Learning Through Teaching

“We believe that teachers develop professionally through meaningful inquiry and collaborative opportunities with colleagues, characterized by sharing observations of students, exploring instructional possibilities, and reflecting on their growth as learning teachers and teacher-leaders.”  from The Teacher You Want to Be


For almost all of my life, my passion for education has been undying. I loved what I did with great purpose and a determination that I can only describe as innate. I always believed I was born to teach. It was just that simple.  I was forever thankful for such a powerful force in my life, especially as I watched others struggle to find their place in the work world. I felt lucky to know what it was I was here for and for all of the meandering paths to take me there.    I would kill for this work, but  now I fear the work may be killing me.

You see, ever since my very first teaching gig, I have  had a community of forward thinkers around me. It started when I was an intern and worked at a cluster school where there were several of us lowly interns, working for free, taking graduate classes and trying to make ends meet financially. We bonded often at the local watering hole in the  afternoons for Happy Hour because there were free hors devours (dinner to us!) and one-dollar beers. We would spend hours debriefing our weeks and mulling over our common and uncommon experiences. The laughter, the camaraderie and the connections were invaluable.


Photo Credit:  Designsolutions

My first job landed me in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire in the midst of the most welcoming and fabulous team of teachers where working together was just the way it was.   I needed to learn to teach and they were there to help me grow and learn.  We grew up as Mother’s together.   Our strength in our numbers was undeniable. Just the opening of the door meant I could go to the bathroom any time of the day! They are still some of my nearest and dearest friends to this day.

My next position was in Plaistow where I instantly felt alone and missing my community, so I listened intently at staff meetings and in the teachers room and then there was an opportunity to take a graduate course called Learning Through Teaching.  It was held at the  Pollard School and it is there that I really started to get to know people. I loved the meetings after school where we wrote, shared our writing and our thinking.  I found my peeps and then I went after them, moving rooms and finding ways where we could work together. We too bonded in and out of school and there I found some of the funniest people I have ever met who I don’t see often enough!


Photo Credit: peeps

My last 15 years at UNH, that community of support ebbed and flowed in terms of numbers, but was unwavering in it’s consistency. One Friday a month we would all gather at someone’s house to talk things through over coffee, tea and some kind of breaking of bread. We read, we wrote, we listened, we responded. Participants would come and go, but the core was steadfast and true and at that core was  Louise and Newkirk, and now they have both retired. (Well, Louise will officially this month anyway! Congrats to you my friend!)

As I move forward in this work I realize that I need to make, create and establish this kind of consistent community with new people. I am not as good on my own as I am with others who talk the talk, ask the questions and keep us all current in our work. I NEED this as I need air to breathe and without this air, I am not in good enough shape to keep on going it alone….and that is what I mean by killing me.

“I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.”
From:  To Be of Use by Marge Piercy

Learning Through Teaching was born on the foundation of teachers gathering and having professional conversations. It was Jean Robbins (see blog on Jean) who approached Tom Newkirk (see blog on Newkirk) and thus Learning Through Teaching was founded.


Louise and Tom

Enter Louise to run it and grow it for 20 years with me by her side for 15 of those years and it has been an amazing run, but it is not over.  If connectedness is this important to me then the work we do is even more important than I even knew. In LTT, we do just this. We help teachers grow professionally in a safe environment where we read; we write and have those conversations regularly within the walls of their schools while earning graduate credits.  I still believe it is the most powerful and individualized form of Professional Development.



DMS LTT Group, Photo Credit:  Mark Holt- Shannon

So what is next?  It is time for the next generation of forward thinkers to gather and keep on keeping on.   We need ways to extend ourselves beyond the brick and mortar that has so many feeling constrained and at the same time to stay there and support teachers as they move and change in their thinking and practices. It is time to breathe life into and grow again;  to create a new garden of support, to blossom, to bloom, to create more beauty together.


If you have ever been a part of Learning Through Teaching I would love for you to share your experiences here (in the comments section or e-mail me directly at tomasen@comcast.com) , to tell your story of what it was like for you to be a part of a learning community and how it helped you in your teaching. As we look forward, it is important to look back, to think about what works well and what might need to be changed and to do that we need all of you and your ideas, your questions, your thoughts.

My hope is to continue interviewing, thinking and writing about Learning Through Teaching to uncover the truths about what has kept it going for so long and to keep it in schools far into the future.

For more information on Learning Through Teaching, see here: UNH Learning Through Teaching Professional Development.



