A Day Full of Ups and Downs (or Sometimes Coaching Is About Surviving & Thriving Rather Than Technique)

“Oh, Ms. So-and-So, isn’t it funny that we both have our coats on right now?” I inquired with a sly grin.

“Mrs. Gordon, we have our coats on because it’s cold in the art room today.”

“What do you know? I was feeling a little cold as well.”

We smiled over the heads of her kindergartners. Mine was a touch ironic. Hers was tired.

It had been an up and down…and down…and down day for her already. The team had rallied, but it was taking its toll.

I checked the time on my phone surreptitiously. Three and a half minutes.

The art teacher greeted the class at her door. Upon hearing about the cold art room she apologized with a wink and a nod.

As the students filed in through her door I said, “Come on. Let’s get a change of scenery. How about a coffee?” When I signed us out in the front office, our secretary was already holding the walkie talkie. We slipped out just ahead of the ruckus.

For the next 20 minutes, my unofficial mentee and I chatted about anything and everything but school. Where we grew up. Our weddings–one past and one on the horizon. Friend outings. We sipped coffee (or cocoa) and strolled around the green in the sunshine.

It was lovely.

There’s never a bad time for sunshine, and after a couple of gloomy weather days it was especially welcome. Not to mention the stormy conditions in her classroom for a few days.

I’ve been in classrooms almost continuously this week (and before the crazy conference week), but I’d been reflecting recently that it didn’t feel like I’d done much literacy coaching. Rather in this room, and one other, I’ve been making regular appearances as a support to make the day to day work possible. I’ve conferred with students and provided proximity influence for restless kiddos to extend the reach of an adult so teachers could take on small groups or conferences of their own without interruption.

It’s not, as one colleague shockingly announced to me in frustration, that these teachers have poor classroom management. (Really?!?) I’ve been a firsthand witness to their calm demeanor, clear and consistent structures and routines, obvious rapport with students, and truly admirable patience and appreciation of the little people in their charge. I have also been witness to the sudden and repeated outbursts of certain little humans in their care.

So while I’d intended to be coaching hard for small group work and new units of study this fall, lately it’s been looking rather different. I’ve been sharing resources about mindset work and teaching into self-regulation. (Thank you Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz!) I’ve been stopping by more frequently regardless of whether it’s a workshop block, and in addition to conferring with kids and sharing impromptu class read aloud breaks, I’ve been doing wellness checks on teachers.

Today that took the form of an emergency off-site coffee break. Being loving and patient in the face of physical, verbal, and emotional outbursts is taxing. If we’re going to provide a classroom that’s safe and nurturing for our kiddos, we need to feel safe and nurtured. We also need to know that we’re not in this alone. We celebrate together and we back each other up when it gets tough. That might look like: in the moment triage, post-game reflection and problem solving, or recovery strategies.

I’m not going to say the afternoon was easy, but something about basking in the sunshine and breathing the fresh air together made it approachable.

Tomorrow is a new day. A new week, new month, and new trimester are just around the corner. Teaching is a profession of many fresh starts. They are a gift. So soon I will get back to intense, focused literacy coaching. For now I will coach kids through tough words or confusing paragraphs until they have strategies of their own. I will coach teachers through difficult classroom dynamics until new patterns start to emerge, or new plans are formulated.

My Revised Plan:

  • De-escalate.
  • Look through an admiring lens and recognize strengths.
  • Offer choice and ownership of the type of support or strategies to receive.
  • Provide strategies and support.
  • Invite reflection.
  • Allow for a fresh start.

That’s funny–it looks a lot like coaching.




Being Brothers

There they were, heads bent together, shoulders nearly touching. Daniel’s voice was low and reassuring. I tried to see without looking so I wouldn’t spoil the moment. It looked like Q’s shoulders relaxed.

The scene tonight reminded me of an old photo we have of the boys when they were maybe two and four. They were stretched out on their bellies in the living room watching something, knees bent and feet in the air. I hadn’t noticed it at first, someone pointed it out later, but Qaiden’s little toe was just brushing the side of his brother’s leg as if to say, “OK, just making sure you’re still there.”

Brothers in sled

When I walked in tonight the tension was palpable. Three surly males barely grunted in response to my greetings. Somewhere between carrying in school bags and putting laundry away I discovered what was ailing each of them.

Gradually, ever so carefully, I dug for the calmest, most knowledgeable teacher-self hiding in the shadows after a long Monday. And I reached for all that I knew about each of my boys.

Daniel’s first source of contention was smoothed into a rough plan within a few minutes. (It sounds like an oxymoron–because it is. That particular source of angst will return every night that there’s homework.) The second, girl-related, I left for a quieter time.

