Celebration and Confession

Something wonderful happened last night. I finished a draft of my very first book.

Early in June I set out some writing goals for myself, along with a plan for my writing life. Among the goals was finishing this book. Another of the goals (related to this book) was to work on using dialogue. I have worked on it. How successful it’s been will be up to others.

When I sat down to work on this book, it came pouring out, often in 800 word increments. I could clearly envision the world of the characters. I felt I knew the main character inside and out and his friends started to come to life for me across the pages. We are now six weeks into summer vacation, with a scant three remaining. My draft is a little over 8000 words.

It took a little more than a week’s actual writing. I put the first words to its pages in April, not long after finishing the Slice of Life challenge and deciding to try writing a different book in the same neighborhood. I can see you doing that math. How did an early chapter book take four months if I could write 1/10 of it in a single sitting?

So I have a confession.

In spite of my best and most earnest intentions, I haven’t been writing every day this summer. I’ve been less writerly than I’d planned.

I could blame any number of causes: travel, the lack of schedule & routine this summer, numerous commitments for the rest of the family, distractions… Or I could blame myself for not setting aside my sunrises as I’d planned from the beginning. (The thing is that sunrise feels very early when you’ve only just gone to sleep.) I’d fully intended to participate daily in Teachers Write so I’d have a crew and some daily accountability. For the reasons above and none at all–I haven’t. I could be angry with myself. I could belittle what I have achieved because it wasn’t all I’d expected. But I’m hearing a little voice inside…

“Dinna fash yerself lass.”

Ok, so yesterday’s #bookaday was historical fiction from Scotland. But Angus’ advice is sound.

There’s no point beating myself up about how it didn’t all go according to plan. It’s true of my writing this summer. And it’s true for our teaching the rest of the year. If we want to keep our heads up (and the heads of the precious littler writers we’re trying to grow) we need to fully celebrate the accomplishments, no matter how delayed. Because finishing a book (even a first draft) is exciting. I feel more powerful as a writer than I ever have. I hadn’t realized I could do this, and now I’ve proven to myself that I can. I’m feeling confident enough to try again…maybe with this same character, or maybe with the first novel that I started and set aside in favor of something that felt easier. I’m hearing another voice…

“We celebrate hard. Then we get back to work.”

That one is Lucy Calkins’ voice, though I’ve paraphrased.

It is important, though, that I recognize what got in the way of meeting my other writing plans. Being reflective about what was working and what wasn’t in my process can help me set up better conditions, and perhaps devise more effective strategies for meeting those targets next time.

In the end, the books I write are a byproduct. What I’m really working to grow is a writer.

So consider this (and an ice cream–hey it’s still National Ice Cream Month for one more day!) my hearty celebration. Tomorrow it’s back to work on the next set of goals.

May you have your own celebrations this summer and always!


Capture the Flag

#TeachersWrite Challenge 1- Consider your setting from someone else’s perspective + #SOL + #notsleeping = #LateNightFlashDraftforNovel

The Garden– To an outsider.  Jungle like. How can the tomatoes be this big in July? 

Though they wouldn’t be ripe for a few more weeks, the peaches smelled sweet as my face brushed past them. The leaves tickled, too. Softly I dropped down out of the fruit tree. I crouched at the base of the tree until I saw the backyard. Jake would call this recon. The shadows were long as the sun settled into the treetops. I’d have to be careful of an ambush.

To my left was the preschool yard. Emma would clear that one. My job was this jungle. I had to search through the fruit trees and the garden for their flag. I had to be fast.

I hunched and hurried to the cherry tree closer to the fence. My eyes scraped across the branches in the weakening light looking for the red of their flag. Cherries would be a good camouflage. But there were few cherries left and those were high in the upper branches where no one could reach. Well, Jake could have reached them, but I didn’t think anyone from this side could climb like him.

