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!

Classroom Reading Writing

An Open Letter To My Students:

Dear Readers, I forgot to share this letter with you. It was meant for my students, and while they have read it, I feel it is important to share with you too, because you have become part of this journey. Thank you for joining along with me this year or for as long as you have been reading. Thank you for your comments and constant hits on the site, even when I lag in posting. Enjoy!



An Open Letter To My Students:

On the first day of school, the look on your faces when I told you to read five books by the end of September was priceless. And then when I told you, to write for twenty minutes a day on top of that, the fear in your eyes almost made me back down. But at seven years into teaching, I’ve learned not to trust your eyes, at least not in moments like that.

However, the truth is I wasn’t sure if you could do it. I mean my fancy teacher books, blogs, and workshops had said that you could, but I wasn’t sure. It seemed like an insane amount of reading and writing. Even when I asked my Mom about it, she thought I was crazy (and my mom, well she’s my teacher expert hero). And so what you might not have heard in the mist of your fear was the trepidation in my voice— and maybe that has been our journey. Fear.

Maybe what you don’t know about me is that I love safety. There is nothing more comforting than knowing an outcome before a task has begun. In my past, if I didn’t know the outcome, I simply would have found a different way. The risk of failing, the risk of getting hurt or worse being laughed at, has always been too great.

Yet for some reason this year, the fear felt like less of a “stop right there” and more of an “I dare you to try”.

I was at a crossroad in my career passion and you gave me your hands, your pencils, and your trust. At night, sometimes I would wake up panicked, wondering if I had a lesson that would engage you, wondering if I was giving the right amount of feedback, wondering if I was still the teacher you needed me to be.

Then came you. You guys took what I gave you, and brought it to the next level. You exceeded my expectations academically, forcing me to raise the bar again and again. But that wasn’t all; you got excited and started dreaming too. Soon your dreams and ‘what ifs’ became our new curriculum. I wasn’t alone at all; I had 75 people planning with me, giving feedback, dreaming bigger.

I need to thank you for pushing your fears aside. I need to thank you for giving me the freedom to teach you as individuals. I need to thank you for allowing me to fail and for dreaming with me again.

After 180 days together, these are the messages I hope we both take home: When life hands you a healthy dose of fear and you’re not sure you can go on, know that sometimes when fear whispers it’s less a place to stop and more of a dare to press on. When your plans fail, when something doesn’t work, and everything falls to pieces— keep dreaming, keep chasing after . . .  there is a supercar just around the corner.

In closing, I believe children’s book author A.A. Milne has said it the best, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together . . . there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Sincerely your teacher, mentor, coach, editor, hairdresser, stain remover, relationship advice giver, DJ,  fearless dreamer,


Miss Smith



7 days lucky

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

—A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


We have 7 days of school left. It is not enough time. Do you remember this phase from last year? Ah yes, I go insane and worry, worry, worry, run, plan, worry, hug— then they’re gone.


I don’t even like Memorial Day; I mean I like what it stands for, but could we switch it? Make it two weeks later? I did not want to have off today, not one bit.


I am not going to write long, just enough to let you know, I exist, and that this time of year demands every ounce of me in a much different way than all the other months.


And so, I’m off to jot some last minute notes to students writers. I’ll get back with you, hopefully before my face is wet with the tears of another round of goodbyes.


If you’re a teacher like me, try to treasure the insanity of these next days. Sit next to the kids you know need to be heard. Chat with them in the hallway and invite them to have lunch with you (or horror of horrors, go have lunch with them). Take these last days, and let them know just how lucky you feel . . .

Photo credit goes to Evan— if you like the style of this photo e-mail me at [email protected] and I’ll get you in touch with him. 

Classroom Writing


It all started with test prep. I mean, I dread test prep; I value its importance, but I dread test prep. So with persuasive writing test prep, the easiest and maybe one of the most important things I do with my kids is to have them write to a prompt, because really, I don’t give them writing prompts all year, so this practice is important.

Somewhere between test prep and moments of testing anxiety only a teacher can understand, came McLaren.