I noticed Qaiden working on math, but hadn’t he just said the only homework he had was to read? Puzzled, I put a pin in that one and had a conversation with my husband.

Soon enough those pieces, too, fell into place. Friday, Q was invited to join the math team at school. My hockey and lacrosse playing, so-close-to-an-A+-explaining, perfectionist was invited to do something he’s good at, but that feels hard.

A little background might help here. When Qaiden was three, he came home from preschool and made a shaky letter Q that they’d practiced for the first time during the day.

“Ugh!” his gravelly little voice exclaimed, fists thrust in the air above him, “It’s not even round!”

In third grade, he sobbed in my arms for over an hour the only time his weekly spelling PRE-test was a 70%.

“I won’t even get into college!” he wailed.

As his mother, there must be some way that I’ve contributed to his world view and self-image. But I swear, when he brought home the 70 I celebrated that, “Finally, we have new words you can learn! That will be great.” And when he bemoaned the crooked Q, I cheered him on. “I knew just what letter you were making!”

Our mantra for him became, “patience and perseverance.” Unlike with my first child, I praised the effort rather than the outcomes. (Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?!) But somehow he has always, from three years old, had it in his mind that when it comes to anything in a school building he should know it before a teacher has to say it.

I think he was proud to be invited to the math team. But more than anything, I bet he was terrified. Because to him if it’s hard it means he’s not smart–and his whole self is built around being smart.

Tonight it wasn’t math homework he was working on. It was a set of practice problems from the first math team meeting this afternoon. Apparently there are three members of the team so far…and he’s “the worst.”

Now, there are times when my boys get along. Usually when they’re working cooperatively on some wild project. But just as often–or more–they’re giving each other a hard time. In jest. In earnest. In flat out anger. Rivals in anything that can remotely be construed as competitive.

But not tonight.

Tonight Daniel stood shoulder to shoulder and leaned in close. He studied the questions. He “Hmmm”d and “Ohhhh”d.

“Well, these two you’ll probably learn later this year or in 8th grade. That one down there we just did a few weeks ago [in Algebra II]. The rest of them, I bet you can figure out on your own.”

There they were, heads bent together, shoulders nearly touching. Daniel’s voice was low and reassuring. It looked like Q’s shoulders relaxed.

And that was better than Mom coming to the rescue. With just a few words and a minute of his time, his big brother had made him feel competent again. They stayed like that for half a moment longer before Daniel’s gentle self-deprecation turned livelier as Q volleyed.

But for a moment…brothers.Brothers at the ferry

#IMWAYR It’s Monday. What Are You Reading?

Last week was, among other things, our school book fair (one of my favorite times). I always go in with a few lenses–myself as a reader, my children at home, and of course my readers across K-5 at school. Most years I have time to shop the fair 2 (or even 3) times and add to or refine my initial selections. I may set aside a couple of intriguing biographies for a 4th grade class, or a little something special for an intervention kiddo I know well. This year I had one shot.

I ended up selecting three stories that actually shared an overarching theme–You are strong enough to survive whatever comes your way.

Historical fiction is a favorite genre, and World War II always seems to grab the attention of a few readers when we focus on that genre at school. Our WWII collection for 4th & 5th grade readers is a bit slim, however, because of the obviously challenging content that can be associated with war. So when I spotted Sink or Swim: A Novel of World War II by Steve Watkins and Prisoner of War: A Novel of World War II by Michael Spradlin, I decided to give them a try. I stayed awake way too late for a few nights last week gobbling them up. Both were engaging.

Sink or Swim is the story of a boy who runs away to the Navy to help his family. At only 12, he has to lie about his age and rely on how urgently the Navy needs sailors to combat the growing German U-boat threat. Besides, he has a personal grudge against those subs. Maybe because the life on a ship really is repetitive, the story felt like a repeating list at times. However, it would be a good example of foreshadowing as events early on presage the ones later. Interestingly, this book was inspired by the true story of the youngest boy to serve in WWII. Readers will enjoy the loyal friendship and the depth charges in a race to blow subs out of the water. Then they will pause with Colton when he realizes that up close the enemy looks a lot like him. Some of my 5th graders could handle this book, though it would be well suited in a middle school class library as well.

Prisoner of War was a much more intense story before Henry ever left home. With the help of his loving grandfather (and a surprising lack of a birth certificate) he fled to the Marines to escape his father’s abuse. As another example of a tall, sturdy boy who passed for 18 long enough to be shipped off to the Phillipines, Henry found himself adopted by two members of his unit who kept a close eye on him. All three were captured and forcibly moved to a POW camp in what is now known as the Battan Death March. Very soon Henry finds opportunities to protect those who had protected him. Always concerned that his fear made him a coward, Henry was the epitome of courage in the face of insurmountable odds. Frequent beatings and torture make this a book I’ll pass along to my middle school counterparts. But the message that emerges is that we are stronger–and strong enough–together.