I retraced my steps to the peach tree and its companion. Again I scanned around the trunks and through the branches for any telltale flash of red. There was nothing. My heart beat faster in my chest. Seconds were ticking by. I forced myself to move further down the row. It was like searching across the summer from the June Cherries past the August peaches to the autumn apples. The infant fruits were small and still mostly green. Still no sign of their flag.

I had reached the far edge of Frank’s yard. This was the boundary of the game. If the flag wasn’t hidden in these trees, I’d have to venture further in.

The grass brushed the tops of my socks. The fresh cut smell wafted from Jake’s yard reminding me of our failed plan. But this grass was tall. Not quite tall enough to disguise me if I tried an army crawl. It would be faster and better to run across the small clearing to the garden fence.

I craned my neck to get a better view of where the gate was. It would make sense for the gate to be on the side facing the house. Whoever was growing this garden would want the easiest way in. But easy for the gardener just meant it would be harder for me. Instead of slipping up the outside edge, I’d need to cover open ground.

I listened. I didn’t hear anything in this yard. From two yards down, I could hear the bigger kids splashing in the pool. Their laughing rolled across the yards and tangled up in all the trees and plants around me. Just then I heard a squeal from beyond the path. It came from my yard. Or was it closer?! There was no more time to waste. They sent me because I’m fast. It was time to prove it.

Looking over my shoulder along the treeline, then glancing along the edges of the fence that I could see from here, no movement. It looked clear. I pumped my legs until I was racing across the grass. My arms pumped in time with my heart. Now I pulled up short at the fence, groping for a latch or a gate. My fingers gripped wire. I skimmed my fingers across the top until they reached a gap. Urgently, I felt with both hands for a way to open the gate. The latch slipped open in my hands and I slipped inside. I left the gate ajar so I could slip back out.

With an ever quickening beat in my ears I sidestepped through each row of the garden. Once I was between the tomato plants, I was hidden from view. How was it possible that these tomato plants were already up to my shoulders? It was barely July. Our own tomatoes in a pot o the deck were only up to my waist. I scanned each plant for signs of red. Tomatoes would make another good camouflage.

I’d been focused at eye level where many of the fruits were swelling. I almost missed the knot of red behind the lowest arms of one plant in the very center of the garden. It wasn’t tied like a flag or spread out like a bandana. The perfectly round clump resembled the fruits that harbored it.

Gently, very gently I reached down and removed their flag. I was careful not to damage the plant. These were somebody’s project. They must have started in the winter to have such big plants already. I didn’t want to be caught with their flag. But I really didn’t want to explain why I’d ruined someone’s sauce garden either.

I shoved the flag into my shorts pocket and poked my head above the tops of the leafy stalks. Was that a shadow moving near the far fence? I’d have to make a break for it. Once I left the garden gate, there’d be no time to look back. I’d race back past the fruit trees to where I’d found Frank’s gate. Then straight through and into Jake’s yard where I could declare victory.

I reached the edge of the garden row and angled toward the gate. Here I go!

I launched myself out of the gate and across the lawn. There it was again. Movement near the preschool yard. There was no way to know if it was Emma or Frank’s crew. I pumped harder. My hair ruffled against the lower branches of the orchard. The back gate was only steps away.

A shadow filled the opening of the gate.

I swerved to the right back toward the peaches. The figure at the fence pointed at me and yelled something.

With my pulse pounding in my ears I couldn’t hear what he said. I pulled myself up into the branches of the [maple] tree. If I could get high enough, I could jump over the fence and onto the bike path. From there I’d try to run toward’s Jake’s.

Leaves flapped in my face as I climbed. I squinted to keep any twigs from poking my eyes. I was moving too fast to be careful. My left arm stretched above me and gripped the smooth bark. I lifted my right foot and tried to hook it up onto the next branch. For a moment I hung there by my hands and feet. I opened my eyes wide and caught a glimpse of the nearly full moon through the leaves. I inched farther out on the branch until it started to sag. With a quick glance down over my shoulder, I unhooked my feet and dangled by my fingers. Then I dropped onto the pavement of the path.