I know nothing about cars. But, I can definitely pick out a cool car. So what would be cooler than persuading the McLaren MP4-12C to come see us at school? Well, if it actually worked, nothing would be cooler than that. In fact I think it would make test prep authentic, which is really the reason I hate test prep in the first place, the lack of authenticity in the process.

When we started writing our persuasive letters to McLaren and our Principal, I was all about the details— that is providing valid persuasive techniques, putting the thesis statement in the right place, a genuine rebuttal that actually helped the paper. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I realized their reasoning had persuaded me too, learning about this car was one of the most educational things we could do for them and if I could make it happen, I would try.

Before I knew it, the science teacher was involved doing materials science labs and talking about the strength of a carbon fiber body. Then the kids were building their own rubber band powered racecars, and it was happening, it was actually happening.

Our math teacher brought the whole project to a new level, planning out McLaren math and getting the kids to figure out Drag Speed Coefficients and things I do not understand at all. He was even e-mailing the Chief Engineer over at McLaren England; I mean really. And so what had started as a really painful test prep lesson became a community building, learning experience, across three curricular areas— oh and one really amazing day with The McLaren MP4-12C!





During this project, I saw my kids do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. They struggled and didn’t give up: Each subject area really raised the bar with this one, we all expected things out of them we were not sure they had the ability to do. We all watched them fail; we all watched them try again, more than once.
  2. The helped each other: Without me suggesting it, without thinking that if they helped one team they might not win a prize, they selflessly shared tips with their core group of friends and people they rarely talked to. They really wanted everyone to succeed.
  3. They smiled: I see them smile everyday, but this project had some really excited smiles from kids who sometimes struggle to find a reason to smile (See screams of joy when Chad turned on the car stereo and played Taylor Swift for them and gasps of awe as Matt opened and shut the car door).

Then again during this project, I saw adults do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. Jon, Donna, Jen & I worked together as a team: We each changed lesson plans, we each conducted research above and beyond, we were flexible and supported each other in the way coworkers should.
  2. All the people at McLaren Philadelphia and McLaren helping us and making us feel like family, answering our questions along the way, and being excited for us: They didn’t have to, they weren’t making a profit for this, they valued us when we had nothing we could give them in return.
  3. Chad, Alison, and Matt giving up their day to be with us: They stayed way longer than expected; they brought gifts for the kids; they answered countless questions. They got sunburn!
  4. Evan, typically a star in our classroom, came in to help us build cars, take photos, and make sure I stayed sane at the end of the day.
  5. Gerald Catagnus, our principal, who saw the value in our plan and welcomed McLaren into our school.

A Footnote:

This past summer, I attended Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. I remember one class I took with Colleen Cruz, author of Reaching Struggling Writers. Maybe what I remember the most, without looking at my notes, is that if you draw on something kids already think is fun, and then apply writing to it, they’ll be more likely to give you their best work.

Generally speaking, I thought I was pretty good at doing just that. However, it was in this class that I realized I may have been missing some pretty valuable teaching tools. Sports. Video Games. Hunting. Cars. Anything, that I might have previously labeled utterly and totally ummm boring boy?

I made my mind up this summer, that I would open my mind. I would try harder with a topic that my kid’s love, even if the very thought of the topic would be utterly vapid for me.

But in the end, this project, this undertaking, was anything but vapid. In fact it sits high on my teacher shelf of things I loved teaching, loved learning about, and I still can barely believe this all happened to us.


**There was a press release for this day, hence the kid pic love I’m totally able to post. If you love style of these photos, email me at [email protected] , and I can set you up with our amazing photographer Evan.


Classroom Reading

Our Own Masquerade

Bronx Masquerade  is my secret April weapon; it has been since 2002. Since 2005, I have read this book aloud to three separate classes each April (National Poetry Month). That’s over 21 times reading the same novel aloud. It has not gotten old. I love this book. I would like to give Nikki Grimes a hug.

It’s the story of a high school English class, told by the students who are learning about poetry and The Harlem Renaissance. Each student takes a turn writing honestly about his or her life, and then writing a poem that is read to the class. By the end of the book the students view each other differently because they recognize the struggles each has to go through.

It’s a story of removing masks, revealing true identities, and embracing poetry/writing.