Finally, I read The Trail by Meika Hashimoto because my oldest has said repeatedly that he’d like to go off and live in the woods for awhile. This was a touching story of finding yourself by getting lost, unmoored from all that had previously defined you. Caution: a secondary character attempts suicide late in the book. On the positive side, the kindness of strangers prevails.

If you need to feel strong enough, maybe one of these three stories is for you. Or if you need to reach out to someone whose reading life lives a little on the edge, perhaps you’ll pass one of them along.

Happy reading.


A Little Midnight Flash Draft for #NaNoWriMo–Empathizing with my character

Can’t Sleep (940)


Around me the tent was filled with even breathing and soft snores. Ben had fallen asleep before we even finished our ‘Can You?’ story. Jake was snoring minutes after it ended.

I was staring through the mesh at the top of the tent. It was so late even the stars were winking out. Ok, clouds were drifting across the sky and blocking them. Also I had no way of knowing what time it was.

I rolled over in my sleeping bag as quietly as I could. But every sound seemed amplified–louder in the deep quiet of this summer night. Still my feet sounded gargantuan as they wriggled around inside the sleeping bag.

How could they sleep through this noise?

I tried to stay completely still. I held my breath and counted my heartbeats. One bu-bump. Two bu-bump. Three.

The more I thought about being still, the more my body felt like it had to move.

Outside the tent were other sounds. A constant chirping buzzed in my brain. Were those crickets? Could you really tell the temperature by counting their chirps? Or were they cicadas? I remembered that cicadas could completely cover trees and leave their dead bug bodies littered along the ground. Were we having a cicada invasion? I didn’t really think so.

My eyes burned from feeling tired, but every time they slipped closed my brain jolted them awake.

If I couldn’t count heartbeats, maybe I could count stars. It seemed like I’d tried camping out as many times as there were stars left to see.

I always told my mom that I was cold when I crept inside during the night. She would be curled up asleep on the couch. I don’t know why she fell asleep on the couch. Every time she’d tuck me into my own bed and pull the covers up to my chin.

When she kissed my nose she never said, “Get warm.” Instead she always said, “Here you are in your very own room. Sleep tight. I’ll be right downstairs.”

Sometimes my pillows were still in the tent and she’d give me her pillow from the couch. The pillow would still be warm from where she had been leaning on it.

I stuck my arms out the top of my sleeping bag and folded them behind my head. I wasn’t really cold.

Tonight mom didn’t remind me about an extra blanket. I brought one anyway. But she did check the batteries in my flashlight.

What was that in the bottom of my bag. Something was near my feet. No wonder they were so restless. I squirmed until I could pull out the soft lump. It was too dark to see colors, even with the bathroom light on inside the house.

But I didn’t need colors to know this was Baby Jaguar. The stuffed cat was usually under one of my pillows. I’m not sure how it got into my sleeping bag….Maybe it was left over from the last time my grandparents had visited and slept in my room.

Since they were asleep, Ben and Jake would never know that he was here. I guess I might as well let him breathe instead of suffocating down by my feet again. I tucked Baby Jaguar under my arm and closed my eyes.

Gradually my breathing slowed down.

My heart kept beating the same restless rhythm, though.

A few minutes might have passed, my brain was feeling fuzzier.

‘I’m so tired,’ I thought.

I just want to fall asleep.

I just want to wake up in the morning and still be here in the tent.


Then a noise jolted me awake again. Where was it? It sounded like it was near the back of the garage. Did I forget to close the gate? Could someone have opened it after I checked it so carefully?

Now I was certain I was hearing footsteps. I clutched Baby Jaguar to my chest, squeezing so hard neither of us could breathe.

What had footsteps like that? A fox? An opossum? Oh, please don’t let it be a skunk.

Alex and his friends swore they heard a bobcat last year when they were camping in his friend’s yard. He said it sounded like screaming.

These were just sneaky footsteps. Were they coming closer to the tent? Could I get out the back and slip around the tent to the house? Would I really leave my friends here to the beast?

I needed a plan.

Just then, I heard the whine of a zipper!

Whatever it was was trying to get into the tent! I sat straight up.

The zipper opened wider and a shadow fell across me. I blinked a few times too be sure what I was seeing.

“Hey,” he whispered. “I thought I’d sit out here for a while.” He must have noticed my mouth hanging open. Alex went on, “I just got home and my room is too hot.”

“I’ll just borrow this extra pillow and stretch out over here near the door. Do you mind?” Alex asked casually.

“Whatever,” I replied a little gruffly.