I started to run toward Jake’s. But three steps in I saw the shadowy figure blocking my way. Just as Frank had stood in my path this morning. He came toward me.

I remembered my brother’s signature dodge from lacrosse and tried to imitate it. I took a stutter step to the left, then rolled away to the right. I rolled until I was facing  away from my pursuer. Then I opened up and ran like I was chasing down Dan with the ball. I streaked up the path toward my own yard.

With each step I pulled further ahead. By the time I pulled to a stop at my own gate the footsteps behind me were at least two bike lengths behind me. I’d opened this latch hundreds of times. It could be tricky, but I knew just the trick. Come on! There.

The latch popped open and the gate swung out to my left, nearly hitting the one chasing me. I leapt through the gate and yelled as loud as I could, “Olly olly oxen free! We have the flag!”

How NOT to Visit a Museum

  • With 12 people– Seriously. Inevitably you will spend more time waiting for half the group to catch up, use the bathroom, and make a decision about what to do next than actually seeing the museum. Half your time will be eaten up. Then as you’re visiting an exhibit you’ll be compelled to repeatedly count noses (or neon green shirts) to be certain that none of your young (or senior) charges have wandered away. The result is a fragmented experience where you see the broad topic of an exhibit and perhaps two or three isolated details, but little of the particular treatment of the topic. The few times you do engage in a display, one of your crew will inescapably wonder aloud what’s taking you so long and can’t you keep up? One example? Eight of us crowded around the slowly rotating Hope Diamond at the end of the gems exhibit. One of the cousins asked, “Why is it so important?” “Let’s find out,” I responded before stepping over to a large plaque with a timeline of key moments in the history of the stone. I began to read that it was shipped to France (I think from India), was stolen from one of the Kings Louis, later sold to one of the English kings and… “Come on! Everyone left already!” Qaiden said as he tugged at my sleeve. Oh well. I guess it’s just a big shiny rock. And some of your group will just sit and nap on a bench anyway after all the trouble of getting everyone there…or leave without telling anyone.


  • Squished between other items on an itinerary– A museum deserves its own space and time. Inevitably it takes longer to appreciate in person than you imagined when you noted its location on the map and perhaps the front page of its website. (Only partly because of your travelling companions-see previous.) If it’s worth navigating to and passing through security for, it’s worth actually seeing it.


  • Before, after, or between other museums–Museums are enriching, but also exhausting. Face it. As an adult you can only take in so much new information at once. If you’re travelling with children, adolescents, or anyone with a limited attention span, the threshold is lower. If you’re fascinated by the topic–more. If you wonder why anyone bothered to even collect this stuff–less. If you have background knowledge or get to touch things–more. If it’s quiet, dark, and hands off–less.
  • At lunch time– Come on. You’re hungry. Even if you’re standing in front of an exhibit you’re wondering where, when, and what lunch will be. Now imagine hiking toward the museum without actually knowing how to get there. You thought it would be best to get to the museum and then feed the kids, because when they finished eating, off they could go to the exhibits at their own pace. But it’s ten degrees hotter than you counted on. It turns out the museum is still six blocks from the bus stop, and there’s a long line to go through security. Between the heat and the hunger someone is about to drop. You can’t even make it inside to the air conditioned cafeteria. Instead, you tug the kids up to the food truck with the shortest line and hawk its selections with more enthusiasm than they deserve. “Look! Hot dogs! Or you could have a burger!” Then you send them back across the jam packed sidewalk to pull up a seat on the stone wall in the little bit of shade there is. Don’t worry, you can sit on the 2 inch wide iron railing between sections of the wall. It’s probably best not to mention to anyone that you’re literally swooning in the heat. There are seven kiddos and three of the other adults haven’t caught up yet. It’s not like they can spare you right now.


