Writerly Life



It’s the end of the first week of school, and I’m stuck in the pits of gratitude.

I am thankful for so many things, including a later wakeup this Saturday morning and a second cup of coffee that sits by me patiently, while I gather my foggy thoughts.

In no particular order, because I can’t figure out how to go on without a bullet point list, let me bring you up to speed.

  • ALL of my laundry is done and put away. This includes towels and sheets and it’s only 9am on Saturday morning as I write this…
  • I turned thirty (and the celebration/video work that followed that was amazing, so I’m still not over how great it is to be thirty!)
  • I still get to work with the 7th grade teachers as a literacy coach!
  • I moved and my new place has a whirlpool, hello relaxation.
  • Our school bought the Units of Study in Writing for grades K-8 (oh seriously I’m more than excited about this!!)
  • There are so many new babies in my life and I love love them all.
  • I’ve got a boyfriend (well, I’ve had one for over a year now, but I haven’t posted on here for awhile). He is amazing.
  • My donors choose classroom project for new books got funded.
  • Friends asked me to post another donors choose project because they didn’t get a chance to give! Ahhh
  • I’m going to a poetry reading next Friday with Sarah Kay & Taylor Mali.
  • My calendar is full of things I LOVE to do.
  • I’m in a new amazing grad program.

But lastly, I’m back with my students.

And I’m totally stuck there, because at one week in they are melting my heart. They are asking the right questions, they are trusting me for the journey of this year, they have secured my spot in the pit of gratitude, and I’m not even trying to climb out.

Writerly Life

Be A Researcher

Happy New Year!

If you’re a teacher like me, you probably measure your years from September to June and everything else as summers. And so, when I say, “Happy New Year”, what I mean is more, “Are your lesson plans ready for tomorrow?”

I like this first day back from break, not just because I get a free Starbucks the whole month of January, but more because I get to see the smiles from the kids, who although they look tired and wanted to sleep more, are loud with back from Christmas excitement for friends and yes their teachers too.

I spent time, okay really about two complete days, grading research notes during break. Please, do not feel bad for me; I was at Starbucks, with their notes and my best friend. I had nowhere else to be, and nothing better to do than reflect. For three days before break, my students were in the library, and although I was very busy helping this student and that student, in general, the kids were down there on their own to research, reorganize, and keep going. We even made a wall chart about what researchers look like before we went down. It said:

 Be A Researcher

  • Focus
    • specific goals           
    • write down just the information you need
  • Write things down
    • in a planned, organized way
  • Use many sources
    • Internet, books, magazines, people, movies
  • Re-adjust when things don’t go as planned
  • Keep track of sources and Evaluate them for validity

In General, it looks like my kids did just that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got some copied lists of facts that take up three pages i.e., Sports Team & Trophy Year OR Olympic Medal Winner and Year/Sport. I’ve also got some kids who completely copied text, Word for Word— hello small group instruction. But for most of them, it seems like they actually re-adjusted and found information on topics ranging from Mayan Culture to Miley Cyrus and beyond (if there is beyond on that one).

In the weeks to come, the kids and I will be studying good nonfiction writing and attempting to create interesting Feature Articles, wish us luck and focus, and perhaps a hint of learning too.


Writerly Life

a note to the joy thieves

At the end of the school year this year, I was on the receiving end of some nasty comments about teachers. A little bit of evil looks about the three months of “vacation” I was embarking on, and some useless comments about how I would be bored all day. And for the first time ever, I felt the need to keep my end of the year thoughts to myself, holding back on blogging and facebook, not announcing the end of the school year.

Some of those people with the looks and the comments, I thought they knew me. I thought they knew that I hadn’t taken a sick day at all this school year (not that I hadn’t been sick). I thought they knew that I pretty much worked all weekend long on school stuff. I thought they knew that when summer came, I would be working like crazy to amp up my curriculum.

It’s strange how words can hurt or cause someone to hold back. I’m sure if any of these people had really thought about who they were talking to, they might have chosen their words more carefully.

If you’re not a teacher, here are my suggestions on appropriate things to say to someone who is a teacher at the end of the school year, or just during the summer:

  1. Congratulations! Wow, I wish I had you as a teacher, those kids sure got lucky this year!
  2. Tell me about the one kid you’re really gonna miss this summer.
  3. Can I take you out one night to celebrate?
  4. Do you have any plans for the summer?
  5. I love how I get to see you more in the summer!
  6. If you’ve got any great books to read this summer, I’d like to read one with you!

