Finding My Writing Rhythm


Have you ever had one of those weeks when you have something going on every single evening? This is one of those weeks for me. I’ve been distracted by all I have to accomplish in the next few days. I’m still am not sure how I’ll manage it all. But I haven’t written a Slice in almost a month, and I didn’t want to let another week slip by without writing.

Then all of a sudden it was after eight o’clock. I’d been tossing around a couple of ideas throughout the day. I’d even started drafting one. But nothing was coming together. As I was cleaning the kitchen, considering my options, I heard snatches of the baseball game from the living room. It sounded like the starting pitcher had walked the first two batters. Not an auspicious way to begin a game.

Hall of Fame Pitcher Sandy Koufax By Bell Brand ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Bell Brand ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a lifelong baseball fan, I know that pitchers sometimes take time to settle into a rhythm and hit their stride. Sometimes their first few pitches are erratic: high, low, outside. Sometimes they don’t recover from these rough starts. They give up too many runs too early, and they are done for the day. But sometimes they settle down a pitch a brilliant game.

I realized that I was having trouble writing my slice because, like that pitcher, I couldn’t settle down. I couldn’t find my writing rhythm.

How often do our students find themselves in this situation? Probably more often than we know. They may have an idea, but aren’t really sure how to find their way into it. Or maybe they can’t choose between a few ideas. Whatever the case, we can establish routines and provide supportive writing environments, but we can never completely prevent a bad writing day. The key is not to give up, and to let our students know we’re not giving up on them. When the manager goes out to the mound to take the ball away, he doesn’t yell and scream. (Although he might later.) He’s calm and nurturing, just as we are when our students are stuck.

And just like that struggling pitcher, we will either settle down and write something, or we’ll put down our pen after only a sentence or two. But we’ll also be back tomorrow, pen in hand, ready to face the page with our best effort.

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

DigiLit Sunday: Why I Write


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic, in preparation for the National Day On Writing on October 20, is “Why I Write.” Please be sure to visit Margaret’s blog to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

“You were made and set here to give voice to your own astonishment.”
~ Annie Dillard ~

When I was growing up, I loved to explore. Inside or out, it didn’t matter. I was curious about what was under every rock and what I could see from the top of each tree. I wanted to know what was in every drawer and old trunk I could find. At one point, I even wanted to be an archeologist so I could say it was my job to find treasure.

I didn’t become an archeologist, but my curiosity has never left me. Daily walks are explorations. I always return home with something: a leaf or fragment of a wasp’s nest, an image in my head or on my camera. Opening a book and entering into unknown worlds is another way to delve into the unknown. Poking around an antique shop or a flea market also recaptures that thrill of discovery.

Preset Style = Travelogue Format = 6" (Medium) Format Margin = Small Format Border = Sm. Rounded Drawing = #2 Pencil Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Medium Paint = Natural Paint Lightness = Auto Paint Intensity = More Water = Orange Juice Water Edges = Medium Water Bleed = Average Brush = Fine Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Medium Paper = Buff Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Medium Options Faces = Enhance Faces
A view from a late afternoon walk last week, enhanced by Waterlogue.

But the most important way I keep my sense of wonder and curiosity alive is by writing. When I write, I can wander through the woods where I played as a kid. Or pore over old photos from the desk in my grandmother’s living room. I can rummage around in forgotten boxes for hours and still be excited when some long-forgotten memento turns up.

Writing lets me puzzle through questions. The page, after all, is a good listener. Writing lets me have a conversation about subjects no one else is interested in. In both cases, writing clarifies my thoughts about my work and life. Sometimes writing captures my frustrations. Letting the paper absorb my irritation or discouragement helps to dissipate negative feelings.

Writing also allows me, as Ted Kooser so wonderfully described it in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, to have moments “full of joyous, solitary discovery.” I have experienced these moments, although they are they exception, not the rule. What I have learned during my life as a writer, is that the more you write, the more likely you are to make one of those joyous discoveries; a flash of insight, when the right words flow out in the right order. It is a deeply satisfying moment.

