Major Cooking Fail

I love Thanksgiving.  It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite days of the year.  It’s really such a simple holiday.  We just gather our family around a bunch of tables decorated by our daughters and filled with food, and we eat, drink, laugh, and talk (OK, and often have an argument or two about the political situation.  This year is sure to be no exception.) for hours upon hours. What could be easier than that?  We usually have about 20-30 people. Everyone brings a dish, and/or helps with the preparation, serving, and even the clean up.  That’s just how our family rolls.

But every year, at about this time, I start to get stressed.  Have we organized everything? Does everyone know what they are bringing?  Did we tell Aunt Mary what time we were serving?  Do we have all of the ingredients we need to make everything?  Are the beds made?  Have we pumped the septic tank (a critical event when having 25 people in an old house for a long weekend)?  So, I make lists and create schedules.  This year is no exception.  My schedule for tonight read like this:

-clean sheets and make beds

-bake cornbread for stuffing

-make short ribs for dinner on Tuesday (the first of the group arrives)

-buy birthday cards for the two family members with November birthdays

-bake birthday cake for Wednesday

So as 4 o’clock arrived, I started cleaning and cooking.  I put on some music and settled in to my routine.  Everything was going according to schedule.  The sheets were rolling around in the dryer, the cornbread was cooking, and the short ribs were braised. I put together the casserole, layering onions, carrots, tomatoes, and beef broth in the large old pot.  The recipe called for bringing the casserole to a boil before placing it in the oven for 3 hours, so I placed the pot on the burner and went to my desk to write the birthday cards.  That’s when the horrible popping and cracking sounds split the silence. I ran to the burner and picked up the old casserole, only to have the top portion of the pot come up in my hands, while the bottom stayed on the burner.  The contents of Tuesday’s dinner cascaded into the burners, down the front of the stove, and onto the floor. Carrots, onions, plum tomatoes, and short ribs of beef were everywhere.

So much for that schedule!






Story Writing, Step 2

I’ve set myself a goal of writing a story. I’m very good at making entries in my notebook (or on my blog), and revising them a bit to make them public, but I rarely move beyond that to the hard work of crafting a story.   I’m using the ideas in Writing Radar by Jack Gantos to guide my work.  Last week I made a list of action and emotion words to get me ready to write.

I selected a few words off my list:

Action Words:  Parent, Sister, Dog, Scars

Emotion Words: Stunned, Embarrassed, Confused

This week I’ve been trying to take the next step.  We teach our students about the importance of oral rehearsal, so I’ve been trying to take entries that have some promise and rehearse them as stories.  One idea that I’ve been playing around with is the story of the day my father informed me that my dog, Pogo (the cutest Bassett Hound ever), had been found dead after many long days of searching and hoping.  Pogo had been my dog since the day I was born.  When I heard of his death, I was stunned.  I know I was devastated, but for some reason I couldn’t cry.  I was horrified at myself.  I thought something was terribly wrong with me. Of course it didn’t help that my younger sister bawled her eyes out for hours.

I’ve been trying to craft this experience into a story. I’ve been trying (as Gantos suggests) to write more often, to use story structure to organize my piece, and to use action and emotion throughout.  It’s been fun, but ever so challenging. As hard as I’ve been working, the piece just isn’t turning into anything good. I need help. I’ve decided to do one of the other things we ask kids to do; turn to a mentor.  As I was looking through some of my favorite stories, I came upon The Last Kiss by Ralph Fletcher.  This, I thought, is the way I want my Pogo story to feel.  So I’m going to spend this week using my mentor text to improve and inspire my story.

Let’s see what I can come up with  by next week.

Writing Advice from Jack Gantos

I love to write.  I even dream of having some writing published one day.  I recently read Writing Radar by Jack Gantos, a book filled with advice for narrative writers.  Jack talks about keeping a notebook, structuring stories, revising (many times and with multiple lenses), and making sure you have good writing habits.  After reading this book, it occurred to me that I don’t write stories.  I write entries.  I write “slices of life,” but I don’t ever work to craft a story.  So….I thought I would make a goal for myself.  I’m going to keep a notebook of story ideas and then try to craft and revise a story.

One piece of advice that Jack suggests is to make a list of key words that lead to ideas for action and emotion in a story as a way to get some story ideas. That is where I’ve decided to begin, so here it goes:

Key Words That Lead to Ideas for Action in a Story:






Things I shouldn’t have done (but did anyway)





Bad Habits


Key Words That Lead to Ideas for Emotion in a Story












I’m not sure where this will take me, but at least I’ve taken a step.






Rainy Days

This weekend was one of the great weekends.  Our daughters were home.

Saturday was a busy day.  The weather was gorgeous, so we spent it doing all sorts of fun fall events.  In the morning, we walked the dog on the bike trail. Then we headed to the nearby farm and jumped on a hayride, tried out the pumpkin slingshot, and walked around to see the pigs, goats, and chickens.  After that, we headed to our favorite “Drive In” for lunch!  The late afternoon was spent carving the pumpkin and decorating the house.  Then we dressed up (the girls were witches and I was Igor from Young Frankenstein) and went to a local event at our historical society. We came home and watched Harry Potter.  I don’t know if a day gets any better than this one, but then came Sunday.

