The Arc #sol18

The Arc  #sol18

March 13, 2018


IMG_0218I must have been alert when they taught the story arc back in teacher college.  The idea of the arc of a story is strong in me.  Thinking how to organize a narrative or investigate a composed narrative is as easy as riding a bike.  It seems it comes to students early as well.

Sarah Weeks spoke last week at the TCRWP Reunion of the arc and the arrow of the story.  When we think of the arrow of the story, we go straight through to the punch line.  When we think of an arc of a story, the majority of that story is in the mound, in the elaboration.  But in the end, it’s the payoff that makes the story work.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about that payoff lately.  In my writing, but mostly in the way that we plan and execute our instruction. Last week,  I reread The Unstoppable Writing Teacher. There is much to mine there, but today what stuck was the idea of backward design.  Considering our destination and then moving forward step by step.  This works for all of the students in front of us, but is especially powerful for our EL students. This idea is brilliantly described in A Quick Guide to Making Your Teaching Stick . One of Shanna Schwartz’ stickiness principles is:

 Children’s engagement and learning are dependent on a high level of understanding; they are distracted most when their understanding breaks down.  In order for teaching to stick, children need to be taught when they are ready to learn.

In their wonderful new book,  Kids First From Day One,  Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz quickly outline how to keep a child’s eye view of your day. They remind us to see things from a child’s perspective.  In that perspective, we carefully examine whether our implied goal should be all that implied.

Focusing  on the bigger picture often I would say,  students don’t know why we are talking about what we are talking about.  They don’t see the arc of the story, the straight shot of the arrow, or the dot on the map.  That’s on us.

Do we know where we are going?

In the Calkins Units of Study,  the TCRWP team make an important plan.  They outline every unit in detail at the beginning.  First a quick road map,  then a short overview, then we are ready to head out on the journey.

As teachers, we plan, but where are we going?  See this post for setting the focus lesson table with your GPS.   What are the goals of the unit for each student in front of us?  The goals for this student might be the same.  We aren’t teaching the standards, we are teaching the kids.  However,  the teaching needs a spine, a compass, a north star.  We should know it and we should communicate it to the kiddos, every day.

How we communicate that is the art form, but this is no time for subtlety.

Hey,  kiddos,  we are going to reading all these versions of Little Red Riding Hood, but we are still just thinking about characters, settings, problems/solutions.  What’s the big idea?  What is Red’s problem?  What gets in her way?  How would you describe her?  

Every day the same questions.  We stay true to the arc.  In the beginning,  explain where we are going.  Then we try some things to get there,  explain those too.  We try some more things.  Things get a little tricky,  we back track,  we move forward.  Then,  when we get to the end,  we check and see if we all got there together.  We don’t leave those things behind,  we carry them to our next destination.

I’m not sure the kids know the plan.  So let’s tell them.  Let’s explain how this goes.

Do they know where we are going?  


img_1716 Thanks to all my fellow slicers for their encouragement, their feedback, and their lessons.  I learn so much from you.   You can learn from them too,  here at Two Writing Teachers.  This is day 13 of the 31 Day Slice of Life Story Challenge.





Time for Book Club #sol18

IMG_0732.JPGTime for Book Club #sol18

March 12, 2018

A few weeks ago in fourth grade,  the teachers had a book tasting.  You might have witness this before, but this was my first time to witness one in person.  The most wonderful thing was the students moving from table to table sampling books and chatting about them,  taking notes, and considering whether these books could be their new friends.  The students were happily considering each on their own merit.  What I loved the best was… the teachers.  The team read the books and talked about them ahead of time.  They were excited to share them with the students and of course,  their excitement was catching.  The whole experience was amazing.

As the teachers matched kids to books to book clubs,  I talked to many of them about their matches, about their lead-in to the clubs,  and about how they would continue to promote students learning how to be good book club members.  I thought of the book clubs I have been in and how those books I read with those friends became friends as extensions.

Our fourth grade team chose these books for clubs.  (Historical Fiction Calkins)

It’s a pretty good mix of times, experiences, culture, and social justice themes.  Fourth grade is struggling a little with Love that Dog, as it is ‘easier’ to read that some of the other groups’ books which messes with timing.  The plan is to mix in some short text to layer on comparative pieces  and types of reading during the next weeks with all of the clubs.

