trusses for gutters
Trusses for roof rain gutters and soffets

When I bought my 1917 bungalow in historic downtown, the necessity for a new roof was apparent.  What was not so obvious, until I delved into the matter with my contractor, was that the new rain gutters could not be applied nor the rotten soffets repaired until the perimeter of the roof was trussed.  So we know when students are failing.

What does this have to do with writing?  Today I’ve been looking broadly and deeply at school data for ELA, monitoring those struggling students who arrived in the next grade level far below basic in performance.  What we don’t know is how to design our classroom for effective brain performance, instead of around textbooks and worksheet examples. The photo shows several of the 50 trusses made to finish the roof renewal.

A great deal of what I believe and try to do as an intervention teacher comes down to those trusses.  Kids need feedback.  Right away. We know from research that the best learning happens in one-on-one tutoring, even on a computer.  Giving the feedback for each response…item by item.  And student brains figure it out!  Additionally, sometimes writing is the best formative assessment, costing little to administer and yielding abundant information for the teacher, yet the least often trusted and selected.

Our students experience a windstorm of new information and the ELL’s a hailstorm of language demands with little attention to accurate, helpful feedback along the way.  Saying “You got a 65.” on a multiple choice test does not qualify as feedback.  Students take a district benchmark and either seldom hear how they did or merely see a score on a report card.  The state standards assessments are even less timely.  Sometime in the summer they get a cut score ranking in the mail.

Do we believe anymore that the human brain can learn from having its correct answers confirmed and its mistakes pointed out?

Some students are fortunate to be with teachers who are listening, assessing and giving the maximum immediate individual feedback humanly possible in a classroom full of young people. However, some are just going on, talking and introducing more and more, like a rainstorm without gutters. An obvious problem is that, as the grade levels progress, the sheer amount of content increases so much that it is difficult to give students specific feedback and teach.  Then that enemy of excellence creeps in, “Coverage.”

But those moments when teachers slow down and give real feedback are applying trusses.  Each will hold up the next bit of learning.  Feedback and feedback and feedback is like a row of trusses, fifty of them going all around the perimeter.  Then my roof could support rain gutters and soffets.  So I’m going into my next cycle of intervention with a contractor’s eye and doing some carpentry on my lesson delivery that will create trusses.




OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was sunny until late afternoon when the wind came up.  We moved our chairs off the patio to the driveway to catch the late rays.

The chef magic poured off the grill:  zucchini and yellow squash slices, shrimp, mushrooms, elk sausage, salmon….and the tables were loaded with salads, dips, olives…champagne or sangria?

Mostly the laughter.  The food and conversation was great, but the best was the laughter.

I love my family and close friends.


The next bend in the road

bendintheroadThere it is.  My future.

I’m officially in middle age.  I notice there are two ways I can proceed.

I can strain to look forward to a few things I think I should do.  However, when I look at retired people some of them seem bored and others are, well, ill or dead.

I can look back in regret for dumb turns I took and mistakes and try to walk this next segment with more wisdom.  Which sounds like carrying a load of guilt.

All I can see in the moment is the sunlit path before me.  I know there’s an ocean and wide beachfront ahead.  The lodge is behind me, out of sight.  I have my optimism and wits about me.  I have energy and passion.

I am questioning myself.  “What do you really want?”  That’s the question always deferred, never asked for so much of my journey.  It was always about how to do for someone else what they wanted.

What?  What do I really want?

Walk.   Ask.  Breathe.  Ask….listen….

What do I really want.

Buddy Letter Writing

Somehow by their lunch hour my eight grade 5 intervention students finished typing letters of introduction.  I had no idea how long typing letters would take!team

My neighbor, who teaches in an adult high school, and I have launched a Buddy Letter Writing project — modeled off one I did with a full 5th grade class partnering with a college freshman English professor, and similar buddy projects I’ve seen teachers do with SJAWP.

Tonight we spread the first letters out on her dining room table, reading and admiring phrases, style and tone.  Then we matched the students for interests, background, and role models.  Mostly the letters were terrific.  It’s exciting.

Tomorrow my 5th grade focus group will get the first in a series of letters from their high school buddy, only known by first name, and no contact information.  In May the high school students will come to our campus so everyone can meet.

