Closing Up Shop

The time has come for a change.  A fresh start.  I started this blog so many years ago it’s become a hodge podge of things over the last years.  But never fear!  We have a new blog, with a new fresh perspective on this crazy world of education.  We’re moving forward and moving on.  It’s been fun, friends.  We hope you join us over at our new home.


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My Love and Hate Relationship With Education

Join the Slice of Life movement at Two Writing Teachers.

Join the Slice of Life movement at Two Writing Teachers.

There are things I love about my job and other things…well, hate is a strong word.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.  Yesterday I had an extra spring in my step.  Not even a polar plunge on the old temperature gauge could make me feel glum on a Monday morning.  As I pulled my little one’s third pair of pants on in preparation for the voyage to daycare I mentally began checking items off my list.  My pre NCTE14 list!  That’s right, PREPARE FOR NCTE14!  Attending conferences is one of my favorite things about teaching.  Connecting with other educators, exploring new ideas, and long nights of great discussion are just the thing the doctor ordered during an early November cold snap.  It’s a time of discovery, renewal, and sometimes it’s nice to just get away.  That’s the love part of my post.

Sadly, by 10:20 I had a dark cloud over my head.  You see at 10:20 am today I saw the practice test for the PARCC exams for the first time.  I know, I know I should have looked at them earlier.  (Or maybe not at all.)  It was just about the most depressing thing I’ve seen in a long time.

I push my students to engage in deep thinking around great texts every day.  They read, view, write, and more.  I didn’t really think the Common Core would change that, and to be honest it really hasn’t changed it that much.  There are certainly things that we look at more closely and I’ve used it as a opportunity to explore and freshen our learning up, but it’s not night and day.  As my old Principle said, “good teaching is good teaching.”  But these tests…these tests are something entirely different.

I sat staring at the computer screen with my brow furrowing deeper and deeper by the minute as I looked at the test from a student’s view.  The strange layout, the confusing questions, the multiple answers to questions, the dragging and dropping, the tiny box for an “essay,” and on and on.   I felt hopeless, and I could see how many students will also feel hopeless, and then just start clicking.  And even though this year the value added results won’t be tied to our performance (we still have NWEA for that) soon they will be and maybe my pay as well.

I don’t know what that test measures but it’s not good teaching and there will be no added value to my classroom because of it.

For now, I’ll push that dark cloud aside and head off to NCTE in hopes of connecting with like minded people and finding the renewal and energy that I so love about my profession.  Perhaps together we can help forge a common path, one that honors our students and pushes them to be their best in an authentic and inspiring way.

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Creating and Composing in a Digital Writing Workshop

Note: This post, co-authored by Troy Hicks and Kristin Ziemke, has been prepared in response to Nancie Atwell’s blog post about the role of technology in her classroom.

In her recent blog post Nancie Atwell opens up about the role of technology in her classroom. As a leader in our field of teaching writing, Nancie, suggested that:

I do think classrooms in grades four or five and up should have computers, so kids can experience and experiment with word processing, but I have concerns about them in the younger grades. In fact, I think the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.

We’re grateful to Nancie for starting this conversation as districts across the country purchase more and more mobile devices without thinking about the pedagogical practices that must go hand-in-hand, if not lead, how we think about using these new tools. This dialogue is necessary and overdue. Nancie is one of the literacy leaders who has guided our thinking about student writing, the reading and writing workshop approach, and how best to frame our own thinking about the teaching of writing, both of us appreciate and admire Nancie’s work. We respect her opinions about what works in reading and writing classrooms.

Girl Writing on iPad

One of Kristin’s students composing both print and digital writing.

We agree with Nancie that many schools are using technology poorly; instead of embracing redefinition as Dr. Puentedura has advocated for, teachers are often misguided and use digital devices for sight word practice, prompted responses and (sadly) weekly assessment and test prep. We recognize that there are poor models of classroom technology out there. We also respect and acknowledge how Nancie employs technology at her school.

However, in this case, we humbly suggest that her opinion on students writing with technology is limited, and we feel compelled to offer a different vision of how students can become digital readers and writers.

First, in the upper grades, we feel that her insistence on computers for word processing is too limiting. Let’s unpack this assumption just a bit. First, though it can feel like our students have their noses stuck in screens for far too long throughout the day, technology is not the enemy here. In fact, word processing is just the beginning of what technology offers to writers. According to leading researchers in the field of K-12 writing instruction, Jill Barshay reports that:

In 83 percent of 30 studies on the use of word processing software, students’ writing quality improved when they wrote their papers on a computer instead of writing by hand. The impact was largest for middle school students, but younger students benefited, too. The theory is that students feel more free to edit their sentences because it’s so easy to delete, add and move text on a computer. The more editing, the better the final essay.

