Finding Story

“The arts must play a greater role in curriculum.”  32500170Donald Graves, Bring Life Into Learning



Last Thursday evening I heard Kate DiCamillo talk to an audience of adults and children here in Fairfield, CT.   She shared many stories.  Stories from her childhood.  Stories about her dad who always encouraged her to tell stories.  She told stories about the books she wrote.  She shared about what she calls  “radiant strands of story”.   She believes we are all connected by story.

Last Friday, our District held it’s third annual Westport Learns.  Westport Learns is designed for teachers to teach each other, share their passions, connect with each other.  Each year, I have presented.  Each year, I have run a workshop for teachers to begin to grow themselves as writers using a visual literacy approach.

The first year, I did it on my own.  My colleague and friend, Christine, was my consultant as I prepared my slides and searched for clarity in planning.  Last year, my colleague and friend, Megan and I presented.  Our purpose was to provide mindful experiences with art and writing that would begin to grow teachers as writers. This year I presented alongside my colleague and friend Jess.  This year our presentation was infused with quotes and big ideas from Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write.

As I drove home last Friday, I thought about the fact that I had done this three years in a row.  I wondered why I kept doing it? I wondered what made each year different?  I wondered what was the common thread from year to year?  Suddenly, I stopped wondering.

The common thread from year to year was that each presentation was formed around visual literacy experiences.  Each year, teachers had time to read paintings, copy paintings, observe objects in sketches. Each year, they were told that the goal was not to make a pretty picture, IMG_4634but to connect with one’s own ideas, to find the hidden stories within themselves.

“There is no right or wrong when you are on the hunt for ideas and stories.”  I always say.

I remember last year, a teacher was copying an art card and found herself in tears.  As she drew and colored, she felt emotionally  connected to her emerging story about her dad and grandfather.  This year, I learned about a colleagues’ struggle with weight.  A story many can connect to.  Last year I watched and learned as a colleague played with the ideas that came to mind from sketching a leaf.IMG_4620  One administrator shared this year, “I didn’t write a lot, I appreciated the time to sit and think.  I appreciated the time to sit and study, to be mindful .  As I sketched and observed the inside of the shell, I thought about the cosmic heavens.”

As I watched the twelve teachers and three administrators work, I stopped to sketch and write myself.  Then, I walked around and read over their shoulders.  Kate DiCamillo’s words were ringing in my head – “radiant strands of story”.  Their sketches, their reflections, their poems were the seeds for stories.

For me, my story as a writer began with sketching and art…in school…as a teacher.  Twenty six years ago, our art teacher, Karen Ernst daSilva, invited me to join my second graders in the art room to create and discover connections between art and writing.

Through my own experience with pictures, art and writing, I discovered that I am a writer.  If, what Kate DiCamillo says is true, that the radiant strands of story connect us all, maybe one child, one teacher will discover they, too, are a writer from the experiences I create for them based on my story.

“Art brings together in one place an image and a response that goes directly to the heart of real thought.” Donald Graves, Bring Life Into Learning


More Than Meets the Eye: Evidence of Engagement

The room is quiet.  It’s 8:07.  The choices for these writers were to observe and write, take inspiration from the word of the day, or a new choice Slice Of Life.

img_6986I modeled, right in front of them, my journal under the document camera.  They watched as the words fell onto the page, they heard me read my writing, and share my thinking.  As I “went live” with my process, kids chimed in with word choice.

“Thumbs up if you get Slice of Life as a choice?”

Thumbs went up, heads nodded.  I could tell they were ready to get into their journals.  Denia pulled up the Status of the Class so we could record their choices.  Kids looked at their past choices and made a choice for the present.

Off went the writers.img_6985

I sat down between Ava and Ethan.  They barely acknowledged my presence at the table.  I sketched and wrote myself. I settled myself.   I observed the writers at work and began to wonder.   I got up and walked around, glancing over the shoulders, getting a glimpse of their choices.  I made my way around the room.  I pulled up a chair next to Caroline.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She looks up from her journal.  “Sure.”

“What was your choice?”

“Melt, The Word of the Day.”

“Why did you draw clouds?”

“Well I thought everyone would do ice cream or ice cubes if they chose word of the day.  So I thought I’d challenge myself with something that was different.”  

“I wasn’t getting it.  I wanted to understand her process. “So, where did you get the idea to draw clouds.”