It’s the heart of summer. And believe me, I’ve been doing a ton of teacher related stuff. Some of this has been in the pool, and you can be jealous of that as long as you would willingly read a 200 page book about whatever your profession is, take notes on it, and develop a system to incorporate it into your working day, during your time off (by the way, you’ll also have to buy that book with your own money).

My name is Rachel, and I love my job, even during the long months of September, October, November in which you feel blessed if I have enough time to like your Instagram photo. I am a teacher; I am happy about that; please don’t try to steal my joy.

Professional Writerly Life

On Learning & Fear & Going Really Fast . . .

Of the many lessons that my mother has definitely taught me, one that I often come back to is that you cannot let fear control your life. Usually this was under the guise of jumping rocks across a river, or peeing in the woods, or swimming far— out deep into the ocean. Perhaps she didn’t mean learning to drive a McLaren on the racetrack, but whatever the reason, I can hear her voice in my head whenever there is a cool opportunity and I am too scared to take the wheel.

As I sank low into the McLaren seat, I could almost feel the fear begin to grip me. I’ve played Forza before; my car never makes it around the first turn without a crash. Yet, I could see my Mom’s face, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, this was not the time to be a sissy.

Classroom Learning

When you learn to drive a McLaren on a track, the first step is to sit in a classroom and learn about the power behind the car (for me this part was more like instilling the fear of death into me, maybe necessary for the men in the room?— total opposite affect on me). Then we got into cars with a professional driver, he drove and talked his way around the skill he was teaching (3 different guided groups launch/breaking, slalom, autocross, and a guided look at the inside of the car).

It didn’t matter what guided group I was in, I was nervous. I kept thinking ahead to how the driver would eventually be switching seats with me, putting me in the driver’s seat, and expecting me to pull off the very kind of driving that was making me want to pee my pants as a passenger.

In the end, I was too scared to do the launch, something about going 0-80-0 made me want to cry. I sat in the car while the driver did it, and for me, that felt like an accomplishment enough. I did take the wheel in the slalom course and the autocross. Both times the instructors told me to only go as fast as I felt comfortable, and in the beginning that was probably about 25mph; I was not sure any part of me would ever feel comfortable on a racetrack in a helmet. But both times, the instructor coached me, through every turn, every break, and every “I’m scared now” comment I decided to blurt out.

On the track

Truthfully, I’m not sure I broke 100mph on the track when I was driving. But believe me, I learned a ton and as far as overcoming fears goes, I attacked a minefield in my life that day. I loved driving the McLaren, and I wouldn’t trade the day at Monticello for the world.

But this is a teaching blog, and so I have some important things to point out.

    1. Track Driving was a completely new skill for me and may of the people participating in this day. Notice the approach— whole class mini lesson— teacher led guided session— student led guided session — (the next step would have been independent practice, which I would have jumped all over, if I had any energy left). Kudos to McLaren for using educationally sound best teaching practice. The teachers were totally engaged the whole time, their methodology in teaching sound, as well as their enthusiasm/knowledge within their subject matter. I couldn’t have been more impressed.
    2. I was too scared to do the launch. The ride with the driver was accomplishment enough. Sometimes are students are not ready for a new skill, but there is nothing wrong with exposing them, and providing them with the experience as a stepping stone for the day they are ready.
    3. I had a hard time listening to the instructors because I was nervous and felt out of my element in a helmet and a Supercar. How often does this happen to my students? Are they missing what I’m saying because they’re sitting in a desk with a pencil, instead of on a couch with a computer?
    4. My instructor happily repeated the same instructions he had told me on lap one, on lap twelve— and I desperately appreciated needed the confirmation. At that point I was whispering in my head, “break at the second cone, come off slow, turn, accelerate” but knowing that he was saying the same thing aloud gave me the courage to step on the gas . . . even if it was just a little. Do I have the patience to happily repeat instructions to my students twelve times?  How can I get them to tell me what they are thinking in their head? Am I acknowledging my students when they step on the gas a little? Am I continuing to press them to go for another lap?
    5. I was exhausted. From driving. By the end of the day, I was seriously wiped. Poor Evan had to drive home while I lay as still as possible next to him with my eyes shut. This day was hard for me; everything was literally new. Am I watching for when my students need a break? New stuff is hard for everyone.

Now that I have written this, I wonder if my Mom will read this and comment that the lesson she taught me when I was younger, to not let fear control your life, had nothing to do with driving on a track in a McLaren? Ha, don’t worry Ma, I survived!Better Line Up

Writerly Life

I gave my yoga teacher the stink eye.

