Monthly Archives: November 2013


Even though we are already halfway through November, this morning was perfect for a walk on the beach.  It was sunny and mild, perfect sweatshirt weather.  Most of the people in the water were in full wetsuits, but there was the occasional beach-goer braving the cool water in trunks or bathing suit.

Toward the end of our walk I noticed this heart drawn in the sand and stopped to snap a photo.


A heart is a pretty obvious symbol representing love, but there is so much more that I think of when I look at this heart.  I’m reminded that love is in the little things.  I didn’t see who stopped to draw this heart in the sand, but whoever did took the time to kneel down and represent love in some way.  This morning I know that my husband would have rather gone to the gym for his workout, but instead, he willingly headed off to the beach with me to walk on the beach…at high tide, no less!

In the long run, it’s not the big romantic gestures that matter most.  The marriage proposals on the jumbo-tron, the diamonds, and the roses make a big splash but is the bowl of chicken soup carried to your bedside when you are sick, reaching for your hand when you look nervous, and taking time off work to take the cat to the vet that really make a difference.

In my view, love is being there for the long haul.  Struggling together through the hard times and savoring the magic moments.  It’s being up when your partner is feeling down, watching that romantic comedy when you’d rather see the latest science fiction adventure, and listening to that story…again.

Love is in the little things…like a heart drawn in the sand.  And it’s not quite perfect.  I like that it is open…there is still room to grow.

Reach for the Sky

I spend many Saturday mornings immersed in professional learning.  This morning was our first meeting of this year’s SDAWP Study Groups (a hybrid of book study and teacher research).  Sixty teachers met this morning to participate in one of five groups…and the energy in the room was palpable!

In three hours we wrote, discussed our writing and the connections of our processes and preferences to the students we teach…and then broke into smaller groups to get to know one another, explore our new book, and make plans for reading and exploring ideas in our classrooms.  All this on our own time, because we want to grow professionally with others who are also passionate about teaching and learning.

As I was leaving, I noticed hang gliders and paragliders soaring in the sky near the university.  I remembered that the Torrey Pines Gliderport turn off was nearby, so I turned and followed the road down to a dirt parking lot.  And there, along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was a spectacular view of the gliders and the ocean!


In spite of the cooler weather (after our 80 degree temps earlier in the week), the conditions were perfect for gliding…and for watching and photographing the gliders in action.


While I have no real desire to glide over the beautiful beaches of San Diego, I understand the urge to fly…to experience the freedom and excitement of soaring with the wind currents and looking at the world from a new perspective.

In some ways my experience in study groups this morning was a lot like hang gliding.  There is energy and excitement in gathering with other interested educators to continue learning together.  Interactions with teachers of all levels (K-college) and a variety of schools, districts, and teaching demographics offers new perspectives and views of teaching.  Rich conversations stimulate thinking and encourage actions…we can’t wait to come back next month to share our beginnings and continue our conversations and learning.


What conditions for learning allow you to soar?  How do you set up those conditions for your students?


Today’s Weekly Photo Challenge asks us to think about layers…how they reveal, conceal, and make things more complex.  When I think about layers, I think about teaching and learning.


When I teach I have to decide if I will start with the broad overview…the big picture and then zoom into the details.  Or if I will start with a detail and continue to pull back to let the bigger picture be revealed.  The best teaching is layered…creating a foundation that is continually built up so that learners can access the tools they need to keep growing.  Learners need to see the beauty so they will continue to dig and uncover the magic of the subject at hand.  This pier makes me think of all those different views, it’s like windows layered on each other, creating a view of possibility.


Some layers are more like the supportive structure of bridges or scaffolding.  The layers create footholds and braces for continual progress.  They are less about the view, but more about feeling safe enough to take some risks.  It helps to know that when you stretch to reach the next rung, there are some toe holds to prevent a total collapse.  When I teach, I want to layer supports like this bridge does, allowing students places to hang on to as they reach and stretch toward the next level.


Other layers are more like the stripes on these monarch caterpillars.  The stripes represent the way our knowledge and skills continue to grow and build, layer upon layer.  It makes me think of the small group of students who gathered in the classroom before school this morning.  We’ve been learning computer programming…and some made a bit of a breakthrough earlier this week (see this post), and have been working in whatever stolen moments they can find to continue the designs they started.  They’re excited and motivated…and they’re teaching each other and learning from each other as they learn from their successes and their mistakes along the way.

