Slice of Life Tuesday: Writing “Process”

I spent a LOT of my time writing this weekend.

Between one purpose and another, I probably spent 8-10 hours with my fingers on these keys. All of it was good, and writing in that great a volume has me wondering if I should be expecting more of myself or not. That line between grace and tough love is a fine one, my friends.

It’s funny. In my early years of teaching, I spent a lot of time teaching (yes, Capital Letter) The Writing Process. I even remember the cute bulletin board I made illustrating each of the phases of the writing process as part of the life cycle of the butterfly:
from the prewriting egg…
to the drafting caterpillar…
to the editing BIGGER caterpillar…
to the revising chrysalis…
to the WOW! published butterfly.
We’d move from phase to phase, mostly in order. Every so often I’d congratulate myself for letting students march through the phases at their own pace.

Now, here’s the thing. I don’t regret being that teacher. I don’t regret sticking to the curriculum that was given to me. I won’t judge the teacher I was back then. I taught writing with joy, and that still goes a long way towards instilling love for writing. Even though I’ve learned better models in the years since, I’m grateful for what I learned about writing as an early teacher.

I’m also grateful that I’ve become a writer myself. I’m just now at the point now where I’m truly beginning to consider how much being a writer has done for me as a teacher of writing. What it’s done for my students as young writers. I’m just now at the point where I’m discovering the magic, the limitless potential of leaning into that idea.

I’ve also thought back to those days of the 5-step plan for writing, and I remember them with a smile. The process of writing, in real life, for real people, has turned out to be a lot…MESSIER than I ever gave it credit for. When my kids ask me about the best writing process, I think my response should be to tell them to develop their own, with instruction and support. (Maybe it’ll be their weekly writing challenge – hint, hint, kids!) And then, I’ll share my own approach with them. I’d like to say it’s tongue-in-cheek, but there’s much more reality to this than I might want to admit.

MY WRITING PROCESS

Prethinking
Thinking
Mentally crafting
Writing
Taking out words
Trying not to open other tabs on my desktop
Overthinking
Reworking
Taking out more words
Tweaking
Re-reading
Taking out more words
Re-tweaking
Re-over-Thinking

Letting things sit

Rereading
Re-re-tweaking
Taking out more words

LETTING THE THING GO ALREADY

Thinking about my life choices


people of the jury, I give you…exhibit A

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!

Slice of Life Tuesday: Expanding (Blowing!) Our Minds

Last week, I talked about creating space for myself as part of my One Little Word challenge for the year.

Funny how that works.

Let me explain.

Yesterday, in my third-grade class, our lesson went completely, totally, 100% around the corner and off the tracks. We were supposed to spend our time reading Greek mythology, learning about the Olympian gods and goddesses. We were supposed to be going through the stories and taking notes on what we’re learning, questions we have and what we want to share.

And then someone started a conversation about Hades.
And then I mentioned Hades’s Roman name was given to the planet Pluto, that cold, dark unknown place.
And then we started talking about the other planet names.
And then we started talking about one culture taking over another.
And then we started talking about astronomy, and planets, and discovery.
And then we started in on how knowledge has built up over thousands and thousands of years, from the ancients right on up.
And then we talked about how our knowledge – ALL of our knowledge – stands on the shoulders of those who came before us.
And then we started in on the idea, often attributed to Aristotle: “the more you know, the more you know you DON’T know.”
And we used the example of sitting, then standing, or standing on the roof, or on a mountain top, as a way to gather more sight, more perspective.
And that led us to Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s “The Most Astounding Fact.
And that led us to Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.
And that led us to the revised video of the Eames’s “Powers of Ten.

And friends, their third-grade minds have been stretched, and pulled, and blown.

Space. We discussed LITERAL space, spacetime. And together, we held the space and took the time to allow this conversation to occur.

And I regret none of it.

Some questions left over from today

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!

Slice of Life: One Little Word 2022

Well, friends, it’s that time of year in the Slice of Life community where I reflect on where I am now, gaze ahead to the the coming year, and choose One Little Word to guide me. Last year, I started with the word gather, then slid into dissonance and landed, later on, on unfurl.