Third grade is beginning book clubs too during their Character Studies Unit (Calkins).  They are not offering the same titles across the team due to availability.  In my consult class,  the teacher was considering the following titles.


The third graders reading levels and inconsistency in talk makes their book club work a little trickier.  This wise teacher is going to mix reading and talk each day to keep kids thinking in their books.

Though these books clubs in the intermediate grades have lofty goals:  theme work and character work,  even the primary students can benefit from partner or double partner work in reading.  Talking about books, even with teacher scaffold, gives students more room to think.  Think in productive ways.  Think in open ways that encourage different ideas,  growing ideas.  Book clubs build social constructs.  Book clubs encourage reading and build reading muscles.

There are so many marvelous tools available in the Calkins Reading Units of Study to promote reading partnerships and small clubs.  Some to get you started might be:

The beauty of the UOS study reading is that you can fairly seamlessly move up or down through the grade level offerings to meet the needs of your particular classroom group.

Book clubs do change the tempo of a class.  When launching clubs be prepared to let the students take the lead.  Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

Teacher reading recommendations


Enjoy many amazing slices of life here at Two Writing Teachers.

DST #sol18


DST #sol18

March 11, 2018

The amazing dog knew that DST had arrived.  At what will be, when I acknowledge DST existence by force tomorrow, our wake up time,  she gently placed her wet nose in my eye.  When I instinctively said,  it’s not time yet, but rolled over to look at the clock,  there it was in clock face boldness,  the exact right time to get out of bed according to Daylight Savings Time.  Grant it,  the clock didn’t and doesn’t say the right time.  I am not one to preemptively fix the time.  SHE. JUST. KNEW.  For a half an hour,  I stayed in bed hearing the soft jingle of the tags on her collar from the other room, composing blogs in my head.  Then I resigned myself to being awake.  I got my coat.  Lily jumped down from the chair.  I clicked on her leash.  Off we went into the predawn.  The neighbors’ houses were dark and the only sound was the soft padding of her paws on the pavement.  When we passed the neighbor’s house where her dog friends live,  I noticed the lights were on in their kitchen.  Do they all know?


img_1716Slice of Life Story Challenge.  31 blog posts in 31 days.  This is day 11.   Read some amazing slice of life stories here at Two Writing Teachers.  

Eavesdropping 101 #sol18


Eavesdropping 101 #sol18

March 10, 2018

I never really thought much about eavesdropping until I had the pleasure of listening to Sarah Weeks last weekend at the TCRWPW reunion.  She actually recommended eavesdropping as the way she gets great snippets for her writing.  She told a wonderful story about eavesdropping on a proposal (turned down) at Starbucks.  This story and the idea of eavesdropping got me thinking,  not about proposals but about listening in.  So here’s some of the ways I eavesdrop.


Meetings are a wonderful place to listen in.  During professional learning communities,  and others just listen in.   I admit readily in this company that this silence can be a challenge.  However, when  successful,  opportunity abound to learn something.  Nine times out of ten,  it’s something I had no idea about.  These tidbits could be things teachers are already trying,  things their worried about, how assessments work for them, and what they are hoping for with their students.   It’s mostly fair.  They know I’m there,  I try to blend in.  Most of the time it works out.

Random Snippets between Educators

This is slightly sneakier.  The act is unintentional.  I’m waiting… at the copier, for the bathroom or I’m walking down the hall, to the parking lot.  Lots of times, the educators include me in the chat which technically isn’t eavesdropping.  Also,  the conversations aren’t all that secret since we are all in public and they know I’m there.  I see what they are copying,  what their reading.  I notice what they ask each other about.

Random Snippets between Kiddos

Mostly this just helps me know about them.  What they like, what they read,  what they play,  who they chat most with.  Sometimes though,  I get real gems.  What they ask each other help in. How they support each other… or don’t.  When I have them turn and talk,  I get a full blast of whether I got the teach across.

Other Peoples’ Coaching

This is one of my favorite things, but I don’t get much opportunity to do this.  My current favorite humans to do this with are Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan.  They are wonderful at coaching kiddos and their teachers.  If I had my notebook with me right now,  I’d drop some of their knowledge right on you.  For now,  follow Clare’s blog,  she’s pretty transparent about her coaching.