I’ve experienced how motivating and marvelous this kind of writing can be.  So, I’m excited to be taking my folder of letters to share tomorrow.



Finding the Central Idea

These days of celebrating, out on school nights and looking forward to the family and friends coming over Saturday, have lifted my mind off dogged concern for the details of my work. Not that I am less productive, or teaching sloppily.  I am not carrying it around all the time in my head.

Laughing already at the crosswalk coming from the parking garage last night, K and I attempted to cross the broad lanes of Market on the 8 second warning light.  I sped forward in heels, not my usual footwear, and pitched a bit too far forward.  I was falling in slow motion trying to compensate.  I landed ruffled by embarrassment, but unhurt.  We arrived breathless at our “club.”

watercolor leafAt our favorite Italian place, my girlfriend and I, light weight drinkers, polished off a bottle of pinot noir with our conversation.  The staff and manager came by our table and laughed with us.

Today, opening the door to one group of students, eight first graders, I entertained myself by announcing it was my birthday and asking, “So, how old do you think I am?”  Several answers were, ninety-two, twenty-two and one hundred twenty.   Ha ha ha ha.

This evening, when I met a friend and her 94 year old dad at a local seafood cafe we started with fresh margaritas.  Mine was lime.  When our plates came, I reached for a catsup bottle which gassed as I took the lid off, splatting my arm and chest with several teaspoons of gooey red tomato paste.  My gal friend began diving for napkins, but I enacted a cowboy shootout dying scene.  The amount of blood spatter was impressive.  I mopped it off my black shirt amused.

The central idea seems obvious.  I have been loving myself and others by attending to having fun, using the occasion of a very big birthday year number as an excuse.

Finding a central idea in a discovery draft can be as awakening as falling in slow motion on the street, or spattering oneself with catsup.   Blogging daily is a great exercise in watching for central threads in recent experiences.

Since “real” writers compose discovery drafts and search for their themes among their words, might we do ourselves (and our students) a favor by making time to discover these central ideas?



IMG_5314Tuesday, tomorrow, is the eve of my birthday.  This year is a nasty number, although the numbers had never bothered me before.  It’s the year I got discount offers on cremation and cheerful bulk mail like that.

Today was a Monday squared to the max.  Tonight I posted my letter to a highly critical teacher who hijacked my precious 25 minute lunch time today.  Within 3 minutes of posting for today, the Slice for tomorrow dropped in my mailbox.

So, I’m writing for the Eve of My Birthday.  I want the day to have a few laughs.  I want to see my students besides walk through my school with The Suits from the district office.  I want one person to say “thank you” to me sincerely for some teensy, little thing.  I want my day to taste like the photo, “My first lunch in Paris.”

And the best part of tomorrow will that at night I will go out to Club with my very best girl friend.  We will have wine, fantastic Italian food, and — most important — we will laugh and talk about our true selves and Life.  (No, I won’t have my feet propped up blogging, so that’s done now, tonight.)

So, on my natal day at school Wednesday, if everything I’ve planned in order for teachers to enjoy teacher consultants coming into their classrooms; if it doesn’t all go perfectly or make everybody happy, never mind.  I’m going to go out again that night and fouggeddaboutit.  Another sweet friend and her dad are taking me to a great little fish market cafe.

There are times when a dedicated teacher needs to put her attention on what she likes and loves. They call it “balance.” I called it “my birthday.”  The very best part won’t be these weekdays workdays, although I’m pleased with my plan to break my no-going-out-on-school-nights rule.  This Saturday, my family ~ Mom, two daughters, two grandkids, two close friends, and two neighbors will come to my house for a Backyard Takeover.  I’m living for time with my peeps.

We will grill fun little bits of fancy food on the patio, have champagne and SPEND QUALITY TIME TOGETHER.  That is what I love most.

So, the Birthday Queen is taking up her scepter.  Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, critical people are not allowed to bother her, even if they bow first.  They must stand in the background of Her Highness’s birthday aura.

Friends, family and colleagues who care, may approach.  I count myself rich beyond measure for the people I love and for true friendships in my life.


An Argument

Hi Xxxxx,

If you give that opinion writing lesson we saw you do at the district office last Friday in grade 4, Ms. J.’s class this Wednesday, I’m sure the students will do a fantastic job.  The teacher, Lxxxxxn, however, did not follow your flow of logic about writers workshop for the unit (no experience with workshop ~ i.e. concept of keeping topics in a notebook) and didn’t understand you using personal topics and essays to scaffold to opinion writing. Sigh.