I’m glad that I gave myself the intention and grace to be flexible with my word-choosing last year, and judging how I’m feeling right now, I’m wondering if that’s how it’s going to be again this year. As a teacher, I feel my outlook and perspective depend heavily on the seasons: so much of my work and efforts are tied to what a calendar demands.

Which makes me further wonder: what is my core focus right now, and why can’t, or why shouldn’t it hold true and strong for the duration of the year? Shouldn’t my life run on certain foundational principles that never waver? I see the importance of themes that run deep, core tenets that apply no matter my situation or lot in life.

On the other hand, I know better. I know myself better, and I know life better. Yes, it’s possible to develop an amazing plan, and use that plan to guide me over time. And it’s ALSO possible that Life will lower its gaze, adjust its cap, wind up for the pitch and hurl me a big juicy curve ball. That, more than anything, is the constant I’ve come to expect.

Which still leaves me with my One Little Word. Funny, with all this talk about uncertainty, I still find myself at this time of year with a desire to look inward and downward to my roots, to rediscover and return to whatever essence of who I am and how I see myself. I’m craving certainty and grounding. It’s not the same as wanting to develop resolutions for the new year (a habit I gave up several years ago). It’s just that this time of year always threatens to detach me from my moorings. Maybe it’s the way the season pulls me from so many of my habits and routines that I start to wonder where I am in all of my choices.

At first, I thought reclaim might do. Right now, the work that I’m thinking of involves a reclamation of self. Somehow, though, it didn’t fit with my visualization of what I needed.

Restore?
Return?

And then it hit me. Maybe I’m not yet sure what I want or need. Maybe this search is going to take me some time. Maybe I require more time to figure out whichever me I’m supposed to reclaim or restore.

I need to hold space.
Space to let myself be.
Space for conflicting thoughts and emotions to duke it out as needed.
Space to ask myself what I truly want, both in smaller moments and in the long term.

So my One Little Word, at least to start this year off, will be space. Which, for me, is a lot of little words tied together like dandelions gathered at recess: space, time, quiet…all gifts that I hope to grant myself more of in the coming year.

And when my next One Little Word peeps up from the soil, I’ll pluck that one, carry it home and place it in a jar on the windowsill…

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Acknowledgement Section

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!

Today is the day, in our district, where we tweet thanks or acknowledgements to other teachers and colleagues in our lives.

Friends, it would be a VERY long Twitter thread for me to go into all of the many reasons I adore and admire the amazing folks I work with. My hope is that I am forthright with praise and support every day of the year, and that the people I work with know EXACTLY why I’m a card-carrying member of their fan club. And if not, it’s time for me to get on it.

Instead, I’m going to do a very Lainie thing and come at it from a different direction. For better or worse, there are all kinds of teachers in my life who have shaped me in one way or another. All of these individuals have bestowed me with gifts of one kind or another. As for those on my list for whom the gratitude seems backhanded, please know that I’m not aiming for negativity, just searching for the blessing within the experience. It has all built who I am.

Mrs. Williams. Thank you for being the first person who made me see and understand, at age six, that it was okay for us to talk about the differences between us as people.

Mrs. Newport. Thank you for helping me understand what unconditional love from a teacher felt like, and thank you for giving me hard stuff to do to wear out my brain.

Mr. Schlamb. Thank you for opening my eyes to the wonder that is metaphor. Thank you for teaching me all of the bones and systems of the human body, which I still remember to this day. Thank you for getting me, my quirks, my humor, for seeing who I was and what I could do.

Mr. Stifel. Thank you for exposing me to the wild, wonderful world of storytelling. I knew when I first saw you and others tell on stage, I wanted to do THAT when I grew up. And I am.

Ms. Magdalin. Thank you for teaching me how to diagram sentences. I mean it. It blew my mind to see and understand that language could work on a systemic level.

Ms. Stelmach. Thank you for shaking me out of my fog of underachievement, for (in so many words) telling me you liked me too much to let me keep on the self-sabotaging path I had chosen, for awakening the writer and poet within me.

Mr. Nienhaus. Thank you for opening my eyes to theorems and postulates and proofs. Just to know that mathematics was a series of knowledge built block by block gave me the understanding and footing to recognize how much I love the world of numbers and math. Also…thanks for not embarrassing me when you caught me counting all the holes in the acoustical tile, or timing the circulation of the ceiling fan. You did me a solid there.

