Slice of Life Challenge day 4 #sol17

Title:  “Important”

My heart slowly relaxed as the familiar, mechanistic churning noise filled my ears.   I had just gently pressed the blue “Start” button on the copy machine.  “Thank goodness,” I thought.  The wonderful, yet not always dependable friend we call The Copier, had been experiencing some issues as of late.  So I was relieved beyond measure to know she was feeling better and would be able to produce the copies necessary for the teacher training I was planning.

Suddenly, I heard a voice next to me.  “We need to talk.”  I turned.  It was my assistant principal.  It struck me at that very moment that linguistically those words do not imply anything more than a general statement.  Diagramming this sentence, really all we would come up with would be subject/verb/prepositional phrase, or something like that (it’s been too long since those mundane days!).  And yet I noticed, “We need to talk” consistently strikes fear into my heart– especially when it is delivered by a superior in the workplace.

“Um, okay,” I stammered.

“I have some concerns,” she added.  Okay, now if my anxiety hadn’t been linguistically justified before, it probably had a pretty strong case now.  I grabbed my copies and followed her to her office.  The door closed behind me, and I heard the metal blinds ominously rattle behind me as it clicked shut.  Once inside, my assistant principal, facing me directly, began explaining that she had attended an important meeting on a student recently.  And when searching for an important piece of information regarding the student’s reading records, she had come up empty.  Silence.  Pause. “So do we have this information?” she asked, looking me- the Reading Consultant- straight in the eye.

“Yes, we have that,” I responded.  Phew.

After a brief search of our Google drive and a physical file cabinet, we discovered that we had both a spreadsheet and a physical record.  At that point, my AP and I looked at each other and– I am going to admit– felt pretty good.  This kid had not “slipped through the cracks”, as the saying goes.  Decisions could now be made in future meetings that were based on real data we had collected on the student. We had not missed him.

As teachers, mentors, parents, guardians, specialists, and administrators, we need to realize our jobs matter.  Each of the students under our purview possess incredible potential.  And knowing that, each of them must be taken seriously, because the educational decisions we make for each child should be based on what we know about them already.  It is about being responsive not to some outside force, but to each individual child.  

I can’t say we will get it right each time, because let’s face it– working with kids is hard.  It just is.  But it was nice to know we got it right this time.

Slice of Life Challenge day 3 #sol17

Title: “Teamwork”

“Where’s my black shirt, honey?  You know, the one with the long sleeves?”  I queried.

“I saw it downstairs.  I’ll grab it for you,” my wife answered.  And off she went.  I couldn’t believe the hustle and bustle of the day had begun at 6:30 in the morning.  Wasn’t this supposed to happen after I get home from work? But not today.  Today was a little special.  I glanced over at my kindergartner sitting on my bed with my one year-old.  Yep, there was a twinkle in her eye.  She knew today was special:  Papa was going to dress like Cat in the Hat.  When had that ever happened?

My wife returned presently with my black shirt, and the process began in earnest.  Scooping up my youngest baby, I headed downstairs with my five year-old in tow.  “His tummy needs to be white, Mama,” I heard her say.  This girl knew her Cat in the Hat.

As I made my way to the kitchen, I shot my wife a questioning look. Hmm…a white belly? Let’s see… “Ideas?” my face tried to wordlessly ask.

“Hold on, I think I know what we can do,” she responded.  And she was off.  A minute later she returned with fabric scissors and a large piece of white felt.  Where did that come from?  Brilliant!

And that is how the morning proceeded.  Between the expert consultation of a kindergartner, the mad McGyver-like skills of my wife, and the moral support of my new baby, by 7:15 I had, indeed, become Cat in the Hat!


Because of the expert work of my team at home, our Read Across America Celebration was a little more fun.  And sometimes going all-out to promote reading…well, it’s worth it, right?  Yes, I received some strange looks driving to work, I’m not going to lie.  But as adults who are in the privileged position to impact young people,  sometimes we need to go a little over the top to brand ourselves as lovers of books, as readers, as people who live the words we preach to children: reading matters.  In the words of journalist and author Simon Van Booy,  we want to exude the message, “[I] read books because I love them, not because I think I should read them.”

Thank you to my team at home for making this transformation possible.

Slice of Life Challenge day 2 #sol17

Slice of Life Challenge, day 2. “Remembering”

Title:  “Remembering”

The meeting ended.  Closing my computer, I said my good-byes to colleagues departing .  With the amazing precision that only teachers can demonstrate, everyone had heard the bell ring , gathered their papers, computers, writing implements, and student work and slipped out the door, all within the span of 32 seconds.  Almost everyone.  I lingered. And next to me sat my colleague, MP.