Steve Graham and Delores Perin shared these results in the 2007 Writing Next report, and — sadly — in many K-12 classrooms we still don’t see technology being used for revision and editing in this proven manner. Yet, word processing is just the beginning of what students can, and should, do with computers.

Students with Laptop

Kristin’s students compose using a laptop.

Second, as we dig a bit deeper into Nancie’s claim about using computers only for word processing, we know that there is more to consider. Indeed, we know from our own research, teaching, and professional writing that computers — as well as tablets and smart phones — provide students with countless opportunities for reading and writing. And, when we say “reading” and “writing,” we are talking about both traditional alphabetical texts (books, articles, essays, poems) as well as digital texts including blogs, ebooks, and hypertexts. Our professional organizations — such as NCTE, IRA, and NWP — have been calling for a broadened view of digital literacy for well over a decade. We would hope that Nancie would consider doing so, too.

Now, to unpack the second part of her concern: that “the trend of iPads in the primary classroom is a mistake.” While Troy does not have the benefit of being in the classroom everyday with younger students, Kristin does. And, from this experience, she would argue that the primary grades are exactly where kids SHOULD be using technology as it transforms their ability to create, share their ideas and connect with an authentic audience beyond the classroom. In fact, it is essential.

Let us explain a bit more.

In the early childhood years, many students are challenged by the physicality it takes to produce a piece of writing. Ideas are often generated and lost before a young writer can transmit them to the paper. In today’s digital writing workshop, students can scaffold their own development by recording a video snapshot of the story they want to tell. Once the ideas are captured on video, the child can transfer the story to paper while going back to rewatch the video as many times as needed in order to remember and include all the parts of the story. Video recording tools allow us to meet the writer where he is and nudge him to become a more proficient writer and idea generator.

Using digital publishing tools like the Book Creator App or Little Bird Tales, we find new ways to celebrate active literacy in the classroom as students can draw, write, speak, listen, view and read all within a piece they create. The ease of which a child can add audio to their own book signals to the learner that each child has a story to tell and is the owner of that story. Embedded audio provides a window into the thinking and gives us a picture of what a child knows and is able to do, not merely what their fine motor abilities allow them to produce on paper.

Screenshot of Kristin's class interacting with author Seymour Simon

Screenshot of Kristin’s class interacting on Twitter with author Seymour Simon

Most importantly, technology expands our youngest learners audience as students publish their writing online. Enhanced eBooks, student blogs and classroom Twitter accounts invite primary age students to move beyond the writing wall in the classroom and into a writing world. Feedback from their families, blogging buddies and experts in the field inspires them to write even more. Students view themselves as important contributors to the global writing community and move beyond learning about writing to living life as a writer.

And of course, we provide balance and choice in all we do. We explicitly teach kids that tablets and laptops are tools that writer’s use, just like paper and pencils. We want kids to be intentional about how they choose the tool and think about how the tool enables them to revise, alter the layout and share the writing.

Moreover, these observations extend beyond the early grades. We can point to numerous examples where teachers in upper elementary, middle school, and high school are using digital reading and writing to support their students’ literacy development. As a point of reference for upper el and middle school, we would suggest that Nancie look at some really innovative educators who teach writing with technology such as Kevin Hodgson, Jeremy Hyler and Katharine Hale.

Finally, we suggest that the concerns Atwell suggests are less about her students’ abilities — as well as the capabilities of the devices — and more about her stance as a teacher. Certainly, we want students to feel positive about their reading and writing experiences: reaching fluency with the written word, providing opportunities to talk about books with one another, holding a well-worn novel or favorite pen in our hands. These are tactile, valuable experiences. As she notes, there are social reasons embedded in writing and reading that make these practices both pedagogically useful as they humanize our classrooms.

In this blog post, one of Kristin's students shares her "wonders" as a part of an inquiry project.

In this blog post, one of Kristin’s students shares her “wonders” as a part of an inquiry project.

However, if as teachers we discount the opportunities that crafting digital writing and engaging in digital reading can offer students, then we are doing our students more than a disservice. We are failing to prepare them for academic, workplace, and real life opportunities to engage in literacy practices. This is not about our personal preferences for or against technology. It is about the ways that we teach students to become literate.

We are grateful to Nancie as a thought leader and for her decades of work, as well as for her blog post in which she invites us all to reflect on the role of technology in our classrooms. However, we disagree with her stance that word processing is the only way to use technology in the writing workshop and encourage Nancie and others to rethink how we engage students as writers. We strongly believe the trend of iPads (or any tech) in elementary (or middle or high school classrooms) is, indeed, not a mistake, but a necessity.

