Day 30: We Circle These Broken Birds


We spread our wings

gather in a circle

to mourn.

Shock waves still pounding

our souls

as if pummeled by a tsunami.

A community surrounds these broken birds.

Circle upon circle

moving outward in

concentric rings

spread wings.

We gather in a circle

to mourn.

Father, Husband, Brother, Son, Teacher.

He flies with angels

looking down

called home by his Maker

The Almighty One.

We are left standing

in a circle

to mourn.

Strong arms linked

bonded together by the thought

How will they go on?

How does anyone go on?

We surround these

broken birds

tend to them gently

encircle them

in a protective stance

beat our wings to let the

Universe know

we are here

we see

we stand

in this circle

and mourn.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lessons From The Trenches of The Slice of Life Challenge

It’s been a crazy month.  Crazy.  Why?  Because both I and my students have been participating in the Slice of Life Challenge dreamed up by the amazing ladies at Two Writing Teachers.  To sum it up: write everyday, comment on other people’s writing every day.  Sounds easy enough but writing my own posts, commenting on adult blogs in my community, facilitating student writing, commenting on student blogs, it’s all gotten a bit overwhelming.  Fun and exciting but overwhelming.  Here are a few lessons I’ve learned.

  • The community benefit far outweighs the stress of the thing.  I “schoolified” the challenge by telling the students they HAD to write every day.  I just knew that the kids who really needed to write every day wouldn’t if I made it optional.  It’s been hard but as the month has gone on I’ve seen them dig deep and get creative.  Their posts range from creative to silly to heartfelt truths about their lives.  I have witnessed students who hate to write blossom at the idea of an audience or getting to write about whatever they want, even Minecraft.  I have seen friendships rekindled over posts and comments.  I’ve learned things about my students home lives and private worlds. (Like what they are really talking about when they line up for lunch-mostly being very silly.)  I’ve seen students strengths and challenges amplified and addressed through the online posting format.  We are together because we write together.  They are begging for it to go on and on.  So it’s worth me getting up at 4am to play catch up.


  • Students love getting comments but not giving them.  We’ve been surveying the kids every week about this process.  Most of them agree it’s great to get comments but hard to give them.  Normally I do 10 minutes of nonfiction choice reading in the morning but this month we’ve set that time aside for reading and commenting.  It helps to have a fresh mind and fingers for those comments.  I also set up commenting circles.  Small rotating groups of students who comment on each others blogs each week.  This way everyone is sure to get some comments on their writing.


  • Be organized!  I have 31 kids.  31.  That’s 31 blogs to read and comment on every day.  I just can’t.  So a detailed spreadsheet of whose is posting when and which kids I’ve commented on is key.  I try to give each kid three comments a week, more if I can.  But my spreadsheet helps me see who I’ve already commented on and who needs comments.


  • The less a kid writes, the more they need comments.   In the real world you pretty only much get comments on a blog if people have something to say.  I’ve found that kids who are losing steam or are struggling or just aren’t “into it” need comments to keep going.  If I see a kid is starting to falter I go in and comment on every single post for a week.  I remind them, there is an audience and we are interested in you.  It almost always gets them going again.


  • Not everything should go on the blog.  We made the kids special slice of life notebooks for this month.  This way they can write at home if they don’t have a computer and can keep ideas for slices.  Some slices need to stay or go in those notebooks.  My students have a lot going on in their lives.  I never want to discourage them from writing truthfully about their world.  But this year I’ve had some students go through some really personal things.  Events that shouldn’t and some that can’t be shared publicly.  It’s been a great learning opportunity for both of us and I’ve been able to have important and honest conversations with students about the types of things we post for the whole wide world to see.

These are just a few lessons and I’m sure there are more to come.  Many, many more!  I’m also thinking about next year and what I want to change or do to support my students and myself.

  • Get more parent involvement.  I sent out the information but we haven’t had as many comments from families as I was hoping.
  • Set up a buddy system with one or two other classes.  As much as we try to comment on other classes it gets hard.  I’d like to have a clear partner so that we can work on getting kids to comment on each others work and maybe even do a little brainstorming together.
  • Expand my support board.  I used QR codes on a bulletin board so students could quick link to examples and ideas.  I plan on archiving these and making more with student examples (I only had mine to work from this year) to post next year.  My students love to go to the board for inspiration and ideas.

Now my biggest challenge is archiving.  Although my student’s blogs will be there for a long long time, I want them to have something tangible to take at the end of the year.  Something real to put in their hands.  I’m working on an idea….stay tuned!  I’m also thinking of some kind of collaborative resource for teachers.  Maybe a website or live binder with mentor slices?

Posted in 2.0 Tools, Active Literacy, Collaboration, iPad, Slice of Life, Technology, Writer's Workshop | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Stop Motion Time!


My Clementine from Katie Muhtaris on Vimeo.

I recently made this stop motion video for the Slice of Life challenge and quite a few people were asking me how they might create one as well.  Let me tell you it’s pretty easy! There are several good stop motion apps but the one I’m really liking right now is called Stop Motion Studio.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 3.02.07 PMIt’s easiest if you have a stand for your ipad.  Like the new Justand that I just got.  If you don’t have a stand you’ll need to create something, probably using a stack of books would be easiest.   Using the Stop Motion Studio app you simply capture a series of photographs that, when strung together, create a little movie.  Stop Motion Studio is super easy to use and free.  Although if you want some bells and whistles you’ll need to pay a bit for them.

