were! I told the girls to ask my seventh graders if they wanted a Bless, Address, or Press, which is a National Writing Project strategy for revision. Basically,  the writer requests specific praise, asks for suggestions or feedback on a specific concern or problem area, or asks, “What do I still need to do to be done?”

The two girls jumped right in like professional writing coaches! They circulated around the classroom, sitting with my seventh graders, asking questions, gently pointing out areas of the writing that were unclear or could be worded more persuasively or effectively. My students were nodding, smiling, and making changes on the spot.

Afterwards, I asked the two eighth graders how it went. One girl exclaimed, “It’s so much EASIER to work with kids who aren’t my age! I look at their writing differently, and I feel like I can help them more. It’s fun!” I practically leaped for joy. 

My students commented after the ‘big kids’ left, saying the older girls helped them see things in their writing that they were missing. A few mentioned that now they have a clearer direction to keep revising. This all just makes my day, those little rays of preteen sunshine.  

I am curious about different grade levels mentoring each other’s writing. I am going to think more about this. I also keep thinking how much we benefit from leaving our comfort zones. As I read recently, “Leaving your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” It’s not just for my students. It’s for me. It’s for my colleagues. It’s for my former students, my current students, and my future students..

Yesterday reminded me to stay curious and flexible, to leave my comfort zone, and to  keep our door open.

Teaching is so hard, and teaching is so rewarding. Class periods like this remind me why I love my job.

Here is a link to the article about teachers observing other teachers. 






Breaking Rules With a Mentor Text Blitz

pexels-photo-216630.jpegI’m in search of reading great writing. Writing that shines, soars, and inspires.

Not five paragraph essays.

You will note that I just broke a number of writing rules. It’s pretty darned liberating. I’ve always followed the premise (or is it dogma?)  that I want my students to learn the rules of writing first. Then, break the rules. Yeah, maybe they’ll get to do that in high school? Til then, we’re following the rules, right?

But I want my seventh grade students crafting shining, soaring, inspiring writing right now. I don’t want to wait. Maybe I’m selfish, but I want them to try it while I am their teacher. What if we are truly trying to imitate those beautifully crafted novels, poems, memoirs, reviews, articles, and essays we’re reading every day? Would our writing sound stronger, more crafted, more powerful?

I’m guessing yes.

Writers often use intentional fragments. They begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and, but, or so. To pack a punch, they use a one-sentence paragraph. If they’re making a complex point using complicated evidence, examples, and evidence, sometimes it takes more than one paragraph, and sometimes those paragraphs don’t need a topic sentence. Sometimes, the thesis appears at the end. Sometimes, it’s the title of the article.

If we truly want our writers to emulate and learn from other writers, then maybe, just maybe, we can begin breaking rules sooner. After all, middle school kids thrive on testing rules, limits, and boundaries.

Consequently, instead of teaching a more traditional five-paragraph persuasive essay, I decided to experiment with critical reviews. Critical reviews are an ideal way to mess with structure, think hard about what we love or hate and why, and express our ideas clearly. Reviews analyze and evaluate, and they also break some of these dogmatic writing rules in applicable, powerful ways.

We’re going for it, even though it’s overwhelming me at the moment. It’s my fourth new genre study of the year, and my brain is scrambled. But it’s worth it.

I spent hours searching for the perfect mentor texts-strong reviews my students can emulate- and I felt like Goldilocks. “This one is too basic. This one is too confusing. This one is too long. This one uses such big vocabulary!” I can write my own review, which I will. I’ll continue searching for strong published writing that engages and pushes my writers. Next year (do you know how many times this year I’ve said, “Next year”) I’ll also have student samples to use.

As I planned the critical review unit, I was starting to panic. I kept wanting to find writing that would hook my kids right away and inspire them to write their own reviews. Well, like many best-laid plans, it didn’t work the way I thought it would, but it still worked. 

Initially, I wanted my students to have a buffet-style experience so that they could read a wide variety of possibilities to inspire them. I ended up using movie, music, and TV reviews written by Los Angeles teenagers on a now-defunct website called layouth.com, a few reviews from Teen Ink, along with one more current piece about baseball slugger J.D. Martinez signing with the Red Sox (the Diamondbacks fans in my family were NOT happy and had plenty of lively analysis that morning).

I made multiple copies of each review, seven in all, and taped each onto a big piece of butcher paper along with some magic markers. I chose groups beforehand-either partners or trios. Each group read a review and recorded what they noticed on the butcher paper. I also posted criteria for strong writing on a wall chart as a reference for discussion. The language is based on criteria from Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle we’ve been using all year long. My students can use it clumsily and sometimes accurately at this point in the year.

The best conversations arose as I walked around and chatted with different groups. Was the review persuasive, even if you’re not into the topic? Was the writer passionate about the topic-could you tell? Did the writer know a lot about his or her topic? Did the writer stay focused? Did the examples support the main point?

We rotated around to three different stations. When the time was up, I put a chart on the document camera and called on kids randomly to describe a positive or negative quality of one review they read. The responses were pretty standard, but it led to my students discussing and  thinking, How can I make my review NOT boring?!