Photo Credit:  HGTV


40 Day Challenge is on!

I woke up this morning with my blog on my mind and I said Write Girl Write! It has been so long since I have been moved to write.  That was until this past week where I took on a new challenge in my life, something to practice a daily meditation EVERY day for 40 days.




So where am I in this challenge? I am on day 4, I think! And while it may sound pretty easy, it has been my experience that easy is as easy does. The hardest part is getting myself down and on that damned mat! Once I am there I find myself seeking out more yoga, breath work and meditations to practice. The effort comes not from the actual act of the meditation; the effort comes in getting my ass onto that mat. And even as I type, there it sits, right in front of me, beckoning me to sit, waiting for me to occupy. (I am coming, just let me get this written!!)

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The theory here is that it takes 40 days to make or break a habit and yes, this is a habit that I want in my life. To be fair and kind it is a habit that I have incorporated some days and the truth of the matter is that those are the days where I find myself flowing through the day with less effort. In short it allows me to be who I am, wherever I am, whomever I am with.

If we believe we are human beings then being is really what we are meant to do, right? But even as I sit and begin my practice on the mat my mind is swirling with the list of things I must get done. We are NOT human doings, and yet, so much of our self worth is measured in how much we do! I find it harder and harder to meditate with this spring air, bright sunshine and not to mention a full moon that has kept me up for the past 2 nights! So in essence you could make the leap that I NEED this time to myself in stillness even more. And I do!

I was in a restaurant the other day; the first day of this 40-day challenge and the waitress walked over to our table and asked if she could interrupt. She then went on to say that she wished she had had a camera because in all of her years of waitressing, never had she seen someone who was so completely in the moment. She went on to describe how I was looking and listening to my lunch date with such presence. She then thanked us  and made her way away from the table. I tucked that gem away in my back pocket as a reminder of just how important it is to have that phone away in my purse, to make eye contact and to “really” listen.

She said I was “in the moment”. In the moment is where I strive to be, but with a very busy mind, a phone, ipad and laptop at my fingertips and so much to “do” it is rare to actually be there.

As I walk into one of my schools after the quarter has closed, there  is an enormous banner celebrating all of those in the school who made the honors list. First glance seems benign enough, unless of course you were one point away from making any of those lists or even if you were miles away from making that list, the bottom line is that if you are not there, well you pretty much suck.  You didn’t DO enough to make the list of the elites.





I see so much time spent on busy work when I am in classrooms. The language is all about what is and isn’t done! There is a done work basket, there are finished folders, lists of things to get done in the morning while the teacher meets with other students, but the idea of just being with a book or a piece of writing for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like enough anymore! This worries me, as that sense of getting lost in a book or in one’s own writing or wondering and inquiring in science or social studies is a critical part of becoming real learners.  I cringe when I hear teachers telling kids to put their book away to complete a worksheet on silent e. So they comply, follow directions to get that busy work worksheet done, even though they were living and breathing silent e’s in their own reading. Sometimes I want to yell out, STOP the madness! Just let them BE!!

The rate of yogi’s and yoga studios has increased like wildfire across this nation. Yoga means union and the ultimate purpose of yoga practice is to prepare one to meditate.  Movement before stillness.  Doing to “be”.  In this age of technology that continues to move at warp speed it is easy to get caught in the fast lane, moving forward, forward, forward…but towards what? From pre-school to the best kindergarten, from Elementary school to Middle to High School to get into the very best colleges. The race is on, but you know what? At the end of all of that education you still have people seeking out a way to make meaning of their lives and hopefully a place to work that allows them to live and work with purpose.   If we are always looking ahead at the next step then we are never really here? Are we?  The idea of slowing down, taking the back roads to just wind one’s way through the countryside is where I want to be and I believe it is where many of us want to be, but we can’t because we are so revved up and moving too quickly to even realize there are options.

So today, like the next 36 days, I will get myself to that mat, I will meditate, do some yoga and notice. I will “do” the practice to “be”.  And while I know every day will be far from rosy, at least I will have that time every day to sit in stillness, to remember why I am here and fully embrace the notion of being, for at least 3 minutes each day.  Now onto that mat!


Remembering Jean Robbins

I read an essay, ham of god, by Anne Lamott to begin class this week.   I used to read aloud all the time, but as with many good practices we just let them slide to the wayside. I read because I was trying to find some humor, solace and some kind of sense of all that is happening in the world. I read because my dear friend and mentor, Jean Robbins always said, read aloud.