As far as the storytelling process I noticed that I did a lot of visualization in my mind so that I had a clear picture what I wanted to accomplish.  I chunked it out.  For example, I knew I’d start by pulling off the peel, so I had to think about how I wanted that to go before I started.  Once that was done I worked section by section.  You can almost see the “paragraphs” or “stanzas” in my story as I create different shapes and visuals.  This process was so fun and creative.  The app does allow for audio recording so I’d like to try something that includes words next!


Posted in 2.0 Tools, Apps for Education, Interesting, iPad, Slice of Life, Writer's Workshop | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

March Madness: The Book Battle

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 10.50.27 AM

That’s the tweet that started it all.  The Book Brackets for March.  I thought it was a cool idea and didn’t think much more of it until my colleague Ben said that he was doing it.  That we should all do it.  So we are!  And now I’m really excited.  Let me tell you, it’s not an easy process.

First I created a Google form where students could submit nominations for books.  I had them nominate at least three books for the battle.

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 10.34.33 AM

Next I created a second Google form.  This one listed each and every book that was nominated by students.  I had the class vote on each book and whether it should be included or not.

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 10.35.51 AM

Lastly using the view summary of responses feature on Google forms I was able to see a pie chart of votes for each book and select the top 16 books with the most yes votes.

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 10.36.18 AMFrom there I created my brackets!

Photo Mar 06, 2 04 08 PM

The class was so excited when they saw the poster.  They were, of course, buzzing about the match-ups.  (Which I had a really hard time doing!)  Because I knew that not all of the book were shared reads for the class I decided to have the kids put their argumentative skills to good use.  For each book a student volunteered to “speak for” the book.  I’m giving them one minute to stand up and persuade their classmates to vote for that book.  I can’t wait to see how this plays out this month.

Posted in Interesting, Reader's Workshop | Leave a comment

Reflections, Directions, and Writing Workshop

I’m writing this prequel to my slice after I’ve finished because I realize that this snippet of my day may make it sound like I’m some kind of strict directions Nazi that lives to stifle children’s innate creativity.  I promise you I am not.  There are so many years when I don’t give an example or leave things vague so that my students have room to create.  If you come to my room you will see lots of creativity and personal zest.  But there are times when kids need to follow the directions and this year I am struggling to help my students see the importance of this lesson.  The following is a true story from the trenches of a very normal day.


4:30 am.  A freshly brewed steaming cup of coffee in hand.  I sit in the dark of my living room listening to the hum of the wine refrigerator (which is painfully empty right now) and click on my keys.  I’m wondering this morning.  Wondering and reflecting.

Yesterday I asked the students to do something simple for me.  At least I thought it was simple.  We are in the middle of a unit on argumentative writing and based on prior writing I noticed that most of my students were struggling to write a simple, clear, and straightforward claim statement.  Through my conferring and monitoring of my small Edmodo support groups I knew everyone in the class had decided on a position, had brainstormed their reasons, and was well into collecting evidence.  So I asked them to post their claim statement to our Edmodo Writer’s Workshop group.  Little did I know what strife this would cause me as a teacher.

Cut to writing workshop.  They smoosh in the door from technology class, a bit of excitement in the air.  Writing notebooks come out.  There is energy in the room, arguing is in the blood of every 5th grader.

“Log in to Edmodo and read the very important message I’ve left for you please,” I say.  I have written what I think are clear directions.  “Please post your claim statement with your three supporting reasons to our Writing Workshop group by the end of class today.  Remember to follow the format I believe ________ because [reason 1], [reason 2], and [reason 3].”  (This is from the Lucy Calkins unit that we are using and we are sticking as closely to it as we can for the first go round.)

This format idea is not new to them but I think to myself…..self, I bet some students are still unsure.  I pull our anchor chart about claim statements out and put it front and center.  I draw an arrow.  I let the students read the directions, and then I clarify.  They have a large Edmodo group and a small one so I repeat the directions and remind them to post in the large group and to please write in a complete sentence.  Just follow the format.

“Is everyone clear on what we need to do today, in addition to our work collecting evidence?”  Heads nod.  Cool.

I’ll be honest.  This is more attention to directions than I’ve been giving lately.  Because following them has been an issue for many of my students I’ve taken to just handing things back to them over and over and over and over as I repeat the phrase, “please follow the directions.”

So, my little writers get to work.  Earnest work.  Hard work.  Many already have their statement ready to go so they decide to post it first thing before they dig back in to their research.  I glance at the postings…uh oh.  Not what I asked for.

“Writers I need to catch you for a second.  When you post your claim statement you need to include both your claim and your reasons.  Not just one or the other.  And please write in a complete sentence, please follow the format I asked for.”  I feel a bit defeated.  I’m not trying to stifle their creativity or mold them into a Pink Floyd-esque school of misery.  I just want them to be able to write a clear, straightforward, simple sentence.  I give it a few minutes and then I check again.  uh…oh.

So my wheels turn.  Give them another example, I think.  I go to the board and write an example next to the anchor chart.

I believe that students should follow directions because it helps them be successful in school, teaches them to read carefully and closely, and prevents their teacher from going bananas.

A few students giggle as I finish writing so they all look.  I turn to see smiles around the room.  Ok, I’ve got their attention.  I whisper…Can you please make sure that you’ve written your claim statement just like this?