“It was twenty years ago today,” I mused, staring at her multitude of books on the south wall.

“Twenty years?” she asked.

“Yes, it’s been twenty years since my brother’s accident.”  In fact, today did mark twenty years to the day that I lost my brother to a fatal car accident.  And twenty years is a long time.  Well, it seems like it should feel like a long time.  Strangely, though, as I leaned on my elbows, hunched over the table in MP’s seventh grade language arts classroom, it suddenly didn’t feel like a long time.

“I’m so sorry,” MP offered.

I started to explain that, really, I was fine.  Forcing a smile to my face, I said, “Time helps.  It makes a big difference.  Makes it better, easier.”

But then I thought of my own girls at home, my two older ones.  And I began to explain that I often speak of my brother and tell them stories of times when he and I were their age (they are two years apart, just as my brother and I were).  For instance, there was a time when we put the soap bubbles on our faces to “make beards” and called our mom into the bathroom to “check out our beards!”  And there was the time when we played the drums together in my first grade classroom, attempting to cover the music of an obscure German pop group, “Kraftwerk.”  And then there was the time we caught my grandfather smoking cigarettes beside the house in California, even though his doctors had forbidden it.

And that’s when I realized I wasn’t feeling fine anymore.  I could feel the tears spring to my eyes unexpectedly, right there in this empty classroom.  Luckily I happened to be with someone who means a lot to me, someone who I knew would understand.  A trusted friend.

“I’ll be thinking of you today,” she said softly.

As I sit to write this small slice of life, I am reminded of the importance of two things: the first is the importance of having a relationship of trust with someone with whom you feel comfortable sharing the most difficult times; and secondly, I’m reminded of how important it is write about these times.  One of my great mentors once said, “Writers write to hang onto moments of trouble.”  I suppose this gives texture to our writing lives.  And I suppose that’s a good thing.

In memory of Sean Kelly Ball, 1970-1997



Slice of Life Challenge day 1 #sol17

Title: “Nostalgia”

Pulling the door open, the wall of noise hit me, nearly falling into the category of jarring. Good grief, what was going on in here?  This was no normal, run-of-the-mill day of class in sixth grade.

Ah,  wait a minute. This is a book club meeting day.  Around the room, tables were scattered with post-its, notebooks, books face down on binders, number two pencils, and DaSani water bottles.  Faces were a mixture of consternation, rapt focus, harmless daydreaming, and concentration, as varied levels of interpretation filled the classroom space.

Sidling up next to a group of four girls, I attuned my ears.  They were discussing a book entitled Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo, a powerful book about child labor and one young boy who made a difference.  Ideas were flying from one side of the table to another.  Sometimes one idea would flutter across the table and land in another girl’s lap.  The recipient would then scoop up the idea, affix more to it, and sail it back across the table to her clubmate.

And books were open.  Paper books.  Paper books were open.  And across the conversation, the girls referred to page after page of printed text.

Quietly exiting the classroom day, I came to realize that I believe there to be something magical about watching kids engage in face-to-face conversation as they hold a physical book in their hand.  There is something enchanting about observing kids converse as they refer to notes they made with a ballpoint pen on a small piece of physical paper.  There were no Kindles, no laptops, no iPhones or iPads, no snapchats or Instagram photos, no YouTube videos or FaceTime.

Maybe this is just nostalgia here.  But human interaction cannot be dismissed as antiquated.  It just can’t. Writer Carson McCullers once said, ““We are homesick most for the places we have never known.”  I hope that the domain of human interaction never becomes a place we do not know.

March Slice of Life Challenge #sol17

This coming Wednesday, the calendar turns from February to March.  I find March to be exciting for many reasons.  It is the month in which I was born, so that’s exciting.  It also feels like the month when spring begins to poke its timid head above the winter snow and say, “It’s time, right?”  March marks the month of Spring Break for most schools (although not my own)- also exciting for many. And March, whether it comes in like a lion or a lamb, always feels like a spirit of renewal.  Spring cleaning begins, things begin to grow again, and the warmth of the sun — maybe not consistently– appears, seeming to whisper, “Hey, remember me?”

For me, this particular March is exciting for a new reason.  Recently, I have become a co-author of the excellent blog entitled, “Two Writing Teachers.”  No, I am not one of the “two” writing teachers; but I am one of the eight writing teachers who now blogs about the teaching of writing.  And this is actually really exciting for me!  Each March, the Two Writing Teachers blog hosts what is called the “Slice of Life Challenge.”  To participate in this challenge, one must (1) own a blog and (2) commit to writing everyday for 31 days in March. One must also commit to joining a community of writers who provide each other feedback along the way (i.e., commenting on others’ blog posts throughout the month).  Writing  during this time is intended to be about “slices” of everyday life.  “Small moment stories” they are sometimes called.  Poems are also okay, though not my strong suit.  So, as a co-author of Two Writing Teachers I will be participating this year.