Jean passed away on November 8th. Jean was one of those people who comes into your life and never leaves. She was kind, generous and incredibly good at connecting people and to people herself. I am forever grateful to have known her.


I attended her service yesterday afternoon, only to be greeted by so many faces from the past. It was as if a timeline of my teaching career spread across the room, from my Maplewood School Ed 500 teacher, Karolina Bodner and Internship principal, Dennis Harrington and fellow intern, Judy George to Maryellen Webb one of my first teaching partners at Barrington Elementary School to Nancy Barcelos, one of my teaching colleagues from Pollard School in Plaistow to Rachel Small, a student I have had in class for LTT to David McCormick who teaches at the Writer’s Academy to Ellin Erwin who’s daughter was in my Writer’s Academy class 2 summers ago to Maryellen Giacobbi, whose work with Don Graves changed the way we taught writing forever.

It hit me that so many of the amazing educators in my life were in some way connected to Jean. This was no accident. I was not alone in this as we stood talking “Jean” people began to make more and more connections…”oh you know so and so….” and that is how the legend of Jean will live on as we each continue to make these connections one at a time, for a lifetime.

You see, Jean and I met while she was a supervisor of interns many years ago at Barrington Elementary School. I had a troubled intern who would often show up to work so hung-over that she could not function. Jean and I banded together and recommended that she not move forward with her career in teaching. (This was not something that was done, as by the time one made it to their internship it was pretty much a done deal that they would go on to teach!) I am not sure what happened to that intern, but Jean and I had formed a bond by making a tough decision, but the right decision.

So when my daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with Leukemia at 3 and a half, I walked out of my 4th grade classroom at the Pollard School and never returned to a classroom full time again. When I thought my teaching career was over I called Jean about a year into Emma’s treatment as a stay at home Mom with a sick child and her younger brother who never sat still. I was exhausted, housebound and NEEDED something to get me out and to get my brain working again. Jean promptly set up a meeting and introduced me to Tom Newkirk and Louise Wrobleski, two of the most influential people in my life today.   They offered me a consultant position at the Sandown school. I accepted as it meant I would work one day a week, a day to be out and be something other than mother and caretaker.

I was so excited that I ran out and bought the very first car phone, the size of a small loaf of bread so that I could be contacted if needed as Mom and went back to work in this capacity. As time went on and Emma got healthier my load increased until one day Tom offered me a part –time position as Field Coordinator for Learning Through Teaching and that is where I have been for the past 15 years. Jean changed the course of my life and for that I am forever grateful.

I always said I wanted to be like Jean when I grew up, always traveling, swapping her home before HomeExchange or Airbnb even existed. I learned at her service that she had been abroad 50 times and her son in law, Gary listed them all. I always knew Jean missed LTT meetings as she was often travelling, but 50 times! WOW!! I guess it is time to grow up, to take and create every travel opportunity I can and just do it!

I started when I walked out that door and had a choice to go home or to follow through with my plans to revisit my singing sisters for a sing along in Portsmouth with Voices From the Heart. I was tired, but I knew that Jean would have gone because she said she was going. As I drove along route 4 towards Portsmouth I noticed the sky was turning a slight pink. The further I drove, the more intense the colors became. I reveled in these colors and pulled over in Newick’s parking lot, the smell of fried everything wafting in the air, to capture it. It seemed like the perfect end to a service where one woman impacted so many people’s lives and while what she did seems short of miraculous, I realize what she did was to fight for children, to stand up for what was right for kids and teachers and to connect people near and far.


Jean’s sunset from Newicks.

I remember Jean telling me a story about being at a train station in Germany and while there was a language barrier, Jean laughed her wonderful laugh and recalled a little boy tugging on his mothers shirtsleeve screaming, “NEIN, NEIN!!” Through her laughter she said, “NO, is one word that is universal and sounds pretty much the same in every language”. And then she listed off all of the translations of no she could remember.

So I salute you, Jean Robbins, Grand Dame of education in New Hampshire, as the sun sets on a beautiful life, a life that touched so many. May we all live with an open heart, listen to each other, reach across our borders and connect with each other and the world.

You are loved. You are missed.

Good Night Jean.