By the end of class almost everyone had it right.  Every student with an IEP had it right, every student with ADHD had it right.  But still…..still…there were a good handful who needed a personal invitation to the instructions.  When I checked with them they understood what I was asking for.  They just didn’t do it.  WHY!??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

(Please excuse that flagrant abuse of punctuation marks.)

After class I look at my student teacher Amy.  “Why?” I asked.  Why indeed and how to proceed.

Posted in Self Reflection, Writer's Workshop | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

Ramping Up Reading Conferences

I had a great discussion with my student teacher the other day.  Well, really it was more me talking through a line of thinking and her listening politely as she wondered “why am I stuck with this crazy woman?”  I was reflecting on how poorly I felt my conferring with readers was going this year.  I just couldn’t seem to get to enough kids!  The amount of time between conferences was too long, and even though I have numerous ways that I connect with my readers (like their blogs and a daily check-in) I was really missing that consistent face to face contact.  What to do?

I realized that the main thing holding me back was paperwork.  Long ago I learned about the importance of taking good conferring notes.  I would dutifully fill out my little boxes with teaching points and observation notes, or when I was more ambitious I would do a full page reading interview.  But when I sat down to look at these notes I realized a few things.  1) They were a bit superficial and subject to my snap judgements in the moment. 2) They were taking up valuable time that I could be talking to students.

So I came up with a new plan.  Use the Evernote notebooks that I created for each student at the beginning of the year to capture our conversations.

Step 1: As I approach the student I create a new note in the student’s notebook and put the date as the title.  I then snap a quick picture of their book or them reading with the cover clearly shown.

Step 2: I ask the student “How’s your reading going?” and I hit the little record button and we chat.  That’s it.  We chat.  Sometimes I find a great teaching point for the student and sometimes we just talk about the book.  I don’t stress over it.  I keep it quick and simple. Then I hit the stop button and move on.

On day one I was able to confer with seven students.  Seven.  That was about six more than I had been getting to previously.  I love my new system!  If I need to go back and revisit our conversation it’s right there in my Evernote.  I love being able to listen to what the student and I actually said, instead of just looking at my chicken scratchings and momentary thoughts.  Oh I almost forgot…

Step 3: At the end of my conferring I go to my clip board and cross off the names of all the kids I talked with that day.  I use a typed up list that I’ve placed into a sheet protector.  I just cross off the names with a dry erase marker and when I’m finished?  Erase and repeat.  Thanks Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) for that great idea!

Posted in 2.0 Tools, iPad, Reader's Workshop | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Power of Gooooozfraba


“On the website it says to use a minimum of three sources and a minimum is usually a C so to get an A….”

I pressed my lips together and closed my eyes inhaling deeply through my nose.  The student stopped mid sentence aware that he had somehow irked me.  The opposite of his intention.  I rubbed my hands together in a Mr. Miyagi style and then placed them on his shoulders and uttered the magic word.  Goooooooozfraba.

It’s a silly thing I say when I want to diffuse something in my class.  Too loud? Gooooooozfraba.  Too anxious?  Gooooooooozfraba.  Too serious or sad? Gooooooooozfraba.  Find any student who has ever been in my class and say this magic word to them and watch the light of recognition on their face.

Now in full disclosure I did not make up this word.  It’s something that Jack Nicholson’s character says in the movie Anger Management.  It’s a silly fake word but it stuck with me, and it works.

Let’s focus on all the learning you’d like to do about the Ancient Greek city states.  If you’re driven by the desire to know the grades will follow.

He smiled and walked away both relieved and annoyed.  It was not the answer he was looking for, but it was the one he needed.

Posted in Classroom Environment, Self Reflection, Slice of Life | Tagged | 9 Comments

I forgot how to teach writing

I had a revelation during NCTE this year, I forgot how to teach writing.  I forgot that in order for students to learn they have to be able to see the writing in their own words, voices, and hearts.  Sometimes in our haste to teach students we end up helping them too much.  I realized that I had been helping too much.  I had been giving too many comments, too much feedback, and in the process I somehow shifted the power from them back to me.  Not good.

It’s scary to put that on our students sometimes.  To say to them “It’s your writing, you decide.”  But there’s a very fine line between the spirited writing coach and fellow writer that I aspire to be and the heavy handed teacher that communicates there is only one “right” way to do things.  It’s easy to slip sometimes because we have the benefit of years and years of experience.

So I went back.  I went back to showing how I savor mentor texts.  I went back to asking more questions and listening.  I went back to saying “It’s your writing, you decide.”  And in going back I freed myself of the stress I’d been feeling.  I didn’t need to go in and help them fix every little thing, I just needed to help them find the heart of what they were trying to say.  We would get to the rest, we would get to as much as we could.  We would do it on their terms.

I stopped worrying about teaching writing and started thinking about teaching my writers.

Posted in Writer's Workshop | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Power of Words: Lessons from #NCTE13

sols_6Teaching is the sort of profession that can wear you down.  You don’t notice it happening.  It might start with an extra cup of coffee and the next thing you know you’re crawling into bed at 8pm wondering what happened to your life.  That’s why it’s so important for teachers to connect with each other around great ideas and renew our passion for our work.

I had carefully scanned the program the night before looking for just the right sessions to fill my Saturday.  I arrived an hour early and the room was already starting to fill.  At a quarter till people were lined up down the hall and negotiating sharing chairs.  At five till I gave up my coveted chair so a guy on crutches could come in and I situated myself on the floor, halfway under the presenter’s table.  This room was packed with people ready to learn, ready to write.

