Category Archives: Reflections on teaching

Gertrude

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers

Gertrude

I used to bring Gertrude to my sixth-grade classroom to help kick off our “Muppet” project. In between the yearly projects, she lived with my parents.

It’s been 5 years since I’ve taught sixth grade. (That’s crazy!) So the other day my parents asked me if I still wanted Gertrude. I guess they were tired of her freeloading.

Suddenly, I ached for my sixth-graders and our Muppet projects. I thought about it for a minute and realized it might be fun to ask kids in my schools what Gertrude’s story might be.

“I wonder if I can get a teacher or two to let me do this with them,” I thought.

It took me a few days, but I finally remembered that I co-run a Writers’ Club. What luck! Kids! Ready for a writing invitation!

Gertrude traveled with me to school today, and I took her down to meet some classes. The first class was working on PSSA practice, and as much as Gertrude wanted to interrupt that (she’s not a fan of standardized tests) I moved on to a second-grade classroom around the corner. Then onto first grade . . . By the end of the day, Gertrude had met every class.

It’s very hard to get a picture of a marionette while you are holding it. . .

I told the kids that Gertrude didn’t know her story. She needed a story!

“Gertrude was lonely at my parents’ house. She wanted to come to school for Writer’s Club. But, she wanted to meet kids before she went to Writers’ Club, so she wouldn’t be too nervous,” I explained.

“Why is she even here when we aren’t even allowed to go to Writers’ Club?” a kindergartner said. I told her what I told every class K-2: “Maybe when you get to be in third grade, you’ll join Writer’s Club!”

Wow,” I thought as kids crowded around us, trying to be quiet since they understood Gertrude was still pretty shy. “This is a pretty good advertisement for Writers’ Club!

Of course, kids of all ages wanted to know what Gertrude was.

“Is she a dog?”
“Is she a bird?”

“She’s a gertrude.”

You might have to meet Gertrude to understand her magic. The way she walks is peaceful, almost mesmerizing. You can’t help but stare at her. She’s quiet and shy but brings out the best smiles. As I walked down the hall with her, kids of all ages said, “Hi Gertrude!” and asked me more questions about her.

I have a feeling that if I don’t take her with me next time I’m walking down the hall, the kids won’t talk to me anymore…

I didn’t know what would happen at Writers’ Club, but the magic of Gertrude plus the magic of the young writers did not disappoint. I invited the kids to write about Gertrude, for Gertrude, and to make bird puppets that could be in a story with her.

“But what is a gertrude?” one boy asked, “I don’t find her when I google!”

I told him that someone would have to make her a google entry. “What would her wikipedia page say?”

And friends, when the two girls came up to read me their nonfiction article all about Gertrude, it was a dream come true. They had a description of gertrudes, and talked about how loud noises scare them. They described a gertrude habitat and diet, and ended with a story of a gertrude named Gertrude. They printed their story and put it on our Gertrude story wall.

The bird puppet makers wanted to make sure I brought Gertrude next week so they could write their stories down, and as they started to clean up, a writer came up to me and said, “I know what Gertrude’s favorite food is. Avacado.”

So, needless to say, we added a fast fact section just for Gertrude.

(Not so) Sneaky Stick Figures (2)

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers

It was the after-school Writers’ Club again today. As kids were filtering in, and my co-teacher was taking attendance, I was chatting with kids.

“I wish Writers’ Club was on Mondays,” one said, “because then we’d have something to really look forward to about Mondays.”

At the table next to him, a girl popped her head up from her snack to add “Writers’ Club is the highlight of my Tuesday.” Her friend sitting across from her took the perfect pause before saying, “Writers’ Club is the only thing I have on Tuesdays, so . . . ”

Earlier, we had decided to invite more kids to make some stick figure cut-out stories like we did last time..

As I made a quick direction chart before the end of the school day, I wondered if making the chart would make it less enticing than the sneaky spur-of-the-moment style from last time.