Ms. Cannon. Thank you for the precision you demanded of my writing. It’s shaped my craft and voice, even to this very day. Thank you for your sheer exuberance over the English language. You taught me that it’s possible to bring a childlike joy to learning all our whole live-long days.

Professor Shapiro. Thank you for your dismissal of my responses in class, for the terse comments at the margins of my paper. I carry this feeling with me whenever I consider the pride and dignity of each student in my care.

Professor Baroody. Thank you for being as wild, as wacky, and as goofy and geeky as I was about mathematics. Thank you for affirming how foundational math and math instruction could be.

Ms. McCabe. Thank you for showing me how much there is to learn about a teacher from the physical space of their classroom. Thank you for showing me what a lifetime dedication to the craft of teaching looks like. Thank you for showing me that we can grow as teachers throughout the long decades of our careers.

Ms. Cromwell. Thank you for calling into question my commitment to teaching. Overcoming that doubt has fueled me for twenty-six years, and continues to instill me with the importance of what I do each and every day.

Mrs. McDonald. Thank you for being the type of leader who brings out the best in all of us. Everyone who worked in your school gave you everything they had. Not because you demanded it, but because you made us not want to settle for anything less.

Ohhhh, there are so very many more I could write. We are all an amalgam, a quilt-work of those we’ve encountered over the years.

For that, I’m grateful.

And, if you’re up for it, drop a comment with which educators YOU might be grateful for.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Antennas Up

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!


Today, I was walking the dog, listening to podcasts, as I always do. This time, I was listening to Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out episode with Keegan-Michael Key.

First of all. If you haven’t watched the Key & Peele sketch about the teacher draft, you are missing out. I’m going to say that now. In fact, I’m going to watch it again right now because it brings me joy.

So anyway, I was listening to Keegan-Michael Key talking about his time working on the MADtv show, and he talked about the summer hiatus. He mentioned that about two weeks out from production, he started to put his “antenna up,” as in, he would start filtering the world around him. as potential sketches or scripts.

As a teacher, my antenna is NEVER down. I am never not thinking about my students, never not thinking about how my life experiences might filter down into the classroom. Here is just a small sampling of how the life of a teacher bleeds into everything:

-I once drove around for about a year with a single shoe in the back of my car because I thought my students would enjoy taking it apart to see how it was constructed.

-Same with an old computer.

-And a blender.

-I fielded a text from a teacher about a lesson I tweeted about. She was in the airport waiting for a flight and found a resource that connected. A girl after my own heart.

-I texted a different colleague about how she could use the ESPN football summaries as part of her graphing unit.

-The books on my nightstand are littered with sticky notes and dog ears because they mark phrases or passages that I could use as mentor text.

-Whenever I’m on a trip, I cannot help but pick up maps, brochures, pamphlets and the like that might come in handy for a nonfiction lesson.

-My own offspring hear me talk about “my kids” and can no longer differentiate if I’m talking about them specifically, or the loveys in my classroom.

And you, my teacher friends? What are some of the weirdest ways that your teacher antenna stays up, that your teacher brain filters into the rest of your life?

Wednesday Thoughts: On Teacher Guilt

I can’t help myself. I feel terrible, conflicted. Guilty. Perhaps not for the reasons you might think, though.

Oh, there are ALL the reasons why teachers like me feel pushed and pulled across the emotional spectrum. Just look at the world around us. We’re crouched right at the center of societal conflict: COVID. Race. Gender. Safety. Freedom. Obligation. Add to that the twin pressures of bringing healing to our students and moving ahead in a business-as-usual fashion. Test scores, as you may know, never sleep.

Find me a teacher who is doing the job they signed up for.

Heck. Find me ANYONE who is doing the job they signed up for.

I’ll wait.

I look at my colleagues, both in my district and beyond. So much struggle and difficulty.

Which is where the guilt comes in.

Right now, I love my students.
I love my job.
I’m excited to teach.
My kids bring me energy in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.
We’re doing some cool stuff.
Sometimes, I just look at them working and interacting.
And I beam.
My heart swells, crackles. Cracks open.
These kids bring me wonder, astonishment.
Joy.