The session I most desperately wanted to see was headed by Penny Kittle whom I have just a teeny tiny teacher crush on.  She’s just so real and she’s the type of person who makes you want to go back to school so that she will read your writing and comment on it.  It was a session about writing and we were going to write.

The strangers in that room took a journey together.  Our presenters became our teachers, modeling their process, sharing their notebooks and strategies, and opening their hearts to take us to a deeply personal place.  I was reminded of the absolute power of words.  Words that change minds, words that express your hopes, dreams, and fears.  In order to be fearless writers we must face fear head on.

I sat on the floor, curled in a ball like one of my fifth grade students, and I wrote.  I revised and I ultimately shared a very deeply personal poem about motherhood with two men whom I’ve never met before.  Two strangers who became my writing safety net that day and who I may never see again.  We shared our words and we will be forever linked.  Here is the poem I wrote.

Dada, ahda, baba

her voice, her smile

fill me.

I quiver, chills of joy

when she climbs into my face

whispers her words

then pulls my hair and gouges my eyeball

with curious fingers.

I fight away the thoughts

not unique, of course

How will I protect her?

How will I prepare her?


I am reliant on humanity

people who are both vicious and/or valiant

A dark fear

I can not say it aloud

That one day we will be parted

Even now, cities away, I am

incomplete (without her)

I shove these thoughts to a deep place

entertain them late at night

(When no one looks)

The rhythm of the chair strong

like her heartbeat next to mine.

I drown these thoughts underneath

new teeth


first steps

her voice, her smile.

Posted in Slice of Life | Tagged | 11 Comments

Putting Competition to Good Use

sols_6This year my class seems to have a competitive streak.  It’s not all of the students, of course, but enough of them to significantly impact the community.  It’s a fine line that I walk between motivating kids and teaching them that competition can really alienate students in our community and cause problems in friendships.  So when I found an opportunity to put their competitive streak to good use I was thrilled.

The crisp winter air rushed through the playground yesterday morning.  Students huddled together, pulling hats down over their ears.  I hurried to pick them up, grabbing my sweater close and wishing that I had remembered my jacket.  The moment they saw me they exploded with excitement.  “Mrs. Muhtaris, Mrs. Muhtaris look!” they shouted.  Over half the class held up bags triumphantly.  Grocery bags, target bags, backpacks.  Fancy bags, cheap bags.  Bags and bags and bags filled with food for the food drive.

“I went shopping yesterday!”

“I spent my allowance this week on food.”

“I clipped the coupons like you said and found great deals!”

“I’m bringing mine tomorrow.”

Every year the student council runs a food drive for the local food pantry.  This year they announced that the class who donated the most would win an after school trip to the food pantry to deliver all of the food and then have a hot chocolate party.  I tasked my kids with putting their competitive streak to good use.  “Let’s collect the most food of any class!”

They took me seriously.

I don’t know if they will win their hot chocolate party.  But I do know that every morning when they see what they accomplished as a group, when they see the cans stacked in neat row, the boxes of pasta and cereal organized with care there is a sense of pride.  They are no longer competing with each other.  They are competing together, as a team, as a community, and they’ve already won something bigger than a prize.

Posted in Slice of Life, Uncategorized | Tagged | 7 Comments

What Do Kids Do When the Going Gets Tough?

There are students in your classroom who often know how to do the math before you get to the lesson.  You know which ones I’m talking about.  They complete work in record time.  They get the highest scores on all the tests.  At conference time their parents might say “He’s bored,” “She’s not feeling challenge,” or “This curriculum is too easy.”  It’s true.  There are students who really excel at math and over the years we’ve wondered how we might best meet their needs.  Enter the adaptive computerized tests like NWEA.  You’d think these would help by giving you a list of things to work on.  Not so much.  Because these students are so advanced that they’ve successfully solved or, in some cases, guessed their way into math that they might not be developmentally ready for.

But there is a skill that these students often lack.  I watched it happen in my classroom today.  Today was problem solving day.  My teaching partner and I have made an effort to include more developed problem solving work in the classroom and we do these problems in pairs and small groups.  I used a Problem of the Month from the Inside Mathematics website to build on the work we’d been doing with fractions.  Three groups of my highest scorers got the more advanced problem.  I wanted to challenge them.  I wanted them to be able to go home and say “I was challenged in math today!” So what happened?

Two groups worked diligently.  They didn’t really know what to do at first so they started experimenting and talking looking for an access point.  Those two groups eventually sat down together to share strategies and, even though they arrived at different answers, they talked about how the margin of error was small and the problem was challenging, so they thought the outcome was okay given the task.  The third group imploded.  Whining.  Moaning.  Frustration.

I checked in with group three several times to see if I could coach them, give a hint, or just encourage.

“This problem is soooooo hard,” they moaned.

“Isn’t that great!?” I said.  “You’re able to use your thinking skills and be challenged in math today.”

They glared at me.  My error was clear.  It seemed that even though these were the same students who loved to talk about how bored they were in math class, how easy the work was, how fast they got done, they didn’t really want that to change.  They didn’t enjoy being challenged or being put in a place of not knowing.  Math has been so easy for so long they didn’t know what to do when it wasn’t easy any more.

Perseverance is a skill that every student needs.  A skill that our “smartest” students may lack.  If they’ve never been challenged or had to work hard will they know what to do when faced with a challenge?  How will we ensure that every student gets the opportunity to work hard in our classroom?