“Don’t feel like you need to stay awake for me. I closed the gate behind me. It’s latched. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Fine,” I muttered as if I hadn’t just been wondering about the gate.

Alex fluffed the extra pillow and leaned on his elbow. He was already ignoring me, too busy looking at his phone.

I rolled over with my back to him. Baby Jaguar was tucked in next to my cheek.

I barely heard it. It might have been, “Sleep well, Will.”

My eyelids were drooping.

A Tale of Two Halloweens

In all of my adult life before last year, we’d had 3 trick-or-treaters…combined. And one said, “No thanks, I’m just with my friends.”

Last year we moved into a neighborhood. The previous owner gave us numerous tips at the closing, about the furnace, the sticky back door–home ownerly things. He also warned us to be prepared for Halloween. Grateful for the heads up and determined to be neighborly, I stocked up on about 125 large bars of candy. I had a giant bowl near the door and extra tucked out of sight to refill as the night went on. My kids went out and I turned on the front light around 6:15. Barely an hour later I had to turn out the light. The bowl, and every extra bar, was empty! Before 7:30 the outside lights…and the inside ones were dark and I was camped out in the basement to avoid detection.

This year, I was determined not to be the house whose lights went out before the little minions even went to bed. I couldn’t find the kind of big bars I’d handed out last year. I did, however fill the cart with bags totaling 600+ pieces of candy. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be enough. I’ll admit to tucking away a few pieces of my favorite candies in case the bowls were once again empty.

This time two giant bowls stood ready near the door, and more candy was on hand to replenish. And the bars were small so when revelers knocked I invited them to take a few. Only one girl took a whole mitt full. Many selected just one.

At 7:45 I had nearly reached the bottom…of the first bowl. The stream of costumed ghouls trickled and stopped. I’d expected to feel pleased that I’d prepared well enough for the candy-seeking hordes. Instead, I felt a little disappointed that I hadn’t been able to give more away. I’d studied–where was the test?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy chocolate. But there was a LOT of candy left and the boys hadn’t even brought their own hauls home yet.

One completely unopened bag ended up going to the annual collection at school for our troops. The other unopened bag is now earmarked for the four PD sessions I’m leading next week. If my participants don’t need it, I may by the second half of the day. I hid my favorites from everyone in the house…including myself (out of sight out of mind until I’m really desperate for a chocolate fix). The rest–the whoppers and snickers and non-chocolate candies I sorted and displayed for family sharing.

What a difference a year makes.


Reflecting on Nonfiction Picture Books: A Slice for Tuesday and #IMWAYR (belated)

You’d think an unexpected school closure would result in more time to write…except when you use it to READ.

Bookaday NF candidates

I enjoyed these 12 books tremendously. I’m passing them along to my partner in reading crime, @PESLibrary1 today so she can preview them, too. We’re in the process of selecting 30 picture books for our March Celebration of Reading, which will be a month long #classroombookaday challenge with extension challenges for families. The previous 2 batches of books I previewed were all fiction (which I adore and gravitate to). I thought it only fair to try to include some outstanding nonfiction titles as well. So based on some recommendations from Twitter, and also succumbing to some on the spot fascination while I was browsing, I gathered up these treasures…and 8 or 9 others.

While I was reading yesterday, I discovered…

  • It takes me longer to read a nonfiction picture book than a fiction picture book. Sometimes it’s because there’s more print on the page, but mostly it seems to be because my brain is wired for story and I tend to mull more over informational text. A story I might quickly reread, then reread and savor. But in nonfiction I pause again and again as I go.
  • It seems much easier for a fiction picture book to transcend grade levels (K-5 is a broad range). Anyone from 5 to 105 can appreciate a sweet, yet simple story. It’s a little harder to choose information accessible to kiddos from 5-11, especially because information accessibility depends so heavily on prior knowledge. Several times I found myself rejecting a book for the bookaday project, but tucking it aside for a particular grade or classroom with whom I thought it would resonate.
  • I wondered (frequently) about whether the books I’d selected were too overtly political in the current climate. More to the point, was I inadvertently (or not so much) pushing my own social justice agenda through these texts? I believe girls and women still have barriers to overcome. I believe we should welcome refugees and immigrants into our communities. I believe in scientific reasoning and facts. I believe in peaceful resolutions to conflict. And I believe that there are still miles to go before our society can sleep when it comes to issues of race, ability, and inclusivity. Yes, speaking or choosing to stay silent are both political statements. And I feel strongly that empathy is a human value, not a political value. But creating a ‘must read’ book list is different than curating a ‘great reads’ list and I want to be thoughtful.