For the first time.

And I am nervous.

However, I am one who believes everything is hard before it is easy.  Therefore, I plan to forge ahead with this challenge and use this opportunity for the following purposes:

(1) Continue to write posts meant to be within the spirit of this blog: that is, writing for those of you working to support middle school readers and writers at home.

(2)  Write more. Writing begets writing, and we learn to write by…well, writing.  Writing is a bit like riding a bike– the more we do it, the stronger we become (although writing is harder, I know that!). So I’m hoping to become stronger.

(3)  Join a community of writers all struggling together to accomplish something hard.

The late and great William Zinsser once said, “All writing is a journey.”  The March Slice of Life Challenge will be a journey.  I look forward to some of you tuning in to see what happens…I hope you do.  Stay tuned…

The Power of One Little Word

fullsizerender-78     Reading posts on Two Writing Teachers these past few weeks has left me moved, touched, and inspired.  Although Two Writing Teachers is a website written mainly for teachers of writing and literacy coaches (like myself), all of us may be interested in one topic the authors of this blog re-visit each year: The Power of One Little Word.   The idea of “One Little Word” (OLW) has always gently intrigued me, and so this year I have decided to really check it out (thank you to Fran McVeigh for posting Ali Edwards’s video link).  And so, I have begun thinking…what will be my one little word?
     I am new to this concept, so forgive me if I sound a bit like a beginner here.  As I understand it, one little word is a word that both resonates temporally and powerfully, and acts as a guide in your everyday life.  And it’s different than a resolution, something that has always felt hard…well, okay, impossible to fulfill on.  If I have got this right, one little word really serves to precipitate more frequent noticing in our lives.
     Let me explain.
     I have selected the word LIGHT as my one little word.  And since I have done so, I have begun to notice more.  I have noticed when I’m not being LIGHT in my life, but instead being heavy or significant.  I have noticed when I’m not being LIGHT with my children.  With my wife.  With my colleagues.  With my students.
     And that has changed everything.
     When you notice something, you place yourself in a position to do something about it.  You have a choice.  You could, of course NOT do something about it.  But the noticing when I’m not being LIGHT has afforded me the opportunity to become LIGHT.  And I love how LIGHT is a noun, a verb, and an adjective—all in one!  Just that fact alone has helped me jump on board with this whole OLW movement.  It’s nice to have options.
Being LIGHT, I can:
  • ·         Stimulate visibility for others.
  • ·         Understand a problem.
  • ·         Illuminate something.
  • ·         Remove darkness.
  •       Act and react in ways becoming of LIGHTness.


     So LIGHT is working.  But for me, it really is more about the noticing than anything else.  The word LIGHT has led to more freedom, more joy, more relatedness, and a more abundant presence of affinity.
As you begin a new year, you might consider one little word that might make a difference for you and the young reader(s) and writer(s) in your life.  I would love to hear your word in the comments section of this blog!  What word will you choose?  Why that word?


     It’s only January, so there’s a long year ahead.  But knowing there is LIGHT not just at the end of the tunnel, but across the entire tunnel, makes this a pretty exciting year.

On Supporting an Academic Mindset

Growing up, my parents were really big into organization.  Especially when it came to school.  When late August arrived, and the sadness that only the end of summer can bring arrived, my mother always made sure I had folders for each of my subjects.  We called these folders “pee chees” TM in my day, which were essentially pocket folders with pictures of athletes striving for excellence on the front.  You may recall using a “Trapper Keeper”TM or another type of binder in school.  In any case, I quickly learned over the years why my parents stayed on me to be organized, as I watched some of my friends’ and classmates’ backpacks begin to resemble portable trash and recycling receptacles.  And I suppose it might have been a clear understanding of WHY I needed to stay organized that helped me to actually do it.
As we all hurl ourselves toward a new year, many of us are probably thinking about what we want to be different next year.  And some of our students may be doing the same.  Around now (late December/early January), some of our students are beginning to think about goals, aspirations, dreams, changes, and resolutions they hope will make a difference for them in the year to come.  And for many of them, these resolutions may involve scholastic improvement in some way.  However, for many of them, scholastic improvement is far from their minds when it comes to thinking about the new year.
For many of us (adults), though, we would love nothing more than to find effective ways we might support our students in becoming more successful in their academic pursuits.  Allow me to suggest that we consider the importance of one word:  why.
In his excellent TED Talk entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, author and speaker Simon Sinek persuasively argues that it is the limbic brain, the part of the brain which houses our feelings, that drives our behavior.  The ‘why’ that Sinek is speaking about refers specifically to a “purpose, cause, or belief.”  He argues, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”  In other words, the ‘why’ center of the brain (which not coincidentally is responsible for feelings like trust and loyalty) controls our behavior.
Sinek is talking about behavior within a market setting.  But how might we– mentors, parents, teachers– influence the literacy behaviors of our students?  How might we help them to believe reading/writing/school is truly worth doing?  How do we get them to engage with the important work of behaviors like risk-taking and persevering, both essential to literacy learning?  Harvard Professor David Dockterman, Ed.D. has devoted much of his academic energy to  addressing this question.  Part of his scholarship centers around developing a growth mindset (which I’ve written about before) in our students.  Dr. Dockterman maintains that a key belief associated with school success and an academic mindset can be phrased in the following way:

