Inviting Imagination

img_9349“I care about engaging children with the visual arts, and that I believe that things happen in children’s writing when they write through the arts that do not, perhaps, happen through other ways of teaching writing.”  Mary Ehrenworth, Looking to Write

It’s Friday afternoon at 12:38.  “Gotta get to Leigh-ann’s room.”  I tell myself.  I grab my giant post-it where I have just listed the choices for Journal Pages.  As I make my way to the door, I tell myself “Grab the oil pastels, the sharpies, and the art cards.”  I pause for a few seconds, think, “Do I have it all?” and head off down the hall. I’m walking down the hall carrying an overflowing basket, journal clutched to my chest and run into Isla who is heading back to her classroom.  “Can I help you, Mrs. Sherriff?”   “Thanks, Isla!  Can you take the pink basket.  When we get in the room, can you put the oil pastels on each table and spread out the art cards?”  My request for help is met with an enthusiastic affirmation.  When we enter the room, Leigh-ann is in finishing up a read-aloud.  I sneak in quietly and listen in.  Isla quietly lays the oil pastel boxes on each table and spreads the art cards out on the floor and finds her place on the rug for the rest of the read aloud.

I believe in visual literacy.  I believe that there is a place for art and the arts in our curriculum.  Art and the arts invite imagination and possibility.  In Releasing the Imagination, Maxine Greene writes “imagination creates openings to the unpredictable”.  Teaching involves plans.  Teachers work together to plan so that children across grade levels have similar experiences.  Teachers work to plan out their weeks and days so with the intent of engaged learners.  Somehow, in all that planning is the imagination lost?

This year, during Journal Pages in two first grade classrooms and one fifth grade classroom, copying an art card has always been a choice.  For years as a classroom teacher and as a Visual Literacy consultant at the Yale Center for British Arts, I was witness to the awakening of many an imagination when a writer reas an art card.

This week, in Leigh-ann’s first grade classroom, I wanted to offer a new way to copy an art card.  This class had been offered this choice all year and the choice need to be freshened up a bit.  So this week, I modeled how they could zoom into one part of the art card.  I told them to be open to what they might think or feel or what idea might come to mind as a result of zooming in.  I quickly modeled with a line drawing and an art card. “Thumb on your knee if you are ready to make your choice.”  I said.  They were ready.  I called them one by one and heard their choices – some choose Word of the Day (Wild), others chose the starter “If I could…”, and as always, some chose to copy or zoom in on art card.

I watched as Jack worked with an orange and red oil pastel making what looked like colorful mountains:

img_9337I looked over at his work space, saw his art card and asked, “What are working on, Jack?” “I’m copying this art card.  I’m zooming on the fire here.”  He pointed to the center of the art card.

img_9301“Want to hear what I wrote?”  He looks up at me, then down to his journal and turns the page.  He knew my answer.  I lean in closer.  I look at his words and listen to him read:

Fire Flame The light it is what keeps us alive I want to touch it because it is warm it feels like I am in the sun I feel like I am going to be happy for ever the flame is hot but my soul is cold but I am in heaven This writing is from my heart

In Releasing the Imagination, Maxine Greene also writes, “Meaning happens in and by means of an encounter with a painting, with a text, with a dance performance.”  I believe that Jack’s interaction with the art card, his reading the flame on his journal page allowed him to discover his own word  and ideas.

Treating art as text allows for unique perspectives and interpretation.  That unique perspective and interpretation is imagination at work.  A few months earlier, in a 5th grade classroom, James had copied that same art card as Jack.  But the art card invited James into the world of comics.  His journal page looked like this:

James’ comic inspired by reading an art card.

Back in Leigh-ann’s room on Friday, Isla had chosen to copy the same art card I had used in modeling.  She, however, zoomed in on her own part – the trees and the road.


As she read and copied, her imagination came alive in story.  She created a character driving down the road.  She imagined herself right into her own work and wrote:

It is cold. It is breezy. It is windy. Her face is getting cold. Sh has a scarf. She has gloves and a coat. It is snowing.

Leigh-ann was quick to point out to me that Isla was using the craft that they had been taught in Writer’s Workshop – lists of three.  Isla was not only proud of her idea, and story, but her craft in this short piece.

