literacy centers, Teaching, writing workshop, Young writers

Engaging Writers: Making Books

Gathering information and interests about each child as a learner seems to be a race in the beginning of the year. Amidst the organizing supplies and teaching routines, this year I decided to jump right into introducing making books. I was searching for a way to engage my students and gather information about them. It worked very well and it’s something I will stow away in my “beginning of school” folder (yes, I still love to have my files organized in a filing drawer with folders).

Several read alouds – By the second day of school, we had read aloud 4 books. This was also a good way to introduce interactive read aloud as well as turn and talk partners. We reflected on what we had read, noticed they were fiction (a reflective point for me since I hadn’t noticed before that I rarely choose any nonfiction books for the opening of school). I posed the question, why did the author write this book? After a discussion, I hooked them with the idea that they were all authors.

Offering choice – Authors write about things they know a lot about and things that are meaningful to them. C loves to dance, I pointed out, she knows so much about dance that she could write a book about it. A is interested in cats and might choose to write a book all about cats. I continued with a few students who I had already learned quite a bit about. Another question, what if you could write your own book on whatever topic you choose? Hands up everywhere, wondering, does it have to be a true story? Can I write two stories? I had gotten them interested.

Ground rules – I pulled a stack of paper trays off the shelf. Each tray had a different paper choice. I showed the class there is a blank cover sheet, lines with a picture spot, just lines, short lines down the side and one long, vertical illustration spot. I taught them that once they chose their topic and genre, they would be taking one sheet at a time. As they finish one sheet, they would go select the next one. (In the past I missed this teaching point and lost large amounts of paper as students took enough for a 20 page book.)

Getting started – You’re not expected to finish today. In fact, you might work on the book for quite some time, depending on what you choose to write and how you want it to turn out. I explained what “work in progress” meant. To get everyone started and avoid a stampede at the paper choices, I passed out the cover page first for them to write their name on and write their topic. That bought some time since they finished at different intervals and then came up one or two at a time to select the paper to begin writing.

Observing writers – I gathered so much information. My first observation was how surprised I was that everyone was engaged. Some didn’t have an idea, but there was a buzz of working that is one of my favorite things about teaching. G (who can be super talkative and interrupt a lot) decided on a fantasy story about a witch and was busy making bubble letters for a title. J began by illustrating in detail about how to walk a dog. C was inspired by The Who Would Win books and began creating a Unicorns vs Dragons book, taking close attention to making the “o’s” in each work either a unicorn head or dragon head. Pencils, crayons, markers were all out and the students began talking. They were REALLY excited to share their ideas with their classmates, so we made sure to save time at the end to share out our work in progress. I could see who could get started, have materials out, select a topic independently, or with some support, or with a lot of support.

Timing – Wanting to keep them excited for writing books, we ended the session by placing our book papers from the day in our writing folders. It was important that nobody finished and that they understand making books is something that will last for many days. Students will finish at different times because they have varying topics and genres.

Reason Why – Why make books? This will become a literacy center as we get going and I am happy I introduced it so early this year. Making books provides students an opportunity to have choice in their writing and is separate from my writing units of study. They can be inspired by published books read aloud and see themselves as authors and illustrators. I will follow up with providing them time to revisit it again (I happened to introduce this on a Friday) after the weekend and nudge them toward the idea that we won’t all be working on books at the same time (a great option for early finishers for now), to set the stage for literacy centers.

How do you gather information about your writers in the beginning of the year? There are so many ways!

Mom life, SOL, sol21

#SOL: An iPhoto Journey

Writing a Slice of Life this Tuesday.

Way back when the pandemic began in 2020 and I was learning the ropes of Google Meet and teaching online while also juggling two small children who were learning about remote school all on one device, a crack appeared on my computer screen. Unfortunately, I think I am to blame as it was probably closed rather hard on several frustrating occasions and the natural consequence was a small line which has grown over nearly 18 months and has become a large black blob threatening to overtake the entire screen.

One of my summer break priorities was to transfer seven years of memories from iPhoto to an external hard drive, racing against the ever closing in screen. I will spare you the suspense and tell you that I did successfully transfer the pictures.