Student Response on Twitter

Student Response on Twitter

Photos provided by Kristin Ziemke.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Join #WonderChat on November 3rd: Curiosity and Wonder as Habits for Living

Join Kristin Ziemke as she guest hosts #WonderChat on Monday, November 3rd at 8:00 EST. This week’s topic will be Curiosity and Wonder as Habits for Living.  We’d love to hear your thoughts as we celebrate the power of WONDER and Wonderopolis. Join in!

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Can you do book clubs with Choose Your Adventure Books? Part 1

I know you read these as a kid!  Flipping back and forth to make the story end in different ways.  I used to love trying to read all the stories to make it end the way I thought it should.  But can you do a book club with these types of books?  That’s what we were wondering last year when we decided to order small text sets of the Interactive History You Choose series.

Today the experiment began.  I started by book talking each of the books we had ordered. Four copies of seven titles total; each chosen primarily based on what we thought students would be most interested in.  Topics ranged from the Harlem Renaissance to The Golden Age of Pirates.  I passed them out very informally based on interest so that students could get started quickly.  Then I charged them with the following;

  • Decide how your group will go about reading these books.
  • Decide how your group will best capture their thinking.

As I listened in I heard the students discussing the best way to go about trying to read and discuss.  Several groups felt that they should just each choose their own path, then they could talk about it at their meeting.  Other groups split into two sets of partners who would read together, then they would share with each other what they read.  One group decided to sit and read as a group, and instead of jotting their thinking they would talk about the book as they read, then do some writing at the end of the book.

Overall the students seemed eager at the prospect of something new and excited to be in charge of making so many decisions for themselves.  Tomorrow we’ll meet to talk about the type of thinking that they found themselves doing during reading, which I anticipate will be a really interesting conversation based on my observations.

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Play, Learning, and Authentic Tasks

Join the Slice of Life movement at Two Writing Teachers.

Join the Slice of Life movement at Two Writing Teachers.

“Gigi please get out of that drawer.”  I was in the kitchen trying to cook dinner.  Gigi was being a typical toddler and getting into everything that she possibly could get into. My frustration was starting to grow.  I sighed and followed along behind her picking up the Tupperware containers that she had tossed all over my newly cleaned kitchen floor.  As she opened yet another drawer and  peered in to see what items she might grab I decided to entice her with a measuring cup and a whisk.  She seemed satisfied for the moment and took the two items from me with a “dankoo.”  I watched for a moment as she banged the whisk against the refrigerator, then put it into the cup and started stirring.  “Where does she learn these things?” I wondered aloud.  Of course the answer was clear.  She had learned by watching me.  She had learned by playing.

I’m currently working our new book project and I’m immersed in research about play and learning.  But I don’t really have to read articles and research papers to see the value.  I see it everyday in my own home.  As the mini-boss grows so does her desire to take on more adult like tasks.  She watches adults carefully observing what they do and then attempts to take on the task, playing and experimenting with how things work.

I use the swiffer, she uses the swiffer.

I whisk the pancake batter, she whisks the pancake batter.

I read pointing to the words, she “reads” and points to the pictures and words.

And as she grows I notice what I knew all along.  That the plastic toys and items intended for littles only go so far.  She is just as happy, if not more so, with an empty box.  A muffin tin.  A dust pan.

This is what real learning looks like.  Time to explore and practice and do.  Tasks that are authentic and intrinsically satisfying.  I think we need a little more of this in our classrooms.

As the summer heats up and the school supplies start making their way on to store shelves I think we all need to do some reflecting on the way we approach learning in our rooms.  Our students don’t need fancy things created by companies to teach them.  They need basic tools of the trade like books, markers, paper, and a creative technology tool.  They need a good model to follow. They need real work and time to do it.  They need to play.

Posted in 2.0 Tools, Back To School, Slice of Life | 2 Comments

#nErDcampMI Post #1

I just had the MOST FUN at #nErDcampMI a literacy and technology Edcamp hosted by friends from the Nerdy Book Club.  There’s a lot that I could write about in a reflection post but since so many people had questions about the padlets that I was making I thought I’d write a bit about that. (At least for my first post.)

For those of you that aren’t familiar with it, Padlet is a great little tool where you can create a virtual cork board.  It allows you to put images, media, links, and text.  I’ve used it with students as a way to gather thinking around a lesson or as a free way for them to create a website.  The best part is that it is free and it’s really easy to use!

During the two day fun and learning fest I began to gather my thoughts and notes from sessions into Padlets.  Why?  Because I’m a visual learner and I love to see everything laid out for me. Here in my notes Padlet, which a few people also posted on, I was able to screenshot specific slides and jot my notes as the presenters were talking.  The great thing about this tool is that it can be collaborative and is much more visual than a Google doc.  Although those are great too!

I also made one whole Padlet for the Best Books of 2014 (and other years) session hosted by Donalyn Miller and Katherine Sokolowski because I love to be able to see the covers as I shop! This also worked really well because other people were able to jump on and add books as people talked and I cross checked with the people taking notes on the Google doc.  Talk about team work!