Slowly, slowly, the book takes us over, and we feel like our classroom too is going through the change. We are real with each other; we learn that there are some parts of each person’s story they had not dared to share before. Slowly, Slowly, the masks come off and we become inseparable.

Here’s a section of one of the poems from the book . . .

I woke up this morning

exhausted from hiding

the me of me

so I stand here confiding

there’s more to Devon

than jump shot and rim…

I dare you to peep

behind these eyes,

discover the poet

in tough-guy disguise….

don’t call me Jump Shot

my name is Surprise


If you are a teacher and thinking about using this book in your classroom, please be advised it does contain mature topics. I would use it for upper middle school or high school. If you are a parent, read it with your kid and talk to them.


Every Moment Counts

Minus the first month or two of school, these last six weeks are the weeks I feel most alive. State testing is over, the kids fully understand my expectations, and there is a constant ticking in the back of my head to make every moment count.

These are the weeks of meaningful revisions, of purposeful read alouds, and never sitting down. If you’re a teacher, and dreading “the end of the school year unfocused disease” that sometimes plagues students, here is my secret: get passionate and take your kids along for the ride.

We almost have too much going on in our classroom right now. I have lists upon lists and even then I’m forgetting things. But, it’s okay because the kids, they’re on top of it; they’re engaged; they’re holding me accountable for good teaching (even in the middle of the 8th grade formal, high school move up day, and a field trip white water rafting). How?

Well here’s a list I’ll share, hopefully in the middle of all of this I’ll find a way to write you a post about each one . . . and if not I’ll do it all on June 6th, through my tears of letting them go.

  1.  Read Aloud a book that gets everyone thinking in a new way: Bronx Masquerade
  2.  Youtube videos to show them people who are real and living literacy rich lives: Sarah Kay
  3.  Real conferencing— asking hard questions, flexible skill groups, and keeping track of everything: Confer iPad ap love
  4. Literature Study where they choose the groups and the books: Free Choice Kid Love (Reading Hunger Games for the third time with your besties, totally okay)
  5. Bringing People in, Having outside events: Gallery at Café 110, McLaren Cars (OMG more on this one later), a real musician/word man, a writer or two, maybe some parents too . . . never a dull moment.

I realize I haven’t posted on here in awhile, but it’s not because I haven’t been ahappyteacher, it’s more because sometimes being ahappyteacher and having a life means that you’re exhausted at the end of the day. So maybe I’m exhausted, but hey I’ll be exhausted for them any day, they’re my kids, & I love them.

welcome the new man in my life 🙂
Classroom Reading

Once Upon a Twice

Once upon a twice, in the middle of the nice, in a middle school classroom, the students had fun during the week of the PSSAs.This is not a fairy tale.

But, it does involve a picture book.

It was a book I had forgotten about until retreated by to my familiar and well loved Columbia University Teacher’s College notebooks— it’s where I go when teaching gets hard, because I know if I have the motivation and the joy, my kids will too.

I saw the title, Once Upon a Twice, scribbled across the top of the page, with the words BUY THIS BOOK written in bold and underlined near it. I hadn’t bought the book, but I did remember this youtube video of a five year old reading it.

I also remembered my frustration the first time I had heard this story read to me, the rhythm and rhyme were beautiful, but hard for me to follow and my comprehension was hindered by made up words and out of context places for words with which I was familiar.

And then I remembered the third read of the book at Columbia, when I sorta’ fell in love with this book and it’s whimsy, “a riskarascal in repose, a mouse who stopped—to smell a rose.” I resolved right then that I would read the book to talk to my kids about a time when I, as an adult, struggled with a children’s book.

There is no better time to admit to your kids that reading is sometimes hard for you than during the PSSA. So I ordered the book from Amazon, and we set off to discover a book that at first had stumped me and then had me under its spell. There were giggles, laughs, gasps, and . . . I have to admit it learning—even during the week of the PSSA.

If you’re looking for a book to read to your kids of any age I’m totally recommending Once Upon a Twice by Denise Doyen.

Here are the strategies things I would teach with it . . .

  1. Vocab in Context
  2. Root words, Prefix, Suffix work
  3. Really anything you can think of vocabulary
  4. Foreshadowing
  5. Theme
  6. What to do when reading doesn’t make sense
  7. And for the little guys, using pictures to help with comprehension

One Less Thing

I came home more than a few days this week and said to my best friend, “They never stopped asking me questions!” It’s true, they didn’t. I thought I was going to go crazy.