When my children were born, a friend of mine told me to take lots of pictures and videos. I followed her advice. My advice going forward is take lots of pictures and videos, but delete the 29 outtakes you don’t need. Delete the 75 pictures of a wall or corner of your house that was accidentally documented on your camera roll. Organize your photos by month and year because they’re easier to find that way. Then you’ll be able to take time to breathe in all your memories as you scroll.

Pictures hold so many memories. Looking at them brings me back into the moment. There’s the one of my sweet dog, Darby, playing with my son before his muzzle turned white. There are so many pictures of my daughter with her silly faces and crazy outfits. Pictures of family vacations when I thought my kids were so big but in hindsight were tiny.

The trends! Looking quickly through the years, there are so many things we did. Many hikes and parks that I had forgotten we did or visited. Every Christmas, there was our annual sweater party. It grew from 4 couples to over 30 people once families grew. There we were, holding each other’s babies. Smiling.

There are also the losses. As I weeded through the thousands of photos, I couldn’t bring myself to delete any of our dear friends who have passed on. I cherished looking at the photos and am thankful for the memories. I have so many other deep thoughts about this, but that is for another post.

While I feel a sense of accomplishment and relief having saved our photos, I also feel grateful I was inadvertently forced into this task because I enjoyed my iPhoto journey. Here’s to the journey continuing (without a cracked screen)!

Another tradition captured and saved – New Year’s Day bonfire a few years back.
literacy coach, Mom life, Teaching

Lakes and Life

I recently read an Instagram post about different types of rest and how those might look. Mental rest included “spending time in nature” and resonated with me. I enjoy being outside and in particular, hiking and being at the lake. While I enjoy paddling, I love to sit on the dock and just stare at the lake while listening to the breeze and hoping to see my favorite loons swim by.

With the beginning of school looming – we have already had two Superintendent’s Conference Days – this Labor Day Weekend felt like a nice rest and an excuse to hold onto summer break for just a bit longer. We came to the lake and the weather was more like fall than summer, but it was wonderful nonetheless.

Sitting on the dock this morning, there was a southerly wind and dark incoming clouds, but the sun was shining and illuminating the rocks and sand on the lake floor. It struck me that this moment mirrors life. I am enjoying the peace and clarity that today brings before the storm of the school year is in full force.

Much like the lake water when my children splash, swim, jump, scream, and play, causing the sand to stir up, the algae to lift off the rocks, creating a murky mess, September is my children and my life feels stirred up. A month of hustling, rusty routines creaking to life, a mess at times, waiting for the sediment to settle. In both cases, although clarity may seem to be suspended for the time being, it is the beauty of the busyness of life creating all the noise.

So maybe the next time the water seems riled up, sediment flowing every which way, or school seems more than I can handle despite my series of lists and reminders, I will take a moment to pause. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I will welcome the opportunity to be busy, to be many things to many different people – mom, wife, daughter, friend, neighbor, teacher, coach – and relish the fact that the water will be peaceful again when things quiet down.

Crystal clear water and storm clouds looming during a peaceful moment at the lake.
first year literacy coach, literacy coach, professional development

Kicking off literacy coaching for the very first time

Very early this morning, I woke up and poured my coffee. Yesterday was our first day back to school (for teachers) and I have slipped back into my school morning routine. Today is another day of meetings, but for the first time in my career, I will be leading one of those meetings as the primary grades literacy coach for my building. As I sat curled in my chair with my steaming cup intending to read some of my book for enjoyment, my mind began reeling. Did I email everyone, even the new additions to my coaching cohort? Are there enough chairs in our PD room? Is my presentation ok? I need to gather two more reflection notebooks for the teachers recently added to the cohort. I think I should provide folders for the handouts because I don’t know if teachers want binders yet. Did I cover everything I was supposed to? Is it not too heavy, not too light? Did I add the new names into the presentation and on Google Classroom?

The morning was filled with meetings (in stark contrast to the previous day when I had gotten my hopes up of having lots of time to set up my classroom and office) and finally it was time for a short lunch break before our kickoff meeting. Our meeting was to be in our new office/PD/book room and about an hour before a computer was finally delivered and set up, however it was lacking a keyboard. As time ticked by, it became apparent I was in over my head in the technology department because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the large tv and connect the computer to it to present. Ten minutes before we began, I ran to my classroom and disconnected the keyboard from that computer and hooked it up as a substitute so I could at least log in. My principal and our tech liaison toggled with cables and HDMI numbers and mirroring the desktop (thank goodness for their support). All of a sudden, it worked! We shouted more enthusiastically than was probably necessary like we had scored a winning goal at the buzzer.

