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.






Choosing Both a Moment & Kindness

As this month comes to a close, I am most amazed by the wealth of ideas I have for possible slices each day. I started the month trying to figure out what to write about each day, but at the end of the month, I find the biggest challenges are: choosing only one of many topics and making time to write every day.

Tonight, I will choose the most recent moment, even though there is still more to write about our author visit. And, there was the lunch I had, yesterday, with my students who are also slicing. And, there are still so many moments to share from my trip to Japan, especially my visit to an elementary school. It looks like I have found the tools I need to keep blogging! Maybe I will challenge myself to another month of daily writing? My students tell me they will join me for NaPoWriMo! But, that is also a slice for another day.

The most recent moment just wrapped up in my classroom. Eight families came together for our second meeting of our family read aloud book club. We are reading Wonder. The evening began with the energy of third graders excited to come to school and see each other again…at night! My energy was barely there since jet lag hit me like a wall on day three of my return from Japan. I soaked up some of that giddy joy and the happiness that is talking-about-books, and got our meeting started.

We settled in at the tables in our classroom, and I showed a video to set up the theme of our meeting. You can watch it here. We discussed what we’d noticed, and students shared what they noticed. The words I asked them to focus on were, “I could do something,” which is the message of the video, and a theme of Wonder.

We moved to our group meeting area, and I read the chapter, Choose Kindness. As I read, students were reading in their own copies of Wonder. At one moment, I looked up to see every child in a comfy position, sitting or stretched out on mats in front of me, intently focused on their books. The moment literally caused me to get goosebumps. This, I thought, is why I share books. I felt like there was a current connecting us through words.

When I finished the chapter, I told them that the words, “Choose kind,” and, “I could do something,” were rolling around in my mind, and I wondered aloud, “Are these words rolling around in your heads, too?” Heads nodded. I added, “I have two quotes I’d like to share with you that I think are related.” These are the quotes I passed out on small sheets:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.

Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of

the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Albert Einstein

We focused in on the Albert Einstein quote, noting the connection to the words: “I could do something.” With that in mind, we returned to our tables to make some posters. On one side, students and their families wrote the question, What are some examples of times when it is hard to choose kind? On the other side, they wrote, What can we do to help ourselves make kind choices? Then they discussed and brainstormed ideas, listing them on their poster papers. Ideas that were shared included: It’s hard to choose kind with my siblings. It’s hard to choose kind when you feel shy. It’s hard to choose kind when others are older and bigger.

So true. We took these thoughts with us when we returned to our group meeting area for one last book: The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. If you’ve never read it, head to your nearest library or bookstore. It is excellent, and a powerful tool for discussing the realities of school and ways that students can do something kind. These were the words I left my group with: I could do something kind. These are the words that I will be repeating now, when our whole class comes together tomorrow, and I read The Invisible Boy to all my students.

As we creep closer to the weeks of standardized tests, I am reminded that there are things we teach that will never show up on a test, but they might be the things that matter most. Imagine if we all lived these words:

  • Everyone is a genius.
  • I could do something kind.

I know we would all live better lives.


Book Club for My Families


I am in my classroom eating Thin Mints for dinner. Well, maybe I should call it an appetizer. I will eat dinner later, but I am hungry now, so I munch my minty cookies for a boost, and I prepare for the book club I am hosting for the 3rd year running.

At 6:30, eight of my students, along with their families, will join me for my 3rd annual family read aloud book club. I will walk to the lobby in about 15 minutes to meet them. I’ve checked my agenda, and materials…

Books to read while we wait for everyone to arrive? Check. Labels and markers for name tags? Check. Camera? Check. Computer with book trailer prepped? Check. Books purchased by my families? Check. My copy of Wonder? Check.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This is the book we will read and discuss. The book I have shared with two other book club groups. I can’t wait! But, I also feel an anxious sensation that is akin to the first day of school. Excited and nervous all at once. I fold over the foil sleeve on the remaining cookies and return them to the cabinet over the sink. It’s time to greet my families!

I walk to the lobby with a stack of books for families to read as we assemble our group. Looking out the glass doors of our lobby, I see movement, but it is only my reflection. I sit with my stack of books and open one I haven’t read in awhile- Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. I am three pages in when I see a flutter of motion to my right. I look up to see one of my students running to the door. She is literally jumping up and down. Her mother has not caught up. I walk over and welcome this exuberant child, waiting for her mother to join us. Her daughter is bouncing! I invite them to sit with me, read a book.