The writing I do for myself, because I want to, also puts me in a better position to help my students. I know that extended periods of time to write about things they’re passionate about is necessary if they are to become skilled writers and thinkers. I want my students to have the opportunity to see where their writing takes them. Who knows what they might discover about themselves?

Writing may be satisfying, but it can also be deeply frustrating. My writing always falls short of my expectations. So why do I continue? I keep writing because I always learn something new. And I’m always searching for the undiscovered treasure waiting for me at the bottom of the trunk.

IMWAYR: “Before Morning”


Samuel Taylor Coleridge once reminded “clever young poets” that poetry is “the best words in the best order.” Joyce Sidman’s poetry embodies this advice. In her latest book, Before Morning (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Sidman has chosen just sixty-six words and crafted them into a lyrical incantation full of love and longing.


A hallmark of Sidman’s poetry is her unexpected metaphors and images, and Before Morning is true to form. We’re instantly lured into “the deep woolen dark” where “the earth turns to sugar/and all that is heavy/turns light.”  A deceptively simple rhyme scheme is almost “hidden from sight,” but adds to this book’s rhythm and beauty.

Beth Krommes‘s scratchboard and watercolor illustrations give a marvelous depth to Sidman’s poem and resonate in unexpected ways. Sidman herself has said that the illustrations were “a complete surprise.” Krommes, who has illustrated two of Joyce’s earlier books, Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) and Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), provides a setting that is instantly recognizable to readers: the hustle and bustle of daily life. Children will want to pore over the details of this family’s life and will find surprises on every page.

In her author’s note, Joyce explains that Before Morning is “an invocation—a poem that invites something to happen.” She goes on to encourage readers to think about their own wishes and find the best words for them.

I tried to find the best words I could to express how much I love this book. My wish is for Joyce Sidman and Beth Krommes to continue collaborating and creating stunning picture books like Before Morning.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

Poetry Friday: “Mabon”


by Annie Finch

For Mabon (fall equinox), Sept. 21

Our voices press
from us
and twine
around the year’s
fermenting wine

Yellow fall roars
Over the ground.
Loud, in the leafy sun that pours
Liquid through doors,
Yellow, the leaves twist down

as the winding
of the vine
pulls our curling


Glowing in wind and change,
The orange leaf tells

How one more season will alter and range,
Working the strange
Colors of clamor and bells

In the winding
of the vine
our voices press out
from us
to twine

When autumn gathers, the tree
That the leaves sang
Reddens dark slowly, then, suddenly free,
Turns like a key,
Opening air where they hang

Read the rest of the poem here.


Thursday was a glorious autumn day in Connecticut. The sky was clear blue, and the trees glowed in the afternoon sun. And even though the equinox was a few weeks ago, this poem describes the day exactly.

Please be sure to visit Violet Nesdoly for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

IMWAYR: “Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White” by Melissa Sweet


The miracle of a book is a mystery to children. They wonder where books come from. They think authors are, as E.B. White put it, “mythical being[s].” To children, books seem to be conjured out of thin air. Which, in a sense, like a spider’s web itself, they are.

In Some Writer: The Story of E.B. White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Melissa Sweet has woven a miraculous, magical book that peels back a layer of this mystery to reveal the very human side of one of our most mythical authors, E.B. White.


Sweet’s inviting prose and inventive artwork immediately draw readers into White’s world. The illustrations are a hybrid of photos, collage, and watercolors. Sepia-toned photographs of White with his father and brother in Maine are followed by one of Sweet’s appealing watercolors. White’s own description of the scene, from his 1940 essay, “A Boy I Knew,” is typed out on vintage paper using a manual typewriter, serves as a caption. The effect is beguiling. I wanted to be sitting there “at the water’s edge [on] a granite rock upholstered in lichen.”