Like these caterpillars, they have been layering on their knowledge, black on white on yellow, black on white on yellow…as they experiment with the programming tools in Hopscotch.  And like these caterpillars, they are getting bigger and stronger…and closer and closer to transforming into beautiful butterflies.


Layers are like that!

Coming to a Close

As I wrote last week (here), beginnings and endings are challenging for young writers.  They often dive right into the heart of the writing…and then end abruptly when they come to the end of their content.  “The End” seems like a perfect ending for many of my students.


And so…in an attempt to help our students with both beginnings and endings, we turned to some mentor texts to study and learn from.  In my work with the San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP), I am repeatedly asked for lists of mentor texts to use with students.  And I repeatedly remind teachers that great mentor texts are often within reach…right in their own bookshelves!

I do admit to being a bit of a book addict…constantly on the lookout for wonderful children’s books.  Books that are beautiful to look at.  Books that contain language that sings from the pages.  Books that present information in interesting and accessible ways.  And I use them as mentor texts…just like I use excerpts from text books, articles in the Scholastic News, texts from the internet…

Back to teaching conclusions…  Today we returned to the same books we used to teach introductions.  We revisited the graphic we created to remind students the importance of introductions and conclusions… (Here’s a rough sketch)


The point of the thought bubble as a symbol for the conclusion is that we want to leave the reader thinking.  And so we studied our mentor texts with that in mind.

We started with Life in the Rain Forest, a Smart Words Reader by Scholastic.  This book concludes with an entire page that goes back to the big picture of the importance of the rain forest.  It ends with these last two sentences:

Many of the plants and animals in this book are in danger of becoming extinct.  Only by learning about rain forests can people work to protect them.

Students decided that was a “learn more” ending.  Then we turned to Let’s Go Rock Collecting by Roma Gans.  We decided that this book’s conclusion was an invitation to do something.

Rock collecting is fun.  And one of the best things about it is that you can do it anywhere. Wherever you go, try to find new rocks and add them to your collection.

In What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? by Steve Jenkins, we noticed the use of a question that asks you to apply the information learned from the text.

What would you do if something wanted to eat you?

And a Scholastic News article from the October 28th issue entitled Supersized Pumpkins offered this ending.

Now Wallace is back in the pumpkin patch working on his next record breaker.  “I have my sights set on 2,500 pounds!” he says.

We decided that conclusion made us curious about what would happen next.

With those examples in mind, students returned to their writer’s notebooks to try out their own conclusions.  With the piece they had written about animal defenses in mind, they set out to “try on” some possible conclusions.

In some ways we made this a bit hard.  We didn’t give students back the writing they had done previously about animal defenses–so they had to depend on their memory.  But then, last week when we did give back the writing we had a number of students “forget” to focus on the mini lesson and instead either copied what they had already written or continued on from where they left off.

So at the “stuck” spot, we asked students who weren’t stuck to share their early attempts at conclusions.

Here’s a few examples:

From a third grader:  “Every single animal wants to stay alive…hiss…and some animals are defending themselves right now!”

From a second grader:  “All the animals try to stay alive and use their defenses.  One might be using one right now…you never know!”

From a first grader:  “Would you play dead of something wanted to eat you?”

Another third grader:  “Have you even seen an animal use its defense?  Did it play dead? Did it run? Did it roll up in a ball?”

Another second grader:  “What do you know that I don’t about animal defenses?”

I feel like it was a good first attempt.  We’ll continue with another try with a different topic tomorrow.

So here’s what I’ve learned.  Introductions and conclusions are hard.  It takes study and practice to figure out how to make them work in our writing.  And we need to experiment to see what the possibilities are.  In our class, we plan to continue to revisit introductions and conclusions throughout the year to help our students internalize this important aspect of their writing.

I also know that there is no “magic” mentor text…and in fact, especially with things like beginnings and endings it is important for students to see that there are multiple approaches rather than a “right answer” or formula.  So I will continue to “read like a writer” and mine everything I read for its potential as a mentor text…for introductions, conclusions, language use, grammatical constructions, use of evidence and examples, and more.

What mentor text is your current favorite?  How do you use it with your student writers?