I gave my yoga teacher the stink eye.

This is a true confession. I wish I could tell you I only ever did it once. Truly, I break out the stink eye once or twice a class at least. Usually right around the time when the instructor mentions how one day this move will help me be able to do a headstand, or one day I’ll just be able to hold this pose (see two seconds of it causing intense pain and certain death) for a very long time.

The other members of my family received a healthy dose of genetic disposition toward anything athletic and sweating. As for me, well, I’d rather not.

So I’ve found yoga, and I love it for its lack of competitive nature, for the fact that I don’t feel like anyone is looking at me, and for those few minutes of shavasana at the end, wherein I am forced to be gloriously still. After 28 years, I’ve found something athletic that I actually enjoy.

My sweet, gentle, amazing instructor April from Human Breathing, who opened up this whole new world of yoga to me, does not deserve the stink eye, because I simply love everything about how and what she teaches. But, I hope she catches it every now and then.

You see “the stink eye” is something I’ve received a few times myself. Try telling thirty 14-year-olds that they need to read a book (at least one) over spring break. Stink eye(s). Try telling thirty 14-year-olds that you’re in love with their writing, but we are going to revise it again, for the fifteenth time. Stink eye(s).  Just suggest to that same group, that the very skill that they are learning (and struggling with) right now, will soon be mixed with another new skill. Stinker.

But I’ve been teaching long enough to know that “the stink eye” doesn’t have anything to do with not liking you; it doesn’t even have anything to do with not trusting you. Nope. The stink eye, in yoga and in my classroom, means this is really hard right now, and what you’re talking about sounds even harder, but I trust you, so I’m throwing you the stink eye and begging you to help me a whole ton along the way.

So students, send your stink eyes my way, let me know you’re with me, I promise you can do it, and maybe at the end of it, you’ll even get your moment of shavasana.

(April, I promise to try to bit more grown up about giving you the stink eye, and believing that one day my legs-up-the-wall will result in a headstand).\

Writerly Life

Worth. It.

At 4:45am my iPhone lights up, with the appropriately named “blues” ringtone going off in the background. At that time of the morning, I am desperate for anything but getting out of my bed. Even if I think about going back to sleep, I can’t. I can’t go back to sleep because I am a teacher, and waking moments are filled with “What will I do next?” lists that inevitably propel me forward.

Soon I am ready for my ride to work; currently, I’m listening to the audio book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I have found it a necessity that I practice what I preach, and so I’m reading, okay sometimes listening, books whenever I find a chance. The only break from this is when I stop at my local Starbucks, for my daily cup of love, Grande Pike with soy. When I pull into the parking lot, I’m the first one there, I let the last few lines of dialogue spill from the author, as I put my coat back on, and look around the car to see how many bags I’ll have to carry in today. Seven. Not too bad. I can carry them all in one trip.

I walk down the quiet hallways reminding myself of what’s important about today. Today I will teach them how to talk, about analyzing good argument writing. I’ll remind them that good writers are good readers and good talkers. And I’ll give them lines to say to each other such as: “So what I think you’re saying is . . .”, “The evidence we have for that is . . .?”, and “Isn’t the real issue here . . .?”. As I unlock the door, I promise myself to make a wall chart with them, I want them to see this language written down, to have it as a safety net, if they forget what to say.

As I unpack my bags, I’m visualizing this chart in my head, wishing that someone had taught me in middle school to speak eloquently in an argument. I think about the Common Core, and the standards I know I’ll be hitting today—8.W.9 & 8.R.9 (for Christmas break this year, I tried to memorize these standards, I know them well, but sometimes I have to keep telling myself them in order to make sure I’m doing it right). I wonder what colors I should use and how big I should make it, and still have the chart be useful. I run through my words in my head. I want to say it right the first time; this lesson is important to us.IMG_2945

Soon I am sipping my coffee, reading through my e-mails, answering a few, and checking to make sure I know what page a few of my favorite kids should be on in their independent reading books. When the bell goes off for the kids to enter the building, I am almost always surprised. I could have used more time. The kids are always quiet as they enter the building at 7:25am; it’s like they know the teachers are just waking up too. And then, like that, the day begins. Students tell me of their athletic victories the night before, compliment me on my curly hair, and ask me wide eyed once again, “What are we going to do today, Miss Smith?”

Take over the world.

This job is not easy. This morning routine is not easy. But believe me, it is worth every second of it. When I see my students two years later and they tell me, “Whenever I get upset, I write—remember how you taught us that?” Or when the student in front of me says, “I stayed up so late, because I couldn’t stop reading my book!” Or better yet, when in the middle of the standards, and the grading, and the keeping on top of it, you get to watch a kid stepping into who they will become. It is worth it.

