Structure and Choice In The Greenbelt: Uncovering Voice

Image result for the teacher you want to be

“it is our responsibility to teach, to model, to think aloud about the engagement that comes from aesthetic experiences”  What Price Beauty? A Call for Aesthetic Education, Ellin Oliver Keene


I started this blog last spring.  I had a hard time finding the right title.

I wondered: What was I going to title my blog?  What words were going to capture what I believed about writers and writing?  What title would embody what I believe about writers and writing? What would I call my blog that might invite readers and writers into my little world?

I thought about the past 25 years as a teacher.  I thought about how I discovered the writer in me. I thought about how I have used my journal as a teacher, as a mother, as a writer, as a thinker, and I came up with “Let’s Observe”.  I thought about how I continue to use my journal to this day.  I typed the words, and I knew I had it.  You see, I believe that writers see the world in a unique way.  Writers find ideas in their every day worlds.  Their interactions at the grocery store, at home cooking dinner are sources for ideas.   Their observations of trees and people fuel their energy to write.  For me and my busy body, when I stop to observe in sketches, I find focus, memories, words, stories, poems.  When I observe I find ideas. Ideas are the heart of a writer.

I ended my week on Friday afternoon with fifth graders working in the Greenbelt.  The classroom teacher and I had connected last winter in a workshop.  She had come to the workshop ready to wear her teacher as writer hat.   It was in the workshop where Diana. experienced observing and writing first hand.  The experience was powerful for Diana and she asked if we could possibly do some of this work with her class the following year.


So this past Friday afternoon, I found myself in her fifth grade classroom.  We worked in the Greenbelt.  Our time was structured with the following agenda.  I told them “We are giving you an opportunity to make a choice and discover.  There is no right or wrong here.”  Without question, each and every 5th grader made a choice and got to work observing, thinking, and discovering.


Here is a sampling of what emerged on paper over the course of 25 minutes.





When I asked the 5th graders at the end, “What did you discover today?  What happened for you when you went off to work?”, hands shot up.  Winnie shared “I picked choice and I just started writing.  At first it was random stuff, but the more I wrote, the more it started to make sense.”  Annie shared, “The word of the day, “flutter”, made me think of fluttering eyes, so I played with that idea.”  Annie’s share invoked more hands to go up.  “The word “flutter” made me think of a butterfly in the fall so I wrote a poem.”  Diana, the teacher, shared, “The word “flutter” made me think of my fluttering brain, which led me to a cup of black coffee which symbolizes my grandmother and the mystery she was to me. I wrote about it.”  Andrew shared, “I chose to observe the bark again and this time I saw binoculars in the colors and shapes of the bark.  That made me think of a ship out at sea.  I wrote about that and then stopped to draw.  I think I might add to it.”  Their voices and identity filled the room as they reflected on their thinking.

These writers were given structure and choice in the Greenbelt. We got to witness them own their choices, seize ideas and discover the possibility within those ideas.

“we believe students desire and have a right to autonomy, self direction, and choice in their development of lifelong learning”  What Price Beauty? A Call for Aesthetic Education, Ellin Oliver Keene





Observations on Engagement and Rigor in the Greenbelt

“To teach children, you must know them.  to know them, they must reveal, they must feel safe and secure.  to feel safe and secure, they need agency.  To have agency, they must have choices.”  Brian Kissel, When Writers Drive the Workshop



Leigh-Ann is Joy Writer.  I am a Joy Writer.  We are part of teacher-research group that is studying the question “What happens when  a group of teachers reads Ralph Fletcher’s,  Joy Write?”  Now that the year has started, many Joy Writers are researching their own questions and weaving in greenbelt time.

Leigh-Ann’s research question, “What happens when I show my first graders why/how I might draw or write?” led her to use her own Writers Journal as a teaching tool.

Leigh-Ann and I introduced Writers Journals to her first grade class on the second day of school.  We both believe that journals are community building tool.  We both believe that the Writers Journals was another way for us to get to know the children through their thinking and their choices. So, we began with a quote from Lucy Calkins, “Ideas live all around us in the smallest moments and objects.”  We added, “It is the writers job to observe the world, and capture those observations and their thinking in a Writers Journal.”

She set the stage for their work that day,  by sharing her own journal page.  She shared her observation of a bassinet that has been in her family for years.  She shared, “As I was drawing it, I began to think of all the family member who had slept in it it.  So I wrote.  I made a list of all of all the babies that have slept in this bassinet.” img_6795-3 Leigh-Ann modeled through her share, how writers stop to observe, sketch and write. We gave the first graders an opportunity to observe pine cones and bark.  Each child went off with little direction and got to work as writers.  We watched as they found their own spots to work and began observing.  We saw children studying objects.  We saw them sketch what they saw and jot down their thinking. We saw them flip objects and sketch some more continuing to work and even persevere through parts that were hard.