I’m eager for the day when we’re all breathing in this air once more, when all of us sigh at the end of the day – not with exhaustion and disappointment, but satisfaction, contentment. Joy.

We. All. Deserve. More. JOY.

Until then, I will use these days, these bright moments to fuel me for the times when discouragement and stress threaten to overtake me. I will hope beyond hope that my colleagues will collect moments of light, like sticky notes, to take and fashion into something beautiful, hopeful.

Joyous.

Post-script: realizing that both of my posts this week have been tied to the theme of light. Sometimes metaphor pulls our strings without us even noticing. Touche, Chanukah. Touche.

Slice of Life Tuesday: On Sunsets

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!


Yesterday was a bingbangboom kind of a day. One of those days where I rely on to-do lists and razor-sharp logistics. Drop the dog off, take care of Chanukah packages, make it to my meeting, squeeze my plans in, teach, meet, shovel down food, teach, meet, run the errands, skip the workout, go to get the dog and…

Empty parking lot be darned. Just look at those COLORS!

WOW. The sky. The sky, as I was driving. I kept hoping I would make it to my destination in time to snap a picture or two or three or four. The above and below pics. They’re testaments to the power of dusk. Really, the right dose of sunlight is like a dandelion. It has the power to bloom and brighten and beautify whatever surroundings you might discover it in.

That LIGHT. The reflection. The beauty amidst concrete and steel. Perhaps there’s a metaphor for resilience to be had somewhere here.

Skies like this…I can’t NOT look at them.

More sky pictures from today. I also have to confess that my camera roll is chockablock with sky pictures. Pretty please tell me I’m not alone in this.

And clearly, there is something to be said for a late November sky, because this was a Facebook post of mine from ten years ago yesterday.

Talk about serendipity.

I’ll close out with one of my very favorite book excerpts of all time:

“The sky was a ragged blaze of red and pink and orange, and its double trembled on the    surface of the pond like color spilled from a paintbox. The sun was dropping fast now, a  soft red sliding egg yolk, and already to the east there was a darkening to purple. “

-Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

Slice of Life Tuesday: On Do-Overs

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!


My fourth-grade class today started out with a confession and an apology.

Let me explain.

Last week, I had an AMAZING lesson plan all ready for my kids. We had been examining art, pinpointing interesting details, and articulating the emotions art brought us. The next step was to introduce a simplified guide to art concepts. The vision was clear and simple: bring things together in a way that kids see for themselves that:
1) art makes us feel things
2) that’s not by accident
3) artists make craft moves on purpose
4) knowing those craft moves helps us talk about art
5) and create it
6) and we can transfer that idea to our WRITING

These are big ideas, and they are thought-provoking and exciting.

Unless I ruin things.

Which I did.

Because all of the above things do NOT fit into a single lesson. And somehow, I had it in my brain that my lesson was so well-designed and efficient that I could.

Nope.

Those poor kids. They were bored to tears and I felt so sorry for them, having to sit through that grind. They really did try so very hard, but it was just way too much to try and put together in one go. Really, they were such good sports.

I went home that day feeling small, swearing that I’d redesign the lesson in a way that brought both the fun and enthusiasm back.

So today, I started class with a confession. I fully admitted that last week’s lesson didn’t go the way I saw it, that I felt terrible for them, having to sit through such an experience, and that I was hoping to try again if they were up for the challenge.

You know, I think my kids appreciated the apology. I think they appreciated my acknowledgement of their experience, and the fact that I wanted to do better by them. So they gave it another go.

We examined Morgan Russell’s “Synchromy,” art concept guides in hand.

Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

I decided to just let the kids talk to each other about what they were seeing. And they dug it!

At one point in the lesson, the kids accidentally zoomed in too closely on the painting. True to Bob Ross’s “happy accident” wisdom, we discovered how much skill went into these seemingly simple shapes:

Are you catching those brush strokes? What order do you think Russell painted these shapes in?

Friends, they did BEAUTIFULLY. Would you believe this one piece held their attention for over a half an hour? They couldn’t believe it, and neither could I. It was just what my teacher soul needed.