Students like stations. And, I liked how my students interacted with an unfamiliar genre of writing and with each other. I don’t always have rigid expectations guiding these types of discussions; instead, I like to offer enough structure and freedom to let conversations evolve in different and possibly unexpected directions. I can see using this strategy with stations but have students all read the same mentor text. Different groups can comment on different elements of the writing, like the hook, conclusion, evidence, sentence structure, and so on.

Meanwhile, kids did NOT like most of the reviews they read. In the past, I might have panicked or honestly become slightly passive aggressive, like, Do you know how long this took me to find mentor texts?! SIGH!  It’s partly why I’ve always depended heavily on using past students’ writing as mentor texts. They tend to hook my kids right away. In our small town where everyone is related, I’ll often hear, “Hey, my cousin/sister/uncle wrote that!”  

However, student writing sometimes has its limitations. Even though my kids weren’t totally hooked by the mentor texts I selected, they still served a purpose. The texts showed my students what a basic review looks like, some elements of a review, and some ways into the writing. All was not lost. I just had to jump in and try it out.

I seriously think my neural pathways are about to explode this year. In a good way. But you might find me at the lake every day next summer, staring at blue sky and drifting clouds while I let my brain sift through all that I’ve read and learned about how to be a better language arts teacher. My search for mentor texts and learning how to use them more effectively is yet another piece of the puzzle to help my students’ writing stretch and grow. All this thinking, reading, and experimenting is helping me stretch and grow right beside them.

And, it’s time to start breaking rules. It’s time to start crafting writing like real writers do. It’s time to shake up the dogma and learn differently. I’ll let you know what I discover.

As a first step, I’m looking for great reviews. Reviews that not only persuade us but help us see the world through a different lens. Reviews that connect us to each other because of their deep respect for artistry, craft, musicianship, athleticism, creativity, or risk. Reviews that help us understand a book, a movie, or a moment differently, with fresh eyes. No review is perfectly perfect. I realize that there is something new we can learn from absolutely anything. Everything can teach us.

Next year I’ll keep learning.

Resources: I’m currently reading both of these books by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. Both texts are invaluable in guiding my thinking and teaching.

Beyond Literary Analysis

Writing With Mentors


This I Believe

My seventh graders are just finishing essays called “This I Believe,” based on a now-defunct program on NPR. I wrote an essay a few weeks ago and shared the draft with them. Now that time has passed, I revised my essay, which appears below. I am wishing I had revised more during their process and showed them my writing moves and decisions. I’ll still read it tomorrow before we celebrate best drafts to show them how sometimes we need to put a piece of writing aside to help us figure out what we really want to say. I’ll tell them my “Believe” statement changed, I changed my ending three different times, I cut the part that compared my experience to writing, and I added sensory details like they advised me to when I shared it with them originally. Then, they will talk about changes they made to their own essays. Here’s my work in progress but a best draft for now.


I believe that spending time outside brings me immeasurable joy.

A few weekends ago, all I wanted to do was exercise hard. Sweat. It had been a full moon few weeks, leading up to the super-blue-blood moon lunar eclipse. If you teach or work in an emergency room, you know the moon affects us in mysterious ways. Especially our hormonal and vulnerable teens. Last week, I sent four kids from the same class to the counselor and two to the principal. I’ve been talking kids off the ledge. Everybody’s been unsettled, including me. It’s been rainy, cloudy, and tough to want to spend any time outside.

But being outside is why I moved to Montana over twenty years ago. I live five minutes from the Swan Mountains, five minutes from the Flathead River, twenty minutes from Glacier National Park,  and forty minutes from the Big Mountain ski resort. 

Instead of identifying that what I really needed was to breathe in fresh winter air, smell cedar trees, hear nothing but breeze, and see clouds float high above me, I drove twenty minutes to climb on the elliptical trainer and listen to loud music. My default ‘easy’ workout. As I walked towards the entrance to the club, I realized I left my running shoes back home.

I swore and climbed back into the minivan to drive back home. I had a small workout window today, and now I had even less time.

Quickly, I decided to grab my dog and my cross country skis and head outside to the golf course. It’s not wilderness, but it’s close by. Ten minutes later when I reached my destination, I realized I had grabbed my skate ski boots instead of my cross country boots. The bindings are not interchangeable, my dog was sad, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

I was about to give up entirely, shaking my fist at the universe, or more accurately, at myself. But I was also grumpy. I had just spent time with other mentor and mentee teachers talking about self care, and this was feeling way too ironic. I had written that spending time in wilderness is one of the best ways I can take care of myself. We had also brainstormed what we do when we feel out of balance.  I know I’m unbalanced when I start forgetting things I usually remember, things that are important to me. Like my running shoes or the right ski boots! I knew I needed to keep trying.

Back at home, my window of free time was closing rapidly. I grabbed the right ski boots, loaded my confused dog back in the van, ignored my family’s teasing, and drove five miles up the North Fork road to my go-to running and skiing spot. You know, the one I should have gone to first if I had really listened to myself?