In other words, students must be present to a tangible ‘why’ they are doing something, or they won’t believe it is worth doing.  Some students (and perhaps parents) may argue that the reason students work hard to become stronger readers and writers in school is to, well, earn a good grade.  That’s why they work hard in school, right?   But Sinek would argue that a good grade is an example of a result, not a purpose, cause, or belief.  It’s really not a ‘why.’
Many of our students may likely fall into a category Dr. Philip Schlechty would call “strategically compliant.”  That is, these students do not act because they see inherent value or personal meaning in the work with which they are engaged; they act instead to earn “extrinsic satisfaction” or what we might call a substituted goal.  And this substituted goal replaces personal meaning (e.g., grades).  But don’t we want our readers and writers to be truly engaged learners?  According to Schlechty, truly engaged learners “learn at high levels and have a profound grasp on what they learn.” Isn’t that what we all really want for our young readers and writers?
Allow me to share and adapt some of Dr. Dockterman’s work around helping our young readers and writers believe literacy work is truly worth doing:

(1)     Connect to the future by showing the end—Most of us have heard, “You need to know/do this because you’ll need this in [substitute such words as high school, life, the workforce, etc.].”  While this statement may be true, it often lacks an inspiring element that leads to direct action.  Instead, we might think about how we can, “show the end,” as Dockterman puts it.  Showing the end can give purpose and a vision for learning.  What does “the end” look like for a successful reader or writer?  We can show them examples of places where this really lives in our real lives.  Dockterman says, “Don’t teach baseball just by playing catch.  Show them a real baseball game!”
(2) Make it interesting– Human beings possess an innate curiosity to know what happens next.  Think about wildly successful shows such as “Survivor”, “The Voice”, “American Idol”—all of these shows contain an element that makes people want to watch because…why?  Because they want to find out what happens next!  I am a great admirer of University of New Hampshire Professor, Dr. Thomas Newkirk.  Newkirk teaches us that it is the narrative elements—that is, elements that make a great story—that hook our interest in a way that supports learning.  To engage our students meaningfully in reading and writing and school, we must try to find ways to harness this power.  How can we help reading and writing be more interesting so that our kids want to “find out what happens?”  This might mean encouraging kids to try out a new YA series, or it might mean encouraging them to write a letter to the editor.  It might mean starting a Kid Blog about something they are super-knowledgeable about and fascinated by.  These few ideas all contain a common element– an element of uncertainty.  What will happen to the main character?  Will my letter get published?  Who will comment on my blog and what will they say?  Uncertainty, according to Dockterman, is more motivating than certainty.  People try more when they don’t know what they will get! Dr. Sidney D’Mello from the University of Notre Dame writes about how a bit of confusion is not always a bad thing for a learner.  In fact, it can act as a helpful factor.  D’Mello argues that confusion can actually help motivate learners to focus more because of the innate need to resolve the confusion.  In other words, a little confusion can make things more interesting.

(3)  Choice matters– Yes, I’ve written about this before, too.  When it comes to connecting the dots between personal meaning and literacy, the power of choice cannot be understated.  Kids must be provided opportunities to make meaningful choices about what they read and write.  When we promote choices in literacy work, we fuel agency.  And according to Dockterman, agency fuels value.

At the website WebMD, the authors write that it is normal for children to begin asking, “Why?” around the ages of 3 or 4.  Although this is young, might we consider the importance of such a question even throughout the rest of life?  Considering ‘why”, especially when it comes to supporting our readers and writers, can make a tremendous difference.

*Thank you to Dr. David Dockterman for his inspiration in writing this post.