I’ll just say that was her complaint today, plus the lingo.

My opinion was that you modeled well what any 4-5th teacher might do to launch opinion writing with a class.  Below is what I wrote to Lxxxxxn to answer her concern about the academic language.  You’re busy and you might scan for the red highlighting or not.

I have been in meetings past 6:45 tonight and am turning off teacher writing mode.   🙂 L.

Dear Lxxxxn,

Thank you for airing your opinions today about the academic vocabulary and the meaning of the anchor standard 1, opinion writing.  I will pass on to Exxxx your concern about not understanding what she was doing from a writers workshop point of view, and the disconnect you expressed.

This Mar 13th event has been on school calendar since December 2012, and I updated it when we came back to school in January in the body of your email.  You have every opportunity to let your wishes, needs and opinion be known about what is demonstrated in your classroom.  But think:  As a teacher, would you want it last minute? 

In 6th grade, according to the CCSS, opinion writing will be called argument.  (Aka rhetoric.) What we are doing in primary and elementary with opinion writing will lay the foundation.  And yes, a thesis (or position or stance or whatever you want to call the big idea) PLUS the reasons, support or evidence (whatever you want to call them) — those two things combined equal the argument.  You know that.  But that is a big concept to begin teaching our students.  They don’t know that.

Also, I recently learned that our school RenLearn STAR reading tests include such concepts and words.  The STAR reading test is tallied by domains.  One is “Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.”  After pondering what the heck that meant, I called their support person.  When I went to Core Progress on our RenLearn site, they also called it “Analyzing Argument and Evaluating Text.”  Argghh!
It means what the CCSS means: Recognizing the claim in an argument and evaluating or weighing the support given. The language our students are already encountering on STAR tests includes:

“Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support a claim.”  (GR 4)

Content-Area Vocabulary reasons or explanations; evidence, claims, support
Conceptual Knowledge determining support for a claim
Linguistic Competencies finding words that are clues to opinions: should, must, ought, believe, never, always, most
ELL Support Use a think-aloud with a short piece. Ask aloud as if to yourself: What is the author’s argument? What evidence does the author use to back it up?
Prerequisite and Related Skills
• Denotes Focus Skills
Grade 4 –
Identify and explain the main idea and explain how details support it
View Teacher Activity View Sample Item
Grade 3 –
Determine author’s message
View Sample Item
Grade 3 –
Identify and explain the main idea and distinguish it from supporting details in informational text

You may be shocked to learn that apparently no primary teachers or elementary teachers were in on the national common core standards writing process.  So we are naturally going to balk at the new content and the level of academic language.  (Are you surprised they didn’t ask us??)  However, I have taught writers workshop, as has Exxxx, in which my students learned the terminology for the parts of the essays they wrote.  We called it what traditional academics have for years:  thesis & evidence = argument.  (That’s what a 5th grader will hear in 6th grade.)  Adjust the language for your fourth graders if you like…great time to use synonyms.

I hope this helps you know that I did my best, in our limited lunch time frame, to hear your concerns.   I will say, in her defense, that Exxxx is totally maxed, teaching full time, taking GLAD training, and being willing to present for writing project at our school.  I will tactfully remind her to consider her audience‘s background with workshop.  But neither you, me, nor Exxxx are authors of the CCSS.

If you look for the checklist page in in the Common Core Writing Book I loaned you, (pg 6?) it shows at a glance what Anchor standard 1 (Opinion) looks like at each grade level K-5 all on one page.  Cut to the bone, no froo froo.  Check it out.

Writing growth, just like teaching growth, takes place slowly over time.  I trust you will glean something of value this Wednesday.

Every teacher, I believe, has to watch methods and practice, and in their own time ~~ invent their own teaching.  You are, in my opinion, a highly engaging, thoughtful teacher.  I trust you’ll figure out what and when you want to re-invent.

My very best,

Cats Choose You

That glazed look on Mickey’s face occurs when he rolls in the dirt inviting me to agree whatacutekitty, knowing he will whack me if I take more than three seconds to rub him.