I believe that a journal is an essential tool for a writer.  It is a place to play and discover.  It is a place to wonder and write.  It is a place to observe and sketch.  It is a place where the writer can capture their own imagination in pictures and words.

“Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery”  Maxine Greene



The Journal

“When students learn how to create and navigate their own writing lives through independent work they are able to take the gifts of the workshop model even further.  They are more able to become lifelong writers because it is their vision they are following.”  Colleen Cruz – Independent Writing

Memory 1

“Mrs. Sherriff!”  I heard Kayla whisper up at me as we were ending our Journal Pages time together.  “Yes, Kayla?”  I turned and looked at her.  “Last weekend, I was on a bike ride with my dad and my sister and I saw a pine cone in the road and I stopped quick so I could pick it up.  My dad almost crashed into me! Then I saw a piece of bark and another pine cone.  We stopped and picked them all up.  My dad had to ride one handed on the way home because he was carrying all the stuff.”  “Why did you pick up all that stuff?”  I asked even though I had an inkling as to why.  I wanted to hear what she had to say.  “When we got home, I observed everything just like we did for Journal Pages and then I wrote.”  “Wow, Kayla.  That is pretty cool. You were living like a writer!”  She smiled and walked away.

Memory 2

“Mrs. Sherriff!”  I hear Leigh-ann call.  I go into her room and she beckons Cyrus over.  “Cyrus, tell Mrs. Sherriff what your brought in today.” He looks up at her with a quizzical look, trying to remember.  Suddenly he blurts out, “Oh yeah!  I brought in giant leaf!  I found it when I was at my brothers baseball game and I thought we could use it for Journal Pages.”  “Wow, Cyrus, that is pretty cool.  Writers are always observing.  I think it’s pretty neat that you were thinking about writing while you were at your brothers game!”

After reading Ralph Fletcher’s, Joy Write, last spring, a group of teachers and I began to wonder about the role of journals in our writing instruction.  We wondered how could we, how would we, fit in our already jam packed weeks.  We wondered how journals could form our units of study and how our units of study could inform our journal pages.  We knew that many writers carried notebooks or journals and yet this crucial piece for a writer was missing from many of classrooms.

I, personally wondered, if Journals could give children a space to experience the unstructured, playful part of being a writer. I knew, from experience, that Journals play a role in any writers life.  I know, because I have kept one for 26 years.  I know because my third graders kept Journals and they were essential to each child in my classroom.  Back then, before Units of Study were born, they were the heart of my Writers Workshop.

Recently, I got my hands on Colleen Cruz’s, Independent Writing.and she has me reflecting and thinking ahead.

I’ve been reflecting on where a small group of teachers, including myself, have researched the role of, what Ralph Fletcher calls “greenbelt writing”.  “Greenbelt writing is meaning-based, not meant for public consumption.”  Throughout the year, two 5th grade teachers and 2 first grade teachers committed to one writing period a week that would be filled with choice and freedom and we hoped, joyful, empowered writers.  We’ve been able to weave in art and Jennifer Laffin’s Word of the Day.  We’ve been able to watch writers find their voice in art and words.  We’ve been able to watch as writers uncover stories, memories, moments and pictures from their lives.

Ben is a first grader whose sketches are rough.  Yet when he sketches, he thinks.  He finds the ideas and stories that are calling to be written.  He often writes about his older sister Lexie.  He often shares how much he has learned about Adolf Hitler and World War II from Lexie.  It is clear from his journal pages that Lexie is more than just a sister, she is an expert that Ben admires and learns from.  Ben knows his journal is a place to admire all that Lexie teaches him.  It is a place for him to begin to make sense of it all.

James is a fifth grader.  A quiet fifth grade boy.  He often quietly makes his choice as we begin Journal Pages each Friday morning.  He sneaks off to a floor spot and settles in near a few friends.  When this first started, I admit, I was cautiously optimistic that they could write and think in their chosen spot.  I learned the power of friends who embrace the same genre can be empowering.  You see, these boys became the comic experts.  In his journal, James could take the Word of the Day and incorporate it into a comic with simple sketches and carefully chosen words.  He knows his journal is a place for playing with genre.

