Friday, February 20, 2015

Stark Discovery Under the Coatrack Today

Tailor came to our school as a scruffy looking, dirty eye-glassed, crazy-haired first grader.  As the literacy person, I had the role of doing some preliminary assessments to get a sense of where he was as a reader.  I'll never forget working with him that day.  He struck me as so quirky, reclining back in the seat of the sunlit library corner, smiling out of the corner of his mouth, taking his glasses on and off, on and off, squinting up at the ceiling then down at the paper, laughing, and talking about anything but what was on the reading tests.  So, of course, we talked about whatever came up, I asked him about his taped-together glasses ( "Can you see okay?" This simple question launched him into a long story; but, yeah, he could see okay.).  We actually got the tests done, too.  I don't remember exactly how he scored, but it wasn't too bad, wasn't too good (the 'move ins' usually come in a lot lower), but I do remember knowing I would know this child.  Something in him had struck a special cord with me.

The remainder of his first grade year wasn't the finest.  He was in a rough class, so he ran with the pack, spending quite a bit of time in the principal's office.  Between all my school-wide literacy duties, I'd take him aside, ask how he was doing, read a bit with him.  When I did lessons or co-taught in his classroom, he was always all smiles and generous with hugs when I was on the way out the door.

Now, it's February, and he's well into his second grade year.  He has a fabulous teacher.  He's still his zany self, of course, and we wouldn't want it any other way, but he's not hanging out in the principal's office.  I just spent two weeks in his class working on informative writing, culminating in the composition of newspaper articles.  We made our own newspaper, announced it to the school, and gave out copies today.  Unfortunately, his teacher was absent, and apparently the class had a bit of a difficult time behavior-wise with the substitute.  I checked in on them just before lunch, and there was Tailor and another boy, not yet excused, reaping some consequence for what was, I guess, a day-long deluge of miscreant behavior.  I walked over to Tailor, put my arm around him and asked, "What's wrong, bud?  You haven't been having these kinds of problems."  With that, he started crying.  

"I've been bad all day.  I just miss my mom so much."

"Oh, honey, I know how that is.  My son misses me a lot when he's at school, too."

"No, no, my mom is dead."

My heart sank.  "Oh, Tailor, I am so very sorry to hear that.  That must be so hard.  Here take a minute and sit down.  Do you want to talk about it?"

At this point, we were seated where no one could hear our conversation.  I was picking grass out of his hair (first recess must have been one to remember), when he answered,  "No, I don't want to talk about it."

I told him that I remembered when he moved into our school last year, when I first sat with him in the library, and how he struck me as such a special kid.  "Maybe your mom was looking down and sent me a message that day.  We are so glad you are here with us and I'm sure your mom is so proud of you.  Today's been a tough day.  We all have them.  It will be fine."

"No, it's not fine.  If I do one more thing there's going to be a 'parent contact!'  I haven't had a parent contact all year."

"We'll, see, you haven't had one because you've been doing so well.  Don't worry, after lunch I'm sure things will be better.  There won't be a need for the substitute to call home, right?"

He nodded.

"Hey, I know, I have a bunch of books in my office that I give out to kids.  Do you want to come to my office and pick some?"

"No, that's okay.  You don't have to give me books."  His tears had dried up by now.  

"I give away lots of books, Tailor.  I have an idea. I'll pick some for you for a surprise.  I'll put them in your backpack.  You think you're ready to go to lunch now?"

"No, not yet." We were out by the coatrack now so he could point out which backpack was his.  "See this soccer ball?"  The soccer ball was on the shelf above his pack.  He had written his name on it with black marker.


"My mom gave me this ball.  It's one of the things I have that makes me think of her."

"It's a very special soccer ball then, huh?"  He was standing, talking, and I was sitting on a step under the coats and backpacks.

"Yeah.  She gave it to me just before my birthday.  That's how she died.  It was my birthday and she went out to buy me some presents.  She stopped at a stoplight.  The driver of a truck didn't stop and he ran right into her.  The steering wheel crushed her."  

I started sobbing.  I couldn't help it.   He peered down at me straight-faced.  Somebody walking by handed me a tissue.  He held the soccer ball gingerly, rolling it between his hands.  I wiped my eyes.  "That is just horrible, Tailor.  I am so, so sorry.  When is your birthday?"