  • After walking 2 miles–You know that museums involve standing. And walking. Those are their two main requirements. You walk from one room to the next, then stand and admire whatever the museum is showing off. If you’ve been doing more walking than usual before you arrive, your group mates will have a tendency to want to sit down. That makes it hard to see a museum. It does make your group more likely to pause for the various short films embedded in an exhibit-regardless of topic. Sometimes you even stay to see it a second time. But halfway through whatever you’re visiting someone will undoubtedly ask, “When can we leave? My feet are tired.”

  • Trying to see every exhibit–I think I taught my boys the wrong way to visit a museum when they were very small. I have the sense that once you’ve formed the habit it’s very hard to break. We arrive at a museum and since it took effort to get there and we’re unlikely to visit again soon we try to cram in as much of the museum as possible. XX Thank you for playing. This no longer seems reasonable. (See Before, After or Between above.) Instead I wish we’d investigate the one (or two) things we most want to experience at the museum and focus on those once we arrive. Then we’d approach them with an intent (and ability) to linger. Some curator spent countless hours deciding which artifacts to include and what information to present to give context or to frame a subject or an issue. Let’s spend an hour reading them and considering what’s included–and maybe what’s not included. Let’s think about how this fits with what we thought we knew and what we’re still wondering. This kind of a museum visit would likely require a notebook or a conversation partner. I’m loathe to give up on my kids (relative to museums…or anything) so perhaps next time we’re visiting a museum (without a whole gaggle of group members requiring matching shirts) we’ll experiment.

Read Aloud at the Lincoln Memorial


A different way of viewing something can completely alter your experience of it.

The air cooled instantly as we stepped through the crowd at the top of the stairs and into the shaded alcove behind the columns. While hundreds of people milled in front of the statue, few were tucked into the wide space beyond the side columns. We leaned or sat against the cool stone pillar and gazed at the immortalized words etched into the walls.

“Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty…”

I tapped Qaiden on the head and whispered, “Let’s read it together.” He hoisted himself off the floor and stood near me.

“What’s a score?” he asked.

“Twenty years.”

“So that’s 87 years?”

“Mmhmm. 87 years since the Declaration of Independence.” What I didn’t say was how amazing it was the country had lasted so long, or how surprising that within a hundred years of its existence it was being torn apart. Both are true, though conflicting.

In a soft voice he began. “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty…” Eventually he came to a natural breaking point and he stopped for breath. I continued from there. Heads close together, oceans apart from the other tourists at the monument, as if in a contemplative bubble we stood. When I paused another voice joined in, my niece’s.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

When we finished we paused and soaked in the gravity of his words. Then we snaked our way through modern crowds that seemed misplaced to the hush of the far side. Again Q and I stood together. Daniel had settled himself just past the next column. My niece had slipped off to her sisters. We began again with the second inaugural address.

At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first…”

Again at the break his voice picked up where mine left off. And where he paused another voice joined ours, her southern drawl adding a particular poignancy to the words

“All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained.”

My aunt had joined us without our noticing.

Together we continued to his final admonishment:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

And an echo of emphasis: “With malice toward none and charity for all to do what is right and to bind the nation’s wounds.” Looking up from the final lines I noticed that half our group had gathered around us in the time it took to recite Lincoln’s address.

The stolen stillness we created between us, and the coolness under the columns gave a satisfying weightiness to our visit. A sense of stepping out of time to find the ways in which both times are linked. We need his wisdom again in these times of stark and stubborn divisions.

Rather than rushing by to frame selfies, or glance sideways at passing exhibits, we paused to reflect. This became one of my favorite moments of our trip.



Just Yesterday

Moments ago I watched as that big yellow bus pulled away.




The kitchen door closes

Footsteps hurry down the drive


The big yellow bus pulls to a stop

Your silhouette steps inside

Then, in what feels like the blink of an eye,

that big yellow bus is gone.

Just days ago, it seems to me,

It first took you off and away.

And now is the close of freshman year

All childhood in a day.


