To Give a Thing Its Time

Mother-daughter group was coming to our house for holiday baking and I had promised gingerbread people. Three failed attempts with gluten free gingerbread preceded me (too dense, too crumbly, too dirt-tasting) and I was determined to get it right this year. So I went to our local gluten free store and said, “I need the best gingerbread recipe you’ve got.”

I was given this one.

Pamela’s Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

And it worked.

We mixed and rolled. We froze and cut outlines. We baked and cooled.

It took hours.

Two dozen gingerbread boys and girls came out golden brown in my kitchen that smelled of baked molasses. It was time to decorate! Moms and girls arrived and we brought the cookies to life with icing, red hots, Christmas M & Ms, sanding sugar and glitter sprinkles.

When everyone left and the kitchen was cleaned I sat down and reflected on what it meant to “give a thing its time.” Not the time I think the task SHOULD take. And definitely not a small allotment of time sandwiched between other busy things. Or the time it might take someone more skilled. But exactly the time it takes.

Those gingerbread people are smart. They reminded me of important lessons I can apply in most all areas of my life:

1. Out of many choices of things to do, choose the few that are most important to you.
2. Learn from your mistakes.
3. Ask for help.
4. Get the right recipe.
5. Give a thing its time.
6. Enjoy it and be grateful.
7. Repeat.


Simply, Thank You


When Kurt and I set out to categorize our spending for our family budget, we had a lengthy discussion about where “reading purchases” fit. I thought they went with the grocery category; after all they were the staples of our lives. He preferred that they’d go with family entertainment. Entertainment? Books are so much more than entertainment in our family. I was reminded of the role reading plays in my life just this morning while opening presents. Uncle Gene teased me for having such a practical wish list. I opened a box containing running socks, journals (lined and bound) and books: Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair by Anne Lamott and The Patron Saint of Liars and The Magician’s Assistant both by Ann Patchett. I can’t wait to dig into my practical gifts. Reading, writing and exercise keep me going. They are necessities and luxuries.

In all the different ways we celebrate the season, I love the gratitude that surrounds us. Last July I started a blog and wondered, would anyone read it? Eight thousand views and hundreds of followers later, I have my answer. You’ve read, you’ve encouraged, you’ve shared, you’ve commented, you’ve suggested blog topics and I’m entirely grateful. My writing and reading world has expanded.

Thank YOU.

Recently I received the Sunshine Award from Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s Assessment in Perspective blog and I’m carrying on the tradition by acknowledging my gift with several gifts of my own, eleven in fact.

I’ll share eleven facts, answers Clare’s eleven questions, recommend eleven blogs and then ask eleven questions of my own.

Eleven Random Facts About Me

1. I would eat an avocado every day if I could.
2. I love giraffes because they have the biggest heart of any land mammal.
3. I’m afraid of bears and sharks for no apparent reason.
4. I hide $500 monopoly bills under my leg while in play so I can make a big, unexpected move.
5. Both my parents were teachers.
6. I hum pretty much constantly throughout my day. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is my most frequent tune.
7. I was diagnosed with Celiac at age 25 and have eaten gluten free ever since.
8. I got a tattoo at age 35.
9. I’ve been known to say “Ooo-ooo-ooo,” when I have an idea in a meeting.
10. I talk with my hands.
11. I’m a night person, not a morning person. I’m an introvert who married an extrovert. I love the color indigo.

My Eleven Answers to Eleven Questions

1. What is your favorite board game?

Party Playoff. Totally loud, totally fun, lots of arguing. Party Playoff Game

2. Where is your favorite vacation destination?

Kona, Hawaii. It represents an important turning point in my life and has the most vibrant colors of any place I’ve been.

3. What is your first school memory?

My dad made me pancakes with fruit cocktail and I threw up right before catching the bus to kindergarten.

4. If you have an iPad –how do you use it?

I enjoy it as an ibook reader, I use my Common Core App and my Grammar Pop App

5. When I am stressed, I relax by….

Moving, dancing, running. Anything active helps things make more sense to me. Also “Doing Nothing” helps too.

6. What is your best tip for balancing your work and family lives?

I integrate them. I write about my kids. I read what interests my spouse and kids. I talk to my kids about work. When I travel to present, my husband and kids travel with me. I’m learning there is very little I have to do alone in this life.

7. How do you plan for writing on your blog?

I write down my ideas when they come to me. After a shower, after a run, after a meeting–I don’t judge it. I just get it down.