"November second."

"My son's birthday is in November, too.  I just can't imagine how hard that is.  You are such a strong boy."  I gave him another hug.  "I am so glad to know you."

He walked off.  I just sat there awhile.  Then, I went to my office, picked some books, wrote him a little note wishing him a good weekend and letting him know I'd check in on him again.  I tied everything up with a bright green ribbon.  I meandered back to the coatrack, and there, under that soccer ball, in his very empty red backpack, I left the little gift.

It was a busy end to the day today.  I was running the halls, as usual, this time making sure all the copies of our newspapers got into readers' hands.  None left over.  Not on my watch.  

When I returned to my office, the librarian told me Tailor had been by to thank me.  "He made me promise to thank you.  He was so happy."

I went out the double doors, and there he was.  He had the biggest smile.  He ran up to me and gave me a tight hug.  "Oh, thank you!  Thank you, Ms. Wag.  I love the books!"

"I'm so glad, Tailor.  Enjoy them and let me know which one you like best."  

"I will.  I will!  See you on Monday!"  Off he went, down the street, kicking the soccer ball.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Model & Celebrate the Writing Struggle
Growth mindset.  Perseverance.  Stamina.  #Wecandohardthings

How do we encourage writers, especially young writers, to persist, push-on, wait, reflect, and preserve when they come up against writing roadblocks?

1)    Model, model, model.  As you’re thinking aloud, writing in front of your students, struggle.  Get stuck.  Show them this is a natural part of writing (like daily).  Don’t plan ahead too much for your modeled writing so the struggle comes up naturally.  Turn to students and ask for help.  “We’re all writers and we all have something to offer.  I’m stuck (explain…)  Who has an idea I might use here?” You may be surprised by what students come up with (I have been many, many times). 

2)    Celebrate student-struggle.  “You’re stuck? Of course you are, writer!  It happens to all of us! Can we share your work under the document camera and invite help?  Can you meet with a small group to get response and assistance? Can we trouble-shoot for strategies by looking at past pieces of modeled writing?”  Whatever the path, hold a public conference with this student at the end of writing time that day.  If the student is willing, have him share what he did to overcome the difficulty.  Celebrate BIG TIME.  We can all learn from one another, especially when we struggle and we’re still able to write right through it (even if that doesn't happen immediately).

2b) As you peruse student writing, look for examples of revision, reworking, rethinking, reflection, problem solving.  Again, use the document camera to highlight examples and share strategies.  Our own students are the most powerful mentors for each other.

On that note, here’s a peek at Stella thinking critically about her conclusion in Stella Writes An Opinion.  She’s stuck.  Yes, in the end, she preservers very nicely.  What strategies does she use to get there?  

Saturday, February 7, 2015


Okay.  Here I am living in Utah and not attending the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association's conference every year?!  Where have I been?  Hello!  This conference was amazing, and apparently the stellar lineup of events, presenters and authors like they had this year is the norm.  The NORM!  (See what I mean here: ) I'm glad it only took me 26 years of teaching to discover this.  At least I get it now.

I had an amazing time learning with old friends and new friends.  Thought I'd share this quick post for anyone who attended my session on Quick Bursts of Writing Across the Curriculum today.  I saw lots of teachers snapping pictures of several slides...  Though many downloads are available here on Quick Bursts, I forgot to mention the writing posters I showed are freely available, as well. Sorry, when I saw the cameras flashing, I should have said something.  Staying up until 2 AM last night (working, of course) surely affected my ability to respond to the cues in my environment (a.k.a. DUH! and Sorry!).  At least I'm making up for it now, right?

There are more 'posters' in the document than pictured below.  Link here:

Have a great evening!  And, here's a cheer to CCIRA!  Nice work everyone!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thanks International Literacy Association!

Hello!  I'm very honored to be the International Literacy Association's Member of the Month. When I got the email, I thought maybe they had the wrong person!