I also encourage people to eavesdrop on me.

When I am having a chat with a student

Definitely not so much for what I’m saying, but what the kiddos say.  This week I got a chance to plop down at a table with a bunch of coloring kindergarteners.  They were making books, but not stories.  As I began to talk to them about making these drawing collections into stories,  their teacher began to listen to me and more importantly to them.  The stories they created were wonderful treasures.  We didn’t miss out on the moment.

I love conferring in other peoples’ classrooms.  I’m pretty good at chat and I just chat up one child after another about whatever it is that they are working on.  It’s difficult for a teacher to get around to everyone every day, but when I am there, she can hear a snippet and run with it later.

Working with a small group

Usually,  when I work with one kiddo,  other friends around us hear.  Even when I’m quiet,  I’m not all that quiet.  Sometimes,  I gear my talk to the table, or a nearby friends that wouldn’t chat me up himself.  This works best in that active engagement or link.  Most of the time,  a review of focus lesson might ignite some thinking.

Talking to other teachers

Collaboration time for me in generally 1:1,  but sometimes people drop by or hear something and join in.  Hearing others’ questions or attempts can ignite a spark .

The Usual

I do like listening to nearby restaurant tables, people in line, folks in the waiting area… anywhere.  I haven’t taken to writing it down, yet.

Eavesdropping is noticing.  Noticing what matters to folks.  Noticing what people talk about day to day.  Noticing what is important.  Noticing leads to thinking.  Thinking leads to innovation.

img_1716 Still working on my writing every day in March thanks to the Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by Two Writing Teachers.

Who’s (Grand) Daughter I Am?

Who’s (Grand) Daughter Am I?

March 9, 2018

International Women’s Day was yesterday.  However today would have been my grandmother’s birthday.  I took Fran McVeigh’s advice The Reason Why  and when I couldn’t think of a specific story,  I went back and looked at pictures.  To be fair to myself,  she’s been gone a long time now and those memories I am reaching for are deep in crevices of my mind.  So I give you fragments and I feel as if it were yesterday.


My grandmother told this story and so many more.


Florence and her rooster early 1900s

In the early 1900’s, when I was a small child,  my father and some of his brothers got the idea to go out and stake a claim in the Dakotas.  When didn’t have much and we left our southern Missouri home and travel out to the prairie of North Dakota.  My daddy ( Lowie Washington Kneedler) was a farmer and the brothers heard tell that you could get free land out in the Dakotas.   They remained out in the Dakotas just over two and 1/2 years. During that time her favorite companion was a banty rooster.  Her father died when she was just seven years old leaving her mother, a younger sister, and my grandmother alone.

What I hope I learned from Florence Mae Kneedler Wilkerson

  • History is where we come from, it’s good to remember that.
  • Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
  • Speak softly and have a spine of steel
  • We can get through this and anything else that life throws our way
  • Joy comes in the morning
  • Nature restores
  • Family is where we rest
  • Girls rule the world
  • I can make do and I can make that
  • Handwork is life’s work
  • The written word is gold



Little Florence on the prairie perhaps 1905


I think of her today as the maple in our yard struggles to survive under the tremendous pressure of the unexpected.  Broken branches litter the yard and we hope for its survival.  She survived a lot,  my gram.  I never heard her complain about a thing.  Just like that tree she was full of grace and beauty.


doesn’t she carry that little dog in the same way she carried that rooster?

Snow Day or Snow Day #sol18


I wanted to post a movie but my wordpress doesn’t have that privilege

Snow Day or Snow Day 

March 8, 2018

Snow days and snow days bind us together.

Tuesday morning on her way down the hall, a new teacher asked me so will we have a half day tomorrow? I went to the teachers’ room for lunch and we discussed the pros and cons of a snow day.  Currently our last day of school is on a Friday and a snow day will push us over to Monday. Wouldn’t that be a bummer?  This new crystal ball known as snow day calculator came up.  We looked up our town.  53% chance of a snow day Wednesday.  One teacher said she didn’t like her teenagers to know the night before a snow day because they would want to go out.  The principal and I chatted about the possibilities of snow days.  He’s a pragmatist thinking about whether long commuters would have difficulties since they live closer to the interior of the state.  He was developing a contingency plans for classroom coverage and dismissal.  Plan for possibilities.