8. What motivates you to write?

Just about everything motivates me to write. I feel more myself when I’m writing.

9. I love to spend Saturday…

Dancing in the kitchen to loud music and making a memorable meal with family and friends.

10. What is your favorite meal to cook?

Eggs Manzanita and Rosemary Roasted Potatoes (it’s our Christmas morning tradition).

11. The one thing I cannot live without is…

Obvious answers are breathing and heart beats. Other obvious answers are friends and family, shelter, food water. Beyond that? Music. I struggle through my day if I don’t have music.

Eleven Blogs and Websites Worthy of the Sunshine Award
In no particular order (and I’d recommended many more if I could do more than eleven).

Gluten-free-girl and the Chef
When you have to eat gluten free, a writer with a positive spirit, beautiful pictures and a wonderful life is a gift indeed.

Two Writing Teachers
This blog has smart teacher advice. I love the variety of voices.

Nerdy Book Club
When I’m wondering what to read next. I go here.

To Make a Prairie
I was first drawn to Vicki’s work through a quote I’d read of hers. I appreciate her reflective thinking.

Nonfiction Detectives
I turned to the nonfiction detectives when I started building my informational text shelf.

Grammar Girl
Mignon Fogarty helps me grow as a a writer and editor in simple, easy-to-understand ways.

Mike Birbiglia
In addition to music, I’d have to say that I can’t live without comedy. Though Mike isn’t as funny as my teenage daughter, he’s pretty hilarious. And smart and kind.

Burkins & Yaris Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy
Burkins and Yaris have me thinking about interesting parts of the Common Core State Standards.

Diane Sweeney, author of Student-Centered Coaching
I’m a big fan of Diane Sweeney. Her words constantly take me back to the students.

Enjoy and Embrace Learning
Mandy Robek’s kindergarten classroom is inspiring and so is her writing about the wee ones.

Teach by learning. Learn by Teaching.
I heard Christopher Lehman talk at NCTE about research reading and writing and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Questions for Sunshine Award recipients to answer if it brings them joy to do so:

1. What is your favorite cocktail or mocktail? (Ingredients and directions, please)
2. How do you donate your time and/or money to charity?
3. What’s the most unusual job you’ve held?
4. What is a great read aloud book?
5. Which comedian makes you laugh the hardest?
6. What are titles of compelling documentaries or foreign films you’ve enjoyed?
7. Do you have a bumper sticker? What does it say? If you don’t, what would you have?
8. Which pair of shoes is your favorite and where have you been in them?
9. What are you most likely to doodle?
10. Who is your favorite author in your favorite genre?
11. What color is on your living room walls? Do you love or hate it? Tell us.

Feel free to join the conversation! Which blogs inspire you? How would you answer the questions? How are you affected by the gift of reading?


Do Nothing


“Be yourself” is what my tea bag fortune said this morning.

Be yourself.

Two simple words and yet such a difficult task at times. A little more than a week ago I came to terms with the fact that I had drifted from myself as we neared the solstice. I experienced that pervasive, lonely feeling and realized I missed ME. As my life sped up, I was having trouble figuring out what to prioritize and why.

A friend told me she would be pursuing “joy” over the winter break. That reminded me of a book, The Joy Diet by Martha Beck, that I’d read a few years ago–the last time I’d become untethered from myself.

Martha Beck created this five-point check-in. If you relate to three or more descriptions, keep reading.

1. Irritability, feeling “frayed”
2. Boredom (oddly enough)
3. Feeling disconnected even when in the company of others
4. Being unable to unwind at night or on vacation
5. A sense of not being, having, or doing enough

Does it resonate? Martha has some big-time advice for us: Do Nothing. She writes, “Do nothing for fifteen minutes a day. Stop mindlessly chasing goals and figure out which goals are worth going after.”

So I started last Sunday doing nothing for 15 minutes before the household roused in the morning. I sat in front of our fireplace and stared at the candles I’d lit. My brain immediately began planning my day. I took a deep breath. “Nothing,” I reminded my mind and pictured a blank blackboard. Within seconds my mind skipped back to a past memory. I was patient with my mind, “Nothing,” I reminded. And so it went for 15 minutes as I reminded myself to come back to nothing. No future, no past, just right here–right now. Martha said we busy humans do nothing imperfectly and that’s what I did.