Some ideas for classroom use

  • Easy website design tool, students can work together to collaborate.  Try it with another school!
  • Gather links, resources, or ideas
  • Exit ticket or response from the class
  • Collaboration board with another class
  • Backchannel discussion
  • Record of books read or interest “list” (I want to try this one this year!)
  • <Your idea here!> Leave some in the comments!

If you’d like a little tutorial on how to use Padlet here’s a nice one by Richard Byrne.  It’s fairly intuitive and if you spend about 20 minutes playing you’ll be an expert in no time! My one complaint is that it doesn’t work very well on the iPads and my students found it very frustrating at times. Posts would disappear, not let them type or copy and past text in, and it was difficult to click through to any links.  Hopefully those bugs will get worked out soon because I’d love to be able to use this tool with my class more.


Posted in 2.0 Tools, Active Literacy, Collaboration, iPad, My Reading Life, Professional Development, Technology | 4 Comments

5 Things I’m Taking Back To My Classroom From #ISTE2014

  1. Student Ignite Presentations I loved the Ignite format for presentations and I’m dying to try it with my students.  I can’t think of a better way to coach them to become stronger speakers and presenters. (And stick to a time limit!)  No more reading off your notecards or slides kids! 
  2. The Power of Play This theme emerged very clearly during the conference.  From Kevin Carroll’s Keynote on The Red Ball to Gary Stager’s presentation on Invent to Learn.  I created this Padlet of resources and things to write grants for so that I can get my kids playing, experimenting, and making!
  3. More Collaboration!  I was so inspired by Julie Ramsay’s 6th graders and all of the ways they collaborate with other students around the world.  After listening to them speak at their poster session I realized that I’ve only dipped my toe into the possibilities for my students.  
  4. Digital Public Library of America I did not even know that this existed!  BOOM!  Best new resource ever.
  5. SAMR Model I know the SAMR model.  I live the SAMR model.  But after hearing Ruben Puentedura, the SAMR king himself, speak I realized that I need to put my knowledge of Pedagogy, Content, and Technology to work in order to get myself into the Modification and Redefinition areas more often!  
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ISTE 2014


I’ve just finished my very first ISTE conference and wow am I spinning.  So many things to learn, so many smart people to connect with, and so much fun to be had.  Here are a few of my highlights from my conference!

Presenting on Student Learning Networks with Kristin.  It was so great to reorganize our ideas for this crowd and pull together some things we had been doing with our students.  As we worked on this preso we both agreed that we want to do even more and I made it my mission to link up with some teachers who I could foster some classroom collaborations with.  We’re still crowdsourcing ideas on ways to get our kids an authentic connected audience and their very own network to learn from.  Share your ideas on our Padlet.

Then there was the amazing Ignite speeches to launch the weekend.  My favorite was Jennie Magiera talking about how PD is NOT a 4 letter word.  It’s so true.  We have to embrace professional development and make it our own.  We deserve to be great learners as well.  You can check out her blog here, but if you ever get the chance to see her in person do so!

“Why do teachers get the worst teaching?  What do teachers need? …The first thing teachers need is authenticity.”  -Jennie Magiera

Between poster sessions I was lucky enough to see Ruben Puentedura talk for the first time.  He is famous for his SAMR model and he is as brilliant as his beard is long.  I became familiar with his model several years ago so I was thrilled to see him speak about the marriage of the SAMR model with the TCPK model in order to help teachers become innovate and effective technology users.  You can see his slides from the presentation here.

After standing in one of the many long lines (the longest was Starbucks) I was able to snag a seat in Gary Stager’s session on “Invent to Learn.”  It was a call to arms to make learning authentic and play based.  To not say no but to look for possibilities and opportunities and to not reserve hands on experimentation and building for only a small section of our students.  You can check out his website here.

These ideas were built upon during the Sunday morning Keynote by Kevin Carroll Katalyst, self named change agent and one of the most inspirational speakers I’ve ever seen!  My summary of his presentation would not do it justice.  Please take a few minutes and watch him speak.


You can check out the ISTE playlist on Youtube to see other highlights and presentations from the conference.  It’s well worth the learning.

I still have so many notes and images to sift through, contacts to organize, and ideas to mull over.  I will say that in all of the session I attended and conversations that I engaged in there were a few overarching themes.

Make it authentic.

Let them play.

Lead the charge in both.

Here I am triumphant with my 4 cube tower that I built with a robot at the @vex robotics booth.

Here I am triumphant with my 4 cube tower that I built with a robot at the @vex robotics booth.

Posted in 2.0 Tools, Conference Presentations, Inquiry, Professional Development, Technology, Videos | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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 | 2 Comments

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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