As I drove north, mountains peeking out from thick clouds, I worried that a parking spot wasn’t plowed out yet. I worried that my dog might blow out her knee in the deep snow. I worried that my van would get stuck if the plows came by while I was skiing. I envisioned yet more minor disasters. As a side note, all of these things have happened to me. I used to call them ‘adventures.’ Now I call them ‘pains in the butt.’ If my worries became reality, I would have to head home yet again, frustratedly facing my family, with no time left.

But you know what?

When I reached my spot, it was perfect.

Someone had skied right before me, cutting a smooth trail through new snow, and it was packed down just enough for my dog with bad knees. Snow fell lightly and gathered on tree branches. My skis glided through fluff. My heart lightened. I was exactly where I needed to be, on an unplanned road full of familiar terrain. It all worked out. 

Outside. New snow. Happy dog. Deep breaths. New light. Joy.

I believe I never, ever regret time spent in the wilderness. It is always precious. I always learn something new. Today it reminded me to look at the sky, pay attention, listen deeply, persist when plans fall to pieces, forgive my mistakes, remain grateful, and keep the faith.

Click on this link to read more from  This I Believe


With just a little more grace


This past month has grabbed me in an unnerving, relentless whole-body shakeup. I keep questioning if my experiment with writing workshop is best for kids. I keep questioning now that I’m emphasizing process over product, and right now the product is not meeting my expectations. I keep freaking out; what do my students need next? Where do we go after we finish our “This I Believe” essays, which, frankly, have been a struggle? Should I teach critical reviews, which I’ve never taught and am spending hours trying to find solid mentor texts for seventh graders? Should we write a quick poem? Should I acknowledge my burnout and teach a goals unit I love, kids love, and I’ve taught many times before…but is very teacher-driven, doesn’t help them with the common assessment, state testing, and I’m not sure how to workshop it? Or do I head into the abyss of persuasive essays, which take a long time and include many challenging moving parts for workshopping?

It’s all so new, and I am making so many mistakes. What do I need to stay inspired and energized? What do my students need to stay inspired and energized? Should I stop reading all these professional books, articles, and blogs on Twitter which fill my head with new ideas? What do I DO?  I am trying to keep the faith and find some clarity amidst my intense questioning, but it is challenging.

Finding immediate answers became less pressing to me this morning when I read the newest post from one of those blogs. One of my favorite inspirations to keep my currently shaky faith comes from a blog I’ve been reading called Three Teachers Talk. This morning, it gave me just what I needed. Shana Karnes wrote about how teaching is like a yoga pose, and she encourages us all to “embrace the wobble.” Right now I feel like I’m not only trying to stay upright in a handstand but also balancing fragile dishes on top of my feet as I attempt to walk around the room on my hands. Without dropping or breaking anything. Without falling. Without failing.

Then, I read her next words. “It’s only by being uncomfortable, by trying new things day or week or year in and out, that we can improve as teachers.”

Thank you. I needed that today. I am almost constantly uncomfortable as I try so hard to hold my pose, to find the grace in flipping upside down and looking at my teaching world from that angle without falling over.

Part of my internal struggle is that I feel like I have too much to prove with my new journey. I believe the workshop model is what is best for kids, and I have seen it work this year. However, when it’s not working, it feels not just messy or uncomfortable. Occasionally it feels painfully, excruciatingly terrible.I need to remember that I’ll hold my handstand longer when I stretch new muscles, when I listen, when I pay deep, neutral attention, when I let go. When I fall over (and I’m about to), the trick is to get back up, take deep breaths, and try again.

Most importantly, handstands don’t just happen. They take time. Practice. Trial and error. Tuning in. Learning what works and what doesn’t work.

Maybe I need to reread the quotes posted outside my classroom window about making mistakes. Maybe we’ll all try a balancing yoga pose tomorrow in class for our brain break as I remind my students and myself. Discomfort leads to growth.

If this is true, I could potentially grow ten feet taller by the end of this school year. Then, maybe I can hold my handstand just a little longer, just a little stronger, and with just a little more grace. Because when we allow ourselves to wobble, when we permit ourselves to fall, then we can rise up again, better than ever. 


The struggle is real, y’all

pexels-photo-356079.jpegRight now, I am experiencing a strong urge to abort my writing workshop mission.  I am feeling raw and conflicted. I know writing workshop WORKS, but I am missing something critical. I’m just not sure what it is.

After having pretty good success with a poetry unit and personal narrative, we are shifting towards persuasive writing. Last year we wrote personal philosophy papers using the ol’ five paragraph essay structure. I corralled my seventh graders through each paragraph. I used an outline that basically scripted every sentence following specific criteria. They wrote with heart and voice, but I knew that pathway to organizing thoughts was way too narrow. It compresses their hearts and squeezes out the light. This year, I wanted to experiment with less traditional ways of organizing our ideas in ways that maximize our voices and bring out the light again.