Stamina for Writing

Over at the NWP iAnthology, Janet Ilko has invited teachers to consider, “How do you build writers with stamina?”  As a middle school teacher, she talks about how daily journaling is a way to build stamina in her young writers.  (She works to build her own writing stamina through her blog, Writing in My Hand, as well.)

Stamina and fluency are important characteristics of writers.  Fluency allows for the words to flow onto the page and stamina means working through the hard parts of writing to keep on writing, to rework writing, to improve writing, to understand the importance of writing to learning and thinking and communicating.

One of the ways we build stamina in our classroom is by creating a culture where writing is the norm.  It’s no big deal…we write all the time.  We write to explain our mathematical thinking as we explore math concepts.  We write to describe what we are learning through our science labs.  We write to learn about spelling patterns and grammatical concepts.  We write stories, poems, arguments, and to share information with others.  We write to plan, to remember, and we write to reflect.

This week we asked students to do some reflective writing in preparation for student-led conferences next week.  We asked them to think about their learning in math, reading, writing, science, and with our iPads.  And what I notice is that these students have stamina for writing.  They know that writing gives voice to their learning.  It matters to them, to us as their teachers, to their parents…and to each other.

We are a community of writers.  And writers write.  They write because writing helps them think, and remember, and communicate.  And sometimes they publish too.  But mostly they write because writing matters in our community of learners.


I hope it lasts a lifetime.  How do you build stamina in your writers?  How do you build your own writing stamina?

Planning for Coding

You might remember that I’ve been exploring computer programming (or coding) with my young students.  You can go back here and here to see our early attempts.  The basic idea is clear…you write code to make your electronic device do something.  At first, ANY something was fun.  And then we all learned to make a specific something (square and triangle).

Today we asked students to make a plan for their code and then carry it out.  They drew a quick sketch (we reminded them to keep it simple and to use what they already knew about squares and triangles to get started) in their notebook and then move to Hopscotch on the iPad to carry it out.

I showed them how I had gone home and figured out how to write my very simple name with straight lines and angles similar to those we had used to make our squares and triangles.


What I’ve learned is that not all students take to coding equally…and that doesn’t surprise me.  Some students find it hard…and they are at a loss of how to proceed.  I encourage them to study what they have done before, but they need more of the one to one support of having someone sit and talk them through their choices.  Others are quite persistent.  This first grade boy worked and worked to draw this house.  He struggled with the final side, and while it’s not quite straight…he was proud of his accomplishment!


Lots of girls liked my idea of drawing letters or writing their own name.  This second grade girl figured out how to make several characters come together to make an “E” to represent her name.


And others risked creating something more complex.  This third grader managed to create a picture along with some words of a story.  I got him to take this screen shot for me, but after that he was still adjusting his code and working to make it look just the way he wanted.


I love the way that programming allows students to work at their own edge…and teach each other as they figure out something new.  We ran short of time today, but I know that I want to give students time to share how they made their designs with each other (and me).

Using Hopscotch makes me realize just how much more I need to know about angles and rotation in order to get past the basics of squares and triangles!  I just figured out how to make a circle as I was waiting for a dinner meeting tonight!

Have you tried Hopscotch or another basic programming tool?  What do you suggest as next steps for my students?

An Urban Landscape

It’s easy to appreciate the beauty of the natural world.  Trees and flowers, bugs and birds, fish and squirrels…and all the wonders of zoos and other wildlife sanctuaries make us stop and wonder at the miracles of nature.  And we often find this beauty in spaces that are open and natural, away from the hustle and bustle of busy city life.

And after a couple of days communing with nature, today I was back in a more urban landscape.  A place where parking is difficult , traffic is the norm, and lots of people are concentrated in small spaces.  And I enjoyed a couple of hours browsing a wonderful independent bookstore and some other retail shops before heading to the airport to return home.

But before I left that coveted parking space, my trusty iPhone camera and I walked a couple of blocks to explore the manufacturing district just a block or two away from the upscale shopping district.

After crossing the train tracks, I came across this asphalt factory.


And there’s a kind of beauty in this man-made factory and the machines that we depend on for smooth roads and transportation.


Big trucks drove in and out, but I didn’t get to see any actual asphalt.


It’s amazing what you’ll discover when you cross the tracks!


Where do you discover unexpected beauty?  What catches your eye and makes you want to know more?