The Torture and Pleasure of HS Homework (On the nature of parent-child relationships…and reading conferences)

The title may be somewhat misleading. The homework is torturous. It foments struggle in our house (as perhaps it does in yours) on a regular (nearly constant) basis. How to minimize, avoid, delay, speed up, get around, or generally do it in a manner different than how I, a teacher-mom and former nerd, think it ought to be done is the perpetual aim of my teenager. You’d think that if you put half that much energy into the homework itself, you’d be a rocket scientist by now. Alas, the struggle continues.

But tonight is the last night of studying before the last final exam of freshman year. So while it was a slog here for the last few hours. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll be in school through Thursday, but tomorrow night will feel like a vacation.

Yet even through the struggle, there have been moments, or clusters of them, that resemble the kinds of conversations we used to have before high school grades took over our lives. In helping him to study for his biology exam, I asked about each of the topics on the study guide. I don’t necessarily know or remember the answers–my own biology days are far behind me. In fact, it seems to matter less that I know the content than that I listen to hear if the answer seems to match the question. Less than if I say, “Tell me more about that.”

I found myself briefly thinking about reading and writing conferences. Often I hear of teachers saying, “But I don’t know the book. How could I do a conference?” Au contrair mon frere. You know more about how stories work than I remember about these biology topics. You can tell if what you’re hearing is coherent. You can sense, as I could the child’s shifting degrees of confidence and security as the conversation moved from one point to another. Sometimes we put a pin in it and agreed that that particular topic or question deserved some rereading, rethinking, and another try.

This evening’s experience of helping to study something that I myself am not currently expert in, reminded me of a TED talk. I’m sorry to say I can’t recall the individual’s name. The gist was this: Researchers installed a computer kiosk in a rural village in India where the local people didn’t speak English, not have such technology in their homes. The children would gather around the computer and within a relatively short period of time they’d taught themselves to use it. Through the kiosk the researchers observed (through pre- and post-tests) the progress these impoverished children made on complex topics like genetics and biology. It was impressive. As a second phase of the research they connected the kids to Grannies in England who would not tutor, but merely ask questions like: “Tell me more about that.” That kind of non-expert interaction that promoted learners to articulate what they understood also significantly improved performance. Amazing.

I hope it’s true. I can still provide meaningful and specific feedback relative to his humanities courses. But from here on out in math and science I’d have to study it again myself in order to feel competent in supporting him–except as a kind of granny asking him to “tell me more.”

Which makes the teacher part of me think, we should not be sending home any homework that requires or expects more of families than providing a granny’s keen interest.

I hope the exam goes well. I hope we’ve done enough and we learn from whatever the results are. In any case…I’m so looking forward to my break from his homework.

(Now I can finally start my own.)

It’s Monday What Are You Reading? First Professional Book of Summer

disrupting thinking

I’ve had Disrupting Thinking at the top of my professional TBR for a few weeks. Summer doesn’t technically start in my district until suppertime Thursday, but I snuck in a little sneak preview. It’s the time of year when we look back, but we can’t resist looking ahead to the possibility of what’s next. When I think about what I wish I’d done better, I want a tangible plan for how I’ll make it better next time.

Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst hit the spot for a first taste of summer learning. Not much surprised me as I read. I found that their philosophy resonated with my own big idea thinking, confirming what I believe and think I know about reading. That’s not to say that there weren’t a couple places where I was brought to a pause, wondering if, perhaps, I hadn’t been quite as right as I thought.

“We suppose that it is possible to convince someone of the relevance of some issue. But it is probably far easier, and more natural, to identify what is already relevant and begin there. That seems especially true when what students see as relevant is of undeniable significance” (122).

♥If this is so, what does that mean for curriculum? Individual teachers know students. Curriculum writers, even those who are highly skilled teachers, can’t know all the students who will journey through the course. Does curriculum cease to be? Do we write units that start from the uncertainty of what students value? If so, how do we support the teachers who will teach them with resources, etc. necessary to be successful–to help students be successful? I ask because this feels tremendously important. ♥

“I can guide and I can remind kids to let go of a book that isn’t working for them, and when they want to read the popular book–or in Tam’s case the one she thought would please her parents–then I want to help figure out how to make that reading experience work as well as it can” (140).

