Right Question, Right Place, Right Time

I sat down today to do reading conferences, unsure who I was going to start with on my list.  I love it, though, when a kid comes at just the right time with just the right question to help me make my decision!

So enter my friend, D.  She came over to me and asked a simple question: “Do you have any good books?”

I LOVE it when a kiddo asks me this question, because it means I can do something to help get the right book in their hands.  So we sat together and started talking about recipes.

Yep, you read it right–recipes.  We started with background, whether or not she had ever cooked before.  She told me about how she had just made brownies, and so we discussed how a recipe helps you make sure you end up with the product you wanted–a recipe for brownies helps you end up with brownies if you follow the steps.

So D and I started writing her “Recipe For a Good Book.”  The idea behind this is that you can use things that you already know you like as a foundation for finding new things you’ll also like.   The end product is the “good book,” and the recipe is how to get there.  Just like how brownie mix + eggs + oil = brownies.

We talked about some of her favorite books, and she told me she really enjoyed Fudge.  So we started her recipe with Fudge and Judy Blume.  When I asked her what she liked about it, she said she liked it because is was funny because of the kids.  So we added funny and kids as main characters  to our recipe.  I got her thinking about some other favorites and she mentioned Ramona.  We talked about how there were some similarities between Ramona books and Fudge books, and so it makes sense that she’d love both!  Next we added Ramona, Beverly Cleary and family stories to our recipe.  After some more thinking and reflecting, we ended up with a list that looked like this (after she made it into a bookmark):

Once we had the recipe, we tried it out together.  We have a basket in our classroom that’s for GOOD BOOKS (some of my favorites that I’ve put together in a collection), so I figured it was a good place to start.  Immediately we found three books that we thought would fit her recipe really well:

The Zebra Wall by Kevin Henkes, Ramona Forever by Beverly Cleary and Clementine by Sara Pennypacker

By going down her list of ingredients for a good book, we realized that all of these were good options for my friend!  They had many things that she was looking for, and they were a good fit for her reading level.  Success!

The original idea for this came out of a conference I had with a student almost 3 years ago, and it has been appropriate for so many more readers since then.  I love getting the right book into the hands of a kid reader, and better yet, she has a plan for when she goes book shopping next time.  It’s a win-win. 🙂

If I Didn’t Write to Empy My Mind, I’d Go Crazy

Anyone who spends time in my classroom for longer than five minutes can (hopefully) see these things about me as a teacher:

  • I love natural light.  The overhead lights are almost never on.  We’re lucky that we have a whole wall of really tall windows that make our classroom nice and bright without artificial light.  Amazing.
  • I love to make my classroom as “homey” as possible.  You’ll find rugs and lamps, a coffee table and other touches all over the place.
  • I like to have things organized.  There are not many things that I care about in my classroom–as far as what things look like or how you do your work–but labels and neatness are two of them.  I spend a lot of time labeling things before my kids come, so that everyone knows which things are theirs and where those things are supposed to go.  There are baskets for supplies on the window sills, boxes for books all around the room, tubs on table tops for keeping Writer’s Notebooks, Read-Aloud Journals, pens and pencils.
  • I love to write.  Not just like it, love it.  I talk about it all the time.  I can probably find a way to turn almost any conversation around to writing.  What, when, how–you name it.

Ok, so maybe you couldn’t see that by looking in my classroom, but you could certainly tell it after a 5 minute conversation with me.  Or with my students. And the foundation of this obsession goes way back. Here’s my story:

I have always loved to write.  When I was a kid, author was on my short list of things to be when I grew up–right next to nurse and teacher.  I always loved writing in school, and was a pretty talented writer all the way through.  I still remember an epic poem I wrote in high school called The Hostage Gown (complete with footnotes and style and humor and wit) that I got a 100% on.  Mrs. Jessen was not an easy grader, either, so that was a bigger deal than it even seems.  But up to that point, most of the writing I did was because somebody else told me to.  Even in college, I was in an advanced comp class, and did pretty well.  But I still only wrote for teachers.  Never for myself.