Drawing extensively on White’s letters and essays, Sweet takes readers from White’s childhood in Mount Vernon, New York to his death in Maine eighty-six years later. As a boy, he was surrounded by words and discovered at an early age that writing helped him “to assuage my uneasiness and collect my thoughts.” Keeping her text focused on how early events in White’s life impacted his development as a writer and his future work, Sweet helps readers see the roots of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan in his life and his early writings.

White’s early poems and stories were published in St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls. Sweet includes copies of these, giving the book the intimate feel of a scrapbook of a beloved relative. Readers will want to savor every page. Glimpses of White’s masterpieces for children are found throughout his life. Sweet writes about White’s time as a camp counselor at Camp Otter in Canada, and we learn about his road trip across the country in a Model T after graduating from Cornell.

Each major work, as well as The Elements of Style, is given its own chapter. We learn of the difficulties White had finishing Stuart Little, the criticism it received from librarians, and the love lavished on it by children. Sweet describes in detail how White’s farm in Maine, his doomed pig, and a spider’s egg sac coalesced into Charlotte’s Web. Sweet’s description, drawing on White’s own words, of how the opening scene of this book evolved is a master class in revision. As every writer knows, “revising is part of writing.” These scenes show how the fantastical elements of White’s fiction are grounded in the real world. As White replied to one of his critics, “children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe.”

No detail in the design of Some Writer is ignored: chapter numbers are old typewriter keys, old-fashioned labels are used for page numbers and to identify the essay or letter of White’s that is being quoted. Sweet’s collages are perfect mentor texts for creative ways to convey information.


The publisher lists the age range as 7-10, but middle school readers will also find plenty to be inspired by in this book. All readers and writers have much to learn from E.B. White’s quiet wisdom about writing and life. Interested readers will want to explore the extensive endnotes and bibliography of White’s own work, as well as works written about him. There is a touching afterword by White’s granddaughter, Martha, and notes from Melissa Sweet about her writing process and her art.

Sweet writes with the economy White advocates in The Elements of Style. “Every word tell[s]” a key part of White’s story. She blends her words and her art with White’s words and demystifies the process of becoming a writer… “through hard work and being open to the world around you.”

After White’s death, Roger Angell, William Shawn, and John Updike wrote in his obituary, “White felt it was a writer’s obligation to transmit as best he can his love of life, his appreciation for the natural world.” Sweet’s love of and appreciation of E.B.White, his work, and the natural world shine out from every page of Some Writer. In her author’s note, Sweet quotes White, saying “It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable…[But] a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him.” Like Charlotte’s Web itself, Sweet’s “stunt” is nothing short of a miracle.


Review copy received from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An Educator’s Guide for Some Writer is available here.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

Poetry Friday: Sail Away to Fairyland


Once again, I’m down to the wire meeting Michelle Heidenrich Barnes’s ditty challenge. This month, Jane Yolen challenged Michelle’s readers to “Write a poem in which reading and or writing is featured in the form of a septercet.”  How hard could that be?

As it turns out, I had a very hard time figuring out my way into this poem. How to narrow down a lifetime of reading and writing? Then, this line, from “Do-Re-Mi” and The Sound of Music came into my head: “Let’s start at the very beginning…” Suddenly, I was on my grandmother’s lap and she was reading Jack the Giant Killer, by Harold Lentz, to me. This book belonged to my uncle when he was little, and it was a favorite of mine and my cousins because of its fabulous pop-up scenes.


Here is a draft of the septercet inspired by this book.

“Sail Away to Fairyland”

Nestled on my grandma’s lap,
she opens a book and I’m
sailing off to fairyland.

A magic castle rises,
princess slumbering within,
the prince arrives to wake her.

Turn the page. Red Riding Hood
knocks on Grandma’s door. Beware!
A devious wolf awaits.

One story ends, another
begins. “Fee, fi, fo, fum,” hums
a hungry, fearsome giant.

Just in time, Jack saves the day,
rescues friends from a sad fate.
But Giant, enraged, gives chase,

lumbering down the beanstalk.
Will Jack get away? He grabs
an axe, chops with all his might.