I feel conflicted. Choice. Yes, absolutely. Supported choice. Yes, when students need it. What do you do about readers who (routinely) don’t recognize or admit that it’s hard? I have a few little faces in mind. Maybe the answer is that I need to build stronger relationships with those students than I had so that they trust me enough. Maybe I was starting with monologic questions instead of the questions that open their hearts and reveal more of what they made of the books. This warrants more thought.

Nor should that suggest that there weren’t passages that stirred strong emotion in me about the state of reading, for example, my high school son’s.♥

I appreciated that the BHH (book, head, heart) explanation came early in the book so that I could try it out myself as I read. Kudos to Beers and Probst for guiding the understanding of reading teachers. And hats off to all the teachers who will be reading this summer, not just for beach pleasure, but also to raise their game in the classroom. Cheers.

Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

Pride and Prejudice…Really?!

What do these books have in common?

If you guessed, they are required summer reading for a high school class, you’d be right.

My son has always been an avid reader. Almost before he could sit up by himself he would hold board books and look through the pages. Bathtimes were a mix of bubble sound effects and asking about strings of foam tub letters, “But what does this say?” GJECJVNAP

“Well, this part,” <NAP> “says nap.”

One Christmas morning at Grandma’s…Grandma loves Christmas more than any holiday. It’s BIG at her house…as we all sat around the tree, cozy in pajamas, watching someone else opening a package and patiently waiting our turn for the next gift, Daniel stood up. There were still mounds of gifts brightly wrapped. The big black trash bags of crumpled paper were only half full. Without saying a word, my three year old son walked out of the room, down the hall to the bedroom he’d slept in the night before. After he’d been gone a couple of minutes I tiptoed down the hall to check on him. There he was, crisscross applesauce on the carpet with a book in his lap. Ten minutes later he came back to the hooplah around the tree.

When he was in first grade I still enforced a laying down quiet time, as much for my own sanity as anything. At five he didn’t want to sleep, but his three year old brother wasn’t getting a choice in the matter. So I piled a stack of books on Daniel’s bed and explained that he could either sleep, or read a book. Entirely up to him. But he was going to spend the next hour on his bed whichever he chose. He decided to read. And not long after that he realized that he could finish an entire Magic Treehouse book in a single nap time. That was when he realized he was a Reader.

Ever since then reading has been a pleasure, something he chose to do often. The habit of nap time quickly passed, but he read anywhere and everywhere. He gobbled entire series: all of the Percy Jackson books, including the Demigod Diaries and other accompanying volumes and everything else Rick Riordan has written, the entire Eragon series, and on and on. He read hundreds and hundreds of pages a week.

He has a taste for fantasy. It’s something we share.

Reading has been a joy, an escape, who he is.



These were the required books for last summer. Not only did he have to read and keep two column notes, he had to write two essays.

The one on the left, he called “That Cancer Book.” It took him weeks to finish. And in all that time he didn’t read anything else. It was a battle. By the time he got to the other book, he stopped talking about it altogether.

Never before had he been a reluctant reader, even when the class novel in 8th grade took, literally, half the year. He finished the book twice in the first two days and simply went on to other books. But the summer reading last year all but ruined him.

Finals begin today. He’ll be free from school reading by the middle of next week.



Here’s his Honors English II Summer Reading Assignment.

pride and prejudice

Please. Tell me how this book respects 97% of the boys who will be in that class. Tell me how it respects any of the readers. Yes. I enjoyed Jane Austin, in college, as someone who also enjoyed historical fiction, long ago, and England in particular. So much so, I chose to study there. But why, of all the books available for young adults, is this the one that every fourteen year old MUST read?


