Slice of Life: Unlocking Possiblities




I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower. One morning last week as I was washing my hair, I was thinking about “The Good Old Days,” a poem Ralph Fletcher shared at the Connecticut Reading Conference. Later that morning, I would be facilitating a meeting with ELA teachers and I wanted to share the poem with them. Fletcher had us use this poem as a mentor text, taking the first and last stanzas from his poem and filling in the middle with our own “good old days” memories. As I lathered my hair, I thought about what I had written. I realized I hadn’t focused on any one memory. Instead, I had more of a list of special people and objects. While I was rinsing out the shampoo, it occurred to me that students could use this poem as a way to gather seed stories.

Then my thoughts returned to my poem. One line was about climbing a favorite apple tree in my grandmother’s yard. This made me think of a story I’ve been working on, but have been stumped by about where to go next. Suddenly, the tumblers in the lock aligned and I saw a possible path. Now I was rushing to finish my shower so I could write down my idea. Since that morning, I’ve been steadily working on this story, writing a little each day.

For me, these aha! moments of insight are like finding the perfect gift for someone who is notoriously hard to buy for. They give me immense satisfaction. But they don’t happen unless I’m writing regularly. When I’m writing each day, something is different in my brain. I see the world differently. I see possibilities. Donald Murray said, “The daily practice of craft sharpens the writer’s vision and tunes the writer’s voice. Habit makes writing easy.” I don’t think any amount of writing will ever make writing easy for me. Easier, maybe. But never easy.

Which brings me to students. Many students find writing the most difficult part of their day. Teachers often tell me they find it hard to make time for writing. That writing time is the first thing to go when time is short. Maybe this is because writing is difficult for them, too. This makes me sad. It is only by writing that we build our writing muscle. It is only by writing that we begin to see the world with what Maxine Greene called “wide awake eyes.” I’m constantly amazed by the metaphors children use for everyday objects when we ask them to be observant.

In order to cultivate this kind of awareness, we have to ensure that children have what Penny Kittle calls “time to count on,” time they know they’ll have so “if something occurs to [them] during the day, [they’ll] store it away, knowing [they’ll] have time to write soon, and the idea will resurface then.”  Children deserve this time to write about things that matter to them. Every. Single. Day. Nothing in our curriculum matters more than this. After all, who knows what they’ll think of while they’re in the shower!

Thank you, StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for the gift of this space for teachers and others to share their writing each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: A Writing Kind of Day


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It was raining yesterday morning when I arrived at the the Connecticut Reading Conference. But Ralph Fletcher’s inspiring keynote address and break-out session about the importance of narratives and mentor texts quickly drove away the day’s dreariness.

Fletcher told the ballroom full of teachers that “mentor texts breathe new life into the classroom; they expand kids’ vision of what’s possible.” He demonstrated this by asking us to use his poem, “The Good Old Days,” as a model for our own writing. A hush came over the room as everyone wrote feverishly about childhood memories. If anyone in the room doubted the importance of giving writers choices about their writing, this activity dispelled that notion.

He encouraged us to share powerful mentor texts with students so they can be “showered by the pixie dust” that comes off these books and poems and write their own powerful texts. He urged us to leave room in our curriculum for personal narratives so our students can learn to write with voice. “Kids find their stride as writers by writing about themselves,” he said.

After his session, Ralph graciously stayed to sign books and answer questions. When he signed my copy of his poetry collection, A Writing Kind of Day: Poems for Young Poets (WordSong, 2005) he told me his favorite poem in this book is “Squished Squirrel Poem.” I love it, too. I can picture a student (or two) of mine who would be inspired by this poem. This is a poem they could go into and find exactly “what they need” to create a poem of their own.

He also gave me permission to share this poem from the collection, the perfect poem for a rainy autumn day.

“A Writing Kind of Day”

It is raining today,

a writing kind of day.

Each word hits the page

like a drop in a puddle,

creating a tiny circle

of trembling feeling

that ripples out

and gathers strength

ringing toward the stars

Then it hit me,

Ma was my first word.

As if the word swam back

to where it all began.

I want my students to think every day is a writing kind of day. Thank you, Ralph Fletcher, for sharing your wisdom with teachers and inspiring us to create classrooms that will encourage our students to create “tiny circle[s] of trembling feeling.”