There are plenty of things wrong with the teaching field. Plenty of things to complain about. But, if you’re teaching and you’re stuck there, in the complaint field— that’s too hard, too much, too little—  I’m begging you step back and embrace why you’re here or get out. These kids need the focused, hard working you, who recognizes the beauty in the craft, who recognizes that people are worth it.

Our kids are worth it.

With love,


Energize Research Reading & Writing

Learning From Experts

I almost just told them to start writing.

I have to be real with you; we’ve been researching for what feels like forever, it hasn’t been boring; they’ve been so excited about with topics they choose themselves. In order to keep the momentum going (okay and maybe my sanity), I almost just told them “Okay write it.”

But I didn’t.

“When learning to write like an expert there is no greater teacher than published books and articles; they can prop us up when we feel stumped for ideas and stand in as engaging and confident models when we wish to inspire our student researchers.”— Chris Lehman, Energize Research

So in the mist of the gathering information, we put their research folders away. We reviewed what good researchers do, and then we read feature articles (since that’s what we’re writing) with power.

Instead of me simply telling them, “Good nonfiction writing is descriptive, it’s full of expert words, and it teaches the reader.”

I said, “Hey, this piece should be boring, it’s nonfiction right? But why are we all laughing? What’s so cool about that fact?”

And together we made wall charts, LOTS of them. Usually I am the wall chart maker in the room, but on this one, I put the markers down and let the kids teach. They pasted a copy of good nonfiction writing in the middle, highlighted what they liked, then defined the skill. After they defined the skill they tried to write an example of that skill with a different nonfiction topic.

This took the WHOLE class (see 90 minutes); I would gladly give it up again.

In the end, we had a wall chart gallery walk. The kids took notes on strategies they thought they could use in their piece. We voted on strategies we thought everyone should definitely use. In the end, we researched writing, in the middle of researching another topic— their writing will be stronger for it.

And to think, I almost just told them to start writing!


Book Talks Energize Research Reading & Writing

The Power of a Chart

About two weeks ago, my students and I sat down with two sheets of giant yellow chart paper. On it, we listed every way to take notes that came to our brains; we drew pictures of what they looked like, and we talked about reasons we might chose one over another. I have done this before with my students; it is nothing new. Although I have certainly discussed things like this with my students before, I have never made a wall-chart of note-taking options (See bottom of page 43— Energize Research Reading & Writing).

However, since that chart has been on the wall, it has become one of our most used resources. I see students skimming an article and then glancing up at the chart. They know the importance of choosing the best technique for the source at hand. And they also know that I am holding them accountable for their notes.

Truth be told, I have never placed too much value on notes. I knew they were important, and I told the kids which kind to take and when, but I never spent more than a day going over them. Two weeks later, these are common phrases heard in our workshop:

  • I like how you used different colors to show differences.
  • Do you think I need a Ven Diagram or is this more like a T-Chart?
  • I love bullets, but I think this bullet list needs subtitles.
  • I’m rereading my notes and highlighting them in different colors so I know what information I need, for different sections.

And then on Friday, in block two, the ultimate teacher joy:

  • I love research.
  • Can we research again next week? With new topics?
  • Now I really love this!

What changed?

1. I had them annotate their articles as they read them.

  • They put hearts around places they loved and question marks when they were confused.
  • They highlighted things they knew they might use in their papers.
  • They wrote new questions that were brought up by the text.
  • They drew pictures and labeled them to help them understand.

2. After they had annotated two articles, they took notes.

  • They found ways to bring their thinking on the two articles together.
  • They chose a note-taking format that would work for them.

3. We had an in class gallery walk

  • Everyone left their notes open and we all walked around with post-its leaving comments on our peer’s notes.

Somehow, in the mist of all this, research has become fun.  Kids are using YouTube videos as sources and taking notes on interviews. Their topics are ranging from Child Labor in shoe factories, to Justin Bieber and his musical roots. They’re not complaining about taking notes, in fact, they’re walking back to the chart on their own and spending time thinking about the best way to organize their notes for their paper and for their reading.

All this from a chart? Who knew?

Stay tuned as we learn how to take the notes and create interesting nonfiction feature articles from them!