“Are we the first to arrive?” asks the mom.

“Yup! I brought books for while we wait. Would you like to read one?”

“What do you have?” asks my student, leaning over to look through the stack.

“I was reading Hey, Little Ant. Want to read that?” I ask.

“Is that the one where he says he says he’ll smoosh the ant?”


“Okay! I’ll read that one. Oooooo! You have Each Kindness. Mom, you should read this one. It’s really good!”

So begins the night, book-love launched! Another family arrives- Mom, Dad, my third grade student, and his two younger brothers. The youngest looks up at me, big brown eyes, pinchable cheeks and asks, “What’s this one?” He is holding Tyrone, and the Swamp Gang by Hans Wilhelm.

“Ohhh! I love that book!” I exclaim. “My son and I used to read that one all the time.”

“Can I read it?” he asks, hoping I will let him hold and read this treasure of a book. Afterall, it has dinosaurs on the front, and they’re wearing red bandanas. When we later prepare to move to our classroom, this same child is fretful. “I want to finish the book,” he implores. “Don’t worry,” I assure him. “You can bring the book, and finish it in our classroom.” He is satisfied with this outcome.

When we arrive in the room, I turn on the music of songs related to the book. I ask everyone to make a name tag, and families sit around the room at various tables. I distribute the books. It’s showtime!

“Welcome! I’m so happy to see you all and to share a great book with you!”

I explain that we will start by watching the book trailer. It gives us a starting point. When the video ends, I say, “You have a sense of the main character now, from watching the video. I’d like to share the beginning of the book by reading the first two chapters to you. Would students please grab a mat and meet me our gathering space, and parents, please feel free to pull up a chair behind them.”

Students form a tight group in front of me. A couple of parents grab mats to sit on the floor as well. The rest form a semicircle around us.

I read the quotes from Natalie Merchant’s song, Wonder, which fall on the first two pages– mentioning that we were just listening to this song, and I begin Chapter 1: Ordinary…

” ‘I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.’ ”

At the end of the first chapter, students share that they also ride their bikes and eat ice cream. We’ve established common ground. We move on to the next chapter and learn a bit more about why ordinary-feeling August, isn’t ordinary. I invite students to sit with their families and discuss what we’ve read so far. When we reconvene a few minutes later, the comments are perceptive.

“I think he talks about birthdays because he wishes he got to go to events that other kids go to.”

“August doesn’t see Zachary and Alex as much now that they’re in school, probably because they don’t want their new friends to see him with them.”

I thank everyone for sharing their thoughts. I tell the group that we will break into two groups. I invite students to make bookmarks at one table, while I meet with parents. Students talk excitedly as they decorate bookmarks in Wonder-book blue.

The parents and I sit in a circle, and I distribute a reading guide that I wrote to support their reading. I explain that this is an independent middle-grade read, but that I recommend that for third graders, even if they can read all the words comfortably, the subject matter should be supported with conversation.

“This is a compelling, beautifully written book. You will feel that these characters are real. You will imagine that they are neighbors you know, friends. This book will be a wonderful launch point for discussing important, real-life issues that your children will deal with.”

Parents nod their approval. They are ready to dig in and enjoy this book!

We bring the group back together for ONE, last story! The book One by Kathryn Otoshi. This book is a treasure. The word play and message are thoroughly engaging. The group was captivated by the story, and chimed in at various points with the words that completed sentences. It was one of those moments that makes me love reading aloud. It is what drove me to create a family read aloud book club. I want to spread the joy and power of reading aloud and sharing great books.

Tonight, I was a grand marketer of the read aloud. It felt great. At 11:38 at night, I have moments to get this slice posted. I should be asleep. But, I needed to share, because this is why I teach. This is why I changed careers twelve years ago. This is what drives me to do the work I do. Words are powerful. I live them through my reading and writing life, and I find every way I can to share them. Tonight was pure joy. More to follow on March 30th, when our club meets again!