I had just a few days to answer the interview questions.  I wanted to share two of my favorite questions and answers here:

"What do you consider to be your proudest career moment?"
For many of us, our proudest career moments happen when our students succeed.  After all, we got into this profession to impact learners.  Triumphs with particular students tend to stand out.  One kindergarten year, I had a student who struggled, struggled, and struggled to learn to read and write even at the most emergent levels.  Others in the class were charging forward, using all that hard-earned alphabet-knowledge as REAL readers and REAL writers.  Meanwhile, this student was foundering. I had assessed, used all my tricks, completed several interventions, and involved the parents, with no progress.  Something was truly holding this little guy back and, even with many years of teaching under my belt, I couldn’t figure out what it was.  Even though he was only a kindergartner, I knew something was blocking his success and it wasn’t just a matter of his tender age.  Luckily, with the help of our school’s speech pathologist, we were able to find a pathway to reach him.  He began to grow...and by the end of the year, he was a success story.  But, his tale doesn’t end there.  This student is now twenty and, to this day, keeps in touch with me.  His family recently thanked me for recognizing his difficulty early on and doing something about it.  Best of all, this young man loves to write.  He writes poetry and short stories.  He’s using writing to reflect on his place in the world.  And, he shares his compositions with me and with others on the internet, hoping to one day be published.  Write on!

"What advice would you give a new teacher that either you received or wish you had?"
My best advice is to strive to make learning purposeful and joyful.  When students see a real purpose for their hard work, they love to work hard at learning.  Help them feel important.  Show them they have power.  When you teach something think, what might I have students do with this growing knowledge?  How might they share what they’re learning beyond our classroom walls?  How can our learning benefit or impact others?   Ask the students themselves for ideas.  Find a real purpose, encourage them to work for it, and you will enjoy joyful learning. 

Yes, everyone has their ‘bad days’ and teaching is a real challenge; sometimes it feels we run and run but can’t keep up.  Here’s a tip that will help keep things in perspective.  Post a class picture of your own child or a cherished niece or nephew right next to your computer.  When the going gets tough, look at that picture.  See that precious child standing among his classmates and think, “What kind of a teacher do I want for him?  What kind of a classroom do I want him to be a part of every day?”  Then make that your classroom.  Make your decisions based on what that teacher would do.  Be that teacher because every single one of your students is just that precious.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The 'Stella Writes' Website Launched Today!

     Another exciting day at the home office (where we work on projects after a full day of know how it is!)!  The 'Stella Writes' website launched today thanks to the good people at SDE.  Here's the link:

     The site includes instructional strategies for each book, suggestions for adaptations across grade levels, and downloads of Stella's writing that might be used for mini-lessons (notes, drafts with revisions and edits, and final copies). There are plenty of general strategies, as well.   Thanks to all those who provided reviews...those are posted, too.

   Here's a tiny sample of some content (there's quite a bit there!) :

Stella-isms I love posting inspirational quotes about writing in my classroom. I don’t post them all at once, but one at a time, over time, as we discuss them. Some of my favorites are from famous writers (you can find many on the Internet). Why not post some of Stella’s inspirations? Here’s a list. 

From Stella Writes an Opinion:

  • "What could be more fun than to write about what you think about an important topic? Now I’m talkin’ power." (page 4-5)
  • "I helped myself. I made a list, like good writers sometimes do." (page 7)
  • "Oh! I just thought of another (idea while writing)!" (page 14)
  • "Who knows what we opinion writers might change? The world needs us!" (page 26)
From Stella Tells Her Story:

  • "We all have stories to tell!" (page 6)
  • "That was some fantastico advice…" (page 12)
  • "The second ending is way, way better. It makes me feel proud. I love it!" (page 23)
  • "I ran up and told her I had the greatest, the most special thing to share. I sat down next to her to read my story." (page 26)
From Stella and Class: Information Experts:

  • "Being an expert feels pretty good!" (page 8)
  • "There we were, focused like detectives." (page 12)
  • "Writing is a messy process!" (page 16)
  • "We were in l-o-v-e!" (page 23)
 Writers Persevere Stella is a model of stamina and grit. Teachers have heard a lot lately about how these qualities are keys to success and how we should make a point to teach them to students. Study these moments in the Stella books together. Read the text closely. What is Stella doing? How/why does she do it? How does this help her as a writer and ultimately as a learner? What does this mean for you as a writer? 

Happy Writing!  :)  -Janiel