On the sixth day of school, we gathered together again  Writers Journal time.  Leigh-Ann and I planned to continue with the idea that writers observe the world and capture their observations and thinking in journals.  We planned to take them out to our courtyard and allow them the choice of what to observe.

This “session” began with Leigh-Ann sharing another page from her journal.  She shared with the class that the day before, after they had left, she was tired and wanted to go home, too.  But then,  she noticed the flowers out in the courtyard, and being a growing writer, she stopped to draw them.  As she was drawing the flowers, her eye caught the bench and she found herself drawing the bench.  Then, she began to imagine the flowers and the bench were having a conversation and she added her thoughts to the page.  Finally she discovered a poem.  She wrote.  She shared.img_6796-3“It doesn’t rhyme!”  a  little girl piped up as soon as she was done reading.  (side, unintended lesson, all poems don’t rhyme)

We lead the the class out to the courtyard where they scattered and began to do what writers do – observe, sketch, and write.  We watched as children scanned the courtyard, made choices and got to work.  We watched children make the first mark on the page.  We watched heads look up and look down, look up again, and back down.  We watched as children filled their journal page with what they saw.  Then, we noticed words begin to fall onto pages.  No one asked, “What do I do?”  No one asked, “What do I write?”  They had made each made their choice and were engaged.  Harry remained focused and determined as he filled the page with his observations.  Megan sketched the door and wrote, “Nobody is opening me up!”



“Engagement begins when a human being looks at something and tries to figure it out”  John Antonetti

I listened to Leigh-Ann share her process during these two sessions.  I watched as her first graders stayed glued to her every word and found inspiration in her work.  It was her journal pages that modeled for them not just the writing but the process of thinking and being a writer.

I watched these young writers work and I couldn’t help but be struck by their engagement, perseverance, and stamina.  They were thinking.  They were in the process of discovery.  “What did you discover today?” I asked.  “I was just looking.  I saw flowers and a butterfly.  I was so interested in it!  I didn’t want to forget it!  So I took out my journal and sketched it!”  Marisa exclaimed to us all.  Her enthusiasm for the process of thinking and discovery was loud and clear.

During our opening PD days this year, we had the pleasure of having John Antonetti downloadas our speaker.  John has studied engagement and rigor in 17,000 classrooms.  In his presentation, he shared,

“In rigor, I don’t get to decide what they think, I get to decide that they will think.”


Leigh-Ann and her first graders have woven a greenbelt writing into their balanced literacy.  The greenbelt is playful and free and full of discovery for a writer, and this greenbelt is loaded with engagement and rigor.

Thanks to the Big Talkers…

4th of July at Aunt Pauline's house, 1989Growing up, years were grounded in celebrations.

Easter at Aunt Josephine’s where we played Trouble in the basement.   We ate old school Italian style. Homemade ravioli, crescia, and my all time favorite, Nonna’s chocolate torte.

Fourth of July at Aunt Pauline’s house where we swam until our fingers were pruned like raisins and our lips were blue.  We passed the food through her kitchen window into the screened veranda.  All the cousins played wiffle ball in the street.  When darkness fell, we traded our bat and ball for sparklers.

Thanksgiving at my mom and dad’s house.  The preparation for Turkey Day was just as big as the day itself in my memory.  We coordinated with our church to borrow tables and chairs for the 40, 50, or 60 people who would show up for a sit down Thanksgiving dinner.  My dad and mom and brothers and sister would clear out the furniture from the family room, piling it in other rooms so we could piece together the tables and jam in the chairs, banquet style.  Aunts and Uncles and cousins would pour into the house with food in hand. I remember my mother sitting in the kitchen on the stool talking on the phone coordinating the menu a month in advance of the big day.  I can still see her handwriting in a notebook, detailing who was bringing what.  As we welcomed each family, the chatter grew louder and louder.  We sang Bless this House, we said a prayer – sometimes it was the kids who were coerced by loving aunts to get up and read some special words, sometimes it was a spur of the moment prayer and thanksgiving.  After dinner, cousins (there are 19) and aunts and uncles (the spry ones) would change their clothes and head out for some football.  I remember playing on frozen ground and even in snow!

Christmas Day at Aunt Carol’s.  After the chaos of Christmas morning with my own family, we would laze around and then head to Aunt Carols for some more Christmas and my cousin, Jason’s birthday celebration.  I remember looking forward to the ride home down 95 to 195 because we passed a company that put out a glorious light display that was clearly visible from the highway.