Reflections: a Photoessay

I’m fascinated with reflection. Both the mental version and the physical version. Reflections appear in many surfaces…mirrors, metals, through shade and shadows…and in my favorite medium, water.

I love the idea of the way water captures the way reflection works with learning. Reflecting is a way of reinforcing and internalizing your learning. Taking time to think about why the learning matters and making connections to other experiences enriches learning.

Reflection is not the literal mirror image of seeing exactly what you experienced. Instead, reflection is the processing of experience. Like with peering into water, everything around you impacts the learning. The wind, the current, the life within the water…even the angle you take when you take a look.

I also love to play with reflection in my photographs. Sometimes I intentionally look for ways to capture reflection, but more often than not, I notice the reflection after taking the photo.

Here are a few of my favorites…

I love to capture birds on the beach.


And the surprise of the cliffs reflected when I was trying to capture these birds.


This fisherman has such a feeling of timelessness and captures the quiet and solitary beauty of individual focus.


And I’m not limited to the beach. I love the ways the redwoods are captured in this stream. (I also love the colors of the fall leaves floating in the water!)


And even at the zoo there are opportunities for reflection!


These photos remind me that taking time for reflection matters. There is beauty and meaning in looking back to look forward. I’m reminded to pay attention to the angles, to consider the environment, and to be aware of the life within…in my photography and in my life.

How do you make time for reflection? Do you create opportunities for your students to reflect?

Habits…of Language

How many times have I used the phrase, “What a zoo!,” to describe a particularly chaotic situation? Just what do I mean by that?

Today I spent the afternoon at the Oakland Zoo, watching animals, learning more about their behaviors and natural environments, and generally enjoying spending time with family in the presence of these people and animals that I don’t get to see everyday. There was nothing chaotic about the zoo. Instead, the animals seem to be well cared for and the enclosures offered opportunities to feel like I could really see the animals while keeping everyone safe. The zoo was peaceful, relaxing, and educational.

I do have mixed feelings about zoos. The ideal environment for wild animals is their natural habitat. But I also know that zoos offer humans opportunities to learn about and protect animals. And the zoo as outing provides families and children ways to appreciate wild animals and learn about ways they can help prevent the destruction and encroachment on the natural environments of these beautiful creatures. I watched people of all ages enjoying their interactions with each other as they watched giraffes, tigers, meerkats, sun bears, and even bats.


So what do I mean when I describe a chaotic event as a zoo? I’m really not sure. And now that I’m thinking about the reasons behind this phrase, I will be breaking the habit of using those words. There are other phrases I am working to eliminate from my language use. One of those is that one about “killing two birds with one stone.” And “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” And any phrase that includes the word slave in it. I need to break these language habits and figure out more precise uses of language to describe what I’m thinking.

Being mindful about language also makes me more mindful about my actions. Habits can help us get things done, like my habit of writing every day. They can also make us less mindful and result in some thoughtless words and actions.

What habits will you be working to undo…and what will you try to establish as habits?

Muir Woods: a Photoessay

Nestled in a valley not far from the knotted web of Bay Area traffic and coursing flow of humanity is a space dedicated to showcasing some of nature’s treasures.


The majesty of redwoods is best experienced in person. These giants are not only tall, but also express such personality. Each tree is unique from the next one. They seem to grow in families, clustered as if to offer support and companionship to one another.


I found myself intrigued by the light and shadows. At two in the afternoon, the sun struggled to penetrate these amazing tall trees. Occasionally we would see the soft glow of light where the sun found its way through the canopy.


I love the way this forest demonstrates how it sustains itself. Trees that have fallen and died, teem with live as decomposers work at recycling…returning the tree trunks to the soil to feed new life. As I paid close attention, I noticed these mushrooms growing from a broken trunk.


And as I continued walking I spied these beauties growing along the edge of the trail in with the clovers.


The stream was pretty shallow… After all, summer has just ended and the rainy season has not yet begun. I worked to capture the water’s movement…and to my surprise I captured the reflection of the trees above in the water!


And as a southern Californian who has to search for fall colors in trees, I noticed the leaves of the deciduous trees in my adventures today. There were no reds and oranges evident, but this yellow caught my eye.


Walking through the woods today was refreshing. The fresh, fragrant air and the natural beauty of the trees felt like a massage…relaxing and energizing.

What do you do to relax and rejuvenate? What amazing places do you have the opportunity Ito explore?