I’ve been reading (by choice!) Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. This passage jumped out and bit me last night.

To rethink relevance, to seriously reconsider who is in charge of determining relevance–us or them–means shaking the foundation of a lot of teachers. As one high school AP literature teacher told us, “You simply cannot expect that I would ever, ever give up teaching Heart of Darkness. That is unthinkable.” Well, yes we would.

“You simply cannot expect that I would ever, ever give up teaching Pride and Prejudice,” declared some teacher my son is destined to be placed with for an entire year. “That is unthinkable.”

Punctuate it how you will.


Choice matters to all readers, regardless of age. As teachers who know our students well as people, we can help to guide or influence students’ book choices. But here’s the thing. For a summer reading assignment, we don’t know a single relevant thing about the readers the assignment will be given to. We haven’t even met them yet. How could we possibly know that this is the one, right, imperative, end all and be all book for them?

So why do we insist on imposing our own tastes and judgments on strangers? Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

I’m begging you. Give me my son back.

How to Play ‘Can You?’

‘Can You?’ is a group storytelling game. Initial efforts might sound a little listy, but give it a chance. Although it’s not designed specifically for school, maybe because it’s a family game it’s naturally differentiated. It offers chances for modeling, collaboration, and approximation. I used to play this on long car rides with my dad and brother. Now my own boys love to play at bedtime when Pepere tucks them in. Those tuck ins stretch well beyond bedtime.


To begin, your storytelling crew decides on a setting and a main character. Many of our stories involved a village boy from the depths of a jungle. It felt exotic and exciting, like the kind of place where you could bump into real problems. My sons’ stories were often populated by a little pteranodon or a little monkey. But there’s no reason why your story couldn’t be set in a familiar neighborhood or school.

You should also decide with your storytelling crew whether you’ll allow flying monkeys or stick to Macgyver moves. Huh? Do you want all of the solutions to be relatively plausible, something you could probably do with realistic materials? Or is it OK for a touch of magic to creep in during tight moments? I suppose you could just as easily say, no fairy godmothers. Either version is fine…you just need to agree so no one is startled in the thick of it.

One person begins telling the story, “One day little monkey was playing in the tree with his family.” The storyteller introduces the character, gives him a purpose, and might even describe more about the setting or what the character is carrying with him. “The sun was shifting higher in the sky and little monkey felt a familiar rumble in his tummy. Boy, he sure was hungry. That got him thinking about the delicious, juicy fruits his family had enjoyed last week. Little monkey sure wished he could have more of those fruits. They would be just the thing to satisfy his hunger.” And then the storyteller gets the character into some trouble! Maybe little monkey got lost, met a jaguar, fell and got hurt, bumped into a snake… Whatever it is, when the character is well and truly in trouble, the storyteller looks at his crew and says, “Can you?!”

Another storyteller undoubtedly cries out, “Yes! I can,” then continues the story. This new story

teller gets the character out of trouble…and into new trouble before passing the torch. “Can you?”

Your story can be as long or as short as you want. The game can wrap up in a single session or carry on across years (well, it can if you’re a family).

It’s not uncommon for the story to be a little lumpy. That is, you likely have storytellers of varying skill in your crew. In a family Dad may be a natural storyteller akin to Mem Fox, but little brother may pull the same banana peel out to fix every problem. Don’t worry! Everyone gets to hear the strongest storytelling of the group and give their own approximation. Like anything else, with practice and reflection, we get better. For some of us, better means sticking to what’s plausible, or exploding a moment instead of rushing the solution into a new problem like a grocery list. “Little monkey caught the vine so he was safe. But now, oh no, there’s an anaconda about to squeeze him to death…the end.” Some of us are working on showing how the character moves, how he feels, what he says, or making the setting come to life with sounds and smells in addition to the visual backdrop. We can each have our own storytelling goal, or we can agree on one to share.