And in the coming weeks, there will be more to learn and more big concepts to connect. We’ll just…try to enjoy the journey just a little bit more thoughtfully…

Slice of Life Tuesday: Learning to Unlearn

his post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!


Today was another good day.

I had lots of favorite parts, but my favorite favorite might be from first grade.

We had an inquiry lesson about fiction and nonfiction. My challenge to them: sort a group of picture books into categories fiction and nonfiction. My job was to stay out of their way while they worked. And then, they’d call me over to investigate the piles. I didn’t tell them which of their books were correct or incorrect, I just told them the number of incorrect books in the pile and let them try again.

Calder’s Circus: now THAT’s a tricky one!

I. LOVED. This activity. How cool it was to watch the conversation, taking notes of the knowledge and misconceptions as the evidence surfaced.

I also loved introducing the kids to a new concept: UNLEARNING. Yes, unlearning. Friends, I will tell you that it blew my six-year-old students’ MINDS to know that there are times where we have to take a fact or an idea and UNLEARN it. “Wait, Mrs. Levin. I thought we came to school to LEARN things, not UNLEARN them!” Yes, buddy. You’re right. But sometimes what we learn is not correct, and we need to replace it. That’s where the magic happens!

Among the ideas we had to unlearn:

Drawings go in fiction, photos go in nonfiction
Fiction reads like a story and nonfiction doesn’t
Nonfiction could happen, fiction couldn’t

At the heart of our discoveries today?

Sometimes the difference between fiction and nonfiction is messy. And the only way we can REALLY tell is to look at the text itself: titles, pages, back matter, dust jackets. 

We’re on to something, people. I’m excited to see where they go. And what’s even better? I get to do this same activity with my first-grade loveys at another school on Friday. 

Shhhh. Don’t give it away!

Slice of Life Tuesday: Gamifying Reading

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!


It’s been two weeks since I first got my students. Yes, it’s a late start. I’m a gifted-talented enrichment teacher, so I have to wait on instruction until after our identification process.

Yes, there’s probably another soapbox waiting to happen about identification. But even with the struggles and challenges, I can tell you two things without a doubt:
1. Gifted kids NEED one another.
2. The fact that my job even exists is a miracle in and of itself.

One thing I’m excited about is a reading activity that I introduced a long while ago, but put away because…well, I don’t really know. As a teacher, I think we all have great activities that we shove under the proverbial bed and forget about sometimes, then take out and dust off, only to wonder why we ever put it away to begin with.

Let’s start at the beginning. Some time ago, I noticed that kids, especially when reading in a group, almost NEVER stop reading to ask about an unfamiliar word or pose a question they don’t understand, let alone marvel at fabulous language. Yet that’s exactly what I NEED them to do when they’re together.

I know I’m not alone in this.

So, I developed a reading activity that I’ve used with kids to “gamify” the group reading experience. I call it the “Speed Bump Game.”

Basically, when we’re driving, we know that speed bumps are there to slow us down. If we don’t, we’ll do damage, both to our car and perhaps ourselves! Well, if we don’t slow down for a challenge in our reading, we do damage – to our learning.

Right??

The Speed Bump Game treats us readers like we’re all just passengers in a car. The person reading aloud is our “driver.” Anyone can stop and say “Speed Bump!” any time they have a question that needs answering. The group then talks through or researches the question. If they can answer it, they’ve safely navigated the speed bump. If not, they report it as a “road hazard,” and I’ll help them out later on.

I’ve also started asking the groups to reread sentences or paragraphs after a stoppage so they can hear the word and understand it in context.

Here was a class example from today.

We didn’t have any “road hazards” here, but that’s because I was part of the discussion. These are, however, all their own answers after discussion. It’s all about the gradual release, friends…

I’m hoping this game accomplishes a lot of things:
1. Convinces kids what a relief and joy it is to admit when they don’t know something
2. Gives kids the confidence to work through difficult text together
3. Builds to text-based conversations about wonderings, reactions, thoughts
4. Transfers to independent reading
5. Transfers to instruction in the regular classroom

A girl can dream!

Interested in giving this a try in your classroom? I’d love to hear how it goes. You can make a copy and personalize the rules by clicking this link.