The Papers at the End of the Day


My students have been gone for 20 minutes. I am sitting amongst the piles and stacks that mark the learning day. The silence makes a whooshing sound that is louder than the buzzing of students at work. There is so much to do that the only way to begin is to pick something up and start. I pick up the absence notes that need to go to the office. I pick up the March Book Madness bracket that needs to be copied for voting tomorrow. I walk to the office with these things and take my water bottle to refill while I’m at it. I collect the materials I will need for the student I am tutoring in a little over an hour. I decide what is and isn’t going home with me. I won’t even start on these things until 7:00, so I know that much of what I’ve been carrying back and forth will make the same trip, or I could just lighten my load, be realistic, and leave some of it here.

I look up at the wall of windows across the room, and the sun’s brightness is reflecting off of the flashing along the roof line. I would love to take a walk again like I did last night. Wait a minute. I promised myself I would walk tonight. I definitely need to take more papers out of my bag. They will not be dealt with tonight. I need to get some exercise. I need to have a little down time, and as I reflect on my day, I know that these papers are not all important for the work that will matter tomorrow.

In fact, the most important part of my work will be what I did today, and yesterday, and most other days. The single most important thing I do each day is to be present. Today, I was in the moment. My students showed me what they were ready for, and what they needed from me. The day flowed from one activity to the next. Our afternoon was spent on many different projects, and students worked both independently and collaboratively, demonstrating the self-reliance that shows we are in the second half of the year.

I’m thinking about some of the highlights. One student brought her slice from last night. “I wrote from a dog’s perspective,” she told me with a smile that was both proud and shy. She had been inspired by our current read aloud, Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe. Another student gave me his story series to take home and read, because he wants me to give him PQPs (Praise, Question, Push). This same student discovered the program, Comic Life, and asked if he could teach the class how to use it tomorrow. “I think our class should learn it because it’s fun and they could write comics.” Agreed. Time will be carved out for this tomorrow. I taught another student how to make a recording on a Notebook presentation, and then that student taught another, who taught the next… At the end of the day, six students had learned how to make recordings of themselves reading a book to include in their presentations for conferences.

It was a productive day. It was incredibly busy. We were happy. I need to return happy. I will take a few more papers out of my bag. Most of what I need is on my computer. The rest will be here in the morning– twenty students waiting for me to bring my listening ears, watchful eyes, a smiling face, and large stores of patient, attentive energy. I don’t need my bag for that. I need a walk and a good night’s sleep.

Grandparent Stories



It was just of 2 o’clock on Monday afternoon, and my mother appeared in the door of our classroom. As students looked up and noticed, they began to ask about this unannounced visitor. “Come to the floor and I’ll introduce you.” As the children gathered, they started guessing, and several asked, “Is she your mom?” To answer the question, I leaned in for a hug and said, “Hi, Mom!” “It is your mom!”

My mom visiting was like bringing a celebrity to school. Students love to learn about my life, and this was the ultimate Show-and-Tell!

As part of our Leap Day activities, my mom had come to answer questions about my grandfather who was a Leap Year baby, born in 1912! The students were thrilled to ask what it was like to have a birthday.

But, what they were most anticipating was sharing stories about their own grandparents. We gathered in a circle, and one after another, the children sat in the chair at the top of our circle.

My grandfather plays cards. My grandmother is creative. My grandfather fixed the pipes, but then they burst! I just realized that I don’t know my grandmother’s name, but I call her Gigi. This is the penguin that my grandmother crocheted for me. This is a picture of my grandfather’s Purple Heart medals, and his Bronze Star. Here is the American Girl doll sweater that my grandmother knit for me. My great grandmother loved butterflies, and getting to know her grandchildren; that’s me! My grandfather was born in Des Moines (The “s” was pronounced.); he lived on a farm and had cows and chickens. My grandmother’s favorite color is purple.

Several times, my mother and I shared a knowing glance. This was important stuff– linking to our pasts. Students brought up historical events, wars fought, and clothes worn such as the fresh pinafore that one grandmother loved to don every day as a girl.

As students revealed what they had learned through interviews with family members, and directly with grandparents, we laughed, asked questions, and nodded our understanding. We could relate. In this moment, I saw with tremendous clarity the power of sharing our stories.

With or without a leap year, I will continue to find ways to help students to tap into their rich histories.