But the best (ok maybe it’s a tie with Thanksgiving) celebration came in the middle of August, Nonna’s birthday.  Aunt Carol had the pool so she hosted this mother of all celebrations.  My dad and Uncle Bob were responsible for steak and lobster and steamers for the 40, 50 or 60 people who would show up.  Again, just like Thanksgiving, everyone showed up with food and drink.  Aunt Doris brought the malasadas  and portuguese sweet bread (we are an Italian family, but who doesn’t love portuguese sweet bread). This celebration began at 11 am!  This celebration included a family softball game.  All the cousins and aunts and uncles would pile in cars and trucks and backs of trucks –  seat belts optional –  and head to a local school for family softball game.  We would return and jump right in that pool and there we’d stay until dinner was ready.  I remember sitting down and watching my aunts expertly pick apart and then enjoy eating the lobster.  I loved going over to the big pit my Uncle Bob had made to cook the lobsters.  At some point, my cousin Scot took over this celebration.  We continued on despite the fact that we had lost Nonna. We knew we could and should continue to gather and celebrate, not just her, but us.

And then, life got the best of all of us.  All my cousins and I began to have our own families, some of us moved a distance away.  We found we only gathered at funerals and occasional weddings.  But whenever we got together, we would all talk about getting together for Nonna’s birthday.   There was a lot of jovial big talk over the year and when you hear big talk over and over, at some point you’ve got to act.

In May, Billy and I sent out invitations.  We were going to take action in the name of all those celebrations I had growing up and hush all my big talking cousins.  The Damiani Reunion would happen right here at our home.

This past Saturday, it happened.  About 50 of my closest family showed up here at our home.  Wiffle ball and softball were replaced with corn hole and badminton.  There was no frozen ground for football but there was heated pool for playing dibble.    The same cousins that I played with growing up, hung around and chatted and shared a few cocktails while their kids and my kids played and swam.  When darkness fell on this celebration, the fire pit came out and we laughed and talked some more.

There were many that were not there, unable to travel, or no longer with us.  But I can tell you, they were all here in spirit!  It was as if it was yesterday.  We ate, talked, laughed and ate some more and all these Italians shut up long enough to snap this picture.


Know Yourself, Know Your Writers

Joy Writers #3


“We need to look at student writing.”  A comment I have heard over the past few years. I’ve thought about this comment recently.   I’ve realized that we have looked at writing.  We’ve piled writing based on rubrics.  We’ve brought samples of work to meetings and focused on what the writer was doing well.  All of the conversations in these situations were valuable, teachers and administrators were growing a shared understanding of writing at various grade levels.  However, as a participant and observer at these meetings, I always wondered about their impact on writers. Were these conversations going to help teachers and the writers in their classrooms?  I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I believe that in order to move beyond looking at writing, and move towards focusing on the writer, we must be writers ourselves.  We must have our own writing identity (Patty McGee, Feedback that Moves Writers Forward) in order to nurture the writing identity of the children we teach.

Joy Writers met again.  This meeting was more of a spontaneous gathering on our first unofficial day back.

At our 2nd summer meeting, teachers had asked about meeting and planning a bit about how they each were going to follow through on the ideas and bring the same energy to their new classes.  These teachers as writers wanted to meet, so we met.

We gathered in a first grade classroom.  One third grade teacher found out about the meeting in the hallway, did an about face, returned to her room to get her journal and joined the meeting.  A fifth grade teacher moved his grade level meeting from 9:30-10:00 (his team was understanding and supportive).  A second grade teacher, who was unable to attend any summer meetings, but read Joy Write came and she brought with her one of our brand new teachers.

We simply went around the table, teachers shared their ideas on how they were going to infuse greenbelt time into their days.  One shared about how she plans on showing her first graders why/how she might write or draw.   She acknowledged the rigor of the school but wants to let it be it’s thing.  “However it grows it grows, I’m not going to let it overwhelm me.” she said.

Another teacher created a physical space in her kindergarten classroom.  “I’ve raised a table for inquiry.  I hope to put things – acorns, flowers, cards – for kids to observe.” She added, “I want to let kids use journals during the  morning  and have softer start to the day.”

A physical space was created in a 5th grade room with a variety of writing supplies that support the inquiry of a writer – pens, paper, paint.  In looking at his schedule for the year, he noticed that one day in the week his Writers Workshop is shorter than the other four, “this might be my greenbelt day” he said.  He ended by sharing, “I also want to think about publishing, maybe taking on the SOL challenge for kids.”