Ok so now it was time to jump into welcoming my first ever coaching cohort and launch our PD for the year since they had been filing in during the tech crisis. I felt nervous because this is all new and I can internalize other people’s opinions and second guess myself. But, I stayed true to my plan. We went through the syllabus, topic guide and dates for professional development for the year. We reviewed what a coaching cycle could look like. We wrote our first entry in our reflection notebooks about our hopes for this year and we shared out (I was nervous about this part and if teachers would want to share- they all did and I appreciate their bravery and willingness to try something new). After the meeting wrapped up, several teachers stuck around and talked about the year and more of what they were hoping to do with coaching.

Leading a meeting was a first for me, but I am glad to have it under my belt now. I’m looking forward to the journey of my first year of coaching. I’m excited to learn from each other, give and foster support for new teachers and veterans alike, be given actual time for high quality professional development – to think, learn, reflect, plan.


#SOL Tuesday: 2021 Summer Top Ten

Summer sparklers at camp with cousins. I am grateful for these moments and memories.

Today is officially the last day of summer break for me. Earlier in the summer, I wrote a post about how hard it was to transition from the end of the 2020-2021 school year to summer break. Despite an emotionally tumultuous beginning, summer evened out. As we are about to enter another school year with more unknowns than I anticipated back in June, today’s post is a list of the top ten summer happenings for which I feel grateful.

10. Rest – I am grateful for the different pace (not slower, but less demanding) of summer break, for sleeping in and having time to slow down during the day and feel rested.

9. Swimming – I am grateful for many days of swimming at various pools and lakes this summer. Watching my children grow as swimmers is wonderful (and also makes me feel better in the safety department that they can swim pretty well now). I swam more than ever and even dabbled with laps.

8. Reading – I am grateful for time to read! I read quite a bit preparing for my upcoming first year as literacy coach, but fully enjoyed Where the Crawdads Sing, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and Barefoot.

7. Summer Camp – For the first time ever, my children went to summer camp. It was a half day local camp and provided a couple hours of alone time for me and I loved it! I went on bike rides, runs, dog walks, and tried to fill it with things just for me. Better yet, Kris and Evie had a blast as well!

6. Monarch butterflies – My neighbor introduced me to #savethemonarchs. We collected and watched three eggs hatch, itty bitty caterpillars munching milkweed and becoming giant, fat, striped caterpillars finally building a chrysalis, and felt overjoyed when we had a beautiful butterfly to introduce to our garden.

5. Summer foods – I am grateful for the tastes of summer – Caprese salad with balsamic glaze and my fresh basil, grilled chicken (my husband created this delicious marinade concoction this summer and I can’t get enough), corn on the cob, s’mores, and ice cream are a few of my favorites.

4. Family time – I am grateful for time in New Hampshire with my family. I got to visit my grandmothers (one who I haven’t seen in person since February 2020) and enjoy time with my parents at their home. Family time wasn’t limited to my side though, my in-laws live close by and we saw them regularly and played with cousins often. There are many memories and I’m so happy for them.

3. Adirondack Lake – I am grateful for days and nights spent at our lakeside camp. We are building it ourselves (you might know from other posts) and it’s a lot of work! This summer’s highlights include installing running water, planting large perennial gardens, paddle boarding and kayaking, listening to the loons. I could go on. I just love camp so.

2. Anniversary Trip – I am grateful for celebrating 10 years of marriage and getting away to Lake Placid, New York. My husband and I had a wonderful weekend filled with a gorgeous Adirondack hike, delicious meals, time to shop, time to talk interrupted, and simply time to just be.

1. Time – I am grateful for the time this summer provided. At first I struggled to give myself time to relax, workout, read, swim, and do the things I need to feel grounded. It finally turned over though and I am grateful for the time to regroup.

As a new school year begins tomorrow, I plan to work to create more balance of work and self care. It has become quite cliché, but I do believe it’s necessary!