Yesterday there was a threat of a snow day, a wear pajamas all day,  read until your eyes hurt from reading kind of day.  I filled up my book bag on my way out the door Tuesday  afternoon with my laptop, my conferring notebooks,  and several books in my to be read stack.  But when this morning can around, the snow had only dusted the ground in our front yard and it was just a snow day.  My husband’s office closed and he worked from our house, but I found my gloves, packed my lunch, and took my neglected bag back to school.

It was snowing on my way to work and snowed on and off during the day along with rain.  There were nine teachers out.  Assignment teachers stepped up to cover those classrooms.  We watched out the windows.  Around 9:15 am,  I took this photo out the window of a first grade room while the teacher taught on and the students listened unconcerned.  All day we watched, checked in and discussed.  Around noon,  the district cancelled all of the after school programming.  That included most of our professional learning community meetings after school.  I helped get the kinders out the door at the end of the day.  We got everyone settled and all of us started moving toward home.

Again I packed my snow day bag and thought I have meetings tomorrow I don’t want to miss. Out the door,  a teacher calls, it will be a long commute home down 16.  

This is one of those slices without a punchline ending.  Perhaps I should erase it and start from scratch.  or… I’ll do that thing I do which is make it an analogy for something else.

So my analogy is that we help each other,  we are prepared,  we keep everyone calm  every day in every situation we can.  We hope for a surprise and sometimes it comes.

I’m writing this before the phone calls might come for calling a snow day.  I might while you read this be reading blissfully one of the new books in my stack or I might be meeting with my new collaborative teacher.  Either of those things I will really enjoy.  Plan for possibilities.

8pm Wednesday coming down fast and heavy

Update: 4:45 am No power. No school. Reading day, it is.

Update 4:59 am. At least two downed trees. One a little sweetie we planted two years ago.

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers and all my blogger co-conspirators for the inspiration and encouragement

GPS in Place #sol18

Winding-Road-300x225Classroom GPS #sol18

March 7, 2018

Big Question for Today (everyday?)

How do we expect the kids to get in the car, if they don’t know where we are going?

Before we turn to beautiful projects, anchor charts, and even books,  we have to look at those little kiddos in front of us and think what are we going to teach you.  In order to think about what we are going to teach them,  we have to think about what they already know.  In order to think about what they already know, I am sorry to say friends,  we have to have assessments.  And that is the house that learning built.

It isn’t about  a learning objective posted on the wall.  It is this… hey,  kiddos,  today I’m going to teach you…I know this seems simple, but it speaks volumes.

When I explain to the students quickly and succinctly what we are all about in this time, this month, this year,  as a educator,  I do so many things.  I respect them.  I say we are partners in this work.  I set the table.  I frame the learning.  I make the ground we stand on very firm.  We all need that.

When I say remember yesterday we were….. now today we are going to …  I remind us that we are not starting from scratch.  We are building something here.  There are steps involved.  I think you’ve got this.

When I keep my focus lesson short,  I remind all of us that the time the students are doing the work is the most important time.  I remind them that I want them to have the maximum amount of time to read,  write, try things out, and learn.  I remind all of us that I don’t think the learning happens when I am reading a story, talking or explaining.  The learning happens when they are DOING.

When I have time that is dedicated to students doing the work,  trying it out,  when I am just a coach on the side most of the time,  when I ground my talk in the focus lesson,  I keep the lanes steady.  I make it clearer to see what we are working on,  what we are working towards, and what it will look like when we get there.

When I think about making connections across the day, across the school, across the week, across the year,  I am building thinking skills.

When lessons fail and they do, it’s mostly because we didn’t use the GPS.  We didn’t think where are we going.  Those first years of teaching are tough.  You only can see as far as your headlight beams.  You haven’t had enough experiences to know where the potholes might be or the best place to stop for coffee or even the most common traffic patterns.  In those times and many later times,  we can rely on conversations with our colleagues and our students.  We can rely on the standards,  our assessments, and our observations.  We can rely on the GPS.

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.  Lao Tzu