Which brings me to an amazing book that I decided not to pass along for our bookaday challenge:

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

by Mary Beth Leatherdale and Eleanor Shakespeare

I lingered over this book for the better part of an hour, finding myself mesmerized by the humanizing details of these stories. Each one introduced a young person and the circumstances that made it better to flee than to remain. Then, through narrative, artwork and timelines showed the perils that made it almost unthinkable that they’d braved the attempt. Finally each chapter revealed how their story turned out. Did they make it to safety? What did they do there? How was their life better or different as a result?

In the very first vignette I found myself shocked by vivid details illustrating how fearful one refugee was to return to pre-World War II Germany. That moment in the larger story convinced me that I could never share the book with my kinders or first graders, and maybe not even with hardy 5th grade readers. But at the same time, the messages coming from each young refugee about why they absolutely must escape and how hard it was to find safe harbor felt more important than ever. This turned over and over in my head through yesterday and even this morning as I walked across the parking lot to the doors of school. With my young readers in mind, I wondered if glossing over (essentially redacting) that passage would make the rest of the book a fit for our school. (Thoughts of Banned Books echoed in my mind.) Ultimately I decided that rather than feeling we were censoring the book, I’d recommend it to our middle schools for a social action book club unit they do. In fact, I recommended it to my own middle and high school readers at home and to my mom.

Stormy Seas provides a window into the experience of others, even children, who find themselves in such dangerous conditions, for any number of reasons, that they must leave in spite of the risks or costs–even if it will take them years to ultimately reach safety–even if safety is just a hope and not a guarantee. As a mother and teacher I have to believe that all humans want essentially the same thing–to ensure that our children are safe and have the opportunity to thrive. That may look different depending on our culture or circumstance, but the instinct must be the same. And so this book is also a door–opening for me a determination to make the world safer and more welcoming. I’m not entirely sure what that will look like for me. Maybe it will involve direct advocacy for refugees. Certainly it will involve helping our students to develop empathy, to offer them mirrors, windows, and doors in the books that we share with them.

Reflections on Coaching

This morning’s faculty meeting was the first one of the year dedicated to literacy. Since our school goals in reading and writing hinge on small group instruction, that was the focus of our time. I was at once grateful to have time with the whole staff and challenged to make it worth everyone’s while.

Like in any building, we have varying levels of comfort, of openness, of reluctance with small group instruction. And as a district and school community, we’ve shifted our expectations about groups. Currently, the expectation is that all students are seen in conferences or groups at least once a week. In addition, readers who are striving toward reaching benchmarks are expected to be seen almost daily. In some rooms that feels like a big stretch to teachers. In others, teachers are as natural in conferences as fish in water.

Previously teachers were expected to conduct lengthy groups, applying the entire gradual release model in a single session. Lessons stretched to 45 minutes. Clearly we could never meet the new expectations with the old model of instruction and some teachers are at a loss. They want to do what is ‘right’ but are sometimes paralyzed by not knowing how to accomplish it (also by feeling it needs to be perfect).

So in planning for our time together, I thought about what I hoped teachers would take away. Through discussion with my principal we decided that it would be good for teachers to see video examples of what different small group structures looked like, especially guided reading and strategy groups. We also decided that it would be powerful to share videos of teachers doing those lessons-rather than me.

And so I encountered my first set of challenges–convincing teachers to take a risk. I thought about which teachers already have strong small group practices. Some I spoke with simply felt overwhelmed by other things going on around school recently. I approached both veteran teachers and newer ones with the inviting plea: “How would you feel about…Is there any chance I could just…” bare your soul and play the video in public? Just kidding. Though that’s how it undoubtedly felt to some. Apparently I wasn’t quite clear with one teacher initially. She readily agreed to let me record one of her groups and I patted myself on the back for lining up the group. Then I received an urgent email from her: “Wait! People are going to SEE this?!? I may have missed when you said you planned to use this at the faculty meeting!!!” I assured her that I would never press the issue if she was truly that concerned…maybe I could borrow her readers instead I half-heartedly offered. After we talked through her plan (and she discovered she wouldn’t happen to be at the meeting) she decided she felt comfortable enough to go ahead with the recording. Two other teachers also graciously agreed to take a chance.

I arrived early to 4th grade to set up the iPad on a tripod and to test the microphone to be sure we could hear the group. And we began filming-live before a studio audience-amidst the day to day action of a real live classroom. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As the group unfolded before me, there was nothing else the teacher needed from me. The recording was self-sufficient. The other readers were busily engaged. I had time to simply observe the group in progress. I noticed the seating arrangement for the group. I noticed the artifacts and tools the teacher had at the ready. I listened in on teacher talk and student talk bubbling in front of me. Mentally I ticked off compliments and next steps. With my audience in mind I conducted silent voiceovers of the lesson. Notice how…

Very infrequently I felt an “oops!” cross my mind as I wondered how a glitch would impact the video–a restless reader crossing in front of the camera to reach the pencil sharpener, the group member who was watching the teacher talk to another child instead of practicing in her own book, the child who glanced up and waved at the camera or leaned close to the microphone when they spoke.