Writing a slice of life story on this Tuesday. Check out Two Writing Teachers blog for more.
literacy coach, Literacy Team Goals

Shared Book Room Beginnings

Summer days spent setting up our school’s shared book room.

Several years ago, the student enrollment at my elementary school was going down and, being the least senior teacher, I was consequently transferred to another school in the district. I was unhappy to say the least. I had a one year old, a longer commute, needing to establish myself at another building, and so on. To top it off, I had a medical emergency during that summer that was emotionally and physically draining. However, had I not been involuntarily transferred to that school, the rest of this story wouldn’t have unfolded. So, even though in the moment the move was difficult and felt unfair, it was one of the best moves of my professional career.

Upon meeting with administration and staff at my new building, I learned that the school participated in Literacy Collaborative. I was curious about what this was and quickly learned that their literacy blocks were quite different from what I was used to. I taught third grade at the time and this was my 6th year teaching it. Not a veteran by any standard, but I felt confident in how I taught and I felt somewhat uneasy about this new idea of being coached.

There were two literacy coaches in our building, split between primary and intermediate. I learned we had half day professional development each month followed by one or two coaching cycles. They consisted of a pre-meeting, observation, and post-meeting with my coach. At first I was irked because I had to use planning time to meet with my coach. However, soon after beginning it became apparent that my coach was practical and purposeful, and so I grew to want to meet even if it was during my prep. (She also was very flexible and that made a difference, too!)

One big shift in thinking for me was the idea of guided reading groups. Our coaching model included professional development around a topic (i.e. guided reading) and then a coaching follow up. In hindsight, I had a mixture of thinking I knew best and not wanting to let anyone think I didn’t know how to teach something. In third grade I hadn’t pulled many small groups for reading (writing this now I can’t help but think, “Seriously?!”) and so I tried, with support and guidance from my coach. I began thinking about appropriate teaching points, looking for trends in data from running records and pivoting those teaching points, choosing texts for groups carefully, and keeping helpful data to share at team meetings for struggling students. Even the idea of having a book introduction and having students read silently while I popped in with a few was new to me – I had thought round robin reading was the way to go in small groups because I didn’t know anything different!

Fast forward three years and there was a retirement at my previous building. It was a second grade position though, not the third grade slot I was hoping for. However, I took it. I naively thought second grade wasn’t a whole lot different from third. Haha, was I wrong! Those second graders are quite tiny in September and there’s a reason second is considered primary still and third is intermediate. Honestly, I didn’t love second grade at first, but then it grew on me and it is my favorite grade level so far.

Fast forward another year and there was an opportunity to attend Literacy Days in our district with my previous coaches. I jumped at this chance (they couldn’t take everyone, so I made sure to reply immediately – in the middle of the staff meeting – because I really wanted to be selected). I was able to go and those days were so refreshing! I really had missed my professional development and the camaraderie of my fellow teachers talking deeply about teaching literacy.

At the end of the five days, there was an opportunity to apply for literacy coaching jobs in each building. My friend and colleague, Laura, who teaches third grade applied for the intermediate position and I applied for the primary position. I was hesitant at first, but a few other friends encouraged me and the more I thought about it, the more I felt this would be a great move for me. I remembered how much I learned in professional development when I was at the other school, how this community of teachers knew each others’ strengths and had open doors to watch each other teach. I remembered how much I grew as a teacher when I reflected on my own practice. I wanted others to get to feel that support.

So then there was a whole year of coaching training. Then there was a pandemic. Right when it seemed we would never get to coach, there was grant money and we were added to the school budget. This brings me to my picture in the beginning of this post: a shared book room!

Laura, my intermediate counterpart, and I have spent days volunteering our time to create our literacy room over the summer. We had a vision of a shared book room full of leveled multiple copies. Remember when I reflected that learning more about guided reading changed my thinking about my teaching? I couldn’t have done that without the resources, and so I want our teachers to have access to wonderful resources.

Because money seems to always be an issue in the public education field, we couldn’t just purchase books for the book room. We put out a call to our teachers back in June, explaining our vision and asking for multiple copies to be donated as they packed up their classrooms for the year, with the understanding we would all be able to share them. We had an outpouring of books and were surprised when we saw what we actually had in front of us.

