My Town

In early August, my town was still a place many didn’t know. They had heard of it, maybe, or they had fading memories of visiting Monticello as a child. Some had friends or family who’d attended U.V.A. But usually, when the subject of where I live came up, people would say, “Charlottesville? I’ve never been there. Where exactly is it?” Or, “I’ve heard Charlottesville is beautiful.”

On August 12th all that changed. The ugly, angry mess that unfolded in my town left three people dead and meant that Charlottesville became a hashtag trending on Twitter. Charlottesville seemed like the most frequently spoken word on every media outlet.

Charlottesville. We aren’t the headline most days now, though we’re usually buried in the story. We are the same but different. We are scarred but standing. We are raw and we wrestle with the reality of what remains, what to do next, how to move forward.

My town is Charlottesville. It’s a town full of thought leaders and problem solvers. Moms and dads and singles and sisters and brothers, loners and leaders, artists and performers, brick layers and bread bakers and bold thinkers. It’s small in scale and big in vision. It’s a town surrounded by rolling pastures and beautiful mountains.  We are more than August 12th. Charlottesville.

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Thank you Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly writing community.




Does it feel sometimes like we live in a world where words are shared without much thought to their consequence?

Educators have the opportunity to teach students just how powerful their words can be. Now more than ever we want our children to know that words matter. Words can build up or tear down, and every speaker has the means to make the world a better place. Our list includes a few of our favorite books to help children find their voice and begin to learn the power of words.

 Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words  by Karen Leggett Abouraya

Malala uses her voice to speak up for what she believes, even when it means risking her safety.

Desmond and the Very Mean Word by Desmond Tutu
Desmond learns early in life that two wrongs don’t make a right, especially when it comes to hurtful words.

The Honest-to-Goodness Truth by Patricia C. McKissack
Telling the truth doesn’t mean sharing all of your thinking, especially if it might hurt feelings.

Little Bird’s Bad Word  by Jacob Grant
It’s important to learn that some words shouldn’t be repeated.

Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss
“I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent.” Horton’s mantra reminds us that giving our word is meaningful, and that our promises matter.

Andrew’s Angry Words by Dorthea Lachner
When Andrew’s sister knocks over his pile of toys, he lets loose a stream of angry words that he immediately regrets… but it’s too late. His words are out there, and their effect is much bigger than Andrew ever imagined.

Max’s Words by Kate Banks
Max wants to keep up with his older siblings who collect things. Max collects words and soon discover that he doesn’t just have a lot of words, he has the ingredients for a story.

Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
A few encouraging words from a kind teacher make all the difference for a girl who struggles to learn to read.

Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
If anyone knows the power of words, it’s Martin Luther King.

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
A tiny cricket shares encouraging words with a clumsy giraffe who thinks he can’t dance.

This list was created in collaboration with Sarah FitzHenry, for the PB10for10 Google community. Sarah is the Learning Village Librarian at St. Anne’s-Belfield School. See her post on her blog Fitz Between the Shelves. See more PB10for10 lists here or follow along on Twitter at #PB10for10. 

What Teachers Really Do In The Summer

Yesterday I wrote my weekly Slice and linked up to Two Writing Teachers. As I often do for that weekly writing challenge, I wrote about an aspect of my life outside the classroom. My goal was twofold… I wanted to try working with a simile in my writing and I wanted to capture in words the lovely ordinariness of my summer so far. I write in the summer because I enjoy it, but also because it helps me sharpen my thinking about teaching writers.

But, after I published that piece to my blog, I started thinking about all of the teaching related things opportunities that I make time for seek out in the summer. And I thought about how I am not alone in that endeavor.

Summer… How many times has someone who isn’t in the profession said to each of us, “Oh, you are so lucky. You have the summer off.”

Yes, it is true, many of us who teach are not in the classroom every day. We’re not facilitating Morning Meetings, conducting running records, conferring with writers and sharing read alouds with our students. We do have a bit more “me” time in the summer. But, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a list of teachers who don’t also stay busy during the summer doing things that will strengthen their practice and benefit their next group of students.

