Hallway Conversations and Invitations

Last Friday, I a 10:30 meeting that suddenly had to be rescheduled.  With a few minutes of found time, I swung by Jess’s room to check in and chat.

Suddenly, she popped up from her chair, and said, “I’m going to Lynn’s room for the next conventions inquiry!  You should come!  Can you?”

“I’ve got a group at 11:00, so I can come for a bit.”

“It’s going to be quick continuation of yesterdays inquiry.”

“This time, they are going to write their own sentences on strips.  They are going to work in partners to brainstorm a sentence with names and then write it using appropriate casing!”

Our quick hallway conversation had me prepared for what was to come.

Jess has just started reading Pattern’s of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language, by Jeff Anderson.  She came to school on Monday excited about the ideas and possibilities she had uncovered after reading the first few chapters.

The arrival of the book on Jess’s desk and the onset of her reading was timely.  Under the guidance of Mary Ehrenworth, our school has embraced slicing student work in order to move away from scoring writing for the sake of scoring and moving towards looking at samples for what kids can do.  Out of this work and many conversations across the school, we’ve begun to wonder how can we infuse our teaching of conventions throughout our days.  We’ve begun to wonder how can we hold children accountable for proper casing, spacing, spelling, independent clauses with an authentic approach.

With a buzz of convention questions in the air at our school, Jess decided to take on mini inquiries in a kindergarten class and and a first grade class.  With the first graders, she was inviting them to study capital letters, specifically capitalizing names.

We walked into Lynn’s room and Jess headed straight for the easel and asked the class what they had started studying yesterday.  She pointed to the two sentence strips from the day before as hands went up.  “Capital letters!”  a few excited kids shared.  “What about capital letters?”  Jess pushed for clarity.  “We capitalize names!”  Kids shared.  As I watched from the back, their was an energy, a writerly energy about capital letters!  img_7944Jess, excited her self,, said, “Today, you are going to brainstorm your own sentence with a partner and your sentence has to have a name or two.  Once you’ve got your sentence, work together to write it using capital letters for names and lower case letters everywhere else!”  “Are you ready?”  “Yes!”  Clearly, these first graders were feeding off Jess’s excitement and the focused challenge of being a writer who uses capital letters correctly – because that’s what writers do!

I moved quickly to table where two pairs were already brainstorming.  The girls img_7940brainstormed a sentence quickly and the boys relied on a little oral rehearsal before committing to their sentence about two TV characters. Each pair talked as they wrote and I noticed they img_7941really attended to each letter in each word.  When they had finished, I told them to read it over carefully, because writers do that, they read their writing, and check for those names and capital letters!  They got a teaching point, brainstormed, read, checked, and reflected all in about 11 minutes!

As we move towards Thanksgiving, I am thankful that I am invited into inquiries like these alongside colleagues (and friends) like Jess.

Questions like, “What happens when I do a mini inquiry on conventions with kindergarteners and first graders” (Jess’s question) or “What happens when a group of teachers reads Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher?” (my question) can, and should, honor our curiosities.

When the curriculum, our curiosities and our kids are at the heart of our teaching, I believe we can be energized and alert in our work.  I have hallway conversations and invitations to thank for keeping my curiosities alive.





Hancock, VT – Barn Pickers

PJ and Debbie’s barn. Hancock, VT

“You guys wanna go in here?”  PJ asks.

“I’ve never been in there.”  I quickly respond.

“Really?  Let me run across the street and get the key.  This place is a total gem.  You’re gonna loooove it.”

PJ’s takes the padlock off  and opens the door.  I make my way towards the barn. I carefully place the old, rusty (aka vintage) gas can down along with the white spindles.  My picks from the corner barn.

“Check out that cash register!”  Grace exclaims.

I see Billy bend over to take a look.”Wowzer!”

“That is money!”  Grace quips and laughs at her own self.

I step into the barn.  There is junk piled high.  I feel like I am on American Pickers.

I look to the right as soon as I am inside.  There on the floor is an old, giant cash register.  The one with the keys so big, it takes all your strength just to push it down.  I can hear the old fashioned “cha ching” as I marvel at it’s age.