Currently my kids are supposed to be writing “This I Believe” essays based on a popular NPR program. I have always wanted to try it with my middle school students. I hoped this would lead them to all sorts of great voice and great thinking with less compression, more freedom.

So far, I am conferencing with kids. I am giving them between thirty and forty minutes a day of writing time plus sharing time plus time to work with partners and talk about their ideas. I am sharing my examples, sharing mentor texts, facilitating brainstorming, and conferencing like crazy with kids. I am using task checklists to set goals at the beginning of each writing workshop time. I am seeing some kids light up with their conversations and be able to articulate more about their writing than they have all year. This all sounds like it should be working, right?

Meanwhile, typed drafts are due tomorrow, and maybe five kids out of forty-five are done or even close to being done. I am freaking out! I’m not sure what I should do..or not do.

I could dip in and really slow down. I could make it worth a LOT of points. I could threaten my students. I could beg them. I could hold them in at lunch or put them in our at lunch tutoring program or call parents or freak out on them. I could bail on the assignment. Or cry. For obvious reasons, none of these are strong possibilities except maybe the crying part. Because what I really am trying to do is get my students to be intrinsically motivated to write. And that’s some tall order.

That’s why I am sending out alert signals like a fire alarm with low batteries. 

Throw on the brakes!

Red sirens!

SOS! Somebody help me!

I need the writing workshop gurus who specialize in seventh graders to swoop in and give me some STRATEGIES! God knows I’ve been looking. I talk to my colleagues. I read Twitter articles incessantly. I listen to podcasts. I read books about teaching writing. I still can’t find what I’m looking for. I believe so fervently in what I am doing, and I have never been so excited about teaching writing. But I am not sure what to do.. or what not to do.

Is it the assignment? Have I offered enough structure? Do my students not understand what to do? Is my instruction during minilessons  not explicit enough? Is it that my kids don’t know what they believe, struggle to manage independent writing time, or just don’t have the confidence? Is it because it’s late January? What in the name of Sam Hill is going on? And I think this is the first time I have ever used that phrase!

This is the rub with writing workshop. My more confident writers thrive using the writing workshop model. They appreciate the freedom and independence and are happier writing at their own pace. Meanwhile, my developing writers struggle more with managing their time, pacing themselves, and staying focused on a consistent basis. They get much less on the page than when I’m managing them and every little sentence. However, all of my students need freedom and choice, no matter their skill level or their desire for growth. They all need to figure out what they want to say and how they want to say it without their teacher laying out where every single sentence goes. They all need to learn how to find their own way even when the way isn’t clear. I can relate. The struggle is real!

I guess I could start blaming my students. I could say they’re lazy. I could say their ADHD hinders their ability to focus. I could say their hormones, their socioeconomic status, or their background of trauma inhibit them from pushing through struggle. And these are all excuses.

I could also say, “This is new for all of us.”

My neighbor teacher in the corner classroom always has something wise to say. Seriously, she has given me ideas for blogs more times than I can count.  A few months ago, I was mentioning similar struggles, and she said, “I wish someone told me when I was a beginning teacher to stick with those ideas that don’t go well the first time. So many times, I try something once. It doesn’t work. So I bail.” I was nodding. I almost did that with Socratic seminars. The first time was a nightmare; I thought, “Well, I’m not doing THAT again. The second time, I started hearing real thinking during our discussions. Now, they work almost right off the bat after years of honing and changing it up. Writing workshop is much more complex than a Socratic seminar, and I need to honor this complexity rather than run for the hills and go back to my old ways.

Change is extremely uncomfortable, especially when the path is not clear. I know my inner conflict will lead to better experiences for my students. I know that giving students much more ownership will only lead to better learning opportunities for them. They are used to being passive receptacles, but I want them to be active agents who own their writing. It is okay that I am freaking out and don’t know the answers as long as I don’t surrender to my fear, frustration, and confusion. I know better.

Tomorrow, I am going to extend the deadline for drafts by a day because I need to gather some much needed information first. I need to hear what’s working and not working from the people who matter most.

My students.

When I was cross-country skiing this morning (I’m a part-timer, teaching every other day), I kept turning this dilemma over and over in my frustrated mind, and I kept coming back to the questions I need to ask my kids. What is not making sense? What are you struggling with? How can you get words on the page? Why aren’t you writing? How can I help you more? And I think they need to be reminded of our writing mantras.

Writing is messy.

We are not perfect.

We learn most from our mistakes.

Our words matter.

Getting words on the page matters.

Our words can help other people get through hard times or make them laugh.

We write to be understood.

We write to be heard.

Back to the drawing board. I will keep the faith.



Channeling my inner band teacher

pexels-photo-442540.jpegThree years ago, I was assigned to mentor our new band teacher, Ben Caudill. I was understandably nervous. After all, I teach writing. I played violin badly thirty years ago,  and I wouldn’t know an oboe from a hole in the wall. But I got lucky. I got to see a master teacher in action. I like to think we can learn something from everyone, and I saw that motivating kids through grades can only go so far.