Because here’s the thing…we teachers are learners. And summer provides us with time for learning. We attend conferences, institutes and workshops. We take classes- in person or online, like the amazing Teachers Write! hosted by Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, Gae Polisner and Jen Vincent. And when we can’t be physically present for the gatherings we know will be rich with ideas we want to know about, we follow the tweets generously shared by those who are there. I for one am guilty of ignoring my family for days at a time as I sit glued to Tweetdeck , following educators like Fran McVeigh and Julieanne Harmatz  during  TCRWP’s week-long writing and reading institutes.

We read books- books that will help us teach more effectively.  My summer stack includes Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis, An Ethic of Excellence by Ron Berger and Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. And we connect with other educators in person or through online communities like #cyberpd. The faculty at my school have a Summer Reading Google Doc, where we share titles and make plans to get together to talk about the professional books we’re reading.

We participate in or follow along with Twitter chats, like Mary Howard’s Thursday evening  #G2Great, that we don’t always have time for during the school year.

We read children’s books- books we know our students are currently reading or might like to read, so that we can have meaningful conversations with our readers about those books. We scour used bookstores and fill our Amazon carts with titles we wish to add to our classroom libraries. We read reviews on blogs like Nerdy Book Club to find out what’s new in the world of children’s literature. We plot and plan for the annual August 10th Picture Book 10 for 10 when teachers all over the world reveal their lists and plans for 10 picture books they will use in their classrooms in the coming school year.

And we find ways to supplement our income… by tutoring, teaching summer classes, running summer camps, or house and pet sitting. Some of us present at conferences for free, just for the opportunity to share ideas and connect with other professionals.

We facilitate amazing volunteer programs. My colleague Sarah FitzHenry and her team spend time each week biking through town handing out books and popsicles.

We teachers are a dedicated group. Dedicated to growing readers and writers and scientists and problem solvers. Dedicated to doing our best in the classroom. Dedicated to learning and growing along with our students.

So yes, we are so lucky. We are “off” in the summer. But really, we’re not. We’re oh so on. And that makes us both lucky and amazing.


Summer Like Pie

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A beautiful, full of ripe summer fruit pie from which slices are cut and enjoyed… the kind of pie that lasts longer than you think it will and tastes sweeter than you imagined it would…a crowd pleaser. Some servings more generous than others, some with more crust, others with an extra spoonful of fruit…that is how my summer feels.  Simple and satisfying. I’ve had time with family and friends and walked on my favorite beaches in Maine and Connecticut. I’ve gotten lost in more than one book and enjoyed bike rides and lively dinner table conversations. My almost 82 year old mother and I spent an afternoon shopping for clothes to fit her ever shrinking frame. Her happy grin when she pulled on a pair of pants that didn’t swallow her up and looked into the mirror made my day. I’ve read blog posts and clicked on Twitter links and jotted down ideas in notebooks as I think ahead to the start of school. Made travel plans for a conference in late September. Finished knitting two socks and one baby blanket and made everyone’s favorite chocolate meringue. And I’ve given into more than one afternoon nap. This summer hasn’t included the trip of a lifetime or anything other than time in my favorite places with my favorite people and time for things that don’t happen during the school year.  It’s been delicious, just like a summer pie made with sun ripened fruit, the kind of dessert that leads everyone to slow down, savor each bit and linger at the table long after the last piece has been eaten.

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For months I dreaded it.

Put off thinking about it and avoided planning for it.

Made a half hearted effort to sort through picture books and old files.

Opened cupboards, sighed and closed them again.

Emptied bins onto tables and left the piles for a week while I visited my mom in another state.

Sighed and said aloud to nobody but myself, “How did I accumulate so much stuff?”

Wondered what I needed to keep. Wondered what my readers needed most.

Decided to pitch nearly everything in my file cabinet.

Stacked books and carried them across the hall.

Transferred the mess from one room to the other.

And then, yesterday, I buckled down and spent the morning sorting through the piles, discovering resources I’d forgotten about, rereading sweet notes from students, slowly creating order out of chaos.

