Slice of Life Challenge day 12 #sol17

Choosing your ‘battles’ is tricky business…

Title: “Fruit roll-ups”

“I don’t want to go in, I don’t want to go in…” the chorus of dissent was growing in the back seat. Pulling the car up near the front door of the walk-in clinic, I looked at my wife. This was one of those moments when we both understood what was happening, but that still didn’t make it any easier.  Appropriate decorum for this moment would have been that we all escort my wife into the waiting room of the clinic.  In doing so, we would all be conveying our sympathy and caring support for a member of our family who was currently suffering from a mysterious sore throat, congestion, and general misery.  Instead, it was a barrage of complaints and requests about not wanting to leave the car nor go in with Mama.

But we understood…they are five and seven.  And we were suspicious as to the fullness of their health, anyway.  I peeked over the snow-dusted, tree-topped horizon and could see the sun was preparing to set.  “I could take them to the store?” I offered.  “We could use a few things for dinner tonight.”

“That’s fine,” my wife responded, “I shouldn’t be long.”  This had not been the plan, but we went with it. She hopped out, I drove off.

Once in the supermarket, I resolved to make the most of this adjustment– buy some healthy snacks and any medicine my wife might request via text, and then head back to the clinic to pick her up.  Positioning the baby in the shopping cart, I immediately I noticed my other two girls wandering toward another aisle…away from the produce.  “Girls, let’s stay together,” I reminded them.

“But Papa, we want to show you something!”

“After we get the fruits and vegetables, okay?” I negotiated.

It turned out what they wanted to “show me” was something they had learned about at school- fruit roll-ups.  “Please, please!” they begged.  For the second time in just fifteen minutes, I found myself choosing another battle.  At the clinic it had been, “Do I force them to go inside? ” Here- do I tell them, “No, those are probably filled with high-fructose corn syrup and other ingredients that are not good for you!” Or do I cave? Again?

Driving home that night through the cold New England air, my wife asked, “Did you get them organic kind, at least?”  I shook my head.  I had caved.  Again.


Slice of Life Challenge day 11 #sol17

Listening to a few students debate reminded me of how important it is…

Title: “Debate”

“Yeah, but don’t you think all the money these companies make might be an incentive for them to do it?” Quite a shot across the bow, I thought.  Ensuing was a pretty impressive debate between two sixth graders about the appropriateness of animal testing for product safety.  Lorelei had just fired off a powerful and provocative question here.  Her partner, Samantha, smirked and looked down at her laptop.  “It says right here…” continued Lorelei, citing evidence of millions of dollars the pharmaceutical industry shells out for animal testing.

Redirecting the conversation, Samantha asserted, “Okay, but remember, they’re animals.   They’re mice.  And there are millions of mice in the world!  We are people, and this testing helps keep us safe.”  Whoa, good point, I thought.

This was just the beginning of a more independent bend of argument writing work, but already these writers were beginning to form some solid ideas around which they might organize some powerful writing.  How were they doing that?  Debate.

Debate is just so fun, so engaging.  Middle school kids probably do it all the time at home– why wouldn’t they love to do it school?  I was witnessing real engagement here, and it was awesome.

After a few minutes, the girls’ conversation quieted.  I jumped in.  “So,” I began, “who are you thinking you’ll send this writing to?”  Both girls looked at me like I had just sprouted two heads.  “You know,” I continued, “who will be your audience?”

“Well,” stammered Lorelei, “I guess the pharmaceutical companies.  But I wasn’t planning on writing for them.”

“What if you did?” I quizzed.  “How would that affect your writing, do you think?”

“Oh, well, that would kind of make it harder, I would think,” she mused.  “Probably better, though.”

Yes, probably better.


Slice of Life Challenge day 10 #sol17

Supporting writers at the right level is no easy job…

Title: “Support”

Settling in a chair next to Emma, I trained my eyes on the SmartBoard.  Projected on the screen were sentence frames for crafting claims for an eighth grade literary essay.  After demonstrating a way to harness the sentences frames, the teacher was now asking  students to try out one of the frames themselves to create a claim.  Turning my attention back to Emma, I watched as she put the tip of her pencil to a page in her writer’s notebook (always a glorious sight in my book) and began jotting something, her face knotted into a look of focus and concentration.