“Billy Boy!  You ever been up here?”  Pj shouts.

“Nope.  I don’t think I’ve ever been in here and I’m not sure I wanna go up there.”

“Sure you do! Come on girls.”

Slowly we all, Hannah, Grace, Megan, Billy and I climb over boards and beams and boxes and make our way to another rickety door that PJ has just unlocked.

The stairs are sprinkled with hay.  When we arrive at the top of the stairs, with the dim light of two broken windows, we can make out boxes and hay and a few old catalogs.

“Watch out for critters, girls.”  Billy warns.

“PJ, this is sooooo cool.”  I say as I begin to lift up boxes and old sacks.  I’m not quite sure what I am looking for but I know I want to look.  Curiosity is alive in the old barn.

“I don’t like it up here.”  Megan lets out.

“Come on Meg, this is GREAT!”  PJ, ever the optimist, tells her.

“Whoo!  Look at this!”  Billy turns over a box, shakes out the cobwebs and hay and who knows what else.  We see the side of what was an old shipping box.  Meanwhile, Hannah has made her way through the hay, careful not to hit her head on the original wood beam that runs smack in the middle of the loft.  I turn around to see Hannah kicking boxes, warning any critters that humans are hers.  Slowly she brushes hay off of the pile and finds another box with writing.

“Mom, check this out!”

It’s a box with writing.  In our ten minutes up here, we’ve decided the boxes with writing are the gems.  The box she has just found is for Burt Olney’s Ketchup.

“PJ, can we have this one?”  img_7929


“It’s for Burt’s Olney Ketchup!  Look at how they spell Olney – the spelling is the same as the street I grew up on!  It wasn’t until I was in sixth grade that I finally realized that the word only was spelled o – l – n – y NOT o – l – n – E – y.”

PJ chuckles and my own family laughs at my childhood silliness.

We continue picking.  Billy finds some old tins and an old cigar box.  I find some tattered wood frames.

The stories these boxes and tins hold are a mystery but we have created our own story up in the loft sifting and searching.

PJ carrying 15 year old Grace on the Interpretive Trail. Ripton, Vt


Learning From the Boys – The Greenbelt Research Continues

“continue to keep our eye out for new and inspiring multi-modal forms of composition”, “to continue to broaden-and improve-our ideas of what ‘writing’ can be.”  Tom Newkirk, Embarassment


Axel wrote this comic last Friday morning.  His idea was rooted in reading an art card.  This was the art card he chose:


As our Journal Time came to a close, this question framed our share, “What did you discover today?”  Axel, eager to contribute to the conversation, said, “I learned you can make comics out of art cards.”

Later that day, in a Leigh-ann’s first grade classroom, Harry was inspired to draw and write thanks to the word of the day (thanks https://twitter.com/TeachWriteEDU).  As Harry left the rug, he declared his choice “Word of the Day” he mumbled as he stood up, grabbed a sharpie and turned in the direction of his waiting journal.

Quiet fell over the room as the writers drew and wrote.  As I circulated the room, I stopped and took a peek at Harry’s work. Clearly, he was still in Halloween mode as his picture contained a graveyard and ghosts.  I looked, stayed quiet, and wondered “What did he choose?  Where on earth did he get this idea?”

You see, in my quick to judge analysis of what I saw, he was doing whatever he wanted, his work was not connected to our invitations.  I kept my internal analysis to myself and instead we had conversation

“What was your choice, Harry?”  He kept drawing and answered “Word of the day.” 

I thought my curiosity was heightened at the sight of his work, but it intensified when he said “word of the day.”

How on earth could the word of the day, “joy”, bring one to Halloween night.

“So, Harry, can you tell me how the word of the day, Joy, made you think of Halloween?” 

“The word of the day reminded my of when I went trick or treating with my best friend, Thomas.” 

I needed more. “But how did the word “joy” remind you of that?”

“Because we got lots and lots of candy and we had fun.”

“So is the fun the same as joy?”  I questioned quiet Harry.  He shook his head, yes, and went back to work.

My parting words “When you write, try and use the word joy.”