Book Talks Energize Research Reading & Writing

Handling Uncertainty

In our switch to the Common Core, I’m finding the only way we can really accomplish everything we’re looking for is to let go a bit, to let students have control. If we are going to say that they are ready for the world, we’ll need to stop scripting the perfectly planned research project and start teaching them to overcome roadblocks and create products that will be useful to them or society. Chris Lehman (@iChrisLehman) even goes so far as to say, “when we are the ones rushing ahead, engagement drops dramatically as we take the intellectual rigor out of the job”(10).

Sounds beautiful, letting go and letting the kids take control, increasing rigor— I’m not sure it’s that easy.

But let’s quote Chris again, “If we are developing students to be creative, flexible, independent learners. Then we cannot scrub away opportunity for mistakes to be made and corrections to be learned”(10). We talked about this at our book study and our school librarian offered up the library for hard days. Days were we might be unsure if kids would come out with anything other than frustration that they couldn’t find any information on “The History of Justin Beiber’s Haircuts” or “Why the Eagles Keep Fumbling?” Days where research topics are changed twice, maybe even three times, can we handle the uncertainty of research?

At the end of the day, and with Bill, our librarian at our side, we decided we could in fact handle the uncertainty. But we were wondering, could our kids? What will our kids do in the face of frustration? Is this something we should talk to them about first? Or should we let them struggle and then bring them together to reflect? What about kids who want to research difficult topics, with little text at their reading level?

Feel free to talk back in the comments. Do you let your kids reach frustration? How do you reflect with your class? What did you notice in chapter 1 & 2 that we missed?

If you have the book, Energizing Research Reading and Writing, I’d like to add on that you should check out page 14 for a great way to help your kids generate ideas for research across the content areas.

Classroom Writing

The Notebook Investment

It is not uncommon for a teacher to ask me about notebooks. It is not uncommon for me to squirm under the pressure of that question. Why? Well, notebooks take investment and time, and if there is one thing I know about teachers, it’s that they’re already invested and time is something they’ve been searching for since they started this profession.

However, notebooks have changed the heartbeat of my classroom. They’ve given me something to fall back on as evidence of student growth; they’ve given me ways to form flexible groups around specific writing needs; they’ve given me a place to connect one-on-one with every student I’ve taught— no one gets missed.

Here are some musts for the notebooks in my classroom. They aren’t the musts for your classroom, you’ll have to make those up for yourself and change them as you go. Hopefully this list will give you some ideas as you start working with notebooks or help you think of a way you can change your list (mine changes every year).

  1. Everyone must use a composition book. I learned quickly that in order for me to bring them home and read them, I had to have them all the same size so they fit in my bag nicely (Plus the spiral bound ones tend to rip).
  2. Write every school day. The kids will write, if you give them the time.
  3. Each new day, must have a date. It doesn’t mean they can’t continue writing from yesterday, it just means you know where they ended and started. It helps me keep track of how much writing is actually happening in Writer’s Workshop and helps me to help them build stamina.
  4. Model for them. You have to show them in mini-lessons what skill you’re looking for. Then when you collect the journals, you know what to look for in their writing.
  5. Only revisions on the left. Perhaps one of my favorite rules, this lets me know if kids are revising, because that work will be done on the left. It also encourages them to leave the original work on the right. I can now trace their thinking and give feedback. Or get on them if they’re not revising ☺
  6. Read them. Everyone has to read the journals. The kids with their writing partners who offer feedback and leave it in their journals. You can read them alone and write feedback at the end, OR have the student read it to you in a conference and offer feedback.
  7. Follow up. If you gave feedback, if partners gave feedback, writers need to be held accountable for the change OR for the “Why I don’t need to change” argument.
  8. Don’t always tell them what to write in there. In order for them to feel ownership, they need to decide. Usually when kids say to me, “I don’t know what to write today.” I respond with, “Oh cool! You get to try a generating strategy first, which wall chart are you going to use?” Generally, they respond with an eye roll and then get started.
  9. Treat the notebook like gold. Make a big deal when a notebook is lost. Make a big deal when someone disrespects a notebook (throws it on the ground, reads someone else’s without being invited). Make a big deal when all the pages are filled with words. The more you model this, the more the kids will understand that notebooks are important.
  10. Put down your red/purple/whatever color pen your using. Be human. These kids are writing amazing stories of growing up; you’ll miss them if you’re always looking for correct comma patterns. Every child is doing something right in their writing, notice it, tell them, and celebrate the writer in front of you.

I’m sure I have more rules. I’m sure I could share more. But honestly, I learned the most about notebooks by diving in, flailing my arms a little, and then investing deep into the writing lives of my students.

Happy Writing Everyone!