Tales now told, the book is closed.
You know how this story ends.

Happily ever after.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

My favorite pop-up, Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

Thank you, Michelle and Jane, for sparking this trip down memory lane. Please be sure to visit Karen Edmisten at The Blog With the Shockingly Clever Title for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

DigiLit Sunday: Agency


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Please be sure to visit her there to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

When Margaret suggested the word agency as our topic this week, my first step was make sure I was using the term correctly. This Merriam-Webster definition confirmed my working ideas about agency:

“the capacity, condition, or state of acting or exerting power”

The next day, a teacher came to me with concerns about one of her students. The teacher felt that Anna (not her real name) wasn’t decoding well or understanding what she read. The teacher had administered a Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment, which indicated that Anna was reading in the instructional range for her grade level expectation. Because it’s still early in the year, and this assessment had just been done, the teacher really hadn’t tried anything to address her concerns. But it was clear she wanted something specific from me—an intervention, a strategy, anything that might improve Anna’s reading behaviors.

I was at a loss. The information shared by Anna’s teacher was so general, and none of Anna’s previous teachers had ever expressed concerns about her. So I suggested that I come in to visit and read with Anna so I could get to know her better and understand the teacher’s concerns.

Arriving in the classroom during independent reading time, I noted that Anna was intently reading a book that looked like an appropriate choice. I observed her for several minutes as she read. She sub-vocalized in some spots, used her finger to guide her in others, and seemed completely engaged with the book.

After about five minutes, I went over to her and asked her to tell me about her reading. She did a fine job retelling what had happened in the book so far. Then I asked her to read the next page to me. She didn’t hesitate and read the first line fluently and expressively.

Just as I was wondering why there was such a disconnect between what the teacher had observed and what I was seeing, Anna stumbled. “Cloud giants” became “could grants.” This made no sense, and she knew it, so she stopped and looked at me.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about Anna. Everything I had seen suggested that she did have agency when she read. She was reading an independent level text independently and with understanding. She even knew that meaning had broken down for her and she stopped. As we know, many students would have just plowed ahead!

When she said, “that doesn’t make any sense,” I praised her for noticing that and asked her what she could do. She knew that sometimes rereading helped, so she tried that. When that didn’t work, she tried looking for a smaller word she knew. She found “ants” in “giants,” but because she didn’t know (or wasn’t sure about) soft /g/, this strategy didn’t help. I asked her what else she could try, but now she was truly stumped. Her go-to strategies hadn’t helped, and there were no visible supports in the classroom to help her.

Anna did roll up her sleeves!

I noticed that the picture held a lot of information that might help her, and she hadn’t even glanced at it. After I reminded her that sometimes readers use the illustrations to help them, she took one look and the light bulb went off. She went back to the text and read it easily. We talked about what she had done to figure out the unknown words, and she told me that using the pictures was a strategy she would use the next time she came to new words.

I’ll talk with Anna’s teacher about using anchor charts to support growing readers.

Now I was feeling a little frustrated. It wasn’t Anna who didn’t have agency. She was doing the best she could with the skills she had. But there were supports that should have been in place for her that weren’t. Where was the anchor chart for this reading unit?  And why hadn’t her teacher already had this conversation with her?

I began to wonder if I had provided too many scaffolds for Anna’s teacher in the past. Had I swooped in too quickly when she came to me with questions about students? But isn’t that my job as a literacy specialist? 

This is the tip of the iceberg for my work with Anna’s teacher. By sheer coincidence, yesterday I watched Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s session about listening to and learning from our students as part of The Educator’s Collaborative’s Online Gathering. (If you missed this, go there now and watch as many sessions as you can.) They confirmed what I had done when I sat down with Anna. “Every single day, when we slow down and get to know the people around us, that’s data.” But sitting down with Anna not only helped me get to know her, it gave me insight into how I can work with her teacher to develop her agency. Watching Clare and Tammy’s session together will be our first step. I anticipate many many follow-up conversations, and I’ll be sharing more about our work together in the future.