I walked away and let him continue.



I have always been curious about the connections between pictures and writing.  I had the pleasure of working closely alongside Dr. Karen Ernst daSilva, author of Picturing Learning and A Teacher’s Sketch Journal.  In my second and third grade classrooms, pictures and art were commonplace in my Writer’s Workshop – in fact, our research back then led us to call it Artists/Writers Workshop.  Over the years, with the call for calibration and consistency, many workshops became more uniform – not necessarily a negative.  But, as Ralph Fletcher so eloquently points out in Joy Write,  many teachers have lost sight of the joy and creativity and discovery that are essential to any writer.

Each week, in both the 5th grade and 1st grade classrooms that I work in, I am constantly reminded that if I give them structure and choice, my job is to two fold.

Job One – Inquire as to why they made their choice

Job Two – Ask “What happened, what have you discovered, because of your choice.”

In Axel’s case, because he made the choice of the art card, he discovered he could make a comic.  In Harry’s case, I learned that he made his choice, word of the day, because it immediately brought forth a  memory of a joyous Halloween night “with my best friend Thomas and tons of candy.”

It is when we offer choices that invite kids to “create in multi-modal forms of composition”, that we can create moments of self discovery- Axel –  as well as embrace the thought process behind an idea – Harry. For me, respecting their choices, based on the invitations, motivates me to ask authentic questions and gives space for genuine surprise in a writing conference.  I really do learn from them.  They remind me that all writers are unique and we must honor their process and ideas.










Time to Uncover and Discover: Journals and the Greenbelt

“our students must have the experience of writing what they do not expect to write” Donald Murray

This reminds me of my mom.  She is a gardener.  I love love the plants she makes all of the flowers she makes too.  I will always feel so happy.

“A crafts person enjoys the process of making furniture: the smell of the wood, the sound of the miter saw, the way a three-dimensional drawing gets transformed into a chair that’s both functional and beautiful.  In a similar way I love the”smell” of words.” Joy Write, Ralph Fletcher

I happen to love watching what young writers can do in a journal with structure and choice. Structure provides us with the opportunity to watch and learn how their choices allow them to find ideas and enter the process of writing.

It has become a routine each Friday for Leigh-ann and I to research choice and greenbelt writing (Joy Write) with her first graders.  Each week, we present the first graders with simple choices.  img_7742With a belief and a background in visual literacy, as well as the knowledge that pictures and drawings ARE writing, the choices often include pictures and drawings.  So far this year, children have observed in line drawings and most recently, we introduced art cards as a choice.  This past Friday, was their second week with copying art cards. (art cards= postcard size prints of artwork)

Before we called the children to choose their art card, I took a moment to highlight Harry’s work from the previous week.

“Before you all make your choices and get to work.  I want to share Harry’s work from last week.”

Harry had given me permission to share.  He came up and stood beside me and we held his journal together.

“Last week, I noticed Harry working in his journal.  He was really studying his art card and working to make his picture. I could see he was thinking.  When you all were cleaning up, I noticed that Harry had filled a whole page with writing.” I pointed to his writing.

The class sat fixed on Harry’s work and I could see the curiosity in their eyes.

“Let’s read it together, Harry.”  I prompted, knowing his quiet voice would need a little support.img_7740

We read “It reminds me of when I went to Maine.  At Maine me and my brother found a lava rock.  At Maine, I was so happy.” (see right)

“Did you notice how Harry ended with that feeling?” I reread, ‘At Maine, I was so happy.’ 

“Good writers do that sometimes, they can use feelings to end their writing.  So, as you head off to make your choices to copy and write, remember, good writers sometimes use feeling words to end their writing.  Challenge yourself as you write.  Ready to choose your art card and get to work writing?”

All hands shot up.

Leigh-ann and I transitioned them to their journals.  Without hesitation, eighteen first graders were at work – thinking, copying and preparing to write.

Leigh-ann and I each circled the room, observing thinking children.  We’ve each developed the habit of stopping and getgin closer to a writer when we want to know more about their thinking, their process.

I stopped at Maddie.  I knelt down close to whisper to her.