As a sixth grader, my son George also did not know his trumpet from a hole in the wall. Neither did sixty other kids. It was very loud in Mr. Caudill’s band room, full of squeaks and sour notes. Still, most kids got A+s every quarter. I have been thinking a lot about what that A+ means.

When I worked with Ben, I remembered being curious about his grading practices. If everyone gets a high grade, does it reflect what their learning? Does it show their understanding of the material? Does it motivate them? Do they grow as musicians?

My answer is yes. After observing Ben teach, I found big takeaways, ones I reflect on as I shift away from emphasizing grades in my English class.

First, Ben’s band students knew that songs lead to performances for a real audience. Warm-ups and practice weren’t just something they did in class every day for no apparent reason. Every few months, hundreds of moms, dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and friends gather in our cafetorium and listen to the band play. When that audience shows up, you want to sound good. You don’t want to be that off key trombone who makes your audience want to cover their ears, laugh hysterically, or run the other way. Having a real audience, one who you care about, one who is paying attention, one who is listening to you, matters. It makes you want to improve and try your best, for them and for yourself.

Another takeaway relates to feedback. Whether Ben was listening to kids play solo, in sections, or all together, he gave brief, specific feedback. It was quick. It was constructive. And it was neutral. Kids knew this feedback existed to help them, and because it was neutral, they didn’t get defensive or argumentative. Even my unmusically trained ears could hear kids could shift right in the moment and make the necessary correction, or at least try it. I watched it happen. It WORKS.

I also watched how Ben guides his students through making mistakes. Learning a musical instrument is all about weird notes, missing keys, screwing up. You pick yourself up, shake it off, keep practicing, and keep moving forward. Talk about a great metaphor for writing and for life.

My final takeaway is about growth. If you have ever spent time in a band room, you will think these teachers are miracle workers. Every year, Ben takes sixty completely inexperienced kids and unleashes them on flutes, clarinets, trumpets, saxophones, and DRUMS. It’s loud. It’s chaotic. At this point, it’s all about mistakes. Successes are fleeting. At the first concert, Ben’s students play songs that last ten seconds. Then, as eighth graders, we see the amazing progress. At concerts, they play complex jazz and symphonic pieces that quite often give me the chills. They are musicians now, and many of them see themselves that way. They see the payoff reaped from thousands of mistakes. 

Now, as an eighth grader, our son says band is his favorite subject. George joined a sextet with some friends, and they practice once a week before school. He practices with the jazz band two other mornings before school. This year he even did a trumpet solo, completely shocking his parents. Even more surprising, our sports-obsessed child was torn when he thought he’d have to miss his jazz band performance because he had a basketball game.

This is a delightful, surprising, and completely unexpected miracle.

This is the sign of a great teacher. A teacher who focuses on mistakes, feedback, growth, and having an authentic audience. A teacher who gives pretty much everybody A’s. There is a lot for me to think about here.

Of course, this leads me to writing.

I write best when I have an audience reacting to my words. I feel best about my writing when I receive honest, open feedback that helps me grow and that helps me see what is already working, what moves my audience, or what nudges them in a different direction. I learn from my many writing mistakes, and I’m always trying to stretch my writing in new ways. It would make sense that my students need those experiences, too.

How can I see that quantum leap with my writers, too? It’s all too easy to get in my head and start comparing music to writing. “Making music is more satisfying than writing. People would rather listen to music or play it than write or read. Music is more high interest. Kids are more motivated because of peer pressure. It’s harder to write than it is to play an instrument. “

Instead of comparing the negatives, I am making a shift. How are music and writing similar?

They both have the power to unite us. They both have the power to make us feel-to laugh, to cry, to understand, to connect. They both have the power to make us think. It sure isn’t about the grade.

Grades keep us compliant, and they keep me in control.

I used to think I wanted engaged kids, not just compliant ones who jump through the hoops I set out for them.

Now I know.

I want empowered kids. Kids who seek out learning and are able to persist through multiple areas by continuing to play, continuing to push, continuing to listen to others, continuing to find their own voices and their own hoops to jump through. Not mine. I’m just along for the ride.

Our next assignment is based on the NPR radio show called, “This I Believe,” and my students will all receive A’s for finishing their essays. But they will also have to choose an audience. They will conference multiple times with me. I need to see that they are trying to use the strategies I’m teaching them. They will need to show that they moved their writing from a first draft to something more powerful.

Meanwhile, I’m going to channel my inner band teacher and see how much my students grow this year as writers. I am up for the challenge.


Why I freaking love my job

pexels-photo-672358.jpegI originally intended to publish a blog about my new grading practices, which I am all fired up about. But then I had one of those moments, a moment that reminds me why I love what I do. Warning. This might be a long blog. But it’s why I love my job, and it’s why I keep teaching.

A few days ago, I was having a mini existential crisis about some of my students’ poor showing on their final personal narratives. I was feeling depressed that this new writing workshop thing was a bust, and I should just go back to seizing control of the writing process and return to bossing kids and telling them what to do and when to do it.

This morning, I sat down to assess more narratives, and this happened. I read Alex’s narrative. It took me back to the beginning of the year. Without further ado, here is Alex’s story.