Avery is another first grader who loves to play with the Word of the Day.  For her, one word can spark a memory, a description, a picture or a poem.  She knows her journal is a place to play a place to uncover what she has to say.  Recently, her teacher, Leigh-ann and I watched her play with the word SKY.  Her description fell onto the page and after a little suggestion, she pulled out her favorite words and wrote a poem.  The next week we watched her play with the word DISAPPOINT.  We watched as she connected her poem from the previous week to her current thinking.  She sees that possibilities are endless when your are playing in your journal.  She knows her journal is a space for is a place creation and discovery.

I’ve been thinking ahead.  Where will we go?  Our work with the forward thinking Mary Ehrenworth, has me thinking about balancing the specific work of genre based units with the role of a journal.  I believe in the role of each in our classrooms. We need to provide space for Journals where children can discover their ideas and voices. A place where writers can uncover what they have to say.  The voice of the writer should be at the heart of all our instruction.

I am not sure where our work will go but when I think about the Journal Pages I’ve seen throughout the year, and what I’ve read so far in, Independent Writing, I know my wonderings will stay alive.


Dear Rebecca



It’s Monday morning at 5:32 am.  I am surrounded by about 40 other women. Some I know through work, some I know through town, and some I have gotten to know through Burn Boot Camp.

“Keep those feet moving!”  Alyssa gently yells as she begins to explain the Partner Posterior Strength Workout we are about to grunt through.  Workouts at Burn Boot Camp consist of a variety of oddly titled exercises that make you question your decision to even show up.

All eyes are on Alyssa as she explains the exercises that make up station 1 – Single Leg Glute Bridge and BB Split Squat.

I am standing near Rebecca listening and looking.  Rebecca is someone I have known OF for years but have gotten to know as a result of attending the 5:30 am camp morning after morning, week after week, month after month.

“Don’t be afraid of this one, don’t be afraid of the Single Leg Glute Bridge.  Put one leg up on the Burn Bar, balance and lower into a squat with the standing leg.  Do that for a minute while your partner is on the floor with the Single Leg Glute Bridge.”  Alyssa explains as she demonstrates.

She moves from station to station.  As she moves expeditiously to station 3,  she shares “Here we have the Plyo Box Glute Raise-Hold.”  At that, Rebecca turns to me, our eyes meet, we shake our heads “You should write another blog post about this!”  I laugh at the suggestion and say, “Yeah!  It’ll start out Dear Rebecca.”  Her eyes bug out and we high five our idea.   The next 2 minutes, Alyssa purposefully demonstrates the exercises at each station.  The next 30 minutes 40 women plus me, make those words on the white board come to life.

The workout has left my muscles tired but our idea has my mind energized.  I can’t wait to write.

Dear Rebecca,

I clearly remember repeatedly being asked by a variety of people, “Do you know Rebecca Marsick?”  My response was always, “No, I don’t know Rebecca Marsick.  I know the name, but I don’t know her.”  

It was the June of 2015 that I attended the Summer Writing Institute at Teachers College.  I sat and drew a tree surrounded by a concrete sidewalk and posted my picture on Facebook.  A friend commented, “Are you there with Rebecca Marsick?”   I did not know you so how could I know if I was there with you.

From 2011-2017 our paths must have crossed many times.  Yet, I never knew who you were.  I think I learned we had daughters the same age before I knew what you even looked like.  I think I even met Phoebe and you were still an enigma.  I came to learn that we both taught in the same district.  I came to learn that you, too, were a Literacy Specialist.

It was at a 5th grade orchestra concert that I finally met you – face to face.  I was standing in the back of the All Purpose Room and I was talking to Sue Coyne.  I can’t remember the conversation but somehow your name came up and I said for the millionth time, “No, I do not know Rebecca Marsick!  I know Phoebe, but I do not know her mother.”  No sooner did those words fly out of my mouth did Sue turn around and yell “Rebecca, come here!”  There I stood before you shaking your hand.  “I can’t believe you two don’t know each other!”  Sue shared.  In the minutes before the concert.  We shook hands exchanged a few words about books, and school, and literacy in general.  “It’s nice to FINALLY meet you.”  I said and we took our seats.