But, somehow, as kids went off to write, several came up for index cards, sharpies, and scissors. As each writer, or partnership came to the supply cart, I asked them what they were going to write, and cheered inside when they said “I want to try cut-out stories!”

My co-writer from last time was trying to get our pieces back in order, and two girls walked up to join our story. Next to us a few kids were creating their own stick figure stories, and at 2 tables at the end of the cafeteria, I could see more stick figure story work happening.

Our new co-writers fit right in. Soon all four of us were drawing, cutting, writing, and making.

One of the girls didn’t talk much and her friend said, “She doesn’t really talk.”

I said, “But she can draw! Look at that!” and we both looked over at the cat being sketched on an index card.

“And really that’s all that matters,” my co-writer told me.

I have to confess – it was super fun. I asked the kids if they thought that maybe I could have a job where all I did was make cut-out stick figure stories with kids all day.

They thought it was doable, for sure. One girl looked at me very seriously and said, “You are going to need a lot of index cards.”

Soon, we were done. So we got some construction paper, and the kids glued the story down. They aren’t sure if they want to staple it now, or maybe put it up like a comic strip.

“Can you believe this story started with just one little stick figure?” I asked my original co-writer. He just shook his head with wonder. And then, before he left to go home, he stopped me at the supply cart to ask me a question.

“Can I take some index cards home so I can write another story?”

#sol22 March 30 Listening in to First Graders

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by!

Every so often I’m lucky to be at my table in my shared room when a group of kids comes in for math club.

Today was a lucky day. First graders filtered in, their intervention teacher, Mrs. P was just a few steps behind them. So I got a front-row seat to their entrance shenanigans.

Lisa and Sam* came in first. They acknowledged me with a slight nod of their heads. I said hello and watched them choose a seat at the kidney table.

Sam jumped up and said, “Oh! I forgot to hide!” and he went to the calm corner, behind a curtain. Lisa stayed at the table and kept looking back at me as Sam talked about how he was hidden.

“Are you supposed to hide at the beginning of math club?” I asked them, honestly curious.

Lisa said, “Um. I forget.”

I laughed a little and said, “You forget if you are supposed to hide at the start of math club?”

Lisa smiled and mumbled something, adding “But if Sam wants to, it is his choice.”

Pete and Anya walked in and Lisa let them know that Sam was hiding in case they were interested in doing the same. Pete and Anya went to hide in the calm corner, but Pete came back to the table quickly.

I asked them again what they were supposed to do while they were waiting for Mrs. P. I mean, I wasn’t actually sure. Maybe they always start math club on the rug, or in a choice spot, or by calming down!

Mrs. P walked in and said “Okay, friends. We are going to play a game today.” I saw her eyes scan the room. “Remember, hiding is not appropriate.

At this, Lisa looked back at me, eyebrows up, caught in her little white lie about forgetting if they were supposed to hide. She looked at Mrs. P and said “I chose the table because I didn’t think we were supposed to hide. but I told sam it was up to him what he did.”

Mrs. P agreed that we are all in charge of our own selves, adding that you can give friendly reminders sometimes.

Pete said, “I wanted to hide, but I knew I shouldn’t.”

Anya said, “I know we aren’t supposed to hide, but it looked so fun!”

As you can tell, it’s super hard for me not to listen in to first graders. Mrs. P took a teachable moment to talk about impulse control, and soon enough they were on to the math. If you were there you would have heard many a conjecture about the making of tens, and Sam’s Ted Talk on zero, which started with a proclamation, “Zero means nothing! Nothing!”

Oh, how I love listening in to first graders.

——

*I have changed all student names here, of course. This was actually challenging and made me think of how my amazing para when I taught 2nd grade would read the class books at lunch, and change all the characters’ names to names of kids in our class. How she kept track of that is a mystery to me. I had a hard time just keeping track of these 4 first graders’ code names!

#sol22 March 29 Sneaky Stick Figures

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by!

Another Writers’ Club teacher and I are standing in front of the kids who have chosen to work in our collaborative space. They are all spread out on the large bleacher-like steps, in small groups working, talking, writing.