But what started out feeling like “oops” moments, came quickly to feel authentic. One reason I was recording teachers instead of myself was to make the point that “We can all do this!” Teachers don’t operate on sound stages under controlled conditions. Any teacher watching a silly wave or a restless wanderer will recognize their own class and children in the moment. Far from being critical of these oopses, quite possibly these moments were what would make the new work feel approachable. The child who looked on as the teacher talked with her classmate benefited from an extra model. She wasn’t independent, but she was engaged.

As the group concluded, I started to pack up the equipment and thanked the teacher for being brave enough to share. I offered a compliment and was ready to go. Her response stopped me. She noted a couple of things that hadn’t gone the way she hoped. On the spot she wondered aloud about how to improve those aspects of her teaching. I told her how much I appreciated her self-reflection. She offered to share her thinking during the meeting. (Talk about brave and open to the risk of exposing a lesson she didn’t feel was perfect!)

In third grade a scheduling conflict meant I set up the equipment and left the previously anxious teacher to record herself. When I returned to collect the iPad she also reflected on how long the lesson had gone, how her readers had still had difficulty by the end of the group, and what she thought she would do next with them. She and I spoke on three more occasions following that recording and she asked to have a do-over with a second group the next day. Sure!

Finally, I made my way to a 2nd grade class. What I discovered during and after the workshop that day was that this was their very first day of doing small groups. I had misunderstood when I originally made arrangements to record. I have seen this teacher do exceptional small groups in previous years. I thought that she was hesitant because they’d just moved from fiction to nonfiction and she wanted to know more about them as informational readers before forming groups. In addition, I discovered that this teacher (who has beautiful, respectful signals and strategies for shaping classroom behavior) has a class of full sized personalities in pint sized bodies. Two of her kiddos were having a particularly difficult afternoon and it was contagious in spite of everything. It didn’t help that I toted in a camera and ratcheted up the novelty factor. This time, instead of watching the group play out, I circulated to try to manage the class in the background. There wasn’t enough of me. The teacher carried on valiantly. But some days the best laid plans of mice and men are derailed by squirmy 7 year olds.

I had decided before I even turned off the iPad that I wouldn’t be using this footage. But the class was moving on to social studies, so I made a note to stop back when they went to special. Quietly I tiptoed out. Before I realized they’d headed to gym, the teacher appeared in my doorway, a little green. She was apologetic. She was mortified. I assured her that some days don’t turn out how we hope and that I understand she has a number of needy and challenging friends in her class. Before the last words were out of my mouth she replied, “I don’t want that to be an excuse. I can make it better.” She went on to ask for my help getting small groups established this year. I was humbled. I hadn’t though of it as an excuse–simply a real factor–but I admired her no nonsense determination to be her best for these learners. You better believe I’ll clear my schedule to spend some weeks with her.

So this morning as we gathered in the library I was prepared with a few lesson videos–none exactly what I’d envisioned–but each with a valuable set of take aways. I decided not to voiceover bit by bit, but instead to invite my teachers to be on the lookout. Half looked for what the teacher did and said. The others looked for what students were doing. One colleague agreed to time each of the groups, breaking it down for each part of the lesson. I shared the same Compliment/Next Steps notes format that many of us use as teachers for our conferring notes and asked my colleagues to make note of what they noticed as they watched each group. After each video clip teachers shared at their tables and then popped out their big take-aways to the larger group.

There never seems to be quite enough time, but it was a good beginning to our conversation. A few teachers shared questions as well as observations. Those will be the jumping off points for our next steps. As teachers left, I reflected on two things I wished I’d said.

  1. We’re not aiming for perfection. We’re aiming for frequent, genuine interactions with our readers/writers. So meet a group with your mind and heart open and see what comes of it.
  2. There is value in naming what we notice. By simply saying it (or jotting it) we have pressed a pause button that invites us to think more about it. Sometimes we name what we notice ourselves doing (or not). Other times we name what we see our students doing. Naming is the first step in growing beyond.

Thank you to my teachers for their courage. Thank you for your keen self-reflection and for your fierce commitment to your students. While I have strategies to share with you about small groups and other literacy things, I continually learn from you about teaching, about being lifelong learners, and about loving every child who comes through our doors. I see you.

And what I thought was just preparation for today’s meeting turned out to be some amazing learning opportunities in themselves. Learning happens in unexpected ways and when we least expect it–if only we keep ourselves open to it.

