a small group story

“a, e, i o, u!” “and sometimes y!” they shouted confidently.

“Did you know that the vowels are the heart of any word or word part?” heads nodded and Logan added, “A word part is syllable!”

Logan and Jay had joined me on the rug for a small group on multisyllabic words. A week earlier, Carolyn, their 2nd grade teacher, and I had sat down for a quick planning session. Based on the assessments she had given, these boys needed a little more than the curriculum. They were readers. They had demonstrated command of the phonics elements thus far on Developmental Spelling Assessment. Carolyn knew they needed more. She knew they needed to work on applying that knowledge to longer multi-syllabic words. Together, we decided that this would be one of my groups during push-in the following week.

My opening question about the vowels had them clearly excited and more than willing to share what they already knew about how words work.

“You are right Logan, they are really important to every word part and for you two, you need to not only remember that but use! You are reading longer books and in those longer books can be longer words – especially non-fiction! So, let’s practice reading word parts!” I had purposely chosen two syllable words with open and closed syllables so that they could practice their vowel flexibility independent of any meaning.

I handed each one the first syllable of three words and then the second. I watched as they each manipulated the vowel in each syllable. I watched as they connected a first syllable to a second to discover a real word. Despite their initial confidence, which had me wondering if what I was giving them was “good enough” they were thinking. I watched and listened to Logan -‘”vol”…”ume”‘ He manipulated the sounds and moved the parts together, “volume” he said, pride in his voice. He had finished his words. We both turned our eyes to Jay who was still working.

We watched, neither wanting to interrupt his process as he played with “ton” “ma” “ic” and “jor”. He manipulated the a sound in “ma” from long to short and finally put “ma” with “jor” to read “major” leaving “ton” and “ic. He read “tonic” confident in his word building but curious about the meaning of the word. We discussed what tonic was and then from Jay’s words, tremor. “Isn’t it cool that you two know so much about how words work that you built words that are new to to you. In a book, you’d have the sentence and story to help you think about the meaning.” They both smiled up at me and we high fived. “Can we do this again?” Logan asked. With that, I knew what I had given them was more than good enough. They wanted more.

It’s so easy to let the Jays and Logans of our schools just be. We teach our mini-lessons, they get it, and off they go. But don’t all kids need small group work? It’s in the small group that targeted teaching happens. It’s where we can see up close the process of learning for each learner. Every learner deserves to grow in some way and well planned, purposeful, small groups are an effective structure that can ensure this happens for all kids.

I’m so thankful that our school and our teachers have embraced not only small group work but the assessment, collaboration and planning that is behind them. Watching all that come to life in a classroom is, in a word, inspirational.

kitchen dancing…then and now

Aromas are dancing in the busy, dinner time kitchen.

When my girls were little, in the middle of cooking dinner, inevitably they’d all end up in the kitchen. I’d be waiting to flip the chicken, for the pot of water to boil, for the rice to cook. I’d be waiting. They’d be waiting. The waiting turned opportunity. Opportunity to kitchen dance. Grace, born to dance, was often the first to grab my hands and leap onto me, wrapping her legs around my waist. We’d dance as one and then, a kitchen flip would ensue. She’d flip back landing her hands securely on the floor and her she’d release her leg grip and flip right on over. Kitchen flips were born out of the opportunity to kitchen dance. Hannah and Grace, dancing while Grace was flipping, waited and then took their turns. Inevitably a buzzer would ding or buzz and the dancing would end.

Aromas are dancing in the quiet, early morning, kitchen.

I crack an egg and the sizzle breaks the silence. I step back, away from my burner. I move to the left, going around Megan who is tending to her large cinnamon chip pancake on her burner. I re-pop the toaster. Megan moves to my left and packs her lunch. A left and right step. A right and a left step. We dance. Then, we find ourselves back in front of our respective burners, side by side.

Still kitchen dancing.

An English Walk

“We went for another walk in English today.” Megan (a sophomore in high school) broke the silence in the car. “We walked all the down Cornell.” She was chuckling at her own reflection on the day. “We took pictures and wrote. I think he calls them Field Journals or something like that.” “Sounds like my kinda teacher!” “Yeah, Mom, I think you’d like Mr. N.”

“A few days later, Megan and I found ourselves watching Mr. N’s open house video after dinner. As I watched and listened, key words and phrases stood out, “choice”, “moving beyond the 5 paragraph essay”, “independent reading”. Megan was right, Mr. N was talking my kinda talk. That lead to Megan sharing her work from that day out “in the field”.

