Category Archives: Reflections on teaching

Snow Poem

Part of Slice of Life on Two Writing Teachers

Snow falls
outside of classroom windows
Kids yell,
“Snow!”
Teachers say, “Yep. It’s snowing.”
“Does snow have anything to do with math?”

My classroom didn’t have windows
Can you believe it?
Somehow we always knew when there was snow
Somehow kids still yelled, “Snow!”
Did they sense it through the tiny window in our door?
Did they hear the snow silence outside?

Now it must be that soft blanketing (definitely not just the forecasted dusting)
Or the sound of boots squeaking down the hall
That transports me to
All my classroom winters
The snows of classrooms’ past. . .
The good old days

For a minute I wonder
If I wander the halls
Could I find a class to interrupt?
We could write snow poems on paper snowflakes
as the snow falls
outside of classroom windows

I’m sorry

You were in my 6th grade class over a decade ago. You were cool. You laughed and joked, fooled around with your friends, did your work (Mostly. With reminders…) We got along.

One day, you made a mistake. I wondered if I could ignore it until read aloud was over, but soon the whole class saw it. That’s when it really became a thing. A thing I had to deal with. I didn’t want to deal with it though, especially after I saw your face when you noticed me notice the hidden project you had in your hoodie.

I had to make a quick decision. There’s a teacher brain thing that happens. It’s a mode where you are still teaching or reading, or talking, but your brain is making a decision. Your brain is engaging in a very short, seconds-long debate. Mine probably went something like this:

He shouldn’t have done that. It could hurt someone. He’s not going to hurt someone. He’s just joking around. It’s a stupid joke, I need to take that away from him. Can we talk about this later at recess maybe? All the other kids see it now, I have to acknowledge it. The handbook is very clear on this. My gut says this isn’t really textbook handbook stuff. I’m supposed to do what the rules say to do. I don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it is. Is this really zero tolerance stuff? What about that kid I read about in the news who was suspended for accidentally bringing a nail file to school? I have to follow the rules. But he doesn’t need a 10 day suspension for this, that’s overkill. Rules like that really do show kids that adults don’t have it together. But ugh. I have to do what I’m supposed to do. I really hope the principal can handle this in a nurturing way.

I took you into the hall. I took a deep breath. You already could barely look at me.

“I’m going to have to give this to the principal.” I said. I think I said it kindly. I hope I said something to show you I understood.

You looked so uncomfortable.

I probably made a face with my lips curled in and my nose scrunched up. It’s supposed to mean, “I know this sucks. But it’s going to be okay.”

It was a long walk down to the office and you trailed behind me the whole way, sobbing.

When we got there, I tried to explain the situation to the substitute vice principal:

I’m here because he needs to turn this in, and it isn’t okay that he made it. But he didn’t make it to hurt anyone. It’s not a weapon. I hope we can be reasonable with consequences.

She nodded. Told me she would take care of it, and to send you in.

The next day you started your 10 day suspension.

I didn’t take any data, and it was a long time ago. But, when you came back you were never really the same kid. There was less laughter, less chatting, less fooling around, but that wasn’t a good thing. There was also less engagement and fewer friends. We didn’t NOT get along after that, you and I. It’s just that the relationship was damaged.

Maybe you didn’t want to have anything to do with me because I didn’t fight hard enough for the grey in the situation, I didn’t advocate for you enough. Maybe you were just embarrassed about the vulnerability I saw in all of your sobbing.

Maybe it was all of the above and more.

I’m sorry.

I should have done better.

I’m really sorry.

My Turn

Part of Slice of Life at Two Writing Teachers!

When I walk into second-grade, I’m happy to see that the guest teacher is not only one I know and love, but one I used to request when I was a classroom teacher. I had hoped it would be her!

“My dream has come true! It’s you!” I tell her.

“Ms. Gabriel! You’re here!” A girl says with a big smile, and I feel loved. Then she adds, “I knew it would be close to recess when you got here!”

The students clean up from reading and join me on the carpet for some phonics routines.

I’m not lying when I remind the class that I am just learning phonics, and the routines too. I mean, you should see how many times I have to text one of the other Instructional Coaches about this stuff.

Is gi_ the same as gi without the line after it? Sounds like Jump?
How do I know what the spelling focus is for each word in the spelling focus routine?

I make sticky notes to myself at the bottom of pages to remind myself of the sounds for the sound spelling review, because my brain has just never worked this way.

When I started teaching, decades ago, I used to have to ask my lovely para to remind me about long vowels vs. short.