During our beginning of the year poetry unit, I watched as Alex avoided-or appeared to avoid-writing poems. He would hop up, sharpen a pencil. Hop up again. Sharpen another pencil, this time down to the nub. Not writing. Definitely avoiding writing. There was a small pile of tiny pencils gathered on his table by the laptop he was not currently using.

In my head, I made the assumption that Alex was checked out and disengaged, especially since my pencil sharpener was getting a thorough workout.  However, when I cruised on over to Alex in my sweet office rollie chair to conference during Writing Love time, he surprised me.

“Watcha writing your poem about?” I asked, expecting him to glance away, avoiding my eyes, and say, “I dunno,” which had been his standard response this fall.

Today, he paused. He glanced away.

I waited. I let the space be silent, too, even though I was dying to break it with my probably not helpful comments.

He said, “Donations.”

My eyes, I know, lit up like a Christmas tree. “Donations! That’s fabulous, Alex! What kind?”

He paused again.  Again, I waited.

“Donations you can see.” Long pause. “And donations you can’t see.”

I love to be proven wrong with my assumptions.

Flash forward to two weeks later. Our poems were done. Students selected one poem to read out loud to the whole class as well as share with the class in an anthology. Alex was absent on the big celebration day, where we ate doughnuts and I told the class how when I was in junior high, I’d rather jump out the window, breaking both arms and legs, than do a speech in front of my peers. He missed all of his classmates launching up to the front of the class, quietly reading their poetry to us while we wiped the glaze from our mouths.

I failed here. I should have prepared Alex more. I should have given him a bigger heads up, some time to practice reading his poem out loud, some wiggle room. I didn’t. I said, “Hey, Alex, time to read your poem!”

He started shaking his head back and forth. Then he started rocking back and forth. “Can I-can I just read it from my desk?”

Here was another mistake from me. I’ve got this non-negotiable thing with public speaking. When we perform speeches, everyone does them from the front of the room. It’s part of the deal. Kids can’t read from their desk or make them up at lunch just in front of me or avoid it completely and take a low grade. Believe me, I understand the fear. I almost didn’t become a teacher because of my terror of public speaking, and I tell my students that very thing. However, I know these kids will have to stand up in front of other people at some point in their lives, and I want them to have pushed through their fear before that happens. Alex didn’t hear any of my heartfelt, vulnerable, understanding encouragement because he had been absent that day.

“No,” I said gently. “It needs to be in front of the class.

Tears started rolling down his cheeks like lava pouring from the mouth of a volcano. Choking sobs shook the table. Now he was heading towards a complete eruption.

The class was silent. Then a few kids said, “Come on, Alex, you got this,” God love them for being more compassionate than I was in that moment.

I guided Alex out into the pod. He dropped his head onto the table with a thud, shoulders shaking in his black hoodie sweatshirt. I brought him a Kleenex and let him be for a bit. I did have twenty kids waiting. Five minutes later, I checked on him, trying to convince him to read his poem in front of the whole class.

What was I thinking? I know better. Teaching days are filled with moments like this, and while there are plenty of moments where I handle a situation with the right amount of heart and compassion, I don’t always. Sometimes I just want kids to do what I say, whether they are ready or not. I am all too human. Often, my mess ups and missteps and mistakes haunt me. I worry that I can’t repair the relationship, that I’ve scarred this kid for life. This is me taking things WAY too seriously. I’m working on it.

It turned out better than okay, don’t worry.

But here’s me again, still trying to control things.

The next class, I said, “Alex, how about we get a bunch of kids to stand up here with you, and they’ll all read a line from your poem?” I thought this was a brilliant solution to the problem.

Before the sentence even finished, he was shaking his head no.

“How about if Jake stands up there with you and reads it for you?” Jake is one of my top speakers, and he and Alex are friends.

No way. He shook his head with vigor and determination.

I decided to shatter my bullet-proof, ironclad law for the first time in twenty years. I asked Alex if he would be willing to stay after class for a minute and read his poem to me and Jake. Lo and behold, he agreed.

When he finished reading, Jake said, “WOW. That was really great, Alex!” I could see Alex’s pride in that moment.

Here is Alex’s poem. He chose not to read his other poem, “Donations.”


How eyes can be blue
How some cars are blue

How paper can be blue
How water looks blue

but isn’t.

How cabinets are blue
How my binder is blue
How my pencil is blue
How most of everything

is blue.

Blue is in the RGB scale
Blue is anywhere

I look.

Blue makes up every color

but I

never knew it.

til now.

Flash forward to this morning. I was reading more narratives. I was dreading it based on my  mini-existential crisis last night. Then I saw Alex’s narrative.

At the beginning of the personal narrative unit, we had a number of conferences where I was trying to help Alex find a topic. “Nothing ever happens to me,” he kept repeating. None of my usual cues were working. In desperation, I used the ol’ Phone a Friend strategy. I had seated Alex next to Jake, which turned out to be a minor stroke of seating chart genius on my part.