UPDATE!  So that was yesterday.  Today we finally had time to sit down and debrief.  It was a great whole class discussion with lots of description, juicy math terms, and some good old fashioned problem solving skills.  And what about group three you may ask?  Well they eventually solved the problem and realized that all of those steps and dead ends that they had explored actually helped them come to a final answer.  Plus they learned something!  I like it.  I really, really like it. : )

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Back to School!


My stomach was in a knot as I pulled the big box of diapers out of the back of the car.  M smiled happily at me as I undid the belts of her carseat.  Today would be her first day of day care.  I thought briefly about how there would be many first days for her to come.  First days of kindergarten, then high school, then college.  This one seemed particularly hard but I knew there would be harder ones to come.

I buried my face in her neck and kissed her chubby cheeks as we walked up to the door.  The daycare owner was there to greet us and I was calmed by a little boy running up to give her a huge hug.  She took the bag and diapers from me and we entered.  I tried to slow this moment down, but as with any moment that you want to go slowly, time seems to speed up.  Soon I was handing my baby over.

“Ok, well I’m just going to go.”

As I surveyed my classroom I began to feel overwhelmed at the amount of work to do.  Bit by bit, book by book I put my teaching self back together again.  I thought of her frequently as I puttered around the room making lists.  I checked the clock counting the minutes as I wordlessly shuffled items about.  And when the bell rang at the end of the day I went skipping to my car, like a child again, so excited to be going home.

Posted in Slice of Life | Tagged | 7 Comments

Coming Out of Hibernation with #SHC13 Think Tank!

Those of you that have had a baby will understand when I say that I’ve been in hibernation.  It’s not that I’ve been sleeping my days away, in fact I get less sleep now than I ever have.  My hibernation has consisted of an all consuming obsession with my little girl and watching her grow and learn every day.  As much as that is a very worthy use of my days I think it’s about time that I rejoin the world and remember some of the things that make me ME and not just Mom.  Luckily I was pulled from my hibernation in the most lovely way when I had the pleasure of spending my weekend with these ladies!

BPJRPxxCQAEHCc6What better way to reinvigorate, reintroduce, and renew my passion for teaching than to sit at a table with a group of brilliant women who believe in good practice and changing the profession?  It was a learning packed weekend to be sure.  If you’d like to see the tweets just look for the #SHC13 Hashtag on Twitter where we tried to share our learning.  (Believe me I couldn’t tweet fast enough to capture it all!)

Our morning began with a Twitter introduction for our colleagues who weren’t yet exploring this tool.  We engaged in some great discussion about the power of sharing our learning with the world, accessing learning, connecting with peers, and how we might use twitter in our work as staff developers and teachers.  Then we watched a clip from the DVD that comes with our new book Connecting Comprehension and Technology.  (You know I can’t pass up an opportunity to promote this.  It’s not that I’m trying to get you to buy my book, I really really believe in the value of the work that’s in it and I think (I really hope) it’s going to be the tool that teachers need to connect technology with good practice in the classroom!)  9780325047034Every time I watch this DVD segment I think three things. 1) My students are so amazing!  2) They get amazing because they’ve had great teachers year after year that believe in their ability to take charge of their own learning. 3) My colleagues are brilliant. 4) I know I said there was only 3 but really there is 4, dang was I pregnant!

Once our morning got going we dug into some really meaty topics with Stephanie Harvey like the Common Core, text complexity, and other hot topic issues in education.  These are some of the quotes that stuck with me.

These are literally just a few of the amazing take aways from this brief morning session led by Stephanie Harvey.

We now break for a short commercial.


We had lunch from an American Indian Eatery called Tocabe.

If you are ever in Denver you will do yourself a great disservice if you don’t eat at this place.  It’s amazing.

And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

Our afternoon was action packed.  Kristen and I shared our new book Connecting Comprehension and Technology with the group.  As always our focus was on the transformative power of technology and how it must be grounded in good practice and pedagogy!

Then we were treated to a great presentation on reasoning and argument by Lynette Emmons.  She really emphasized that argument needs to be tied to authentic questions and thinking generated by students.  How can you learn to be a good arguer if you never get the chance to really argue?  Another of her points that stuck with me is that we weren’t brought up to read with claim, evidence, and reasoning in mind so, as teachers, we must really peel back the layers of our own learning so that we can teach it to students.

As if this wasn’t enough for our first day we had an amazing Finale from Anne Goudvis on supporting ELL learners in the classroom.  Anne always has a great perspective on how we can really ensure that our ELL students get the most out of their instructional time.  She shared the power of previewing lessons to help those students be successful in the whole group as well as ways to support their efforts with visuals in the classroom.  I’ve also really been dwelling on something she mentioned which is that ELL students need HIGH CHALLENGE and HIGH SUPPORT to be successful.  Without one they are either engaged in work that’s too hard without the needed support to be successful or work that is too easy and mindless.

We wrapped up our weekend listening to Angel Schroden, author of the staff development book for the Comprehension Toolkit, talk about coaching.  I have to say that since I haven’t really done much coaching this was such an interesting topic to me.  I would have loved to listen to this amazing gal talk more about the ways that we can really support and inspire teachers to be the best that they can be and impact their students in positive ways.

So in all this what do I take away?  What is most important?