Writers Take Flight: My Forever Books On Writing

When I work with a group of teachers I often find myself asking the question, “Raise your hand if you are a reader.” And the room soars with eager waiving hands as I look out and see the sheer pride that comes with this identity as  reader. If I wait a bit they turn to each other and automatically start talking about the books they have read, are reading or want to read. As teachers we are, for the most part, comfortable in our identities as readers.

images (1)Then comes the second question, “Raise your hand if you are a writer.” Immediately the tenor of the room changes and small hands start to make their way up and then just as quickly glide  back into their wing holds. Very few, if any, hold their hands as highly or as proudly as before. Even those who DO write are reticent to give themselves up as “writers”. Even when I soften the question and ask, “how many of you write?” there is great reluctance and the murmurs sounds something like, “Well…I keep a journal” “Ummmm, I do like to write poetry.” And slowly I begin to see people coming out of their self-imposed closets of shame and trying on this new identity as “writer”.

Perhaps this is because writing is like nothing else  we teach. Writing is generative in that EVERY thing about it comes from the writer, whether it is the answer to a prompt or a fantastical story from beyond, it is the writer’s words on the page there for anyone to come and poke, prod and make fun of;  where as anything else we teach we are interacting directly with something, be it a novel, the scientific process or numbers. Writing does not provide this safety net. It is the writer, the blank page and the words of the writer. That is IT!! Donald Graves always used to say that sharing your writing is akin to getting naked in front of everyone. It is THAT personal.   (But I don’t mind saying that I will choose words over nudity at this soaring age of 50!)


Photo Credit to: .flickr.com

So here are my “forever” books on teaching writing that I will always hold near and dear to my heart but more than that they are books that really changed my thinking or gave flight to my beliefs.  It was hard to narrow it down to five because we almost NEED these books more than we need any other books because the teaching of writing is always the first of the three r’s to be let go. It is the adopted step child that never seems to get its’ due and I believe a big part of this is because we have teachers who do not identify themselves as writers…yet!   I would argue that we need writing in our schools more than ever. Information is cheap. Everyone can find anything at the touch of a keystroke, but communicating that knowledge in a clear, concise and interesting way is something else completely.   I just have to start with the great “Don’s” of UNH in the names of Murray and Graves.

86709243I first met Don Murray at Young’s restaurant in Durham, NH. He met me there after reading some of my work. He showed up with a bound collection of quotes, writing ideas and the famous laminated latin phrase, “Nulla dies Sine Linea” (Never a day without a line) of which I still have as a keepsake forever. Murray in his suspenders sat across from me and talked about what I had written and then asked, “What is this really about?”. He was the most down to earth person I had ever talked with about my writing. He was encouraging and questioning and an amazing listener. The day he came to my house and asked me to “name that poem” was a story I still hold dear and tell to this day. (See earlier post Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John ). From his Boston Globe columns (some of my all- time favorite works of his) to his writing handbooks I would have to say that Expecting the Unexpected is top on my Murray list!

“We must allow-no, encourage-our students to make use of language to explore the inner and outer worlds each is driven to explore. And when students have found their territory, they must search it with the language-and the language skills- they have, not what we wish they had. Once they start grappling-on the page- with the meanings they need to discover, we can help them see how the traditions of form and language help clarify thinking.” Because, “Writing is not thinking reported, it IS thinking.” (Pp.102 – 110 in Expecting the Unexpected)

5157S3BDGBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Then there is Donald Graves, a former minister who when he would speak in his gentle voice, the room would instantly get quiet.   I would have to say the book that I grew up with and stuck with me the most is the brown Bible, WRITING: Teachers and Children At Work.  It that maps out the original work done in Atkinson, NH where Graves brought to Elementary school, The Writer’s Workshop from a college model. The major shift was removing the teacher from the front of the room and putting the students in charge of their own processes.

“The directive, pushing teacher began to move back from her position of control so that she could return control and responsibility for the writing to the child.” 

This was revolutionary and changed the way everyone taught forever. In the words of a dear friend and colleague, Karen Atherton, “Why do what they (your students) can do better?” It is tried and true still to this day. It is a book that should be on every Writing teachers shelves.

510ZF8P39CL._SX375_BO1,204,203,200_Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray HAS to be at the very top of my list. Sure I had implemented the Writer’s Workshop for years, but it was really Katie’s ideas about “reading like a writer” that changed the way I taught writing forever in that it helped me find authors to ground me when I was “winging it” with kids.  And while this idea has been adopted, stolen and borrowed by so many, I really believe it was Katie who brought it to the forefront and mapped out how she used this lens to make the teaching of writing more concrete and accessible to all. This is ABSOLUTELY a life changer, forever book on my shelf! And while I want desperately to add a Katie quote here I realize that once again, this book has flown away and been temporarily (I hope!) adopted by someone else!! I invariably lent it to someone and it never found its way back to the nest. (If  you are who I lent it to please return as soon as possible!!) I love this look, the smooth feel of it, the color, the content and absolutely everything about this book and see that my shelves are bare without it!