“Jake, do you remember anything happening to Alex last year in sixth grade?” Jake’s freckled face lit up, and he said, “Yeah! Remember when you slipped on the ice and broke your collarbone?” I slid away and let them talk it out.

Flash forward to yesterday’s narrative celebration. I brought in some chocolate, and we popped a bunch of popcorn while kids got up in front of all of us and read a paragraph or two of their choice. Last but not least was Alex.

“Your turn, Alex,” I said, and I took a deep breath. I had not prepared him. I had not even given my big speech about public speaking to kids today. I just didn’t make a big deal out of it. We share all the time in class now. I had no idea how Alex would react. Would he start crying again? Would he run out of the classroom? Should I have prepared him more for this moment? Here we go again, I thought. I really screwed this one up.

With no hesitation, Alex rose out of his seat and read, loud and clear as a bell. No tears. No volcanic meltdown. He was calm, poised, and confident-at least it seemed that way. I resisted the very strong urge to tell the class to give him a standing ovation, but in my head, I pictured all twenty-two of us rising up and cheering him on. After Alex finished,  I whispered how proud I was of him and that he made my day. Once again, I made assumptions. Once again, I was happily proved to be wrong.

This morning, I read Alex’s narrative. He tried a hook. He used thoughts, feelings, and opinions. He tried dialogue, experimented with figurative language, broke up his paragraphs, and used a “So What” (theme) at the end. He was experimenting with many of the strategies we have been practicing. He went from having nothing to say to writing three pages.

I think I need to buy Jake a doughnut.

I think I need to remember these moments more when I get so caught up in my tangled webs of doubt, feel frustrated with the kids who keep misbehaving in epic ways, when I can’t figure out how to get kids to care about their writing, or when I question whether any of my effort does anyone any good. It’s January, full of grey skies that block our sunshine, snow that covers our green lawns, fog that hides our mountains, and doubt. But my students give me hope every single day when I open my eyes, get out of my head, and pay attention. 

This is why I freaking love my job.

Deadlines vs. Engagement

goldfishOne of the main reasons I decided to shift to writing workshops is this: I want engaged students. Not compliant ones. And there is a huge difference.

I have always tried to strike a balance between writing process and the final writing product. My ego does get involved in the product. Giving up control of the process means that the final writing product may not be the polished, pretty piece I am accustomed to.  

It’s kind of like when your children learn how to wrap presents. You have to let certain things go. The bow is crooked, the wrapping paper won’t match and Scotch tape is used indiscriminately. It does not look department-store ready. But it’s THEIRS. Not mine.

It’s the same with writing workshop. The final product could look a whole lot messier than I’m used to. It’s my students’ writing, generated from their decision making, crafting, use of time, and problem-solving. Not mine.

The next time they wrap presents, they get better at it. It’s real, messy, frustrating, and beautiful. If I step in and corral my students through a process they don’t own, they are complying to my terms. They’re wrapping my package, not theirs. And I don’t want just compliant writers. I want them playing, wrestling, struggling, and trying because they care, because they want their words to be heard, because they know their words and efforts matter.

We are heading towards finishing personal narratives. My seventh graders started writing them in mid November and will turn them in next week. Too many of them are not finished, even with a first draft.  This gives me heart palpitations. It makes me feel like I am not doing enough. I am not structuring things in a way to keep my kids moving forward and feeling successful. I am not holding kids accountable enough. I am not offering enough support. My directions aren’t clear enough. My expectations aren’t clear enough. My experiment with writing workshop makes them less successful, and it’s not fair to them. Basically, I’m freaking out. And so on and so forth, the questions and doubts swim through my head like restless goldfish searching for nuggets of food.

These doubts make me want to set deadlines, to wrest control of the process, to say, Okay, today we’re back to all doing the same thing at the same time. I give you deadlines, I keep showing you what I want, and you do it.

However, my experiment has shown me that there’s no turning back. We’ve had a taste of freedom, of choice, of that open road, and we don’t want to return to our narrow streets, all heading the same direction.

When we enact big changes, it is all too tempting to return to our default, our comfort zone. As we all know, our comfort zones can be completely dysfunctional and unhealthy. My teaching zone wasn’t; my student writers grew every year. But I kept being haunted by the idea that there was a better way.

Recently, as I agonized over my conundrum, the lightbulb brightened. My kids don’t need deadlines. They need more engagement. I can’t tell them what their writing process is or should be any more than I can tell them who to marry. We’re discovering preferences, and right now, this is all new. Many of my kids are engaging with their writing in different ways. They are learning how to own it. They need my continued enthusiasm. They need to talk to each other. They need to keep sharing parts and whole pieces of writing with each other and with me, and they need to keep feeling seen, feeling understood. That connection keeps me writing, too. I need to keep showing them why their words matter to me and to each other and to themselves. I need to keep catching them playing, taking risks, trying, and rewarding them for their ownership of their writing, for shifting their ideas of themselves and what they’re capable of.