One kid asks me if it would be okay for him to make brochures and fliers.

“Sure!” I said. “What are you going to make brochures and fliers about?”

“I don’t know, ” he said as he skipped away.

We are watching them, and kind of laughing. They don’t really need us. Sure there are a few who need our support. But for many of them, if they aren’t ready to share and celebrate their work, they don’t really want to be interrupted. They are busy creating worlds, characters, and books. They are writing a series with their friends or planning a new story to co-write. There are a few who end up making paper crafts, like a boy I noticed who was taping post-it notes into cones that he could fit on his fingers. Creative, yes. Writing? I don’t know.

One of the many joys of Writers’ Club is that sometimes you can sit and write with a student or two. Sometimes you can even do some writing near them, and hope they get interested in what you are doing.

So, I sat near the boy making finger cone claws. I had a stack of index cards, a sharpie, and a pair of scissors. I drew a stick figure and cut around it. Then I drew a stick figure dog and cut it out too. The boy took a break from his post-it note claws and scooted a little closer to tell me how cool my stick figures were.

“Isn’t he so cute?” I asked. “I want to make a story with him. What else do you think I need?”

He suggested a friend. Then he suggested the characters could be at a park. A park would need a tree, swings, and a slide, he told me. He thought probably the main character was wondering where he could plant a tree. As he told me elements, I drew them and cut them out. Then we started placing them on the steps.

“What do you think this guy should be saying?” I asked.

“Probably something like ‘Where can I plant this tree?'” my co-writer said. And I tried to put the tree in the stick figure’s hand. He stopped me and suggested that maybe the character should plant a seed, not a fully grown plant. I asked him if he’d ever seen someone plant a tree, as I drew a sapling in a sack for our main character.

He thought the dog should say “arf arf arf’ when he was asked where to plant a tree in the park.

I suggested that the cat have a real answer, and he suggested that the cat say sarcastically, “Maybe like in the ground??” We laughed as we put all the pieces together.

We decided that the friend should be looking for his cat.

I drew the friend, moping about his cat. “Now I’m going to have to figure out how to draw a bench!” I said.

“Oh. I can do that,” the boy said. “I think I can draw a bench.”

He got his own stack of index cards and a sharpie and drew a bench. He cut it out and added it to our story.

“This story is amazing!” he said as I took pictures so we could clean up.

I agreed.

I think sneaky-style I do, we do, you do might be one of my absolute favorite ways to write with kids.

#sol22 March 19 A Saturday Reunion & Some Tips

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by!

In normal life, in the past, I’d be walking down the streets of New York City after hearing the closing keynote at the TCRWP Saturday Reunion. So, as I sit here after the inspirational virtual TCRWP Saturday Reunion, I can’t help but reminisce a bit.

The first step to a normal Saturday Reunion was always seeing who could go and then picking a hotel. (Tip: You need 2 beds for 4 friends, an extra pull-out sofa if you have 5 people.) Then there was the road trip on a Friday after school. We usually had normal car snacks like pretzels and carrots, chips, dip, dried mangos. But one year someone brought a plate of cheese. “Care for some cheese?” is a favorite road trip saying to this day. (Tip: Accept any kinds of snacks, the driver gets first dibs)

We’d check-in and quickly decide if we were going to do a late dinner at the Mexican Restaurant or the Italian one. (Tip, decide if you want chips and guacamole and a margarita, or bread, sauce, and wine. Also, don’t worry, you can have the other one tomorrow.)

The next morning was a mad dash to get out the door in time to stop for a coffee, a bagel, or oatmeal, and catch a taxi to Riverside Church for the 9:00 Opening. (Tip: If you walk in next to Jason Reynolds, don’t stop yourself from stroking his shoulder. You only live once)

Then the day of inspiration would begin and was a whirlwind of learning and moving and seeing so many awesome people. When it was over, we would leave with the thousands of other teachers, and make our way back to the hotel. (Tip: Look before you cross the street – I am a teacher, I love teachers, and we aren’t always the best at following directions.)