After recapping the lesson, the teacher then requested that her writers all chat with their writing partners about setting a goal for themselves for writing time.  Emma had finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and I listened as she voiced her goal to her partner. She wanted to create a solid claim on which she could build an author’s craft essay.  Great.  Perfect goal. From her conversation with her partner, I could tell she wanted specifically to write about the symbolism of the mockingbird, but wasn’t quite sure how.


“May I see what you have so far, Emma?” I asked.  I had known Emma from years before as a sixth grader.  Although I didn’t get to know her well, due to the fact I am the reading consultant for my building and not in a classroom teacher position, I knew her as a strong reader and a deep thinker.  As I leaned over to read her draft claim, I could see that she was trying to write something about the symbolism of the mockingbird, an innocent bird that is yet still hunted by society (cue the connection to the current political atmosphere).

“I want to say something about how society expects people to be a certain way,” she explained.  Pressing her lips together, she paused.  “I think in this book the author shows that society just sees people in narrow ways, and people are sort of…” she trailed off.  “I’m not sure what I want to say,” she said, returning her gaze to her notebook.

What struck me in that moment was the level of sophistication, task persistence, and deep thinking this girl was grasping for.  My thoughts instantly began to coalesce around an important consideration: what level of support ought I provide? I knew she was struggling, and yet I also knew with the right level of support she could craft the claim she really wanted.  “Emma, may I show you how another writer wrote about symbolism?” I offered. Emma leaned over her desk, as I brought out another student’s essay.  We studied a mentor essay I had brought with me, and she was able to see that sometimes writers can show how one concept, like ‘hope’ or ‘innocence’, is brought to light through different craft moves.  “Oh, I see,” she said.  After a moment of silent thinking, her pencil was down again, moving swiftly across the snowy white paper.

Her next attempt proved a little better, but again, I was unsure of the next step in this conference.

I want to stress here that this writing conference was hard for me.  I struggled.  What was the right level of support for this advanced writer and thinker? I kept asking myself. How do I teach this writer and not just “fix” her writing?

Eventually, she settled on a draft claim she felt pretty good about, and the bell rang.  I walked away with two thoughts that day.  One: how often are teachers able to devote energy to kids like Emma?  When the standardized testing culture dictates that each student jump over this bar, do kids like Emma lose out?  After all, she’s over the bar.  Way over.  So for us, it is easy to just let those kids fend for themselves, right?  She’ll be fine…won’t she?  Two:  providing the best and most appropriate level of support is a tricky process that never seems to fit neatly into any one box.  How did I do with Emma?  I don’t know, honestly.  But she did thank me.  Perhaps she learned something.  I know I did.


Slice of Life Challenge day 9 #sol17

Heroism can spring forth in unlikely places…

Title: “Heroism”

I spoke with my mom Tuesday night.  She’s a teacher in a fairly large community college in Oregon.  Her students are immigrants, all women, many of them mothers, working hard to earn credentials in Early Childhood Education so that they can one day play a prominent role in the lives of children here in the U.S.  My mother speaks of them often, about their dedication, their work ethic.  And about the new fear they feel in our country.

She told me a few nights ago she exited the classroom briefly to run a few copies in a room down the hall.  While running the copies, she suddenly overheard shouting.  It was a man’s voice, unfamiliar, and it seem to be emanating from her classroom. “That’s strange,” she thought.  She didn’t recognize the voice.

Attuning her ears, she began to make out words and phrases like, “Go back to Mexico!  You know, they’re over at the grocery store right now rounding up people like you and deporting them!  You should be over there, our country doesn’t need you!”  Horrified, my mother quickly left the copy room and hurried back to class.

Entering the room, she looked around.  The owner of the vile voice had slipped out and was no longer there.  Her students all sat like statues, some visibly shaken.  “What is going on?” my mom asked the statues.  Silence. No response.  As her eyes scanned the room, the fear in their eyes was plain, stark.  No one spoke.  “Remember, I promised you I am someone you can trust,” my mom reassured the students softly, probably holding her anger in check– for now.  “What happened?” she repeated.  At that point, a few of them began to slowly explain that a man had entered the room shortly after my mom had left for the copy room.  Upon entering, he suddenly began unleashing an unsolicited verbal assault, some of which is recounted above.