“Wow, Maddie, you finished copying pretty quickly, I see.”img_7735

“Yeah.” she joined in the whispering.

“It reminded me of mom’s garden.  I finished and started writing.”

“I can see that.  Keep working, I can’t wait to hear your writing!”


It reminds me of when I went to Cape Cod because it had great trees and it had a beach with seals in the water.  I said, I am so excited.
I moved on to Theo.  Theo had chosen to go back to the the work he had started last week.  He found the original art card and worked to finish his picture.  He had told me the week before, that as he worked, he was thinking about Cape Cod.  He and his family had vacationed there the summer before 1st grade.  This week, with an opportunity to revisit his work, he finished his picture and dove right into writing.

It reminds me about when I saw a fireworks.  There were lots of colors.  I was with my family and my babysitter.  I was surprised.


Hayley didn’t get her first choice of art cards the first week.  So this week, she knew the card she wanted.  She got it.  She copied it and wrote about a watching fireworks on the beach.





Don Murray, a model and mentor writer of many, said, “If our students are to become effective writers, then it is our job to help them find at least a few small slices of quiet time-perhaps in class-and show them how to use that time to listen not to us, but to themselves to hear the writing they did not expect to hear.”

The choice was simple, choose an art card.  The expectations and structure were clear – copy, think and write. Maddie, Theo, and Hayley were able to uncover ideas as they invested time and thought in their process.

The Journal Time that Leigh-ann has woven into her week, has provided her young writers with not just a greenbelt, but also a ‘slice of quiet’, that allows them time to hear their own thoughts and memories.  What’s better than than a gift of quiet time to think, write, and discover?




Car Talk

“How was practice?”

“It was good.”

“That’s good.”

The flood gates open.

“The team is just so supportive.  I feel like I’ve really grown as a dancer.  I mean, I can do hip hop now, I’m pushed to do more.  I mean Jen knows I have my turns and now she’s pushing me to more turns than I’ve ever done.  And, everyone is just so supportive.  When Sophia and Jordan and I do our ariels….you should hear how loud the team cheers for us!”

Grace had just been dropped off from her three hour Saturday morning practice.  She ran in the house, changed out of her Warde dance attire, and hopped in the car and we headed off to her 10:55 orthodontist appointment.

“Up at the studio, not all the girls are into it.  Well, they are into it, but some of them don’t have the passion that the team girls do.  We all just yell and cheer for each other, it’s how we all grow, Mom.  In all the recitals, I would go out and smile and get into the dance, but now, when the music starts, I am ALL in.  I get so into it, I don’t even think about smiling.  I just go all out!  I’m just so much more confident.”

Grace has been dancing since age 4.  She’s 15.  That’s 11 years of dance.  She’s taken ballet, pointe, tap, jazz, lyrical, modern and acrobats.  She’s always loved to dance.  It’s been a gift to watch her dance.  This past spring, she decided to try out for the high school dance team. A team that has won four state championships.

She had been encouraged to try out the year before.  She didn’t.  Two months into school that year, she said, “I wish I had tried out for dance team.”

After three intense days of 3-4 four hour try-outs, she emerged from the gym with thumbs up and a smile that could light up the world.  “I made it!”

Since that day last spring, she has taken her dedication to dance to a new level and she has embraced being part of a team.  She has taken her commitment to a new level.

“We are working on our jazz dance for Nationals.  The dance where I think, I’m turning the whole time.”  She chuckles at her own sarcasm.

“The jazz has such a different style.  Up at the studio, the jazz was pretty much one style, which is fine, but I am growing with this new style.  The team, mom, we are just so supportive.  Rebecca wants me to come over one day next week so we can work together on turns and  I can give her a few tips.  Even though her turns are really good!”

The words, full of appreciation for her place on the team, stop.  There is quiet as we approach the orthodontist.

I’m so happy for you, Monkey.  You are having fun, growing, and learning and even pushing yourself.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

I count my blessings as we step out of the car and rush into the orthodontist.  I count my blessings that my daughter is part of such an incredible team, with an incredible coach, and that she shares her appreciation with me.