A few years ago, we decided to stick around the Columbia University campus area instead of getting a taxi back to our hotel. We found a little bar. It wasn’t crowded, it wasn’t fancy. But, it had a nice vibe, great drinks, and even some vegan snacks. We sat at a table or the bar for a bit and then we’d walk some more. (Tip: Wear sneakers!)

One year we stopped where a crowd was gathered and watched as a church security guard chased an albino peacock. At least, I think that’s the story. Seems kinda farfetched now, right? (Tip: don’t just take pictures on your phone, but remember where they might be stored!)

Today I finished the whirlwind day of inspirational zoom learning, closed my laptop, and emptied the dishwasher. (Tip: Make your kids do this chore.)

Although, I must say: My notebook is still full and my brain is still thinking, I still saw so many awesome presenters along with thousands of other teachers… and I still haven’t put shoes on today! (Tip: Wear really comfy soft clothes so you can go directly to the couch to read or take a nap.)

#sol22 March 15 Yes!

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by!

One of my favorite things about Tuesday’s after-school club, Writer’s Society is how much I can say, “yes!” to kids.

Can I do my own story?
Yes.

Could we collaborate on the story map?
Yes.

Can you read my story?
Yes.

Can I use a gold sharpie?
Yes.

Can I have another notebook?
Yes.

Can I decorate my notebook some more?
Yes.

Can I start over?
Yes.

Can I write science fiction?
Yes.

Can I write fantasy?
Yes.

Can I write a graphic novel?
Yes.

Can I write a song?
Yes.

Can the three of us write a three-book series?
Yes.

Can we spend more time planning out and drawing the clothes our characters wear?
Yes.

Can I take this home?
Yes.

Can I take this home to work on?
Yes.

Can I go to the bathroom?
Yes.

In fact, talking with kids in general is a highlight.

Today a young writer was creating a map of his setting. “I can assure you there will be no death in this story,” he told me. “It’s a mystery, but the main character just wants to find some friends. Behind him, a duo was working on a collaborative story on a shared google doc. They’ve been working together since the first day of our club.

“The sad part is,” one of the boys said to me pointing to his friend “he will be moving not next Friday but the next one.”

We talked a bit about the move, how it would be good and bad. I told them how I moved in 5th grade, and it was tough, but then okay.

They said they were going to “stay connected.”

“He has my mom’s phone number from my birthday invitation,” the friend who is moving said.

“We can facetime.”

I tried to explain that they could maybe continue sharing a google doc for their story, too.

“Would it be okay with you if I finished the story, printed it out, and made it into a book?” the kid who is staying here asked his friend.

“No,” his friend said, still looking at his Chromebook. “I want to keep writing it with you.”

I want to keep writing?
Yes!

#sol22 March 5 Breaking News

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by!

Breaking News

I’ve been coaching at this school for over 5 years and I’m ready to make a big announcement.
I officially,
usually,
mostly,
can walk out of a kindergarten classroom and turn the correct way to go back to my office.

I’ll be taking questions and comments about how I have accomplished this dream in the comment section.
Thank you for your attention to my breaking news.

#sol22 March 2 Thumbs-Up

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers March Slice a Day Challenge! I’m slicing every day this month. Thanks for stopping by!

I get to teach phonics in kindergarten this week. Any time I get to spend with Kindergarteners is a dream come true for me, even if it is just waltzing in for 15 minutes to do some reading routines with them.

I’ve trained people on this specific reading routine program, and I’ve taught a handful of lessons, but this week I get to go every day.

“I’m just learning these routines,” I remind the kids.

I figure I may as well be transparent in my non-expertise. They know the routines much better than I do, so I get to learn too. They do such a great job, I have them give themselves a round of applause after each routine. (A round of applause is where you quietly applaud yourself while moving your hands around in a circle.) And then, I ask them to give me a thumbs up, thumbs down or thumbs to the side for how I did with the routine.