“I was looking outside and I saw clouds.  Then I thought of rain.  Rain in fall.  Rain in fall is cold and icy.  when it hits your jacket, it melts, it becomes a stream of water and it’s warm. That made me think of icy rain hitting an animals fur – ya know, the fur of the animal is like my jacket.  Drawing the picture helped me make the melt idea, the rain idea, special. Once my idea was special, I could write.” She wrote:


Caroline had an idea. She let the idea sit in her mind as she stared out the window.  She had a goal “to challenge myself and make it different”.  She used drawing to work towards her goal.  Then the play began.  Caroline was a writer at play in the Greenbelt.

In his chapter on Feral Writing, Ralph Fletcher writes, “In a community the greenbelt plays an important role not only for what it is (wild), but also for what it is not (developed).”  The wild nature of the Greenbelt, for Caroline, allowed her to be patient with an idea.  She then began to play with  the idea through her sketch.  Then she was ready to write.

John Antonetti’s study of engagement across the country included many conversations with children.  His book (which I have just begun to read) contains scripts that highlight the engaging work qualities.  In his book, 17,00 Classrooms Can’t Be Wrong, he writes “talking to students had made all the difference for us.”

The room was quiet at 8:07 last Friday morning.  A scan of the room told me kids were engaged.  But it was through quiet conversation that I was able to assess Caroline’s true engagement.



Shopping in the Attic

“Mom, can you come upstairs when you are done?’

“Yup.  Let me just put this in the DW.”

“I want you to tell me if these jeans still fit.”

Megan is 11.    Megan has always been quite happy in athletic shorts, leggings and a shirt.  Megan has two sisters.  Hannah, 17, and Grace,15.  Megan has never worn jeans. We’ve always joked around with her – “Hey Meg, that shirt would look so cute with a pair of jeans.”  Her response has been consistent over the years “I don’t like jeans.”  We’d let it go and let her be.

Last fall, she actually let me buy her a pair of jean jeggings – that denim with loads of spandex so they feel more like a legging than a traditional stiff jean.  “It’s good to have them.”  I said as we walked out of Justice with our purchases in hand. “I’ll probably never wear them.”  She said quite matter-of -factly as we walked out.  Her tone said, “Mom you just wasted 22.99.”

I finish loading the DW and I head upstairs.

“I can’t find those jeans we bought last year.”

“Go check in the dresser in my closet.”

She returns empty handed.  I watch as she begins to dig through the drawers in her own dresser.  “Are they in here with the shorts?”  she asks her self as she lifts and sorts the clothes.

“Try your closet.  Are they in one of the cubbies?”

I sit on her bed and watch her search her closet and cubbies.

She turns to me “Where are they?”  It’s obvious.  She’s not giving up.  “They still have the tags on them.  They were from Justice.”  She remembers.

“Let me be the second set of eyes.”  I get up and head to the closet cubbies.  I reach in to a pile of fuzzy socks and grab a dark colored material.  I have found the jeans.

“There they are!”  she exclaims.

The fitting begins.  She pulls on the jeans.  “Oh good! No zippers!  I hate zippers!”  She jumps up down pulling on the pants.  She looks at herself in the mirror.  “These are OK.”

“Try these.”  I hand her a pair of jeans from the attic.  Hannah had worn them.  Grace had worn them.  Despite the fact that Megan was never a fan of jeans, I held on to them… just in case.

“Ugh. Zippers.”  She pulls them on. “These skinny jeans.  They are so difficult to put on.” she cackles.  Accentuating the word difficult.  I watch as she pulls the tight ankle over her heal.  “Ohhh!  I like these.”

“Put this on.”  I hand her an old lightweight hoodie.  The hoodie exchanges hands. “Grace LOVED that shirt.  She wore it all the time.  I think she even wore it with those exact jeans.” I’m sitting there in the moment while simultaneously my mind is reliving a memory.

Megan slips the shirt over her head.  Adjusts the hood and the sleeves.  Hops on her bed to get a good look at her self head to toe.

“I really like this!”

“Go show Hannah.”

Hannah pauses from her homework “Aww, Meg.  That looks so cute.”

I watch Megan exit Hannah’s room and head down to Grace.  Grace looks up from whatever Netflix show is on her computer.  I can hear the sentimentality in her voice. “Ohh Megan!  I remember wearing that!  I love it!”

I hear Megan’s feet dance up the stairs.  She enters the room and looks at herself in the mirror one more time.  “I really like this.”