By noon, I had filled cabinets, organized books onto shelves, cleared the top of my desk and decided what to put in each drawer. I’d arranged tables and chairs and floor pillows, pulled together a collection of my favorite chapter books and found the poetry collection.

I pictured small group gatherings, large group discussions and cozy spots for readers to curl up alone as I found a place for each book in my collection. I smiled as I put Flora and Ulysses, with its worn book jacket next to a chair in the corner of the room, remembering how Kate diCamillo had commented that she loved my copy because it looked like it had been enjoyed by many readers. Yes, yes it had.

My stomach rumbled. The sun streamed through the three windows.  I turned off the lights, closed the door and said hello to summer. My new classroom was ready for the readers who will come my way in the fall.


Celebrating my writing people


I’d arrived just twenty four hours earlier to spend a few days with my mom at our family’s beach cottage. It was raining now. We’d planned to drive to a neighboring town to do errands but the steady downpour deterred us. Somehow getting in and out of the car repeatedly held little appeal for either of us. We hoped to take the dog for a walk, but the wind was blowing the rain enough so that an umbrella would be useless, and getting wet in a cold wind didn’t sound too fun. I considered a nap, but I’d slept in that morning and didn’t really need one. I picked up my knitting, only to discover that one of the needle tips had somehow broken. So much for finishing the blanket. That would have to wait until I got a new needle. My book wasn’t really holding my attention either.

And then the phone rang. It was Melanie. We’d made tentative plans to see each other while I was visiting my mom. “How about Garth and I drive your way for dinner tonight with you and your mom?”

“That could work,” I said. “Let me check with her.” (She’s 82 and she really likes Melanie, but I didn’t want to assume she would be up for a last minute dinner out.) “You call the restaurant, and I will talk to my mom.” (I suggested a place part way between our locations, so that nobody would have to drive the full hour.) If you know Melanie, you know she gets things done. And within minutes we had a plan.

There aren’t too many things I’d rather do on a Friday night than catch up with a favorite friend and her awesome husband over a delicious meal at the end of a dreary day. And that is just what we did. We laughed and shared news, and listened to my mom tell stories. The rain didn’t get in our way at all.

So what am I celebrating, besides a fun evening with someone I enjoy? I’m celebrating my writing people. Without them, I would never have met Melanie. Without them, I would not have ended my dreary day on such a high. And without my writing people, I definitely would not have written about a last minute visit with a favorite friend.

Laughter is the best medicine

slice of life updated

Classes ended last week. Graduation happened Friday morning. We completed report cards over the weekend. Meetings and deadlines filled the last two days. Departing teachers packed up their belongings, and the rest of us straightened our rooms and tucked things away for next year. But this afternoon we put all of that end-of-year busyness on hold to gather as a group- all of us who teach preschool through twelfth grade, to honor and say goodbye to five long time colleagues.

Four are retiring. One is joining the faculty of an all boys boarding school not far from here. Between them, they have given over 100 years of their time and talent and love and expertise to our school. One happens to be my boss- the only person I’ve worked for since reentering the classroom 13 years ago. Another is an anchor and mentor for me. To say I’ve been dreading the goodbyes would be an understatement. It’s hard for me to imagine our school without them.

But today arrived. And the farewell celebration began. And before long so did the toasts and roasts. I dreaded those too. My tissues were ready in my bag. And, here’s the thing. They are still there. I didn’t need a one. The stories and jokes and memories shared prompted so much laughter. The tears that sprang from my eyes were happy tears. Happy for the hilarious moments retold. Happy for the community they helped build. Happy for what we’ve shared. Happy for their next chapters. And oh so grateful that the words spoken today inspired laughs and tears of joy. Laughter really is the best medicine.

A Smile, a Thank You, and a Hug

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At the end of our last reading and arts class of the school year, most fourth graders leave my room with a big grin, a few ideas about summer reads, and a healthy dose of impatience for school to end and vacation to begin.