The first day, I got a bunch of thumbs-up, several thumbs to the side, and a few thumbs-down. A boy in the back gave me two thumbs down for some of my routines. I mean, he wasn’t wrong – I did struggle through a few parts.

“I see thumbs down again,” I said. “You’re right. I really do need to practice my blending routine!”

Today I got almost all thumbs-up, and a few to the side — and one still some thumbs down from the boy in the back, but not for every routine. I’m improving!

At the end of the lesson, I told the kids they needed to give themselves 3 rounds of applause.

“Threee?!?!?” someone said like I had told them they could have three cupcakes.

After their rounds of applause, I asked for one final assessment of the whole lesson and looked around the room at their thumbs.

I said “Wow! two thumbs-up from some of you!”

The boy in the back said, “I’m giving you two thumbs-up too!” Then he held up his foot and said “I’m giving you three thumbs up!”

We dismissed for recess and I followed the kids out to the hallway, feeling that lovely feeling of bonding with kids. A girl walked up to me, looked at me so sweetly, and said. “Who are you?”

I told her I’m Ms. Thought, but she can also call me Ms. Ona. I explained that only the kindergarteners call me Ms. Ona, so when she gets to first grade she’s going to have to switch to Ms. Thought.

“Ms. Ona,” she said confidently like she knew that all along. She laughed and went outside with the rest of her class.

Tomorrow’s my day. Tomorrow they will remember my name, and I will get all thumbs up!

A Slice of Writers’ Club

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

Tuesdays are Writer’s Club days. Fifty or so third, fourth and fifth graders race to the All Purpose room after school to get started writing. We have a quick introduction, and then the kids decide where they want to go. They can go collaborate, they can write quietly on their own, or they can stay in the All Purpose room for an invitation to write.

Today’s invitation was character work. I brought ink pads, and a roll of white paper. And sharpies.

And yes, after the kids left and I was using hand sanitizer to clean off the sharpie marks that bled through the paper onto the cafeteria tables, I still told myself that it was worth it…Because there is something about a giant piece of paper, rolled out across a table, some ink pads, and a bucket of sharpies.

Three boys sat, 6 feet apart, making characters, collaborating on characters, creating stories, and laughing, There was so much laughing.

They looked up at me, eyes wide.

“Are we in trouble?” One of them said.

“Nope. I like laughing.” I told them.

Another boy said “Yeah, what do you think? Teachers don’t believe in laughing or something?”

And then they all laughed some more, before stopping again to make sure they weren’t in trouble.

An older girl walked in, and I asked her if she wanted to use the roll paper or her notebook. She held up her notebook and said, “I’m going to fill this whole notebook with character development.” She sat down and carefully wrote “Character Development” on the first page of her notebook.

She still started with some big paper, an ink pad and a sharpie though. There’s just something about that big paper!

She and a couple of other girls quietly filled their large papers with pictures and words, thumbprints and stories. The boys continued to laugh.

There was another writer who came over. He had needed some help writing earlier and was a little quieter than the rest. He wanted to sit at his own table, and only wanted to use his notebook and a sharpie.

“So what kind of character are you going to create?” I asked him.

“A famous one.” He said and he showed me his page.

“Oh! Wow!” I said. “That’s a great idea! Maybe you can draw a bunch of people all around trying to take pictures of him! He’s like ‘No pictures, no pictures!'”

I tend to get excited when working with kids as they create cool characters and stories. . .

He shook his head though. “No,” he said, “He’s rich. Not famous. Just rich.”

I laughed and asked him what the character’s problem was going to be, but he interrupted me to ask how to spell rich.

“R-i-c-h,” I told him, and he asked me to repeat it, and then wrote “Rch.”

He sat and quietly worked for a bit, and then showed me his page, where he had a whole story mapped out. I should have been recording as he explained. There was the rich guy, who was dropping his money along a path. There was an arrow to show the path, and another character picking up all the money, and more!

As we cleaned up to go home, the boys with the giant piece of paper were having a hard time deciding who would get to bring the roll paper home. The girls didn’t want to stop. “I’m not finished!” One said to me, with her eyebrows crunched with worry.