Finding (Making) Room to Breathe

It was a near breakdown. I could see it in his crumpled face, the heavy slump of his shoulders. The clock kept ticking up through the minutes, but his To Do list had not yet ticked down near none.

I did things I usually wouldn’t. Emptied the dishwasher. Brought ice cream to his homework. Agreed to make his lunch. These were small things. I couldn’t read 40 pages for his book club or tape whatever needed to (maybe) be in his social studies notebook with a response. I couldn’t skate his hockey practice or run his cross country workout. Last night those were all things he tackled on his own. I could bring ice for his swollen wrist. He couldn’t use it yet, because that’s his writing hand.

I could gently suggest stopping for the night. But I couldn’t call a hard stop while the tension was tight in his body. I could see it. He needed to cross something (anything) else off his list before he could rest. Even a post-practice shower cleared the sweat but not the worry.

Because he’s mine and I know him so well, I could read him, know what would push him closer to the edge or (just possibly) hold him back from it.

He settled onto his bed stiffly at first. Eyes closed before the lights were even off. But it took several minutes before his body relaxed into the sleep it had stumbled upon.


As I was writing the narrative portion of this post I considered several directions the reflections might take. Why are we still giving so much homework? Why is some of it busywork like taping things into notebooks in such and such a way? Are kids overscheduled? Why do we let our kids be overscheduled?

But what I was thinking about most are the teachers and children around us every day at school. My own resolve was worn thin last night because at the same time I was trying to help my son negotiate a difficult day, I was receiving texts (every 15 minutes) from a colleague who was also feeling more than a little frayed around the edges. She was feeling her own pressures, and added to them was the anxiety of the teacher next door to her, of supporting a new team.

We all feel the strain when it begins to impact us, when our own patience thins, when our edges unravel. I’m thinking that the key is to notice each other before it gets that far.

Let’s all look at the world through the lens of looking out for each other. We can’t carry each other’s mountains. Sometimes we aren’t even sure what those mountains are. But for our families, our children (and at school they’re all our children), our colleagues, and even strangers, let’s try to pick up a few loose pebbles so they might avoid stumbling over those hazards. Let’s share a smile and a gentle greeting. If they need it, let’s offer a hug.

Today at school we’re having a Character Trait Parade. I’d struggled with what character trait to represent today. I’d decided to be the Book Fairy–but many words could describe that.

Now, I think I know what I’ll be.



This morning my son’s light popped on earlier than usual, and without a wake up call. I’d anticipated the possibility of a stormy start inside our house as well as the blustery rain outside, but there were only a few clouds. Q resolutely dressed and packed for another long day. He brought his cereal and his remaining homework to the table and got down to business.

And when it was time to head out for school my middle schooler came and hugged me. Then he headed out, headphones in, mood calm if not relaxed. He’ll be fine. As if in solidarity the rain and wind had calmed as well.

Personally, I’m rooting for thunder this afternoon to cancel the cross country meet. We could all use a night off…you know, except for homework and hockey.

Maybe the weather will also be considerate.


#IMWAYR It’s Monday. What are you reading?

Shooting Kabul

In the next two weeks, I’ll be working on writing a Social Action Book Club unit for our 4th grade. Luckily, I’ll have a team to collaborate on this one. But even better, I feel like we’ve hit on a fabulous mentor text and read aloud.

Right now when our sheltered and privileged 4th graders think of “issues”, they typically come up with bullying. But it’s like a one pony show. That’s all they’ve got. It’s like when they started identifying themes and every book was either, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or…well, that was the main one. When I read the headlines or listen to NPR, I hear so many urgent and critical issues facing our world, our country, and even our state and local communities. I don’t wish to bring the weight of these issues down on 9-year-olds, but I do hope to help them become aware of issues beyond the friend zone.

I’ve selected Shooting Kabul as our mentor text for the social issues unit. It’s a book I passed over on the shelf a number of times before I finally tucked it in my bag one weekend. But I was immediately drawn to it. When you talk about books as windows…this one is a roomful of floor to ceiling windows. I’ve yet to finish tallying the number of issues raised in its pages: from refugees, loss, culture shock, to family, belonging, race, honor, and yes, bullying.

In spite of the fact that we’ve been at war in Afghanistan for my children’s entire lives, I know little about the country or the wider region. Like many people, I was amazed by Malala’s grace and commitment to the power of education. Aside from her book, I’ve encountered little and read less.

Once I read Shooting Kabul, I started reading the news about refugees through a different lens. I hope it will be the same for our students. I hope this fictional window will shine light (and foster empathy) on a prickly issue. We’re pairing it strategically with other short texts that feature the same issues but with a different twist.

Right now I’m rereading so I can mine it for all it’s glass-paned-doorknob-unlocking-goodness.