A second grade teacher, who had previously taught 3rd grade for a number of years, now in her second year as a second grade teacher, shared, “When I came to second grade, there were no journals.  Reading Joy Write gave me permission to go back to journals.  In the morning have them come in and they can write whatever they want, a memory, a cartoon, a letter – whatever they want.”

A first grade teacher was the last to share, “Thank you all because I’m doing what you said and you said so much.”  she chuckled.  She reflected on the work she’s done as a Joy Writer this summer, “In all the invitations we’ve had, there has always been choice.  I need to incorporate more of this real choice.”  She ended by saying, “I’m so glad I got to listen to everyone else first.”

I was raised to live the questions (Powers and Hubbard, The Art of Classroom Inquiry).  As I sat and listened to their ideas and stories, I translated them to questions:

 “What happens when I show my first graders why/how I might draw or write.” 

“What happens when I give my second graders journals?’  

“What happens when I create opportunities and space for inquiry and play for writers.” 

“What happens when I am aware and purposeful with choice for writers?”

In his essay, On the Virtue of Thinking Small, Tom Newkirk writes, “It is the small changes that last. They last because they are grafted onto, and extend, our existing practice.”  He goes on to explain the 5 percent rule, “each year, they need to open 5 percent of their practice up to change.”  Over time the accumulation of change is “significant. But it does not at any time wholly transform.”

I continue to wonder what will happen if these teachers, colleagues of mine, continue growing themselves as writers.   I wonder what stories will emerge from their young writers as a result of their questions. Will Joy Writers and their questions be their 5 percent? Will Joy Writers support the work of looking at writers and not the writing alone?  I don’t know the answers, but with this group of teachers as writers, I imagine we will find some answers and definitely more questions.








There is Love



“Hey Grace, you want to head over to The Discovery Museum and get some glasses and watch the eclipse?”

“Sure.  That’d be cool.”

Half hour later as our car approached the Discovery Museum we could see that both sides of Park Avenue were packed with cars.

“Wow!  All these people are here for the eclipse.”  Grace and I were stunned.

As we walked towards the museum, we saw the line was at least 500 people deep. The line was dotted with umbrellas keeping waiters cool.  We positioned ourselves in the line and quickly made friends with an elderly couple from Branford.

No sooner were we in line did an employee make the announcement that they only had about 500 pairs of glasses left and we were not likely to get a pair.  Grace and I turned to each other not sure what to do – stay in line or go home and watch it on TV.  We stayed.

We watched as groups of people left the line each waving or just holding a pair of glasses.  I turned to my new friends, the elderly couple, Mary Lou and Joe (although his wife of many years kept calling him Joey) and said “What they should do is give one pair per group or family and then share it.”  Mary Lou looked at me with skepticism in her eyes, “Well, I’m not sure that would happen, I’ve kinda given up on that kinda love.”  A little taken aback by her quick response I simply said, “Well, ya never know.”

Time ticked on, we made more friends – a social studies teacher from Bridgeport, a pre-school teacher with her 6 year old son Jack who had just lost his first tooth.  “The tooth fairy gave me $5.00 whole dollars!”  he proudly shared with me. I learned that Mary Lou was a former high school English teacher, now teaching freshman English at Quinnipiac University.  Friends help each other out.  So when Joey went to his car to get an umbrella to shade Mary Lou from the sun, he came back with two big golf umbrellas.  He immediately shared it with the family in front of us.  He kept offering shade to those around us.  I was really enjoying the line and those in it.

The same employee that we had seen earlier returned.  “I’m sorry to have to tell you this but we will not have enough glasses for you all.”  There it was, the official news.  Grace was off at the telescope line with her cousins whom we happened upon during this mini adventure.  “What to do?  What to do?” I pondered again. “Go home or check out the museum?”

When Grace returned, I said “The next person I see walking with glasses I’m just going to ask the borrow them so I can check it out.”  No sooner did those words leave my mouth did a woman with a rambunctious child appear.  “Excuse me, can I bor…”  “We are all done with these, can I sell them to you so I can get my girl some ice cream?” she pointed to the disheveled girl who had woven her way through the maze of legs in line.”  “Sure!  How much?”  “Five?!”  “OK”  I turn to my new friends, Mary Lou and Joey,  and tell them, “Five dollars and you guys can get have this ladies glasses.”  With a quick exchange of glasses for cash.  We put the glasses on and looked up and saw it, the eclipse.  Mary Lou and I passed our newly acquired glasses around to those near us.  We watched smiles appear as one by one our new friends got a view of the 2017 solar eclipse.

About to head home, I turned to Mary Lou and said, “See, there is still love in this world.”  Both Mary Lou and Joey laughed, looked right at me and said “You’re right, there is.”

One pair of glasses was all this neighborhood needed.