  • Professional renewal is so essential to our minds and hearts as teachers.  Whether it be through book study, conferences, online groups, or professional development in the classroom.  Teachers need to keep learning.
  • Keep the current “hot topic” in perspective.  We know what good practice is and we can’t abandon it every time something new comes down the pipe.  As teachers we must be well read and able to look at things from a well read perspective.
  • Students should be at the forefront of our mind at all times.
  • You can never get enough time when smart people are at the table!
Posted in Active Literacy, Collaboration, Conference Presentations, Inquiry, iPad, Professional Development, Reader's Workshop, Self Reflection, Strategy Instruction, Teacher as Readers, Technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Connecting Comprehension and Technology

You may have noticed our lack of posts lately.  There are two good reasons for that.  1) Mini Literacyspark has been keeping Katie very busy.  2) We’ve been writing a book. 

Whaaaaaat!?  Yes, it’s true.  We’ve strayed out of the online format into an actual paper book.  (We still like those too.)  It’s very exciting and feels very official.  But beyond that we hope that it will be a good resource for teachers who love good pedagogy and want to use technology in meaningful ways.  Here’s the link if you’re interested.

What we wanted to do was to share how we marry reading comprehension skills with technology use.  Students collaborate, discuss, write, listen, record, read….notice it’s the students doing all the work!  The teacher is the guide on the side and co-learner, taking time to model, learn with students, and coach them into becoming thoughtful readers and communicators on the internet.  

If you’re heading to IRA this weekend and want to know more you can catch Kristin presenting with Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. 


I’ll be home with this little peanut.


Posted in Active Literacy, Classroom Management, Conference Presentations, iPad, Professional Books, Professional Development, Reader's Workshop, Research Workshop, Strategy Instruction, Teacher as Readers, Technology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Taking Time To Write


The Slice of Life challenge is hosted at

I will be blogging my slices on my writing blog Coffee Fueled Musings.

Every year I participate in the Slice of Life Challenge hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.  This is a writing challenge that takes place every March.  The goal is to write every day for an entire month.  Some years I have been successful and other not so much.  This has been one of my busiest years yet!  Writing a book and having a baby has sort of wiped out my down time. (And a lot of my blogging time)  But I thought to myself, hey…if you’re busy then you must be doing something worth writing about! So I’ll be taking the slicing challenge yet again this year.

What I’ve always loved about the genre of Slice of Life is that it lend a sense of importance to our every day lives.  In a time of faster, better, bigger…it’s important to teach our students to stop and reflect on the little things.  So many times we hear the refrain, I have nothing to write about.  Of course, our students think that only big things are worthwhile topics.  (Hence, the million and one memoirs I get about going to Wisconsin Dells every year.)  But the truth is there is more meaning in a tiny slice of their every day life than there is an any big vacation or trip.  When we model lending importance to those daily moments we show our students how they too can find the meaning in their day to day life.  Stacey and Ruth have some great resources for using Slice of Life with your students up on their blog and I highly suggest you check them out!

Posted in Writer's Workshop | Tagged | 1 Comment! So amazing I can’t imagine life without it!!

Yay! I love you,! You’re amazing!

I heard about a few months ago on #1stchat (a weekly conversation about 1st grade on Twitter every Sunday at 7:00 CST).  I believe the amazing Karen Lireman  tipped me off to it and since then, life hasn’t been the same.

croak-it is a free website that allows the user to record 30 second audio clips.  The audio recording is then uploaded to a personalized website and available to anyone who has the link.  The developers created the site for users to  “Push. Speak. Share.” and the simplicity is amazing.  Even more unbelievable is that also has a FREE app available for iPhone and Android!

So what does this mean for education?

In my class, I’ve loaded each iPad with the app.  It’s so easy for students to capture audio recordings as they simply push the white circle to start and stop their 1

Once they stop the recording they’re directed to the sharing screen…

photo 2 …and then email the link to me or copy it to embed in another location.  As the teacher, I can share their Croak via Twitter so our followers can get a snapshot of what we’re learning.

Because each recording has a personalized web address, it eliminates a lot of the “middleman” work I use to have to do as the teacher finding a home for students’ audio recordings.  Previously, I loaded audio recordings to my classroom website or a dummy audio recording storage space for students to access via the web. Now, their audio recordings already have a “web home” so I can quickly and directly link to it.

This has dramatically enhanced our use of QR codes in the classroom.  Before, it was cumbersome to create a site for the audio, publish it, and then link a QR to the site. Now, I simply drop the link into the QR site and viola! We have a QR that links to audio.

This is tremendously helpful for differentiating instruction. When I want to provide verbal directions for students on an assessment or increase access to an article that may be too challenging for some students to decode, I create an audio file using and link that to a QR code students can scan.

We’re also using them to create book talks.  Students use to create a short audio book reviews.  They email me the link to their Croak and then I create a QR code for the link (below, an example from


I print out the QR code and students attach the code to the book they’re recommending.  When students shop for a book during independent reading, they can scan the QR and hear the book recommendation their peer created using  Book reviews created by students, for students are empowering for my young readers as they are excited to hear what books their peers suggest.  As early childhood educators have long known, students are capable of comprehending and telling much more than what they may be able to express in writing; this is evident as we depart from the traditional book review and provide opportunities for creating these audio book talks.  These audio book reviews create energy for reading and a book “buzz” for what’s hot right now in 1st grade.  In addition, they help readers find “just right” text and foster independence as kids have tools and strategies for locating the perfect read.

IMG_1641Scan the QR below to listen to a student book review:

Book review Pippi Longstocking

As you can tell, I’m very excited about and suggest you check it out! It’s versatile and can be used across the curriculum as something students can create or as a tool teachers can use to differentiate and support student learning.  I think of new ways to use it almost every week and am thrilled to have it as a tool in my classroom.  So go ahead,!