Then came the task of organizing the books – we leveled them, labeled them, filled out index cards for teachers to sign them out, organized them into file boxes, organized the boxes on shelves, and found out this task takes A LOT more time than I anticipated. It’s a good challenge to have, and with our reinstated Literacy Team (the pandemic put a pause on that for a year), we have a project for everyone to help with this coming school year.

Something I think about every now and then is how had I never been transferred to another building, I’m not sure I would be doing all this meaningful work I am able to do now. I am grateful for my path and look forward to where and how it will go moving forward.

We’re going to need more boxes and more shelves! I underestimated the number of books we had – what a wonderful “problem” to have!
gardening, SOL

#SOL Tuesday: Zinnias are my favorite!

My happy zinnias!

I fell in love with zinnias the year I was planning my wedding. My anniversary is at the end of July, so when planning floral arrangements, I learned that zinnias were a colorful choice that bloom at that time in the northeast. My wedding was an outside, garden wedding and the zinnias were perfect.

Every year I tried to grow them, however, I never had any luck! I would get a few that would bloom very late in the summer, but it would never equate to all the seeds I had planted.

Last year we moved to a new house. There is different soil and a lot of sun. I tried, like every other year for the last decade, to plant a bed of zinnias. This year I had success! I love their happy little faces bobbing in the breeze. They look like summer to me. I love that when you cut them, more shoot off the stem.

Pumpkin spice is out now (and I do love pumpkin anything), but for now I’m going to soak up the sunshine, what’s left of summer break here in New York, and enjoy my zinnias. Fall can wait.

I love the symmetry of zinnias. My wedding invitations were designed with the same pattern.
Writing a slice of life on Tuesdays and feeling grateful for a chance to sit and write about life.
Mom life, SOL

#SOL Tuesday: Rain at the Lake

Even a rainy day at the lake is a good day.

My husband has this week off and we decided rather than run around and fit in as much as possible in various locations, we would just come to the lake for the week with our children (they’re 8 and 6).

We have been building a camp for the last 3 years. We have learned that when you do things yourself, it takes a loooong time. When you hire people to do jobs and you’re not there to supervise, it also takes a loooong time (as we have redone many incorrect or sloppy things). Thankfully, we are (he is) handy and know much about construction, electric, plumbing, and so on. Finding the time is the biggest challenge.

This week’s big accomplishment was running water in the camp. We have been essentially “glamping” since last winter, but with this major upgrade, it feels easier to stay over for more than a night or two. I’m so excited to brush my teeth with actual running water, flush a toilet and wash our hands instead of relying on baby wipes and hand sanitizer.

Naturally we had many projects lined up for our week up here, so when we woke up this morning to rain, there was an aura of disappointment and needing to go to plan B. There is certainly plenty to do inside, but as I sit on the covered patio and listen to the rain hitting the puddles and watch it softly connect with the lake, it brings a feeling of peace. Sure, cool, rainy vacations aren’t as fun as hot, sunny ones, but today is a day at the lake. And you can’t beat a day at the lake. Eventually I will go start a project inside.

This is my Tuesday Slice of Life story.
Mom life, SOL, Teaching

#SOL Tuesday: Deep Summer Ramblings

I’ve had a hard time focusing to write since summer break began. During the chaotic school year that it was, I took on the #sol challenge in March and even extended the student #sol challenge to my second graders. I continued writing on Tuesdays more or less, and enjoyed reading other slices. I looked forward to summer break and the ending of such a stressful, unprecedented year. I looked forward to more down time and a time to regroup and just being. But that’s not how summer break has felt at all.

Somehow I managed (without fully paying attention), to book mostly everyday in July with some sort of commitment either for myself or my children (which means I’m technically booked as well since they’re little and I’m the mode of transportation). I felt down, insecure, ungrounded, unsure, and generally short-fused. I realized over the past school year I was so super focused on work that school and teaching became what I felt confident in and the other parts – mother, wife, daughter, friend – took backstage. Suddenly that ended, and although summer break is typically a difficult transition for this routine-centered girl, this transition became even harder than normal. I’m a teacher. People expect me to be so thankful I have the summer “off”. I get to spend extra time with my children, go to the bathroom when I please (truthfully probably only other teachers realize this bonus), read books for pleasure, workout, listen to podcasts, catch up on house projects, do laundry (it was apparent the last time I had put laundry away was during spring break). Instead of embracing these things, I just became overwhelmed and somehow felt lonely.