I’ve tried it as a kind of back pocket activity in classrooms, but I’m curious to see what would happen to a writing community that embraced shared storytelling as a regular part of their time together. If we spent more time storytelling would our writing get stronger? Would we start to see the kinds of craft moves that we’d been hearing together in our ‘Can You?’ stories?

I have a hunch we would.

We’re going to try it in second grade next year? Want to play along?


Some of the Best Ideas Come Unexpectedly

The end of the year brings with it a laundry list of tidying up chores. Tidying up the classroom or office falls way at the bottom (which is why it sometimes feels like I spend half a summer at school). First we clean up the reading assessments, the data, the placements for next year, the intervention recommendations. We want to know before we put the last book back on the shelf that our students will be all settled for next fall.

In my school that means that our Interventionist (code name for amazing all around instructional leader, child and teacher advocate, and leadership whisperer) and I meet one on one with each teacher to discuss and celebrate the growth of each child who received intervention, to think carefully about whether they’re ready to fly on their own or could benefit from a bit more support in the fall, and to consider any other little friends who hadn’t been getting official support but whom we ought to keep a close eye on. It means three long days in a room, but the celebrations are heartfelt and the concerns bring out the protective mama bears in us. They’re all our children after all.

Near the end of the first day of meetings, we had time scheduled with one of our second grade teachers. Except she had no intervention kiddos this spring. After working hard all day to fit in the many conversations we needed, this was a welcome, if unusual, change.

Instead of cancelling and sending her off, we chatted about how her year had gone. She started talking about what she wished had been better this year for her students. Let me put this in perspective. All of her students except one ended the year reading at least one level above benchmark, but many of them as much as a year beyond. Her writers were all “in the green” except for two. Her math data looks beautiful. But here’s a teacher going beyond the numbers to the story of her actual classroom and kids. (Another kind of heartwarming.)

She shared that the sophistication of their writing relative to the sophistication of their reading feels lacking. And she wondered aloud, what she could have done differently. My coaching ears perked up.

We gently probed to learn more.

–What is their oral language like during morning shares?

It sounds like their writing does. Here, her face froze. We saw the lightbulb. They were writing the way they spoke–in simple constructions with limited elaboration. They reported their morning shares instead of storytelling.

Together, the three of us tossed kernels of ideas into the air.

Maybe we could try…

–Coaching into morning share with writing craft moves for their oral language

What if we started with strategies from 1st grade writing lessons (rich verbs & adjectives, unsticking the character by making them move, adding dialogue, etc.)? Maybe we could build (or borrow from 1st grade) a chart. Maybe it would have sentence starters…or…

–Carving out time for oral storytelling as a whole class

We could teach them to play ‘Can You’ (a storytelling game from my childhood roadtrips and bedtimes with Pepere). And if we do whole class storytelling, maybe that would transfer into storytelling partnerships or clubs!

What if they record their oral storytelling with Flipgrid (or some other tool) so that they could share it with others? Or students who get stuck in their writing could listen back to their story to hear how they developed and elaborated on it when pencils and punctuation weren’t getting in the way.

We could find mentor storytellers. Then our storytelling clubs could try telling a story like Mem Fox or someone else with a distinctive voice.

The conversation bubbled. By the end we’d committed to an action research project for next year. The teacher was eager to try some of these ideas and I was happy to partner with her. And how appropriate, that a day that was really about ensuring the best possible learning outcomes and experiences for children, ended with a rich exploration of what might provide better learning experiences for all second graders?!

After the meeting, driving home toward weekend schedules and responsibilities, I held the bubble of ideas close a little longer.

Let’s not just wing it, I thought. Let’s create a 2nd grade speaking progression, a kind of speaking curriculum to accompany the rest of our literacy work. Alas, it’s an area that has taken a backseat in curriculum planning. It’s still an add-on the way writing used to be.

What would the right sequence of experiences be? What would the transfer be to their writing? Where could we borrow minutes from other classroom commitments?

Anyone want to try it alongside us next year? We’re going to give it a go!