Posted in 2.0 Tools, Active Literacy, Apps for Education, Book Reviews, iPad, Reader's Workshop, Technology | 4 Comments

We’ve been busy…

Hi Friends!

Happy 2013! This post in an apology for not being present on the blog for the past few months and a public commitment to make my practice more visible in the coming days.

This has been a challenging year for Katie and I.  As many of you know, our school year kicked off with a teachers strike in the Chicago Public Schools. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life and so many of you supported us with comments on the blog, tweets and emails.  A few of our followers even showed up on the streets in solidarity! We are extremely grateful for your thoughts and well-wishes.  Thank for being there for us and thank goodness that is all over!

After a bumpy start we bounced back to school with a flourish! But, despite the call for smaller classes, I have 33 students this year. Like all first graders you may know, they are smart, curious, eager to learn and possess tremendous joy for life.  It is my largest class to date and it’s been an endeavor to meet their needs as individuals and as a community.  I admit, at times I’ve sacrificed this blog to differentiate lessons for students, archive student work or assess student learning.

Katie and I have also been writing our first book which will be published by Heinemann and available this spring.  It was a tremendous learning experience and we are very pleased with the outcome! We can hardly wait to share this resource!  It was a privilege to collaborate with Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis and to see our writing through the eyes of the exceptional Tina Miller–we are in awe of these ladies and feel blessed to work with them.

Finally, Katie is expecting and will become an amazing mommy in about 21 days! She is healthy and holding up well as she enters the final weeks of pregnancy.  I’ve been impressed with her sense of humor and entertained by her commentary throughout this journey. I’ve tried to be a support friend by providing snacks, a baby shower and manicures when needed. Needless to say, we are both anxiously awaiting the arrival of Baby M!

Looking ahead, we’re excited to learn together and from all of you as we enter a new year. We’ll continue to share our practice at conferences around the country and via the blog. I’m trying lots of new things in my classroom and am energized by teachers and students I’ve collaborated with around the world.  So check back as many new posts will be coming soon (I promise)!

Posted in Back To School, Conference Presentations, Interesting, Professional Books, Professional Development, Self Reflection, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What can #Twitter do for your students? Read our #HurricaneSandy adventure!

Two weeks ago one of my students visited NYC and got stuck as Hurricane Sandy rolled in.  Luckily, his family was able to take shelter at a friend’s house in Brooklyn.  On Monday morning, I projected our classroom Twitter account on the Apple TV and suggested we tweet our classmate to see if he was ok.


He responded much to the joy of my six and seven year-olds.


After connecting with he and his mom via Twitter, I asked if they could update us throughout the day.  The family was generous with their time and tweeted frequent weather reports and photos from the storm.


As our day continued, my class used The Weather Channel app to learn more about Hurricane Sandy.  We looked at radar maps and talked about the timing of the storm and how it would fall on a full moon when tides are at their highest which would cause flooding in many areas (a nice connection to our current solar system inquiry).

 After seeing photos and short video clips on The Weather Channel, my class had lots of questions. Here are few they tweeted to their classmate:


My student in NYC took the role of Hurricane Sandy reporter very seriously and answered all the questions his friends posted.


In class, at least once every hour, students asked, “Did we get any new tweets?”  I sent an email to our staff and invited other classrooms to learn along with us via Twitter. Soon, our 1st grade friend was sharing his storm experiences with our school.

 The following day our Hurricane Sandy reporter continued to update us in the aftermath of the storm.  He walked around Brooklyn and shot various short videos that he posted to Twitter explaining some of the damage and storm clean-up measures.  Back in class, my students felt knowledgeable about the storm and were excited to learn more.  It also became an outlet for kids to connect with their classmate, since he would miss several days of school.

As the week progressed we continued to get updates from our reporter.  Checking in with Twitter became an opportunity to connect with our friend who would end up being out of school all week.  Throughout the week I watched my students—both near and far—share their learning and use social media to connect and collaborate.  Hurricane Sandy provided us an authentic opportunity to thoughtfully use social media in the classroom.

 Here are a few take-aways:

 My students were empowered to be part of a learning network that was for students, by students.  So often, young children only have access to information that is filtered through an adult channel. While oftentimes that is appropriate, kids also need the model of other children as information providers.  By watching a peer research, report and field questions, student now have a “mentor” experience for what it looks like and sounds like to be an information sharer.  As Peter H. Johnston shared in Choice Words (2004) kids need to visualize themselves as a “can do” kid.  When young learners internalize the belief that “I’m the kind of kid who works as a reporter. I’m the kind of kid who asks good questions. I’m the kind of kid who ________,” they experience the success, feedback and confidence that inspires them to make additional attempts in the future. Over time, this repetitive process produces kids who desire to think, learn, share and are inspired to do it again and again. My students were thrilled to see their classmate work as a reporter and now believe that any first grade student can do this important work.

For the first time,  students saw Twitter as a place to ask questions, conduct research and gather new information.  Previously we had only used it to tell others about our learning. Now, students see Twitter as a tool for learning.  I spend a lot of time in first grade teaching my students where they can go to find answers to their questions; now they can add school-supervised Twitter to their list of resources.