I continued each day until I found myself in a Wednesday meeting led by my friend and colleague, Amanda. She’d just been sharing an example with other coaches and principals around the table and it was my turn. I sat up straight. I’d actually zoned out and was thinking absolutely…nothing. I would’ve been more excited about my progress if I wasn’t on the spot in front of my peers. While it was disconcerting, it was also very freeing.

Martha writes about how powerful it is to do nothing, but until I took up the self-centering practice again, I couldn’t know what a difference it would make immediately. “Don’t just stand there, do something!” we are taught from a young age, but now I realize the opposite is also true: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Monday I had more energy. Tuesday I got very clear on why I was angry. Wednesday I spaced out in a meeting. Thursday I laughed at myself joyfully. Friday I felt very connected to the people around me. Little by little, doing nothing was bringing me closer to something. That “something” was a closer connection to self.

Here’s a summary of the Joy Diet exercises if you are interested:

The Joy Diet by Martha Beck

Happy Winter Break to many of you out there. May you do something for yourself by doing nothing.


Thank You For Sharing Your Writing


Several months ago I was inspired to write a poem that would introduce the concept of conferring to young writers. It’s no Seuss, Silverstein or Dickinson, but it’s helped me convey that conferring is about celebrating what’s going right and respecting the writer, asking good questions and making writers stronger.




Conferring Poem

Read to me and I’ll read it too.
I’ll tell you what I notice as a reader or I’ll ask you.

We may end there and celebrate,
“Thank you for sharing your writing.”

Or I may ask, “As a writer, what are you trying to do?”
I’ll pose questions and talk to you.

We may end there and celebrate,
“Thank you for sharing your writing.”

Every time we add, change or delete:
a letter
a word
a detail
a convention
a sentence
Our writing gets better; we become stronger.

So my job is to help you
bring out the best that you can do.
We won’t sweat the little stuff.
You are a writer; you are enough.
But I will give you something to grow on,

Thank you for sharing your writing.


Do you have a stanza to add?


Yoda Snowflakes


“Got some paper, a pair of scissors and a desire to deck the halls with everything from Darth Vader to Tusken Raiders?”


After viewing this website Star Wars Paper Snowflakes, I had visions of R2D2, C3PO and Ewok flakes adorning my windows. So I printed off a template, grabbed a handful of copy paper and went searching for the scissors. We have 17 pairs of scissors in our house. I know because I counted them when we moved. We have kitchen shears, preschool grasp, left handers and the old faithful orange-handled scissors. But could I find any? No.

So I asked Ahna. She nodded and opened up her play microwave and handed me scissors. Because, of course, why wouldn’t I think to look in the microwave for office supplies?

My first flake was going to be my favorite character, Yoda. I’ve been known to walk around the house muttering, “Do or do not. There is no try,” in a gravelly voice. I sat on the floor and traced a circle. The pattern needed to be folded into eighths. Now, eighths make for thick cutting and I was beginning to understand why an Exacto knife was recommended. I traced the pattern on a pie-shaped eighth and began to cut. Or saw, really. I worked hard.

Finally it was time for the flake unveiling when the incomplete fraction becomes whole. I gasped as I shook it open. It looked nothing like my model.

I showed it to Ahna, “Can you see a Star Wars character in my snowflake?”

“It’s Yoda-like,” she smiled.


I thought back to a conversation with a teacher who was exasperated by the writing exemplars she’d been given.

“Were these really written by fourth graders? They are so mature.” she asked.

“Do they really think my students can ever come close to these samples?”

So my snowflake comes to mind. It was the beauty, creativity and intricacy of the model that inspired me to try. I wouldn’t have wanted to a snowflake that was less challenging. My first attempt fell far from the flake exemplar, but with different tools and more practice, I could get closer.

When it comes down to it, we decide whether to be inspired by exemplars or deflated. We can celebrate our first feeble attempts or scoff at them because of how far they are from perfection.

Me? I choose progression over perfection.


Please Don’t Say This Isn’t Writing


I drew this picture in 1975 and told my parents it was titled, “My father the King.”

I was three.

Can you see the king in my scribbles? His crown? His cloak? Thank goodness my parents were hip to early childhood education because you know what they did? They told me to sign it. See the H? And they matted it. They held it up and claimed it as my first story.

There are many students in our primary classrooms who didn’t have the same opportunities with tools and encouragement. Sometimes it’s at school that they create their first king scribbles. As educators we are so lucky when we get to be there for that moment.

The earliest cave paintings are dated almost 40,000 years ago. We know that the scratchings represented the first stories, the first histories. There is no question that they capture and convey meaning.