Sunday was a completely different kind of day.  The rain was coming down hard from the time we woke up until the time we went to bed. We decided to make it a quiet, at home kind of day. We made a big breakfast of pumpkin muffins, eggs, and bacon. Then we settled in to read the paper.  The girls worked on projects that have been sitting around the house for years.  It was quiet, and everything seemed to move slowly.  No one had to do anything or go anywhere.  I made a batch of pea soup and grilled up some cheese sandwiches.  We read some more. We talked.  We just spent time together.

There is nothing better than spending time with family.  It makes me feel whole again.

Framing the Work

On Sunday night, I found myself scurrying around. I took the air conditioner and fans out of the windows (I think summer is finally behind us), I folded one load of laundry and started a load of bed sheets.  I vacuumed the upstairs rooms, cleaned away some cobwebs, and dusted the bureaus. Then I started to put away summer clothes and go through my sweaters and corduroys. I was moving quickly (and a bit haphazardly) from one task to another, and as much as I felt busy, I didn’t really feel like I was accomplishing much.  Nothing was really finished. The rooms were now clean, but summer and fall clothes were scattered all over the place.  The air conditioner and fans were out of the windows, but still had to be carried to the attic, and the sheets were still rolling around in the washing machine, and the beds remained unmade.

In the middle of this hysteria, the phone rang.  It was a friend.  She asked me what I was doing, and I told her.  Her response was, “Oh, are you expecting guests?”  The fact is that yes, guests will be arriving soon and I am trying to get the house ready.  My friend’s simple question helped me to instantly frame everything that I was doing. I had a sudden sense of focus. Now, as I continued with my tasks, I started to feel like I was working toward something and everything I was doing had a purpose. It was like that ad for the antihistamine that instantly peels away the fogginess and presents a clear picture of the world around you.

I had a similar experience at work last week. I’m busy at work. Most teachers are.  We get up early, check emails, plan lessons, analyze reading and writing assessments, modify our lessons, check more emails (and maybe even send out a Tweet or check a post on Instagram), meet with colleagues, read professional books, blogs and articles, and the list goes on. We have a lot of ground to cover, but sometimes I feel like that is all I’m doing….covering ground.

This year I’ve been working with teachers on some strategies to make our Interactive Read Aloud more engaging and rigorous, studying student work, creating differentiated instruction from what students do well and can work on next, creating writing toolkits, and many other things. I’ve been busy, but not always feeling productive. Last week we had a meeting with one of our staff developers.  She started our session by presenting us with an Essential Question.  “How can we personalize student learning and improve student agency?”  I felt like everything I’ve been working on all year gained instant clarity.  I quickly saw how all of my work could fit under this idea. I can focus my work on developing personalizing learning and agency for both students and for teachers. This one simple question has helped me frame my coaching work.  The foggy lens has been stripped away and I can see my way forward.


Friday (October 20, 2017) is NCTE’s National Day on Writing. I tend not to like these types of celebration days, weeks, or months.  I think these events can send the message that we can only have fun reading when we are in our PJs on Read Across America Day, or only celebrate black people or women for one month out of the year during Black History Month or Women’s History Month (while the white male gets the other 10 months!), or only enjoy writing  this Friday. But we have chosen to celebrate this day of writing at our elementary school.  While trying not to present this idea that writing will be fun on Friday (and so therefor pure drudgery the rest of the year), we are going to put a spotlight on our writing, celebrate our writers, and encourage teachers to find some different ways to write with kids.  As part of this celebration, I am sharing ideas with teachers across the week.  Yesterday, I shared this 3 minute video from NCTE called Why Write? One of our teachers then showed it to her second graders and encouraged them to make their own list.  It was remarkable.

They wrote things like this:

I write so that I can go on and on.

I write to live.

I write because it’s fun.

I write to keep my memories.

I write for joy!

I guess these holidays aren’t so bad after all!





Engagement and Rigor in Coaching

We’ve been working with John Antonetti this year.  He is the co-author, along with James R. Garver,  of the professional text 17,000 Classroom Visits Can’t be Wrong: Strategies that Engage Students, Promote Active Learning, and Boost Student Achievement. He has been talking with us about moving our focus from teaching to student learning, and  pushing us to consider cognitive engagement and rigor in new ways.  Cognitive engagement, he says, includes personal response, clear/modeled expectations, emotional/intellectual safety, learning with others, a sense of audience, choice, novelty, variety, and authenticity.  Rigor, according to Antonetti, occurs when we have engagement (cognitive, intellectual, and academic) and when children make meaning in unique ways.  He encourages us to design tasks that lead to divergent thinking and push children to make unique meaning.  We have started to do some interesting work with students as we grapple with these ideas and work to design more rigorous and engaging tasks.

As I’ve been working with teachers and students to try out some of John’s ideas, I’ve also been thinking about how this might apply to my coaching work.  After all, in some ways the teachers are my students.  When I design coaching cycles, professional development or grade level planning sessions, I’m starting to think about how I might include these ideas of engagement and rigor.  Are the tasks I ask teachers to do cognitively engaging?  Am I pushing teachers to consider divergent ideas, find patterns, build meaning, and apply their learning in different settings?  Am I giving teachers enough choice, time for personal response, emotional and intellectual safety, and authenticity?

As I design my coaching cycles, professional development, and grade level planning sessions, I’m going to try to design tasks that infuse some of John’s ideas into my coaching work.  I’m hoping this will lead to higher engagement, active learning, achievement, reflection, and some powerful professional work for all of us!