Recently 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?
We were writing poems for our new writing challenge- #NaPoWriMo. I was trying to finish the poem I was working on because it was nearly time to wrap up. I felt rushed, and something akin to disgust. Yuck! This is not working! I do not like this poem; I would not share this poem.
The thought was nearly dismissed so that I could move on, but a teaching opportunity spoke to me.
I wonder how many students feel the same? This is what I said:
“I just finished a poem, and I don’t really like the way it’s going, and if I work on it, I could probably make it better, and I don’t want to share it, BUT, I will share it. Does anyone else have a poem they don’t want to share, but they will?”
Some heads nodded with me as I spoke, and many hands went up as I finished my question.
We spent the next twenty minutes sharing poems that we “didn’t want to share.” Now, in third grade, when one person does something, others often want to get their turn, too, so students actually wanted a turn, but the lens was changed by my question.
One student read his poem and, as soon as he finished, he said, “It’s a work-in-progress.” Then he quickly interjected, “I just thought of one more line,” and he shared a new line of his work-in-progress poem.
One after another, students volunteered to read, and share what they didn’t want to read aloud. Nearly all students shared a poem. As the last few shared, a girl stood. She was visibly anxious. She rocked from heels to toes, back and forth, back and forth. Some students appeared to notice the rocking motion. All students listened. When she finished, I felt compelled to note that she showed courage in sharing what she did not want to share. She smiled what looked like her thanks and agreement. I know. You don’t know this child. But, if you did, you would agree that this was big.
I’ve held the moment since yesterday because I believe it calls out Kathleen Sokolowski’s question: Should Educators Be Writers? I have held this question in my mind as a focal point since she posed it on January 24th of this year.
When I finished my less-than-satisfying poem, I could have done so many things, but what the writer in me wondered was: Did anyone else have my experience?
Being a teacher who writes has changed my experience as a teacher. Last week, when I had my second-to-last lunch with my students who took on the Slice of Life Challenge, “I asked them: What has been most challenging about the challenge? Maybe you would predict their answers, but being a first-time slicer, I was surprised to find that their responses mirrored my thoughts. They talked about the challenges of coming up with topics, of making time to write every day, and of keeping up with commenting. Wow! Me, too, I told them!
After 31 days of slicing, I know that I have improved my own writing, but lately, I’ve been noticing the benefits to my teaching. Each day, I am faced with one moment after another where writers need my help in supporting their efforts. There are so many possibilities. I could do and say so many things.
Being a writer amongst writers, and a teacher amongst teachers, has allowed me to trust in my experience. I can draw on what I know to connect with, guide, and instruct my student writers.
Today, when my fellow slicing students and I had lunch to celebrate our March accomplishments, I contrasted my last question with: “What did you gain from participating in the Slice of Life Challenge? What did you learn? I smiled when the first two students said they’d done the challenge because there were rewards. I understood that. Sometimes we need external reasons. I had them, too. After all, being able to blog that I’d finished the challenge was a reward.
The next student shared that becoming a better writer had been the primary motivation. Several students nodded to themselves in agreement. I understand this, too. I asked, “Regardless of why you chose to do the challenge, who feels they learned about writing by doing the challenge?”
All hands went up instantly. Again, the writer in me knows this truth. I have learned. I am learning. And in these two statements, I have summarized why I believe that being a writer informs my teaching.
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.
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.
Lenore Look, author of Alvin Ho, visited our school today! It was an awesomely inspiring assembly. When we left the auditorium, my students and I returned to our classroom and sat in a circle to share some of the highlights. Then we went outside to write! Here is a list I wrote that was inspired by Lenore’s suggestion to write lists of all types. I will write more about this in a future slice, but for now, here is the list I wrote this afternoon…in the moment.
On 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.)