I told her she could take it home to work on, or leave it at school for next week. She quickly started nodding her head at the prospect of taking it home.

Lining up, I got to hear more about the rich guy story.

“That is amazing!” I said, “You have a whole graphic novel planned out! You could write each part on a different page of your notebook!”

He looked excited, nodded his head and then said, “Yea, but I might need a little help with it.”

I reminded him that that’s what we are here for, and he nodded again, and walked down the hall and out the door, then back in. He shrugged his shoulders and said “I forgot my backpack.”

The three laughing boys walked by and I asked them if they decided who would have the paper. They hung their heads and told me they couldn’t figure it out, because they all wanted it. I’m thinking their parents are all unknowingly grateful for the decision to leave it at school for next week’s work.

Tuesday is Writers’ Club. Today was our second meeting, and I can’t wait for next week!

A Slice of Heartbreak

Slice of LIfe
Part of Slice of Life by Two Writing Teachers Thanks for stopping by!

These kids are breaking my heart.

It’s the way they call out my name “Hi Ms. Thought!” in the hallway.
Or pass me on the way to music and say, “Ms. Ona! I miss you sooooo much.”

Or, today when a class walked by me on their way to the library. They all waved and said hello. I told them I hoped library was super fun. The last boy passed me, waving. He said, “I don’t remember who you are. But, hi!”

It’s N, who comes in from book club, walks over to me, as I sit observing his class, and says “Can I draw? I want to draw a cherry.” I convince him to listen to the writing mini lesson instead, and he cartwheels over to his spot. When his teacher corrects his behavior, I think, “Oh no! He isn’t going to want to sit there now.” But instead he becomes engaged, helping with a shared writing. Later he is the very last to go to recess, because he wants to finish writing his book.

Last week I helped protect his toy all day in my office cabinet. He isn’t allowed to play with toys during class, but he really loved the one he snuck to school. He was hiding under the coats, and I coaxed him out, asking him what his toy did. He popped the toy out of the coats, pushed a button so the monster character started waving around. “Whomp, there it is!” he said. We walked the toy down to my office, and every time I saw him that day he asked me, “Are you still protecting my toy?” Every time, I explained that it was still in my cabinet, and that nobody would go in my cabinet, because everyone knows it’s mine.

“Is it locked?” he asked near the end of the day
When I told him that it wasn’t he looked at me and said, “I’m going to make you a key.”

It’s the way third graders get silent, revising playdoh builds of important, intriguing things they know and care about. Yesterday one boy worked so hard on making his cat, and said “she is important because she was my cat and now she died.” Yesterday he was so sad to squish his cat prototype back into the playdoh container.

“You’re going to make another one tomorrow!” I told him, “And you’ll remember how to do it, and it might even be better.”

He didn’t believe me.

Today, a few minutes into our playdoh revision, he said “Ms. Thought, you’re right! I do remember, and this time it is even better!”

It’s L, a first grader who I knew in remote kindergarten, who can’t seem to keep his mask over his nose for longer than a minute, but dutifully pulls it up every time he’s reminded. He’s working hard to learn his letters and sounds and last week he took me over to the word wall to point out the words he had made. “All the ones in black sharpie are mine!” he said with so much pride I almost started crying. Then he asked me if he could get the Woody toy again, to help him write his piece, “How to play with Woody from Toy Story.”

It’s fifth graders who joke with me, and get my sarcasm.

There’s the kindergartener I helped on the second day of school during the fire drill practice. He was scared, and I held his hand. Now every time I see him, he waves his hand intensely and calls “Hi! Ms. Ona!!!”

When I’m lucky, I get to see kids walk into school: Kindergarteners carrying huge backpacks, and paper trays overflowing with cafeteria breakfast, primary students waving goodbye to their siblings, fifth graders chatting with friends on the way upstairs.

I can’t tell if feeling this much heartbreak about kids that I’m lucky teachers share with me means that I’m in the right profession — or the wrong one.