“We’re going next door,” my mom announced.  “Let’s go.”  Taking the lead, my mother stalked out of the room, into the hall, and knocked on the classroom door adjacent to hers,  her students reluctantly in tow.  The instructor next door was reluctant to allow her entrance, citing how ‘busy her class was presently.’  “This can’t wait,” my mom insisted.  And so she and her students were all allowed entrance into the room.  With the help of her immigrant students, my mom identified a man sitting in the front row.  White.  Male.  Mid-forties, most likely.  Maybe 50.  “Do you have any idea what you have just caused?” my mother seethed.

The following moments ensued with my mother insisting her students share how his words had made them feel.  Right to his face.  She reports that he then mumbled something during the pause where an apology would have been appropriate- but she didn’t think it was an apology.  Upon returning to their own class, it was agreed to keep the door of my mom’s room locked from now on.  There would be a secret knock for entrance. This must never happen again.

Later, an incident report was filed.  And Thursday the college is hosting a “Rights of Immigrants” forum.  And the dean emailed my mom, thanking her for “protecting her students.” And… yeah…what will change?  Now that this type of behavior is modeled, condoned, and championed from the highest ranks of our republic, what will matter when it comes to curbing impulsive, hateful behavior like this?

But that day, my mother was a hero.  She stood for the rights and decency of all humanity, and for the promise of this country.  She committed an act of social justice.  In the face of bigotry, she said no.  She stood up for those welcomed here by the Statue of Liberty, the Constitution, and all our ancestors.  She stood up for immigrants.  And it is likely that those hard-working and lovely students in her class feel, perhaps, a little less fearful now. At the very least, they know someone cares about them.

I’m so proud of my mom today.


Slice of Life Challenge day 8 #sol17

Title: “Slowing down”

Gathering up my things, I quickly paced myself through a mental checklist.  My computer. Check.  My notebook. Check.  My favorite blue Pilot pen.  Check.  What about those copies I need? Oh wait, there they are.  Check.  Okay, time to go.  Gripping the now familiar handle of my office door, I heaved it open (it’s a really heavy door) and quick-stepped into the now empty hallway toward my destination.

In my typical high-paced clip, I headed down the gleaming hallway to my meeting. To my right as I passed the exterior door near my office, I could see the sun had begun to shine outside.  Briefly I wondered if it had begun to warm up at all? But no time to think too much about that, gotta get to my meeting.

And then I saw her.  It was Jess, my colleague, someone I pass this way often.  Jess teaches art, and sometimes we take the opportunity to speak of our new babies.  How are they sleeping? Walking yet? They’re only a month or so apart. But we don’t chat very often.  We always just say hello as I race by her room.  And today was no different- for me- as I smiled and delivered my somewhat whirlwind greeting, “Good morning!”

As I blew past her, it registered that she had said something, but I wasn’t sure what it was.  Slowing down, I turned back to face her.  I saw she was standing, her face alit with that radiant smile, but today there was a visibly inquisitive nature to it.  “I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

“You’re always in a hurry,” she re-stated, almost like a question.

In response, I briefly explained, “Oh, right.  I guess I picked that up in New York.”

And that’s when I began to contemplate muscle memory and its many powers.  As a staff developer in New York, I had learned to take my cues from a high-intensity job and a fast-paced city.  I never felt I had the time to discuss new babies, or notice the sun shining or…well, slow down. Ever.

Jess reminded me in her own way that I don’t live in New York City anymore. And so the next day, I tried slowing down a little.  I tried breathing a little more.  I tried not rushing from place to place like a self-absorbed comet.


And guess what? No one noticed. Except me, of course. And the day unfolded just fine.  A good lesson. Sometimes we all need to be reminded that haste, though ostensibly keeping us “on track,” can help obfuscate some of life’s most important simplicities.  Like sunshine.  And talking about babies.




Slice of Life Challenge day 7 #sol17

Just because we taught it doesn’t mean they learned it…

Title: “Rainbows”

After surveying the room for just a moment, I quietly decided the most accurate word to describe this group of sixth graders was ‘busy.’  For two weeks now, these sixth graders had been investigating the question of whether or not zoos were, indeed, worthy of public funding.  In other words, are zoos really good for animals?  An argument piece.  Twenty-four writers leaned into their outmoded Dell computer screens, some of them looking as if they were searching to learn the meaning of life itself.  A few typed feverishly, while others just stared, heads in hands covering their temples, contemplating a partially finished draft.  It looked like some of them, too, were perhaps hoping for divine inspiration to animate their fingers in order to produce much-needed revisions.