Please be sure to visit Cathy Mere at Merely Day By Day for the Poetry Friday Round Up. Thanks for hosting, Cathy!

Slice of Life: The Gift of Words


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Last Saturday morning I sat in the nave of Riverside Church—a soaring space of beauty beyond words—as David Booth addressed the thousands of teachers gathered for TCRWP’s Fall Saturday Reunion. He reminded us that “everyone is making their own story” and that all stories deserve to be heard. It’s our job to help children reveal their story, and Booth encouraged us to “weave a blanket of words to cover our children.” He urged us to give them words we love, words we sing, words we puzzle over. He urged us to “give them as gifts.”

Each session I attended throughout the day gave me the gift of words. Audra Robb shared her wisdom about teaching students how to locate places in their writing for strong verbs and precise nouns, the kinds of words that can fill their writing with details that matter. She told us to read mentor texts closely with our students to help them become aware of the techniques authors use to create specific effects, effects they can try out in their writing. Practicing and experimenting with these techniques empowers them to find their own voice.

Brooke Geller presented a standing-room only crowd with a variety of strategies for building vocabulary. Use words, she told us, in writing, in conversations, and across our lives. Give our children opportunities to use words, think about meanings, and to read them in many different contexts. Soon the words will be part of them.

Finally, Carl Anderson urged us to ask kids questions, but then to be quiet and give them a chance to “get their thoughts together.” He reminded us to prompt them by asking them to “say more about that.” When we do this, “we nudge them to reach for more specific language.” He compared this process to Russian nesting dolls—“Each time you ask, more thinking comes out.” Most importantly, by taking the time to ask kids these questions, we’re giving kids “the gift of thinking about their thinking.”

We create our world with words. Lucille Clifton once said “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.” We can’t imagine what we can’t name. For this reason, children need as many words as we can possibly give them. We need to fill them up, so they’ll have the words they need to imagine the best possible world for us all.

Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project for the gift of the Saturday Reunions and all you’ve done for teachers and students around the world.

Thank you, StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for the gift of this space for teachers and others to share their writing each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: Mutability


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“Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of molding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.”

~ Mary Shelly ~

My book group is reading Frankenstein this month in honor of Halloween. I read Mary Shelley’s classic gothic tale as an undergraduate many years ago, but don’t think I truly appreciated what a remarkable achievement this novel was for a twenty-year old woman.

In her introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley explains that she came to write Frankenstein during the “wet, ungenial summer” she and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley spent in Switzerland. Their neighbor, Lord Byron, decided they should write ghost stories to occupy themselves while they were “confined…for days to the house.” (I was fascinated to read that scientists now think that the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused that rainy summer in Europe the following year.) She describes in detail how the idea for the story came to her after listening to discussions between Byron and Shelley about “the nature of the principle of life.”

About halfway through the novel, just before Victor confronts his creation high in the Alps outside Geneva, Shelley quotes this poem by her husband, a bittersweet reminder about the fleeting nature of our joys and sorrows.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
    How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:—
Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings
    Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
    One mood or modulation like the last.
We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.

 Be sure to visit Michelle at Today’s Little Ditty for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Writing Zenos


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A couple of weeks ago, Michelle Heidenrich Barnes featured an interview with poet J. Patrick Lewis on her blog. Lewis challenged Michelle’s readers to write a “zeno,” a poetic form he invented. Inspired by the mathematical “hailstone sequence,” a zeno, is “a 10-line poem with 8,4,2,1,4,2,1,4,2,1 syllables that rhyme abcdefdghd.”

I think students will have fun with this form, so I spent some time playing with zenos today. They are quite a challenge! Here’s the example I came up with to share with my students before they try their own:

In October apples ripen,

orchards are full.

Fruit hangs


Plump, juicy macs,



with morning dew.

Fun to


© Catherine Flynn, 2014

Winslow Homer, 1878 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Winslow Homer, 1878 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you to Michelle and J. Patrick Lewis for this challenge! And thank you StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: Poem Without End


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For the past week or so, I’ve been gathering ideas for Carol Varsalona’s “Finding Fall” poetry project. I’ve gone for walks, taken photos, and gathered many ideas. Early in the week, an idea had taken hold, and I started jotting some words and phrases, but that’s as far as I went. Then, a day or two ago, a poet whose work I love and admire posted a poem on the same topic. Sigh. How could I write a poem about this subject now? Any poem I wrote wouldn’t be nearly as good or clever as hers.