It’s only been a year since that concert, since I laid eyes on you and now I see you every morning at 5:30 for healthy 45 minutes of torture compliments of Alyssa. I now understand, why all those people, for all those years, thought we should know each other.  We each have 6th grade daughters, we work in the same district. we both believe in the power of literacy, we both love a good book and we both love a painful, sweaty workout at Burn Boot Camp.

Here’s to you Rebecca!  





To List or Not to List

“As teachers, our responses and teaching flow from the font of children’s noticings.” Patterns of Power, Jeff Anderson

Last Friday afternoon, I had about 20 minutes alone in my room.  I had Jeff Anderson’s book, Patterns of Power sitting in a pile.  There had been a buzz about writing and conventions throughout the building over the course of the week.  I had also had some hallway conversations with colleagues about conventions.  I guess you could say I had conventions on the brain.  So I picked up Jeff’s book and read.  He believes that at the heart of teaching conventions is noticing.  He offers a clear approach to implement the noticings.  As the bell rang for dismissal, and the voices and energy of the children faded, I closed the book.  I left the building thinking about noticings.

On Saturday morning, Megan and I are walking through the grocery store.

“Do I have my list?” I had said only moments earlier before getting out of the car.  I unzipped my bag, pulled out the white pieces of paper that held the lists – one for the grocery store, the other for what I had hoped to do before I hit the soccer field.

“You grab some bananas and I’ll get an eggplant.”  Megan and I parted and chose our respective produce.  We met back at the cart and I pulled out the list and crossed off two items.  We casually walked along the back of the store, pausing at each aisle, referring to the list, walking just far enough down to grab what we set out to grab – Crangrape Juice, Frosted Flakes, Pipette Pasta, Yogurt etc.

When we had crossed everything off our list, I said “OK that’s it – let’s head out!”  No sooner did the words fall out of my mouth did I spy the 1/2 Entemanns products.  “Hey Megan, want anything?”  She turned and perused the shelf and snagged a box of chocolate covered donuts and ploped them in the cart.

Later that night, back at home, Billy was getting ready to grill up steak tips.  “What are we having with the steak?”  He asked.  It’s Saturday night and that meant casual.  “Maybe french fries?  Not sure.  Hadn’t really thought about it.  I’ll figure something out.”

I found myself standing in the kitchen, thinking.  Then it hit me.  I said to no one, “Crescent rolls!  That would be perfect with the steaks.  Steaks, crescent rolls, and fruit – perfect casual Saturday night dinner.”  I knew as I am whispering the words that there was one problem with my casual genius idea – we didn’t have any crescent rolls.  They weren’t on the list, so I didn’t get any.

The absence of crescent rolls got me thinking about teaching.

It got me thinking to the balance between planning and responding.  I go into classrooms with a plan for small groups, or journal writing, or sometimes a read aloud.  It’s important to have a plan, an understanding of the reading and writing lessons that ground our teaching.  It is equally, if not more important to make our teaching responsive to the children in front of us.  To be open to the possibilities that come from conversations and observations.

If I had not been so focused on the list last Saturday, and maybe more focused on the ideas and possibilities that can come from just being surrounded by all the ingredients in a grocery store – I just may have gotten those crescent rolls for our casual Saturday night dinner.

I guess my weekend trip to the grocery store was a reminder to me about the constant work teachers do in the name of following curriculum and allowing our teaching to “flow from the font of children’s noticings” as well as our own.


Watching Maci

She’s resting

Suddenly, her head pops up

She twists her body

She looks behind her

Returns to her resting position, sprawled out

That position lasts seconds

She stretches legs out front, legs out back

Chin hanging off her bed

She hears the clanging in the kitchen and pops her head back up

She scoots off her bed

Slips into resting position on the hard wood floor

Finds a pink stuffie

Once a baby toy, now hers

It rattles as she chews and swings her head side to side

She whimpers as she looks at Megan doing her homework

She wants her to play

Back on the floor, on her side, feet sticking out

Content, happy, resting

Welcome home, Maci

Maci’s space – for now…
We welcomed a new puppy to our family! Maci!