Once I started teaching, writing became a bigger part of my life, but still only on a “school” level.  I started out in primary, and right or wrong, I found it easy to wing it teaching 1st grade writers; I didn’t need much practice to explain how to make a sentence or to use capital letters in the right places.  It wasn’t until 2005 that things changed for me.

A lot of things were new that year.  I was apprenticing to be a Project Construct facilitator for the state of Missouri, and I was also making a huge leap from 1st grade to 4th grade as a teacher.  So I spent a lot of time during that summer thinking and learning about writing.  I was excited about the prospects of teaching “big kids writers;” kids whose stories consisted of more than just a sentence or two and some pictures.  Kids who knew the basics and who could be stretched to a level I hadn’t yet be able to go with my students.

Enter some mentors of mine from Project Construct–Kristen Painter and Joyce Coats.  Both had this advice for me as we worked that summer: “If you’re going to teach 4th and 5th grade writing, you HAVE to have your own Writer’s Notebook.  All of your mini-lessons and teaching will come from there.”  Great! I can do that. I thought. But then I remembered that I didn’t have one.  I was a primary teacher who wasn’t really a writer myself, outside of functional writing I did everyday just to get things done.  And I didn’t even really know what a Writer’s Notebook was, much less how to use it or what to write in it.

Luckily, since it was summer and I was “off,” so I had lots of time to figure it out.  The very day or two after Joyce gave me that advice, I found myself in Border’s in front of the journal section shopping for just the right book in which to start.  It had to be the right size–small enough to fit in my purse so I could take it with me–but have the right kind of insides so my handwriting would look nice and neat.  I figured out it needed to be spiral bound so I could lay it flat, and then it needed to look just a certain way, too (but at that point I wasn’t sure what that really meant).  After what seemed like more than a half-hour’s work, I ended up with a small, black spiral notebook with rainbow edges.  Then I got busy making it mine.  Here’s what my very first Writer’s Notebook looked like:

As you can see, the front of it is specific to me.  It’s 6 years old, so a little worn, but you can see my family and friends; my dog, Floyd (who has since gone to live somewhere else); the year I was married (1998);  my job (teacher in Kirkwood School District); and an old greeting card business I was into at the time (Paper Soup Cards).  I love how Ralph Fletcher describes a Writer’s Notebook like a dorm room.  When you first start, it’s plain and white and boring.  They all look the same.  But slowly, as you “move in,” it starts to look like you, to take on your personality.

That first summer, I did all I could to fill that notebook up.  I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I used many of Ralph Fletcher’s suggestions, as well as those from my friends, about the what to write.  I had to figure out the when and the why.  And I guess that I did, because 6 years and almost 10 Writer’s Notebooks later, I’m still at it!  What I write and where I put my words has changed a little, but I’m still writing and loving it.

But why does it matter so much that I am a writer?  Well, because I am a writer, I know how writers work.  I understand how it’s hard to think about what to write sometimes.  I understand how great it feels to write on the last page (or the first page, for that matter!) of your Writer’s Notebook.  I have been where my students are, and have worked through some of the same problems they encounter in their work in our classroom.  I use my own writing during writing conferences, and talk with them about what I did when I had a problem.  And there’s something really special and powerful about the message of “I’ve been in your shoes.”  I think they trust me more.  They know I know what I’m talking about, and they try what I suggest.  The excitement in our room every year is contagious, and I like to think it’s because from day 1 they understand that we are all writers and that we’re going to do amazing things together.  And if for no other reason than I annoy them will all of my talk of writing, everyone leaves my class feeling a little more confident as a writer than when they came in–no matter where they started.

Oh, and one last thing.  I write so that I have material, so to speak, to use in Writer’s Workshop, but I really write for myself.  The quote I used in the title is from Lord Byron, I believe, and is totally the truth: If I didn’t write to empty my mind, I’d go crazy.  I am a thinker and a planner.  So that means that most of the time I have a million-and-one thoughts rolling around in my head, and they have to have somewhere to go.  So I collect them in my Writer’s Notebook.  Some of them I come back to and use again, some of them are just written down and left there.  Everyone has a stress-reliever, and mine is to write.  It’s therapy for me.  And it’s free therapy, which is a great thing.