Clutching my demonstration notebook close, I settled into a chair next to Scott.  Immediately I noticed his screen looked a little different than everyone else’s.  At first glance, his draft resembled a series of rainbows, with colors painted over his words like the streaks of tempera my daughter Lexi loves to fashion across paper in art class.  Leaning closer to Scott’s screen, I asked, “So, how’s it going with your writing? What can you tell me about all these colors?”

Stretching his arms in the air and leaning back in his chair, Scott informed me with great confidence, “Well, I’m making sure I have enough evidence.”

I peered closer, squinching my face in an effort to better read his words and study the efficacy of this new highlighting strategy.  Scanning each of the three rainbows adorning Scott’s draft, I searched for quotation marks, statistical facts, expert opinion, explanations or definitions…  Anything that resembled “evidence.” There were none of these things. Turning my head from the screen to face the writer, I also noticed there were no texts visible anywhere in his writing space.  No articles, charts, books, notes…nothing.  Let’s probe a little more, I thought.  “Can you say more about that, Scott?”

“Well,” he began, “I am making sure I have at least three pieces of evidence for each of my three reasons.  That’s what the colors are for.”  Ah, that’s what the rainbows are for.  Got it.  However, what he was adding was unfortunately not “evidence,” but more of his opinion.  I thought I might have my teaching point here.

I moved this conference forward by paying him a compliment on the clarity of his claim and reasons.  “Look how strong your reasons are, how separate!” I gushed at the end of my compliment.  “Now Scott, may I offer you a tip?”

Scott looked at me and nodded.  I proceeded to explain that the word evidence, typically in this type of writing, often means proof offered from a printed text.  I directed him back to the notes I knew he had taken; and after explaining with an example in a mentor text how this might look, Scott was able to successfully incorporate a quote he had pulled regarding the confining nature of zoo animal enclosures.

As I left that day, I was struck by one particular aspect of this conference. I knew what I taught Scott today was not the first time he had “learned” the concept of text evidence.  Well, more precisely put, it was probably not the first time he had been “taught” that concept.  And so I suppose it could be argued that he was just not “following directions.”  But I think there is something more to be learned here; and that is that what’s “obvious” to us is just not always obvious to kids.  For whatever reason.  So we must remember that just because we “taught it” doesn’t mean they “learned it.”

A cherished mentor once taught me, “People learn through frequency, repetition, and duration.”  And I would assert that that means kids, too.



Slice of Life Challenge day 6 #sol17

Sometimes birthday plans can change…

Title: “Gratitude”

Today is my birthday.  Although I know there are some who prefer not to notice birthdays piling up, viewing them sometimes as they do magazines piling up in the corner basket (“I wish those things would stop arriving at my house!”), I for one look forward to my birthday each year.


This year, our plan was to travel to the Connecticut shore to see old friends, dine in an old favorite restaurant, and stay in an old favorite hotel.  All as a family.  We would then rise and shine at whatever hour the children opened their eyes, and join our friends for brunch- maybe even after a swim at the hotel.  And then, after inventing a leisurely plan for spending the day in the historic shoreline town of New London, we would return home for a family dinner at the homestead.

But the kids are sick. Hmm…yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

And so, the plan has changed.  And I know I could be bummed out about that, I suppose.  But a mentor once told me that when you choose life for everything it is, and everything it isn’t, you are just so much happier.

I feel so fortunate to be the father of three wonderful children, the husband to one amazing wife.  And to be the son of two wonderful parents.  And the friend to so many wonderful people. And the grandson of a wonderful Grandmother.

Today I am grateful.  As I write this morning, my daughters have awakened.  They’ve come downstairs.  And each of them has hugged me. With their cold-stricken, cough-hampered voices, they’ve said to me, “Happy Birthday, Papa!” So I must sign off.

But I will close with one of my favorite lines to one of my favorite movies, “Jerry Maguire.” This line was delivered by the actor playing Dicky Fox at the end of the movie; he says, “I love my wife.  I love my life.  And I wish you my kind of success.”