After Carlos I thought I never wanted another cat, for the pain of signing him over to a vet tech who could give Carlos meds all day and monitor what we thought then was kitty diabetes.  Which was way better than Plan A to put Carlos to sleep.  Turns out, it must have been a pancreatic infection, because Carlos came back to the bloom of health.

Two years later, I was negotiating buying a neglected downtown bungalow, happily before it listed to avoid the all-cash buyers who were bailing out of the stock market.  When I walked the neighborhood to see what the block was like in the evening, the cow kitty came to check me out, in a friendly way.  On the house showing and another walk-through, the black and white creature was in every photo, noticing what I was doing.

When we put the offer in, we, my wonderful realtor and I, were distracted by the ineptitude of a mortgage manager at B of A, and the news that 200 guns had mysteriously disappeared from a local store (the seller was an undocumented gun dealer) so, while I wanted to ask if he would leave the cat with the house, I did not.

However, I had chirped to family and friends, apparently in the hearing of the seller’s sister, Kelley, that you don’t go find a cat.  Cats come to you.  They choose you.

Several months after my move in, after the clatter of re-roofing, the clutter of repainting, the erasure of refinishing floors, and scouring of nicotine and grease accumulations indoors, Kelley called on me, asking over the driveway fence, “So, do you still want a cat?”  Her brother’s heart and kidney failed and he could not keep Mickey.

That is how Mickey arrived home from Reno, hating every second of the ride.  His paws cautiously stretched out of the carrier on the clean oak floor of the dining room. The place just didn’t smell right. When he saw the big, brick-clad house next door, where he was born and raised by Granny, he drew himself up by front paws on the window sill visibly amazed.

After a quick check of features like the kitchen, the basement and the dog door, Mickey was relieved to realize he was home.  In weeks he bonded completely.

So why this little narrative?  And why the glazed look of cat craziness in Mickey’s portrait?  Ideas choose us.  I really believe that the best writing I have done came when I was just home taking care of business and heard an Idea come to the back fence asking, “So, I hear you want to write?”  And when it was something worth it, wanting to be written,  I found it tricky to get close to it; to not get scratched and back off.

The best way to get a fine cat is to let a cat choose you.  Ideas choose us.



Blogging Before

When blogging takes precedence over playing Words with Friends on FaceBook during my morning cup of coffee, I know something’s up.  Maybe this writing thing I’ve been trying to nurture is taking hold?

The sunlight slanting across the neighbor’s roof, the dew soaked plants, and piles of redwood debris from this week’s windstorm all beckon me to get out of doors with gloves, tools, and the wheelbarrow.  Daffodils

Yet I dally over this mug of cafe creme because I noticed the Slicers link is up.  And wanting to write is good, but actually doing it is better.  Like wanting to get more exercise and then getting out for that brisk walk daily.

Enough moralizing.  Just saying,  I am enjoying this blogging thing.  It is a joy to work with image and words and for my thoughts to be instantly framed in a lovely format.  That’s compelling.

Writing for a non-specific, general audience is also good for me, rather than ranting or poeticizing to myself.  That does sound weird, but you may agree with professional writers who claim adamantly that a writer writes for himself/herself.  I agree with them, but the next step is to include someone else as audience.

Good morning, bloggers everywhere.  Especially to those who blogged at a kitchen table with a tall mug of coffee before anything else got your attention.






OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had a cat from Hurricane Katrina named Carlos.  He was the best part of coming home to my studio with piles of work.

Cats, and Carlos in particular, was a master at unwinding, chilling and enjoying life.  His eyes said he loved that I was home.

Now I have a big black and white “cow kitty” who just greeted me and went out to enjoy the return of sunshine after a rainy day.

It’s Friday.  The presentation is done.  It went well.  Other things happened, but mainly the heat is off and I’m going out for Indian food tonight with a girl friend.

Does anyone have any idea how sucked dry and zapped teachers can feel at the end of an especially challenging week?  I see even the 20 and 30 something year old’s dragging.  Numbing, bone-tiredness.  And then, we spring back.

Like my amazing cats, Carlos and Mickey, I will decompress.  Chill by looking at the daffodils blooming in my circular garden, having a glass of zin port, and simply not doing anything.  Not for a little while.


Laura & Lorena: Inspiring Teachers to Write