“It’s not good mom, she said, qualifying her work.” “Whatever, Meg, I just want to read what you wrote outside!” Somewhat reluctantly, somewhat proud, she shared her piece.

Over the years, I’ve always read Megan’s writing assignments. There was always purpose in her sharing – “Does this make sense? Can you check this over?” Happy to help, I was the support, the consult. When she shared her Field Journal entry, I was taken by her words “The wind was my friend as I sat. Never leaving me, always gracing me.” Her words made me pause, and think “the wind, my friend – the wind, gracing me never thought of the wind that way.”

Her simple draft in her Field Journal let me know that Mr. N is not just teaching writing – he’s created a space for teenagers to think on paper, he’s given them time to observe the world they live in, he’s given them them a place to play with words. Mr. N is not just teaching writing, he’s nurturing writers.

Thank you, Mr. N.


When I left the house this morning, I had a plan for dinner. Tacos. I’m not one of those who lives for Taco Tuesday. Tacos are a quick and easy meal. So faculty meeting Mondays make for great taco nights. Let alone that they are one of Megan’s favs and she’d be eating a late dinner herself because of field hockey.

I pulled into the driveway just around 5:00. Billy wasn’t home. He’d escaped from his at home office to go watch Megan’s game. Alone. All the alone time to create and execute dinner. Megan’s part was easy – ground the chicken, add the seasoning and heat up the tortillas. It was our part that had my creative juices going. I couldn’t wait to see what the garden was going to contribute to our Monday meal.

After feeding Maci, she and I headed back to the garden basket in hand. First stop eggplant. Three just right Black Beauties hung waiting to be cut. Snip. Snip. Snip. Next stops, our second crops of lettuce and kale. A few snips here and few snips there. Slowly, our basket began to fill with what would be Fall Garden Surprise for Tacos. I glanced over at the spinach. “Add me!” I heard them call. I moved over and a few more snips and I began to feel satisfied with the harvest. Maci and I headed back to the house and I remembered Billy had pulled up a few small beets earlier in the day. I began to picture how this would all come together.

Peeling and dicing. Dicing and peeling. I rolled the eggplant, beets and kale onto the sheet pan, added a little salt, pepper and olive oil and into the oven they went. The chicken cooked a top the stove and I cut up the lettuce and spinach. The aroma of Fall Garden Surprise for Tacos filled the house.

Satisfied with my creation, I let the heat from the oven work it’s magic on our homegrown veggies and waited for Billy and Megan to join me for dinner.

Evolving Understanding

Our district has been rolling out the TC Phonics Units of Study for the past three years. Throughout that time, we’ve been growing our understanding and practice when it comes to teaching children how words work. In growing our understanding and practice, we find ourselves looking at children through multiple lenses in order to know their strengths and find teaching points.

Last week, I walked into Rachel’s room for Reader’s Workshop. Her second graders were all engaged in reading. Red book bags lay open and children were scattered. Rachel was at her table working with a reader. I quietly called three children over for a guided reading group. We began our work with a snap word warm up. “I know you all can read these words, but we want to be sure we can spell them, too!” Then, I modeled how to trace the letters of each work, whisper the spelling into their mask and then read the word. They followed my lead and independently worked. I watched. I taught into formation while they concentrated on spelling. I transitioned them from the snap word warm up to the book with, “Now that you’ve practiced spelling, let’s read.” Eagerly, the children took the book and we went on to guided reading which then led them back to independent reading.

As the group dispersed, Rachel came over with a stack of papers and sat down next to me. “So, here’s the DSA (Developmental Spelling Assessment). I’ve got a couple of kids who are strong readers and their DSA surprised me.” “Great!” I said. We then talked about how important it is to use the information from a spelling assessment to let it inform our instruction for not only the reader, but the writer. “If children know phonics elements in reading, we need to be sure expect them to use them as writers. If they aren’t using those elements then we need to adjust our teaching and our expectations.” I said to Rachel as the workshop came to close.

This moment has lingered in my mind. A few years ago, without the TC Phonics Units of Study and the DSA, this conversation would never had happened. But now, thanks to a careful roll out of the Units and continued conversations within and across grade levels our understanding of what it means to teach phonics is evolving. We are striving to expect the transfer of phonics to reading and writing all while growing confident, strong readers.