Megan is now in middle school.  I know the next three years are going to be full of discovery – for her and for me.  I remember the middle school years – the good, the bad, and the ugly, – with Hannah and Grace.  Their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their willingness to test out their independence and identity played itself out during these years.  During the fitting I was thankful that Megan was allowing me to be part of the discovery and identity play.

Gotta love shopping in the attic.


What Happens When…Let the Questions and Observations Lead

I was curious.  I didn’t really know what would or could happen when a group of teachers read Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write.

I was cautious.  Our school had worked so thoughtfully in implementing a curriculum that uses Teacher College Units of Study as a primary resource.  Teachers had worked together.  Our Literacy Coach, Jess,  had led us over the past two years with incredible expertise and trust.  She and our principal worked closely alongside TC staff developers to structure our PD to meet the needs of our school and our district.  Our principal had taken the time to thoughtfully read Joy Write herself.  She took the time to meet with me to share her thoughts and hear mine.

I was cautious, because, I didn’t want our research to undo the work that we had already started.  With cautious curiosity, I shared the question – What happens when a group of teachers read Joy Write?  I truly believed that the message of Joy Write and the purpose of the Units of Study could coexist in schools if there was purpose, thought, and ongoing conversations.

Stories are beginning to emerge.  Stories that are validating my beliefs and opening my eyes to what can be.  Here are two:

At our fourth gathering of Joy Writers, Roshawn shared this story:

“We were walking from music to our classroom.  As we were walking, we all looked

It towers over us all looking down at the specks that scurry below. With a sway to the right and a rustle to the left dark becomes light and light becomes dark.

out towards the river and saw the water glistening.  I knew that we needed to get our Writers Notebooks and observe and write.  Do the stuff we (Joy Writers) did over the summer.  So the 2nd graders got their writers notebooks and sat on the steps.  I told them to listen to the sounds, sketch what they see and write.  All the kids, without question, sat and embraced the work.  One little girl came up to me as I was studying a tree.  “Aren’t you going to do it too, Mrs. Lawrence?”  “I forgot my notebook.” she said.  “I’ll go and get it for you!”  the little girl replied without hesitation.” Clearly it was not a choice as to whether or not she would be a writer alongside her class.  She sketched the tree that she had been staring at and wrote (see right):

“When we returned to the classroom, her curious class needed to know what she had written.  She shared her work.  Ethan piped up “You need to add that to your apple picking story!” 

You see, Roshawn had been modeling narrative writing as part of their current unit of study.  Clearly, Ethan saw the connection between Greenbelt writing and unit work.  The Greenbelt work, according to the feedback Ethan gave Mrs. Lawrence, was informing her work as a narrative writer.  Roshawn not only shared this story at Joy Writers,  but reflected on the process and wrote,  “they (her students) are seeing things I didn’t even see.  Things tie together when you’re not looking.”

Leigh-ann and I observed this story reveal itself in her first grade classroom:

Jimmy, on the windowsill, with his Writers Journal and his narrative writing pulled from his Writing Folder.

The room was pretty much silent, except for the humming of one writer, that didn’t seem tobe bothering anyone and the sound of a few first graders stretching out words.  Kids were scattered all over the room.  They had each made a choice. They were observing and writing.  I watched JJ, who, for two weeks in a row had chosen the windowsill as his “smart spot” to work. He was observing a piece of bark.  He had written “It looks like a fish.”  He continued to sketch and write.  I wandered around the room leaning in to the writers, watching and occasionally seeking the back story.  When my eyes came back to JJ, he was sitting by the cubbies, his green writing folder opened.  It was obvious he was up to something.  “What are you doing?”  I whispered.  “Well, I wrote the word “ears” in my story and I wanted to know how to spell it in my journal.”  “Good thinking.”  I said, as calmly as I could.  Internally I yelled, “YES!”.  A first grader was teaching me.  Teaching me that, yes, Writer’s Workshop and the Greenbelt can feed each-other.   Despite that fact the times of day are separate, JJ knows that living like a writer means thinking like a writer all day.  

In his essay “On the Virtue of Thinking Small: Reclaiming Teacher Research”, Tom Newkirk writes, “For me, research works best when it clarifies my experience as a teacher, when it helps me see better or listen better, or when it helps me think better about what I am doing.”  As of right now, I couldn’t agree more.  The teacher research stance has made me ever alert to the successes, the failures, the connections and the possibilities.  I still don’t know where the Joy Writers research will lead us, but I know I am ready to follow the question and those of the Joy Writers.

When a Joy Writer can’t make a meeting, she spreads the joy and writes with her own.
Joy Writers at work


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