Maybe it was because this year forced me to be closer than ever to the colleagues who I taught with in our cohort and I suddenly was without them. Maybe it was because this year I found myself pushing away from colleagues who I thought I knew well but I had seen a different side of that I didn’t care for and moving away from them felt awkward and judgy. Maybe it is because I am an over thinker and find myself always searching for the root from which to grow and be better (which can be isolating and exhausting). Maybe it has something to do with the fact upstate New York has had a ridiculously rainy and gloomy summer with insane storms.

I recently started reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown and listening to her Unlocking Us podcast sister summer series on the book. It hit home to the core. After a lot of talking to my phone and the book with “Yes! Yassss!”, crying, more yesses, more crying and so on, I’m starting to come to the realization that this crazy, stressful year is leaking out of me in a delayed reaction.

I had to let things go this past year and that is not easy for me. In addition to teaching in a pandemic and feeling anxious that I was going to somehow transmit COVID to my family members, we moved to a new town and didn’t exactly get to meet anyone other than in passing outside, my husband’s best friend died unexpectedly in the fall, travel ban restrictions from my school district deterred me from seeing my parents until they could visit in late April, I turned 40 in February and was bummed I couldn’t celebrate. I think it’s taking awhile to notice and name all these things, as well as shift my thinking about them – we have begun to meet some people in the neighborhood and I need to be patient with that, my children have made friends and have gotten to have play dates and birthday parties, the crushing blow of our friend passing away made me realize how I need to let small things go because it’s not worth arguing about, we are regularly seeing my parents again, my friends made my birthday the best it could be as they brought me dinner, masked and to my doorstep back in February and I realize what an effort that was.

Looking ahead to the rest of July and August, I felt relieved when I noticed I hadn’t booked our weekends with commitments. My husband and I recognized we have little time to fit in all that we’re trying to do and will make a concerted effort to schedule (dare I use that word) family time for hiking. There is certainly a shift going on within me and part of me feels hopeful that I’ve done enough retrospection that I can move on and look forward and actually start enjoying summer break before it is over.

Has summer break seemed different to you this year? Have you felt a feeling of relief only to realize it’s not as peaceful as you were picturing? Certainly there is a lot of good. As I write this on my patio in my pajamas with the sun peeking through the trees, my coffee, and a gentle summer breeze, I breathe in the smell of marigolds and basil next to me and tell myself today will be a good day.

Writing a Tuesday #sol
SOL, Teaching

#SOL Two Marigolds Retired

Fabulous wine and book baskets for our marigold retirees. The pillows say “Drink Wine Read Books”.

This year two of our closest group of teacher friends are retiring. They are marigolds. At the end of this unimaginable school year, we actually were able to have a gathering at my house to honor them and it was incredibly refreshing!

Several years ago I read a post from The Cult of Pedagogy all about how to find your marigold as a new teacher. It is wonderful advice for anyone, not just new teachers. You have probably heard about it, but if not, read it here. I considered myself very fortunate to be among many marigolds.

You know there is very little extra time in teaching. We all have families and other commitments so finding time to sit and chat is challenging. We have this group text thread that has become a lifeline through the last couple of years. Sharing funny stories, memes, sharing news about cancer, loss of family and close friends, asking advice about sick kids or developmental stages of our own children, praying for snow days, comparing quarantine stories, sharing recipes, venting about work, building each other up, planning happy hour (sometimes virtual), the list could go on and on.

One of my friends and I planned a happy hour for our retiring marigolds. She gathered all the gifts and I hosted. As a group we honestly couldn’t remember the last time we had all gathered at someone’s house after school like this. So, in addition to reflecting how wonderful this was, it’s also a call to do more of this!

I am so happy for my friends who are retiring. It is well deserved and we will miss them terribly next year. I am also happy we were able to feel normal again and get together. Here’s to all the marigolds out there and to brighter days!

Writing this Tuesday for the #sliceoflife #sol hosted by Two Writing Teachers