Fast forward to Poetry Friday. As I was searching The Poetry Foundation website, I found this article by Jessica Greenbaum. In it, she wonders if there is room for new poems on old subjects. In essence, Greenbaum decides how can we not write our new poems? She goes on to share several poems she feels “cover all the territory of my particular sense of the human condition.” I was struck by this one in particular, by Yehuda Aichai and translated by Chana Bloch.

“Poem Without End”

Inside the brand-new museum

there’s an old synagogue.

Inside the synagogue

is me.

Inside me

my heart.

Read the rest of the poem here.

We have to, no, we must create our own response to our experiences. How can ideas not be transformed into something new and unique during their journey through our hearts?

Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio Designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (Italian, Siena 1439–1501 Siena), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio
Designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (Italian, Siena 1439–1501 Siena), Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aichai’s poem brought this beautiful room, one of my favorite installations at the Met, to mind.

Be sure to visit Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect for the Poetry Friday Round Up.



Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Marilyn Singer!


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I have been a fan of Marilyn Singer’s work for many years. Her first book of poetry, Turtle in July (Simon & Schuster, 1989) has been a staple in my classroom since I started teaching. Written in the voice of a variety of woodland animals, Singer’s poems and Jerry Pinkey’s realistic illustrations are an irresistible combination.


Over the years, I’ve collected many of Marilyn’s poetry and picture books. And, because I’m fortunate enough to live near her home in Connecticut, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Marilyn on several occasions at our local bookstore. She is always gracious, full of good cheer, and interested to know how I’m using her poems in the classroom.

Footprints on the Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) is a favorite of third graders. As they learn about rocks, continents, and land forms, these “poems about the earth” offer a different perspective on our world. Filled with a sense of wonder and lyrical, often playful language, children love to listen to and read these poems over and over again.


Out in the country I walk across towns

I’ll never see:

mazy metropolises

under the earth

where rabbits hide from foxes

foxes hide from dogs

full-bellied snakes sleep snugly…

Read the rest of the poem here.

        imgres-1      imgres

First graders (and my inner 6-year old) love the exuberance of the poems in A Stick Is An Excellent Thing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Favorite childhood activities like jumping rope, swinging to the sky, and blowing bubbles are celebrated in this collection. LeUyen Pham’s realistic illustrations are the perfect pairing for these poems that capture the joy of being a kid outside on a summer day.

“A Stick Is An Excellent Thing”

A stick is an excellent thing.

If you find the perfect one,

it’s a scepter for a king.

A stick is an excellent thing.

It’s a magic wand. It’s yours to fling,

to strum a fence, to draw the sun.

A stick is an excellent thing.

If you find the perfect one.

I hope you have a perfect birthday, Marilyn! Thank you for “paying attention to the world around you” and sharing your words of discovery!

Be sure to visit Jama at Jama’s Alphabet Soup for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: From My Grandmother’s Kitchen



Why do we save things? To remind us of momentous occasions, memorable moments, times we had fun? I suppose for all these reasons and more. We say things have sentimental value, but it’s sometimes hard to articulate exactly why. And though I’ve never been sorry I held onto an object, I’ve often regretted getting rid of something, usually within a week or two.

When I get frustrated about my inability to throw things away (usually because a stack of papers or pile of pictures has just collapsed), I think of my grandmother and tell myself it’s genetic. She had a Depression-era mentality of saving everything. When we cleaned out her house, we found bank statements from the 1950s! But we also found many treasures. One was an illustration from a 1930s calendar of a little girl reading a Watkins Cook Book. The caption reads: “What! No recipe for mud pie?” As soon as I saw it, I thought of my mother-in-law. She loved to bake and made delicious whoopie pies. I knew she had to have this picture.


I took it to a shop to have it matted and framed, and gave it to my mother-in-law for Christmas that year. She loved it, and it hung by her stove for the rest of her life. After she died, I told my sister-in-law that this picture was the only possession of my mother-in-law’s I really wanted. She said she’d put it aside for me and that I could get it the next time I was in Pennsylvania.