So there’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  And I wonder from you: Do you write?  If so, what/why do you write?  If not, what is keeping you from doing so? Comment and tell us about it!

Ok, sorry–one last quote: “Here’s the secret of writing: there is no secret.” Ralph Fletcher

Nope.  Not done.  One more: “I write every day for two hours. But it’s what I do for the other twenty-two hours that allows me to write.”
Don Murray  

Are You Hungry?

If you’re anything like me, then you love to eat.  And you really like to eat out.  My family loves to find new restaurants around town and try them out; “chain” restaurant is kind of a bad word in my house.  So, if you’ve ever eaten out, then you know the idea behind a menu–you are offered a variety of choices of yummy things to eat.  Most times you will choose a main course, side dishes and dessert.  Maybe if you’re really hungry, or if something looks really interesting, you might add an appetizer to your meal.

Ok, so what?  This is a blog about school, about education.  Why all the restaurant talk?  Well, if you’ve spent any time in our classroom lately, or if you’ve seen a 5th grade homework sheet this year at school, then you’re familiar with the idea of a menu.  But why, you ask, would you use a menu in school?

Let me tell you. 🙂

The big idea that makes a restaurant menu work, that makes it desirable, is the idea of choice.  When you sit down to eat, no one tells you “Eat this.  Chew it 25 times.  Swallow it.”  You’re not forced to eat things you don’t want to (well, unless maybe you’re a kid!), and there are many ways to achieve your goal of filling your empty stomach.

That’s what we’re trying to do with menus in school.  We have a goal–based on subject and unit–and then students are given a choice of ways to show their knowledge and learning related to that subject.  The idea is not new, really; I’ve been doing a variation of it for years.  Long ago we called them “invitations” or had a list of “must-dos and can-dos”, but the idea behind it is the same: children are going to have more ownership over their work and probably ‘dig in’ and little deeper when they have choice in what they do and what the final product looks like.

Here are some examples of menus we’ve used this year so far:


I must add, though, that besides giving students a say in what their work looks like, menus are an important tool in differentiation.  The categories are tiered, so that every learner can be engaged wherever they are in their understanding of the concept; the main course is something that everyone can do (still at their own level with their own creativity), side dishes are a little deeper, and then desserts are activities and projects that allow and enable students to stretch themselves and think in a deeper way.  Everyone in my classroom has their needs met regardless of what they are, and everyone has activities that are appropriate for them.

So, are you hungry for learning? Menus are for you. 🙂




Family Meeting?

So as our last conversation of the day, I threw out a suggestion I had been thinking about over the weekend to my class:  What do you think would happen if we called our class meetings “family meetings” instead?  Would anything be different?   I didn’t say anything else about my thoughts related to it; I just wanted to hear what they were thinking.

Here’s what they said:

–I think it’s a good idea because in a family meeting you’re supposed to solve problems.  We usually spend alot of our time talking about the problem instead of a solution.  Calling it a family meeting would help us.

I think family meetings are a good idea because in a family you always have to tell the truth and work together.  You’re supposed to be honest and tell what you’re thinking.  I’m not sure if we’re ready for this yet, though, because alot of people don’t say anything during our meetings.

How can we have a family meeting if we’re not a family?  None of us are related.  (This led to a discussion–albeit a short one–about the definition of a family.)

I asked one more question and then we tabled the conversation until after Thanksgiving, so give everyone a chance to chew on it: If we want to be more like a family, and work together and care about each other as we do so, would calling our meetings “family meetings” help us do that?  Would it help remind us of our focus as we talk?

What do you think?  Is there a difference between class meetings and family meetings?  Does the name matter?  Add your comment and tell us your thoughts. 🙂



Thinking Ahead

This will seem so random, since it’s something for January and this is the day before Thanksgiving, but I wanted to give you a little peek into something we are going to be doing.

I have tried for many years to do Student Led Conferences in the Winter/Spring, and I ran across a really great blog post that I thought you’d enjoy reading. It explained 10 reasons why they were a good thing, and I liked the comments that were added by both students and parents.

Just a look ahead at what’s to come.  I’m excited to see how it goes with our kids!