Like most teachers I can handle about three questions in any given moment. The make them stop factor only happens when this number reaches six questions in any given moment and two of the six have to do with the bathroom or why I chose to wear this sweater today over their favorite one (seriously why do the kids have a favorite of my sweaters?).

At some point on Friday one of my guys offers this up, “Last week was easy, we needed you to do your watch thing and make sure we got it; I guess we did cause you really bumped it up. Don’t worry; we’ll get it soon, and by the way we do know it’s called a semicolon, but winky face is way more fun to say.”

Maybe he’s right? Maybe they’ll be normal again on Tuesday– regardless as long as they’re using the winky face correctly, that’s one less thing I’ll be correcting.

Classroom Reading Writing


When you’re a good teacher, sometimes you have to do nothing. I mean it probably looks like nothing, but sometimes when you’ve given them the tools, you’ve got to let them use them. Alone. No hand holding. No answering questions. And I’m so pretending not to see that one kid that’s struggling right now, cause it’s his fight and the best way for me to help him is to give him space.

It’s a fickle chemistry this knowing when to step in and knowing when to let them struggle. My first instinct is to always have a conference going on, always be moving around the room, but there are times when you just shouldn’t, when you should let them be with their book or their journal and let them journey the way you do.

The best part of my job is showing kids the journey, not the one that happens sitting in a school desk, the one that happens on the floor with your journal, when you shut out the world and figure out that who you are exactly isn’t who you thought you were. Cause I’ve been lost in a journal or a book and somehow in all that lostness, I’ve found myself, and maybe my job is more about helping these kids find themselves than anything else?

Classroom Reading

ahappyneighbor—Part I

And because I’m always trying to make everything a little more fantastic in my classroom, and since I never make too much of anything easy on myself…this year I decided that ALL of my students would learn about Detroit. That’s right, leveled texts and tons of them, hours upon hours of Internet research so every group could access the information, tons of Goggle searches and Youtube videos. I even went to the library, and you know how much that pains me.

This year instead of having Evan work with small groups of ten students in each class, he would work with everyone, right from the start. If Detroit and Evan had so greatly impacted 30 kids last year, why not go for 90? (because it’s crazy, that’s why?!)

Who in their right mind would try to write a new curriculum on a place they’ve never been, using the common core for the first time and incorporating both reading and writing standards for levels three through High School? acrazyteacher ahappyteacher

So we jumped in Mid-October. A history of Michigan with focus on Detroit, oh and sing-a-longs for fluency (thank you Bog Segar and The White Stripes). When I tell you I ran groups and made copies, I want you to understand the massive undertaking this was. I think I stayed for over an hour after school on Friday just to do one weeks worth of copying and this unit lasted until the last week in December!

As we studied, the kids shared their information with eachother via skits, power points, photos, drawings, essays, and graphic organizers. Each group had to learn from the other because honestly I couldn’t find the same information at all the different levels. Here’s the catch, each group listened to the other, because each group had the common experience of what we’re calling, “Evan videos”.

Again, Evan filled in gaps I just couldn’t find in texts. He made Detroit real and cool and funny (very funny, if you ever need to make a fourteen-year-old laugh; email me for Evan’s contact info). Like last year, Evan brought learning to life with relationship; work was completed not so much because I was asking them to do it, but more because Evan had suggested it was cool or because Evan had been there before. The power of cool in the life of an 8th grader is unreal.


What am I trying to say here? Why am I doing all this extra work?

Well, part of it is that you’ve got to enter into relationship with kids to make anything work. By letting the kids meet my best friend and interact with him, I make myself more real and they see the authentic nature by which my whole life is run. They know that I write inside and outside of school, because I tell them I do, because Evan tells them I do, and because I suspect some of them stalk me here.

The extra work, the copies, the hours sorting through information? I like learning; Detroit is a cool city, with a rich history. At the end of the day, the more excited I can be about a topic, the more excited the kids will be; my energy, my enthusiasm, my classroom—it’s contagious.