Connecting with a classmate via Twitter allowed students to emotionally process the storm.  Their peer told about his safety plan and how residents were told to prepare for the storm.  My students were able to see that unusual things–like superstorms–do happen, but that adults around the country prepare for these events and have a plan for when they occur. Watching their peer’s video tweets and seeing NYC clean up and get back to normal was therapeutic for all  involved.


After tweeting and blogging to our reporter, my class now sees social media as an effective tool for connecting with others.  In addition to our classroom tweets, each day students commented on his Kidblog.  Students posted comments to see how he was doing or to ask for an update on the hurricane.  As a result of this collaborative learning experience, my kids now think like connected learners.  This was apparent Friday afternoon as we said goodbye to a student who was moving.  As students sat on the rug and said goodbye and good luck to their friend, one girl said,  “Make sure to tweet us ok?  And send some of those video tweets so we can learn about your new house and your new school.” Another child chimed in, “And leave lots of comments on our blog!” 

YES! I cheered silently in my head as I saw my students think like connected, empowered learners.  This is why we do this!  I am very grateful to my student and his family for engaging in this authentic learning experience.  Together, we have provided students a foundational experience for using social media in the classroom. I can’t wait to see what we learn next!




Do you have a classroom Twitter account?  We’d love to connect with you! Follow us @Burley106

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Honoring the PLN

It’s been an unusual start to the school year. I have my largest class ever. I went on strike.  It’s the middle of October, but only the 26th day of school.  Things feel a little weird.

In times like this, it’s easy to lose focus or become frustrated.  When reflecting on how I’ve been able to navigate this alternate universe, I realized my professional network has sustained me during this challenging time.   I’m so grateful for my many dedicated colleagues from a variety of PLN’s who have kept me going.  I know it is their support, enthusiasm, optimism and innovation that has inspired me to “keep on keepin’ on.” Thank you PLN!  What would I do without you?

As a new teacher, my learning network was small and focused on colleagues in my building.  I didn’t have access to many outside professional development opportunities. I looked to veteran teachers for advice and expertise and I tried new teaching strategies in the safety of my classroom.  Nowadays, my learning network is easy to access and endless!  I learn from teachers who have made their practice and pedagogy transparent through blogs, websites and Twitter.  I’m trying new lessons and inviting feedback  from educators that I’ve never met face-to-face.  It’s a whole new ballgame and we all have an amazing opportunity to join the learning.

Just this week I’ve learned from and been inspired by…

  • The wonderful teachers of #1stchat!  Via Twitter I collaborate with 1st grade teachers around the world every Sunday at 7:00 CST.  We discuss a new topic every week ranging from reading workshop to inquiry.  It’s amazing how much you can learn in 140 characters!  At the end of each session we swap book titles or new tech tools we’re using with our students. I get fabulous ideas each week. Every grade has some type of grade level chat throughout the week.  Join Twitter and search #(grade level)chat to learn more.
  • The Chicago Public Schools iPad Project–wow!  I’ve been blessed to meet outstanding educators from across the city who are teaching jaw-dropping technology (among other things!).  Last night I spent an hour on Google hangout with teachers from NTA developing a PBL experience that is cross-school and cross-grades.  Our students will collaboratively question, research and share information via blog, twitter and Edmodo.  How could I not be excited by an idea like that?
  • My outstanding colleagues at school!  I work with the most amazing people.  Though we have less time to collaborate than ever before, I rely on them at a moments notice to help me think critically about my students’ needs, analyze work samples and plan rigorous curriculum.  They are thoughtful, experienced educators and well-versed in best practice instruction. They are available at 6:30 AM, 6:30 PM and practically any hour of the day via text message.  We collaborate digitally almost every day, but the face-to-face interactions are most meaningful. With just a look they inspire.

PLN’s can motivate and excite any teacher. We all need a support team and joining a PLN or expanding your network can provide countless opportunities for learning.  We need to recognize what a tremendous resource we are for ourselves and others.  Are you already a member of a PLN? If so, take a moment to honor them!  Do you know a fabulous network that others could benefit from?  Spread the word and start the conversation now.

Take time to celebrate the PLN!

Posted in 2.0 Tools, Back To School, Collaboration, Professional Development, Technology | Leave a comment

Back to the Beginning

Even though it’s October it still feels very much like the beginning of the year.  One of  the first thoughts that many teachers have about their students is “they look so little!”  It’s true.  Those tall confident students that left us have gone on to be “little” to next year’s teacher and we have our own new crop of “little” people to educate.  This becomes even more pronounced in a technology classroom.  Everything takes longer, typing, starting, opening, finding, searching.  Whatever it is they need time to figure it out.  Patience is key.  So what can we do?

  • Remember to go slow: after all many of our students are experiencing some of these technology tools for the first time.  Even if they have devices at home they probably don’t use them for much more than playing games or surfing the internet.
  • Find your specialists: there will be some students who do know how to do things or pick them up very quickly.  Start sending kids their way to address minor issues and questions.  Have them teach a quick lesson to the class on some basics.
  • Create lots of visuals: Anchor charts for technology are just as important as they are in every other subject.  These visual reminders help students to know what to do and to start developing a sense of independence.
  • Be realistic:  Things will take more time.  They just will.  You have to go slow to go fast later.  It’s okay.
  • Build from the ground up:  When I have students learning a new app I use it a few times in either the same subject or across subjects within a week.  Their first “project” or experience is filled with play and experimentation.  As we gather examples from the class I start to show student work and we tease out elements or things the class has done that we like and want to emulate.
Posted in Back To School, Classroom Management, iPad, Technology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment