The Power of Personal Stories

SliceOfLifeLogoRecently our third-grade class celebrated a student’s birthday, As is our tradition, the student’s parent came to read to our class. This is always one of my favorite times. What’s not to like? I’m on the audience side of the read aloud, and I often discover books that are new to me.

On this particular morning, I was treated to both benefits again. As Sam’s mom (name changed) pulled out the books Sam had chosen, she pointed out the one with Sam’s picture on the front and said, “We brought Sam’s favorite book. It’s about Sam’s favorite topic!” I love the way we all smiled knowingly. There was no bragging quality to it. We collectively smiled because we understood. Of course the “All About Me” Shutterfly-style photo book would be Sam’s favorite. Don’t we all like things that are especially for and about us?

I thought Sam’s mom would flip through a few pages and then move on to the other book she had brought. Instead, she began on the first page and continued flipping pages, telling the stories behind the pictures.

These are pictures of when Sam was born. This is when Sam came home from the hospital. This was Sam’s favorite thing to do: sucking a thumb. This is Sam when…

I was compelled to take picture after picture of Sam’s mom telling the stories of the each family photo. Why? Because of what was happening all around the room. Sam’s mom held the book while Sam, and Sam’s younger sibling, who joined us for the birthday read aloud, were leaning in, periodically exclaiming and pointing, “Oh! That’s the time when…” The rest of the class was riveted as well. Necks were stretched to see the pictures, and smiles and nods accompanied many of the stories.

You might think that a photo book and oral stories of one student’s life would bore a class of wiggly third graders, but evidence to the contrary, these stories held our rapt attention. My theory on why? Because Sam is one of us, so Sam matters to us, and because Sam’s stories are also our own stories. We can relate to the birth stories, and the holiday stories, and the friendship stories, and the family trip stories. We can relate to the stories.

What a powerful opportunity to see the power our personal stories can have on any audience of readers and writers. Makes me wonder how I will capitalize on that power even more!

As this mom left, I thanked her for sharing the book, and told her what I’d observed, promising pictures of those precious moments. In our conversation she pointed out that there is another special aspect to a photo book of memories, and the accompanying oral histories: “They help you remember and they keep the stories alive.”

So true! Isn’t that the reason we write and read?



Before That…A Slice-of-Life Review


I’ve read three last-day-of-the-challenge slices before sitting to face this blank page. There is so much to say. It feels too big to whittle down. Kathleen Sokolowski captured the month perfectly in a poem, Here’s to Us. It was the first thing I read this morning, and I felt so happy to be included in the “us.”

Elisabeth Ellington wrote a list of learning that included this:

If I show up, something is going to happen. This is a lesson I have to learn again and again as a writer: trust the process. Maybe someday this will sink in?

I think “showing up” for all 31 days has changed me “for good” as Kathleen Sokolowski called out in her slice. There have been so many benefits from showing up each day to “write aloud here.”

Catherine Flynn did a wonderful job of pointing out all that she LEARNED in this month of writing. She organized her thinking through the following words, which came from a message she found on We Are Teachers: Reflect, Solve, Create, Grow, and Think. If you align the words on top of one another, the word LEARN appears vertically like an acrostic. I could relate to all that she gained from this month of writing.

So, as I reflect on my own learning, I think I will use a format that Aileen Hower used in a recent blog. “Before that” is a way to go from the present and walk backwards. I think I can see where I’ve landed if I go back to the start.

In this moment, I am surprised that this slice is taking as long or longer than my first slices. I have learned to write quickly this month, out of a need to “Get it done!”, but when I am processing my thoughts, it takes me a LOOOONNNNGGGG time!

Before that, I was reading Catherine Flynn’s slice and before that, it was Elisabeth Ellington’s slice. Their ideas made me want to stop and get my thoughts down. That was two hours ago!

Before that, I was at a strategic planning meeting and was excited to be part of some new initiatives that I believe will benefit our students in significant ways.

Before that, I was leaving my classroom, and my students were excitedly using Comic Life (a computer program) to write what they choose.

Before that, I had lunch outside with my students who took on the slice of life challenge, and who advocated to include the students who had not participated, on account of they shouldn’t be left out of a special lunch outside, and they all signed up for the NaPoWriMo challenge! I left my classroom with tears in my eyes, telling my students I love them!

Before that, I was reading Kathleen Sokolowski’s tweet and slice, and rejoicing over our collective accomplishment. I had personal doubts over how I would achieve this!

Before that, I was writing through jet lag. Returning from my trip to Japan proved harder than I anticipated!

Before that, I was writing, while in Japan, and trying to make time for slicing and commenting, even as I struggled to keep track of the 13-hour time difference.

Before that, I was bleary-eyed and stressed, trying to write through a week of conferences and getting ready for my trip.

Before that, I was hitting my stride. “I have this,” I thought. Little did I know how hard it would be to maintain my writing during my trip, and then through my post-trip exhaustion.

Before that, I was struggling. “How will I ever get through this month?” I wondered, in my blog, and out loud to myself, and close peeps who listen to my worries.

Before that, I was enlisting my students to join me in this writing challenge. “Who’s with me?” I wanted to know. When 15 said yes, I was unprepared for how personally supported I would feel. (Thank goodness for the suggestions of Erika Victor!) When we had lunch this past Tuesday, As we went around and polled the group on what was “most challenging about the challenge?” I was amazed that it was all the same things I’d experienced. Coming up with ideas. Finding time to write. Keeping up with commenting. Writing EVERY DAY! We were connected through our experience. So glad I asked my students to join me in my first year of the challenge!

Before that, I was training for Slice of Life with #EdTime2wrt, which Dana Kramaroff suggested. Every day, from January 24th through February 29th, I wrote a “sticky note” message and tweeted a pic of it. I thought I would be ready, and then sat to write my first slice, and doubted my thinking! “What made me think I could blog for 31 straight days?” I wondered. Sticky tweets are not the same!

Before that, I was having conversations in a Voxer group started by Kathleen Sokolowski about the value of educators being writers. How can we enlist others to write, too? We thought of ways to educate, inspire, and influence the actions we felt would benefit students, and ourselves as writers.

Before that, I was reading Kathleen Sokolowski’s blog post entitled, “Should Educators Be Writers?” I had been pondering the post that inspired Kathleen, written by Donalyn Miller, and entitled “Get on the Bus.” In Miller’s post for Nerdy Book Club, she implored educators to walk the talk. Teachers need to be readers, which is why Kathleen got the dialogue going about teachers as writers. I am a fan of both of these inspirational teachers, and I believe the message they promote.I am part of their choir. Yes, teachers need to read and write and walk the talk.

Before that, I was at the KSRA conference in October. Clare Landrigan encouraged and inspired me to start slicing on Tuesdays. If you write, our community will support you. I will support you. She was true to her word and has retweeted me, and commented on my blog. I am forever grateful.

Back to this moment…I did it! I am still suffering jet lag. This slice has taken hours to write and revise, and my head has drooped forward numerous times in a desperate attempt to sleep. But, I feel happy to write that I got here. I’ve learned so much about myself as a writer, and about teaching!

My students and I will take on a new challenge for April beginning TOMORROW! No foolin’!

Each day we will write a poem. We will learn from each other and from ourselves.

Educators need to be writers.

When Lenore Look, on an author visit to our school on Tuesday, told students that the single most important thing they could do as writers is to keep a writer’s notebook, my students lifted their notebooks and waggled them in her direction. They were excited to know that they are already doing what this author recommends.My students are a reflection of the messages I promote. We live like writers, We keep notebooks. We share. We support each other. We grow because we write. Together, we have benefitted from the Slice of Life Challenge.






Writing Through Jet Lag


Finish it. Please. Finish. Set a time limit and stick to it.

These are my husband’s words as I nod off again while commenting on a slice. I thought I would start with comments and then write my slice and be finished before 9:00 PM, but jet lag is getting the best of me, and I keep falling asleep, eyelids dropping in parts until they close fully and my head flops down.

It is 10:00 AM on Tuesday in Japan. I have swollen ankles from the 15+ hours of flight time, and the throbbing, tingling feeling is surprisingly not enough to keep me awake, but I need to stay awake long enough to get this slice written and posted.

Here’s what I am wondering as I ponder this challenge and my push to complete it:

If it weren’t for the challenge, I would be in bed, sound asleep by now. I think that would be the right choice if I weren’t so stubbornly trying to finish all 31 days of SOL. When this challenge is complete, I know that there will be nights when I give myself a pass on writing. What’s most important is minimizing the number of passes I give myself. I want to maintain the momentum and commitment I’ve gained this month. Maybe what this challenge has taught me is how much writing I can do, and how many obstacles I can work through.

Tonight, I pushed through jet lag to string together words and write my ideas. I think I’ve earned a good night’s rest now.

Returning From Japan


NOTE: This is a writing exercise I learned through Teachers Write Camp (#teacherswrite). You write 3 words per line, and when you are finished, you have a piece of writing that may have started as narrative text, but comes out more like a poem. Cool, right?

Returning Home

I have been
in transit since
8:00 this morning,
but that was
yesterday, I think.
Let’s see, I
started on Sunday
morning in Japan.
It is now
Monday there, and
the time is
8:46 in the
morning, but for
me, in the
U.S., it is
Sunday night at
7:46, which means
I’ve been traveling
for just over
24 hours, and
all I can
think about is
a shower and
the dinner my
husband has cooked
because I am
exhausted and ravenous,
and even though
I would have
stayed in Japan
for much longer
with my baby,
I am relieved
to be back
to the comforts
of my home.
In Japan, it
is tomorrow, and
here it is
the day I
left Japan, which
gives me a
few hours to
share stories of
my trip before
returning to work
routines and the
probable jet lag.




A Comment Interrupts: I Am Trying Not to Be Sad


I had just typed my title, fingers hovering over my keyboard, and I noticed a new comment. I can’t resist clicking on new comments, so click, I did, before even typing the first word of this post. Greeting me, in response to my Day 24 post, were thoughts from Elisabeth Ellington:

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 12.45.20 PM

This is just what I needed. Well, I always need comments…they really do keep me going. But, I was about to launch into my sad self, and instead, I read Elisabeth’s uplifting comments. I went off to read her blog. Her Day 25 post was just what I needed. You can click her link to read it:

Here, I Write: Slice of Life 26/31 #sol16


After reading her post, I left a comment. Probably the longest I’ve ever left, but Elisabeth had her timing just right, and her words so perfectly selected! Here is what I said (it doesn’t appear to be up ion her site yet):

Dear Elisabeth,

This is why I am here…

“Here, I write. I’m reading more than I write. I always do. It feels like a visit with dear friends. I bookmark several ideas I might return to later. I try to comment generously. So many new-to-me slicers. I remember how much comments meant to me when I was a new blogger. I think about how much they still mean to me. I remind myself to focus on the craft too, not just the content. It’s so easy to connect to the content. It takes more careful thought to attend to the craft.”

You left a comment, and you attended to the content and the craft, and it was the most perfect distraction at the most perfect moment. And one more thing, your first name is my mother’s name, and my middle name, and it is spelled just the same, with an “s” and not a “z” and that feels incredibly perfect at this moment. Please come visit my Day 25 post, in a little bit. I’ve interrupted the writing of it to visit you.

Your “Here, I write.” slice is beautiful. The repetition brings the reader into different scenes and facets of your writing life. It is a beautiful way to capture your writer self. I loved getting a glimpse into your spaces and process. I, too, try to comment on craft, and am appreciative for your comment, and the specificity you offered. Your comment mattered more than you can know. I am returning to my post, which your comment gratefully interrupted.

With gratitude,

Feedback is always awesome. Feedback that makes you feel like you are on to something is even better. Feedback that comes from someone with your name, and your mom’s name, that is spelled the same way seems like fate. Feedback that distracts a feeling-sad-mom from her packed suitcase and the knowledge that she needs to get on a plane in less than 12 hours, and leave her grown-up baby, is the best kind of feedback.

I thought I’d be writing about trying not to be sad. Now, instead, I have distracted myself with the lovely comments and post of Elisabeth, with an “s”, Ellington. I have not blubbered over my keyboard. I’ve actually smiled and chuckled, and totally appreciated the humor in her piece when she talks about her son waking and then telling him: “I don’t even know how I lived without you for these twelve hours! I’m so glad you’re awake!”

LOL! I needed to read that. I also found the juxtaposition interesting because, I actually don’t know how I’ve lived since July without my baby, and I’m not sure how I’m getting on that plane.

Okay, my eyes are a bit filled up, but still, I’m not a waterworks, and I have Elisabeth to thank for that!

Now, I will try to sleep for a few hours before having breakfast with my baby and my trip home to the other side of the world…from my baby. Yes, I’m trying not to be sad, and I’m happy to have had help from a fellow TWT blogger and commenter!

CORRECTION: 3/26/16 at 1:56 PM / 3/27/16 at 2:57 am in Japan: The time difference is wreaking havoc on my thinking! Please note that my references above to “days” in the challenge are wrong. I had yet another posting panic as I tried to post for Day 25, found the comments closed, and realized that I was actually on Day 26 and had already posted for Day 25. Elisabeth’s above-referenced post is for Day 26, and the post she commented on for me was for Day 25. Tomorrow, with a sad heart, I will return to my own time zone, and a lot less confusion!

A Discovery About Being a Writer

SliceOfLifeLogoOn my way to Japan, I wrote about my travel experience, and when I arrived, I posted pictures of my notebook pages. The day after I arrived, I posted more notebook pictures where I had written about my reunion with my son at the airport. At that point, I thought I would do this each day, writing about the events of the prior day, except that I have not been able to keep up with the events, and when I sit to write there is too much to say. Each day has been like a week, and now, on the eve of my departure, I realize that the stories of my week will be the writing of weeks to come.

I have so many pictures. I will revisit the events they have captured, reviewing the images, and pulling out the moments– bringing them back to life in words.

Yesterday, I made a discovery. Writing takes time, but sometimes there isn’t any. What to do? In the moment, take a little time, not to compose a piece, but to grab the elements for one. I have a piece that is waiting to be assembled. While standing on the platform of the monorail, I jotted a sequence of events. Scrawled really. On two small pages I collected bits of dialogue, and the order of what happened. These are the things I would lose in a week.

As I stood there scribbling phrases and abbreviated words, I imagined Hemingway (one of my favorite writers) doing the same when he was reporting on wars. It struck me as a funny thought. Surely, I had not discovered something new by taking notes of my experience, but it was something I had never thought to do before. Yes, I’ve taken notes. Yes, I’ve written ideas for pieces I’ve written. Yes, I’ve grabbed scraps of paper to write a thought to add to a piece. But, I can’t remember making notes about my life in the moment so that I could later write about that exact slice of my life. Is this what it means to live a writerly life? To plan for future stories in the moment?

In participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, I have observed my world differently. Throughout my day, I find myself thinking, This is a slice; I could write about this today. Occasionally, I have jotted a phrase to hold onto the idea. But, I have never taken notes in the moment so that the ideas would be fresher when I sit to write. I know that writers have done this for as long as there have been writers. And yet, I don’t think I ever have. But, wearing the garb of a writer placed me in a different position. My need caused me to invent a new way of being a writer of my experience. I learned a new trick because I could not write in that moment, but I wanted to be able to write in the future about that moment. So, I took notes about myself! It still strikes me as a funny, and even silly discovery, but I know that I have uncovered a new truth of writing and writers.

And, as absurd as it seems to be “writing aloud” what will surely be an obvious idea to other writers, I feel that I cannot be alone in this realization. If nothing else, I know that this will inform my teaching in a new way. I imagine having pocket notebooks for all my students now. A coil ring holding a pen inside. Setting aside days at the beginning of the year for modeling taking notes about our own lives, in the moment. Stopping and jotting as soon as ideas come to us. Demonstrating the furious writing that comes from wanting to quickly gather thoughts when they happen.

It is the eve of my departure from Japan. I will live like a writer today, as I have all the days of this trip, but on the last one, I will look for moments, I will take pictures, AND I will take notes. I will plan for slices of life to be written.

(Look for a piece about my monorail experience in a future slice! It’s just waiting to be assembled.)