So basically the fact that I can now do any of this is a miracle.

Why does the spelling card for ring say that “ng” can be spelled with _n_? The substitute teacher and I quickly discuss. Isn’t it always a short vowel, n, then a g or k?

Stamp is an interesting word to blend. You really have to dig into vowel sounds with that one.

The second-graders are wonderful though. Great critics. I’ve asked them to rate me at the end of each routine: Thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down.

They give me way more thumbs up than I deserve. But, I’ll take it

Before we started I told them I found stickers while I cleaned out my basement this weekend. I wasn’t sure they’d care. But, wow. Second-graders really love stickers. I don’t know why I had forgotten that. . .

“What do you think you need to do to earn a sticker?” I asked them, knowing full well there was no way I wasn’t going to give them all a sticker.

“Be good?” One of them said.

“Well, you are all good!” I said

“Pay attention!” Someone offered

“Participate!” Another student said.

“Those are all great ideas,” I told them. “But really there’s one big thing. You are going to have to have to help me practice these phonics routines!”

They were all in for that, especially the one student sitting right in front. Last week when I came in to do these routines for the first time, he said to me, “I’m going to be a phonics teacher one day.”

This time he sneaks it in again. In between a routine, after a thumbs up check, I tell them they are the ones that really deserved the double thumbs up for such amazing reading. I hear him, very quietly say, “Yea. I’m ready to be a phonics professor.”

At some point I ask the students how they got so good at this.

“We’ve been doing it for three years!” They say, like they are some sort of commercial for a vertical articulated curriculum.

We finish the routines, (something I always feel like I deserve a sticker for, to be honest!) so it’s sticker time!

They chose without argument, taking turns.

They sweetly ask if they can put their stickers on their hand, their backpack, their lunchbox, their chrome book, their water bottle.

I advise them that paper would be the best place, or on a notebook – because they might fall off otherwise.

The guest teacher says, “Ms. Gabriel’s been doing this a long time. I’d take her advice.”

One of the last kids to choose a sticker asks if he can take the little sticker on the side of sticker sheet – a tiny rectangle with, I don’t know, the item number printed on it.

“Sure…” I say.

“Does this count as a sticker?” He asks.

“If you want it to,” I say.

“Okay!” He says and walks away with that teeny tiny rectangle.

The class is outside, and if you walked by the classroom you would hear me and the guest teacher sounding out words, discussing why it’s so hard to sound out anything that has an an or am.

Caaaannnnn, Mannnnnn, Raaaaannn . . .
Stamp -StAPPLE, STAP, STAAAAmP
. . .

“Great to see you!” I tell her as I leave.

“You too,” she says “Thanks for coming to teach the phonics. I always learn more by watching it.”

“Thanks for not laughing at me while I was doing it!” I say

“Oh I was,” she smiles, “I was laughing WITH you though.”

Algebra

“I’m never going to need this.” E tells me as I help him with his algebra homework. “I mean, nobody is ever going to come up to me and say like, ‘Can you solve this? -2.5 (0.5K+2.4) = -K-5.45.’ Maybe if I was going to be a mathematician, or an engineer. But, I’m never going to need this.”

I sighed and coughed (again), happy to at least be helping with his algebra next to him on the couch, and not 6 feet away like last week.

Homework Help with covid last week? I might have cried a little bit before figuring out I had a white board and remembering that I’m a teacher, even with a fever.

“Well, I don’t know.” I said. “I used to say the same thing. But I now I do need it.”

“For what?” E asks, eyebrows furrowed.

“To help you! Right now! Here you are! I need what I learned in high school algebra!”

He rolled his eyes, and we got back to work.

Poor E: 12 years old, great math brain, plus amazing ability to overthink. He gets the overthinking part from me – so imagine how helpful I am with his algebra homework when we get to parts where we have to use the distributive property with negative variable. I think 3-3x -3 is just 3x, right? Thank goodness he likes to check his work. (I won’t even try to explain our in depth conversations about why -5.45 + 6 = 0.55 and not 0.45. I think I got myself confused with that one, actually.)

For the last few problems, we figured out a good color coding system on the iPad for like terms.

“It’s like our own Kahn Academy!” E said.

“On a academy … Ona academy . . . OnAcademy! Why haven’t I ever thought of that?” I asked. “OnAcademy.com!”

That earned me another eye roll and a sigh. “.org you mean? But, please don’t make that a thing, mom.”

But, it has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? OnAcademy?

Don’t let my high school algebra teacher (or really any math teacher) see our work here please. Thank you.

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!