Except I couldn’t. My sister-in-law had put it aside so well she couldn’t find it. I’ve done this myself, so I figured it would turn up eventually. Except it didn’t. Then the house was sold and emptied. Still no picture. I tried not to be too disappointed. After all, I had plenty of memories of cooking with my mother-in-law in that kitchen, and all the happy meals our family had shared there.

This past weekend my sister-in-law visited, and when she arrived at our house, she handed me a box. “It was in a corner of my attic,” she explained. I opened the lid, and there it was, right on top. A piece of ephemera my grandmother had saved almost 80 years ago, that hung in another kitchen for ten years, will now be at home in my kitchen, linking it to other kitchens, other times. 

This whole episode reminded me of Susan Vreeland’s lovely book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Through a series of stories, Vreeland links the owners of a (fictional) painting by Vermeer across the centuries. She creates a vivid depiction of each time period and owner, charting their motivations and desires. These remain remarkably similar over the centuries. At one point, a character realizes that “love builds itself unconsciously… out of the momentous ordinary.”

I think this is why we save things. To have reminders of those unconscious, ordinary moments that add up to a life filled with love.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: The Falling Star


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“The Falling Star”

by Sara Teasdale

I saw a star slide down the sky,

Blinding the north as it went by,

Too burning and too quick to hold,

Too lovely to be bought or sold,

Good only to make wishes on

And then forever to be gone.

Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. "The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth." 09/26/2014 13:08:13.

Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA-Johnson Space Center. “The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.” <>09/26/2014 13:08:13.

I haven’t seen a shooting star in a long time, but last night when I let the dog out I looked up at just the right moment. After a long, busy day, the blaze of that meteor was a gift; a reminder to take a deep breath and enjoy the beauty of the night sky. Teasdale describes the sight perfectly in “The Falling Star,” a poem I discovered years ago in Nancy Larrick’s anthology, Piping Down the Valleys Wild.

Laura Purdie Salas is hosting the Poetry Friday Round Up on her blog today. Be sure to stop by to find out about her wonderful new project, 30 Painless Classroom Poems: What’s Inside? Poems to Explore the Park.

Slice of Life: Between the Words


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“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”

Alfred Mercier

When I was 7 or 8, my grandparents took me to a performance of the U.S. Navy Band. This was a huge thrill, as I’d never been to a live concert before. I can remember sitting in the audience, being mesmerized by the music. I was amazed that the sounds I was hearing were being created by the people and the instruments on the stage before me.

The memory of that night came back to me as I listened to Krista Tippett interview Yo-Yo Ma on her radio program, “On Being” over the weekend. During their discussion, Mr. Ma explained his “philosophy of curiosity about life and of performance as hospitality.” As I listened to this wise and generous man, it occurred to me that many of his ideas about music applied to education, and that infusing our teaching with them would make our classrooms better places.

Mr. Ma talked about the necessity of being flexible with plans. “The plan is always going to change. And you need to make sure that the audience is always the most important person in the room.” Such simple advice. It’s one of the most essential lessons I learned as a beginning teacher. Yet, in the day-to-day deluge of SLO’s, standards, testing, etc., I sometimes have to remind myself that the children at the heart of my plans are the most important people in the room.

Earlier this year, Mr. Ma was honored with the Fred Rogers Legacy Award. When asked about this, he recalled a conversation with Fred Rogers: “…do you know what a present that is, when you play something for somebody? It’s just like giving them a present.” To me, this captures what is at the heart of the interaction between teacher and student—I want to share this precious gift with you. Everything we share with our students should be selected with the care and thoughtfulness we put into choosing gifts. For, as Mr. Ma also said, “When you receive something that’s living, that goes inside you, because it becomes your own.” I want my students to own the stories we share and the lessons they learn when we’re together.

When Ms. Tippet asked him to describe his idea about beauty, Mr. Ma explained that he thinks of beauty as “an encapsulation of a lot of different things in a certain moment” and  “…when that encapsulated form is received, there’s a moment of reception and cognition of the thing that is, in some ways, startling.” This was the feeling I had sitting in that auditorium so many years ago, listening to the “music between the notes.” The wonder and joy within me at “that moment when something [was] transferred…a transfer of life,” seemed like a miracle to me. I’ve seen this same joy on a child’s face at that moment when she realizes that she has read a word or a sentence or a book. When she discovers the magic between those words. These are the moments of beauty that I strive for each day.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.


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