Last Friday was not much different. We spent the hour making summer reading plan game boards, talking about books, and reflecting on the highs and lows of our year together. Class ended five minutes before the end of the school day, and almost everyone was excited about the three day weekend that was about to begin. As my students hurried out the classroom door and back upstairs to their homerooms to gather their belongings and head to dismissal, I picked up a few stray pencils and piled the floor pillows in the corner.  I thought about how quickly this year had passed. I smiled, realizing that this year’s fourth graders were as ready as fourth graders always are to be done with lower school. They were itching for lockers and “break,” not “recess.” They were looking forward to middle school.

My thoughts returned to the present as I glanced at a pile of books that needed shelving. “They can wait, ” I may have said aloud. I turned around to see one boy still in the room, taking his time to tuck in his chair and gather his folder and reading response journal. I could tell he wasn’t lingering by accident.

“Everything okay, Burke?” I asked him. He looked up and smiled, walked over to me and said shyly, “Thank you for teaching me.” And then he leaned in and gave me the sweetest hug. A hug without even a hint of I’m-too-cool-for-hugs-because-I’m-about-to-be-a-middle-schooler. The kind of hug that eleven year old boys rarely give their teacher. And then he ducked out of the room.

“You’re welcome,” I called after him. “Thanks for the hug and the thank you.”

A smile, thanks and a hug. Hard to imagine anything better.

Celebrate This Week; Last Minute Gatherings


When I think about time and how I spend mine, I think about commitments, like teaching and meetings, and PD. I think about other necessities like grocery shopping, errands, and laundry. I think about the good-for-me stuff like exercise and sleep. And I think about other pursuits like writing, reading and knitting. I think about keeping up with family and friends, over meals or in phone calls and texts. I try to squeeze in as much as I can each week. Sometimes I look ahead on my calendar and think to myself that there is not much open time in the coming week. I worry I may not get it all done. I wish there were more hours in the day. I wonder if I’ve said yes to too many things.

Which leads me to my celebration this week. Last minute gatherings. The kind that you can’t seem to plan for months because schedules don’t line up and we are all too busy, busy, busy.

I enjoyed two last minute gatherings this week. My daughter Frances sent a text to her dear friend Jack, his mom and me late Monday afternoon asking if our families could meet for dinner that evening. Two hours later we gathered around a table at a restaurant in town and shared laughs and stories with our recently returned college children. It was perfect. As we all hugged goodbye, Jack’s mom said to me, “We could never have planned this.” And I replied, “I know. Last minute get-togethers are just the best.”

On Thursday morning my friend Heather asked me if I could walk with her after work. Heather and I live at opposite ends of a four mile long country road. We love to walk from one end to the halfway point and back. We haven’t seen each other in months. She’s been traveling and I’ve been busy. But Thursday afternoon happened to be wide open for both of us. We walked and talked for an hour, catching up about kids and life. When we finished we hugged and both commented how glad we were that a last minute plan to walk had worked for both of us.

This week I’m celebrating last minute gatherings. The love and laughter, the hugs and high fives, the talking and listening. The time. Just the best.


It’s the little things

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It’s getting a little crazy around here. 10 more days of classes until summer break. The children are getting restless. The teachers are looking weary. The weather is just beginning to improve, but we’ve had a lot of cold and rain and that hasn’t helped anybody. Lots of lasts happening every day. Yesterday we had our last fire drill. Today my third grade readers started their last book.

Everyone is feeling the rush- so much to do and not so much time.

The little things help.

Today, our wonderful art teacher wandered around with a bag full of freshly cut tiny rosebuds from a bush in her garden. She walked into classrooms, popped into meetings, and ventured out to the playground and without a word handed a flower to every teacher she saw. They are small and beautiful. And they smell like heaven. They smell like beautiful soap. They smell like peace and calm and summer. She does this every year around this time, just as crazy is taking over. And we keep our rosebuds close and smell them. I waved mine just in front of each of my third grader’s noses as they walked into my classroom. And every one of them broke into a smile. I could almost see their shoulders relax and their brains reset.

I wish I could share it with you too.

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It’s the little things that sometimes make a great big difference.