Instead of setting tons of deadlines because I’m freaking out that they won’t finish or that the quality will suffer, I need to remember how powerful it is for students to learn what they need as writers and who they are as writers. Most have no clue. This year I am giving them the gift of time and space to figure it out, to give them permission to play, take risks, and, yes, to make mistakes and fail. I need to give myself that same permission. 

When I see our writing class as a safe place to try, fall,  and try again, when I realize many of my students ARE engaged, when I remember I want engaged students, not merely compliant ones, I tell the frantic goldfish in my mind, “It’s okay. Keep swimming. We’re on the right track.” We don’t need tons of deadlines (though some, I realize, are necessary!)

The product may not arrive in a shiny package any more.

But here’s the difference. It’s not MY package any more. It’s theirs to keep forever. 

Writing Territories

One main idea behind the writing workshop is teaching the writer, not the writing. This year in particular, I keep asking myself. How can I teach my writers to be independent so that they can take those skills out the door with them and bring them to every future writing task?

A powerful way to teach some independence is through Writing Territories. It’s one of the very first mini lessons I teach, and it was developed by Nancie Atwell from In the Middle. The idea is to brainstorm, as I call it, a big fat list of areas of your life that mean something to you, that you care about, that you can return to. I actually had one kid call it his Big Fat List, which made me smile.

One definition of a territory is “a field or sphere of action, thought, etc.; domain or province of something.” We all have rich, meaningful territories in our lives, domains we own as a result of our experiences. My seventh grade students own stuffed animals, and they own phones for Instagramming and Snapchatting. Some kids are innocent, and some are not. Many kids travel back and forth between those uncharted waters of adolescence and back to the familiarity of childhood, which may feel more like a shoe they’re outgrowing. It’s vital for kids to establish their territories, those familiar domains they know they own. Territories enable kids to own their writing and to be empowered through the process of figuring out who they were, who they are now, and who they are becoming (to paraphrase Nancie Atwell-the following strategy comes from her).

To begin the mini-lesson, I show kids my list of Writing Territories. For years, I used the same list, but I try to update it or add to it in front of students. For five minutes, I talk about a few things on my list, tell a few stories, show how I might take a topic and write about it, and model how I come up with more ideas if I’m stuck. Some of my topics are huge, like Glacier National Park, and I talk about how I could break it down in all sorts of different ways. Running into a sub-adult grizzly with my three children and no bear spray. Getting lost climbing Otokomi Mountain. The smell of cottonwood trees in May. Bighorn sheep. Rockwell Falls. And so forth. Other ideas are already narrow enough to write about (we call them Pebble topics), like the time I swam with dolphins. I encourage kids to begin writing their lists while I talk about my territories.

Then, I give kids five quiet minutes to keep writing ideas in their Writing Territories, which is a section in their English binders. I tell students to write down anything that pops into their heads and not to worry if they think they can’t write about it. The main idea is to get kids used to the idea of capturing any idea, no matter how ‘good’ or how promising they think it is. Many ideas work well for different genres; I always want my kids to keep the door open to present and future possibilities for writing.

Once the timer rings, kids pair up, share their ideas, and try to write down at least five more ideas. Sometimes, students form an inner and an outer circle with their Writing Territories and keep rotating so that everyone can hear ideas from different kids and write them down if it strikes a chord. When we do our end of class share, you got it-kids share a Writing Territory and continue to jot down ideas. As a side note, many kids LOVE to count their territories, and some can get quite competitive…

I’ve used Writing Territories in the past,  but our Writer’s Notebooks were too separate from our other writing. I wasn’t great about having kids return to their list of territories and adding to it as the year goes on. This year, it exists as an entire section in our binders. We’ve already added a Heart Map and a list of drawings of things that make us happy (a little cheesy, but we’d just been out of school for three stressful days as a result of cyber threats, and we needed some positive energy). We’ll continue to add to our list periodically, especially when we begin a new genre of writing. For example, we’ve been writing poetry but will start personal narratives in a few weeks, so kids will brainstorm specific moments in their lives with emotional impact.

In the past, I have given kids daily prompts, usually with the caveat that they can use it if it grabs their interest, but if not, they can find their own topic. Kids often come to me being used to writing prompts. I am not against writing prompts-sometimes it is exactly what I need to get me writing. However, if kids are overly reliant on a prompt which is generated by a teacher, it takes away their ability to find their own way. If a picture or a question encourages ideas, great, but it’s much like trying to find that perfect class novel that every kid will love…impossible, or close to it. I’d rather have kids be able to generate their own areas, themes, and moments which they can return to, instead of becoming dependent on me to help them find an idea.

As the quarter moves by, I appreciate the conversations I have with my students. I learn a lot about them by glancing over their territories and their heart maps. I love hearing the stories they tell me about their Writing Territories. More importantly,  I love seeing their eyes light up when they look over their lists by themselves and realize that they do have something to say.

I want my students to know their own process of finding something to say and then figuring out how to say it well, so that they walk out our door with renewed confidence in their ability to figure it out by themselves. I want them to own their territories and think about who they are becoming and what that means. I believe that Writing Territories have the power to guide my students home.