Whatever book is in your bag this week-Happy reading!

Little People Are Doing Big Things!

It dawned on me–I’ve been blogging with Reading Ambassadors in 3-5, hearing insightful plans from third grade book room volunteers, visiting my kinder friends during writing and revisiting my first graders during snack–all over our building, little people are doing BIG things.


We’ve turned the calendar page into October and our kindergarten writers are embarking on their very first writing unit. They spent a few weeks acclimating to school and learning how to form letters. When I stopped by yesterday afternoon to say hello and borrow a smile, one friend asked, “Why are you here now?”

Another declared, “You should come when we’re writing! We can write quietly all by ourselves for fifteen minutes.” (I’m not even kidding. Those were his words) And when I suggested that I’d love to come see that in action, he replied, “It’s in the morning, you know.”

So this morning I brought my own smile and arrived just before their teacher sent them off with a mission to write. On her signal, fourteen little bodies leapt up into line for their new booklet. They carried it proudly to their tables, standing tall, backs arched just a little. Most of them settled quickly and quietly into sketching their plan, and I voiced over how impressed I was about that (as a gentle reminder to the few who needed to notice the models around them).

I settled in next to many of those writers across the following minutes, asking what they were writing about, commenting on the story I was seeing in their pictures, occasionally reminding them of a tool in the room for finding the words they wanted. I was simply there to marvel at how much they’ve grown as kindergarteners and writers since I spent the first two weeks with them.

The chime sounded and twenty-eight hands lifted in the air. It sounded again and they folded together in front of proud writers. I took a moment to marvel with and at their teacher as they packed up their writing folders.


Grinning, I headed off to first grade.

I tiptoed in from the back of the room during partner reading and curled up alongside a partnership. Soon their chime sounded and the teacher’s voice called them to the carpet. I stayed to visit as they transitioned to snack time. It was a selfish choice. I hadn’t been standing long when my customary hug came along.


Generally, snack time hasn’t been a focus for me. As a coach I try to maximize the time I have during instruction–popping from one room to the next while reading and writing are in action. But I’d noticed something about snack time in this room on previous visits.

As each child finished eating, he would walk to the library for an interest book (even though it wasn’t just right), she would pull out scissors to cut the traced hand, they would stage a read aloud in the book nook. All over the room these little people were making big choices. With no visible direction from the teacher, they pursued their own interests. That’s impressive and exciting enough on their own. But what I saw was both contagious and collaborative. When Z opened his book, E wandered over to share in the reading. When A was cutting out her handprint, K decided to trace hers too and make it a note for someone at home. J orchestrated a read aloud that engaged almost half her classmates.

For these children, school is still a place where they use what they know to do the things they care about. My heart grew three sizes today.


Contemplating a morning of wonders, I thought back to before school when fifteen students arrived early on a chilly fall morning to write…because they wanted to. The second session in the blogging workshop had many of them completing their first posts and publishing them to kidblog.

Excitement rippled through the entire 3rd grade contingent when I showed one how to share her Google draft with her tablemates. It erupted when I showed her how to share so that they could comment. The de facto boys’ table overheard the girls’ table and came to investigate. Soon, they too, were sharing to the whole group.

It only got better. We shared the Kidblog platform with the group. Suddenly, they can share beyond the table or the room! And they’re hungry for it. For some that meant hitting publish before checking for pesky details like capital letters. For others it meant an agonizing double-rechecking of every punctuation mark. They’re eager for their voices to be heard–for their words to be seen. Some are talking directly to authors. (Imagine their surprise when we tweet it directly to that author!) Others are admonishing the rest of us to be kind to others who may be different.

Good advice.



I got more good advice yesterday. It was most surprising because I wasn’t expecting it.

The 3rd grade book room volunteers met for the first time. I was expecting to tell them what sorts of projects I had in mind for the book room and how they could help.

Instead, Adam told me.

Very politely, Adam pointed out several (completely legitimate) things that need to be taken care of.

“Those labels are pretty good,” he comforted, “but it would be even better if they were bigger. You might even decide you want to add pictures of some book covers from that section so readers know what they might find there.”

Yeah. He has a future running conferences.

“What are you planning to do with those clipboards for book sign outs?” he asked. Almost immediately he added, “You could probably hang them on hooks up there over those shelves. That would be out of the way, but kids could still reach.”

You have a point, sir. Noted: add hooks to my Amazon cart.

I imagined these volunteers would be extra hands, but would need careful guidance. Forget that. They have a vision. I’m going to provide the tools they need and get out of the way!

How cool is it that they’ll be here for another two years? If they’re taking ownership of the space at the beginning of 3rd grade…what could they accomplish by the end of 5th?!

These little people are doing big things and it makes my heart happy.