So I am still surprised when teachers tell me their kindergartners aren’t writing. It’s almost as if they’ve said, “They aren’t breathing.” I have to suppress my gasp.

“They aren’t writing?” I’ll ask.

“Well, they are drawing and putting in random letters, but they aren’t writing-writing.”

Oh, writing-writing. You mean transmitting important ideas to others? Hmmm…I’m pretty sure they are. Here’s what happens if we don’t call scribbles, pictures, random letters and swirls writing. We don’t hold it up. We don’t stop the class and say, “Look at this book! Listen to this story!” We don’t say, “Tell me more about what you’ve written here.” We make the club of writers exclusive. Up on the clubhouse door we tack a sign that says, “Kids who write book-like text are the only ones welcome.”

Instead we say, “Come to the carpet, writers. I can’t wait to show you what Isabel has done. She’s got three pages in her book that show how her bunny scratched her. Look at the ears. Look at the details of the scratches on her arm. And look! On this page she added a letter ‘B.’ Isabel, I hope you’ll put your book in the library so we can all read it. And make sure to add your name so we know who the author is.”

That’s how we grow writers.

What do you think?


The Promise of Proximity

Good Coach Adjusted Size

I have just walked in for an initial meeting with a teacher. She gestures to a seat across the table from her. I smile and say, “If you don’t mind I’ll sit next to you at the corner of the table. That way it will be easier when we look at student work.” I scoot the chair over and without invading her space, I set myself up for a better coaching conversation.

While the across-the-table position is perfect for playing Chess or Battleship, it’s not a good seat for a coach. Opposing seating suggests both a defensive and competitive positioning whereas adjacent seating allows for good eye contact and mirroring. Mirroring refers to our natural tendency to “mirror” body language with another person in conversation from crossed legs to hand gestures. The more trust between two people, the more their movements are in sync. Sitting side by side with a colleague also allows them to view the notes you are taking. I want teachers to see that I’m noting their thoughts, concerns, descriptions and questions in their words, not judgements of my own.

Good Coach #2 Adjusted Size

In the same way when I’m observing another teacher, I move in. There are three important reasons to adjust proximity during classroom coaching that take into account roles, perspective and interaction. Most teachers associate back-of-the-room or off-to-the-side seating with supervisors. When a supervisor is evaluating they move off to the side so as not to disrupt the learning. My role is very different; I am an ongoing part of the learning community. Also from the back or side of the room I get a very different perspective from the teacher’s. Because I’m going to have a learning-focused and reflective conversation with the teacher, I want to see and hear the students similarly. Finally, when I am in close proximity to a teacher they are more comfortable turning to me for a nod of encouragement, a question or even a quick hand-off of part of the lesson. I get many more “Am I on the right track here?” or “I’m thinking I’ll stop and reteach the expectation” or “Do you have a different way to say that?” when I am just a couple feet away.

You might be thinking that it will disrupt students if you are close to the teacher up front, but it’s much less intrusive than you imagine. Once students get over the initial curiosity of who you are, they will focus on the learning at hand. As soon as the minilesson is over students will be working independently or cooperatively anyway and the teacher and I will both be moving around.

I also don’t walk in and assume this position during coaching without communicating first. Often I’ll explain it like this, “Now when I’m observing during the minilesson, I’ll pull up a chair close to you by the anchor chart. Because we’ll debrief after, I want to see what you are hearing and seeing. I will also be there if you want to collaborate during the lesson.  In my experience students get very comfortable with teachers having a learning conversation in front of them. Since so much about teaching is the in-the-moment decision making, I’ll just be a lean away if you want to briefly confer.”

Whether I’m choosing a seat for a plan or debrief session or selecting my spot during the lesson, I always respect that I am a guest in the classroom. I use proximity to show my focus is all about student learning.

How do you use proximity in teaching and coaching?

Special thanks to my daughter Maya for the wonderful comics she designed!


What’s New On December’s Mentor Text Shelf?


Tonight was another of our “What’s New in Mentor Texts?” class. We had a good turnout for holiday season professional development. I’m always impressed with the variety of ideas teachers have for using books. Sean, Linda and I found ourselves saying, “Wow. I’ve read this ten times and I’ve never noticed that!”

Click below for a PDF of our handout with a brief summary and ideas of how to the use the text as a writing and reading mentor. Happy reading!

What’s New One Pager Dec

And if you missed last month’s edition just click here:

Mentor Texts We’re Circulating–November