In The Middle by Nancie Atwell is one of those books that I have seen sustain the test of time. There are very few from my “generation” of teachers who have not leafed through, dog-eared and tried on Nancie’s teaching in some way, shape or form.

“As a writer I tell stories so I may understand, teaching myself and trying to teach others through the actions and reactions of those “people” on the page.”

516kWKLsADL._SX378_BO1,204,203,200_In the Middle reads like a  collection of stories, of teaching stories, that invite you into Nancie’s classroom, to sit down beside her and her students and see what it “feels” like to teach responsively. One of the greatest days in education was the day she was awarded the Global Teacher Prize (http://www.globalteacherprize.org/winner) as it gave credit to all of those out there fighting the fight to teach children and not curriculum. Thank you Nancie for all you have done!! It gives us all hope.

Finally I include, Minds Made for Stories by Thomas Newkirk and while you may think I am brown nosing here to include Newkirk and only Newkirk on both my reading and writing lists, be assured that they made their way onto both lists because they deserve to be here.

9780325046952Tom writes books that make me think and if I am totally honest here I find these books are becoming more rare as time goes on. Not to say there are not some great professional books out there, but so many of them are not new! They are simply re-hatched from old ideas, but are often missing the meat, or the theory behind them. Perhaps I have just been in this for too long, but I always know Newkirk will prod my thinking and in this book he does just that.

At a time where we have narrowed writing down into 3 major categories of narrative, persuasive and informational, Newkirk argues that narrative; stories are at the heart of all writing because it is through story that we are able to make sense and comprehend what we are reading. This is a MUST read for anyone stuck on the Common Core flight to writing hell!

“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide. Only in a phone book or the equivalent do we get information “raw”. But in sustained writing, any information is mediated by a teller, and that teller is part of the reading experience, just as a tour guide is part of the experience of visiting Monticello. When that teller is hidden (often the case with textbooks) or undetectable we have trouble sustaining a reading. The more we sense this human presence, and feel attracted to it, the more willing we are to stay with the text.” Pp 38


Photo Credit: thewritelife.com

What all of these books have in common as I look back at them is that they invite teachers to write and to “see” themselves as writers. While this may sound strikingly obvious, it is one of those simple things that makes the biggest impact and so with these books under your wing, hopefully you too will find the courage to let go, raise your hand high and proclaim your identity, “I am a writer!”.


Firsts, Lasts, Forevers and Newkirk

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.” Mary Oliver


Throwback, Emma (4th) and Zachary (1st) first day of school.

So its that time of the year again, where my FB and twitter feeds all fill with accolades, videos, quotes, sayings, jokes, and images of going back to school; whether it is  first grade lunchbox photos or first college drop off dorm rooms everyone seems to be “on their way” somewhere new. Conversations are abuzz with who has what teacher and who is going where.

It is the time of year that I often lament not having my own classroom, but trust me, it is like wanting another baby, and it is gone as quickly as it comes. And while I think about the birth of a new class and all of the excitement that happens on that first day, raising that class has become increasingly daunting since the late 80’s when I started teaching.

So, I finally let my NH State Certification expire. This was a biggie!! I mean I never left the classroom intentionally. It just happened and I believe there was a time when I thought I would always spend all of my days with other people’s kids until my own got sick, so letting this certificate go was the last step in my own process of letting go of a life that wasn’t.


Sample Cairn, many more coming in the mail soon…thank you Heinemann!!

And so I begin my 15th year at UNH as a Field Coordinator and Instructor for Learning Through Teaching. 15 years! How did THAT happen? And although I don’t have the physical space of a classroom I begin reading and planning and plotting places and spaces in my mind even though I SWEAR every year that I am going to take August off, there I am on my deck with a cairn of professional books at my side…seeking the perfect “forever” book for each of the graduate courses I will be teaching in this coming year. I gather books like eggs and read with great hope that I will find exactly what I need to hatch meaningful experiences for my teachers and their kids.


Zach begins is sophomore year in College.

And so at this time of excitement where everyone returns to school with great anticipation, hope and wonder, I have also been at this long enough to know that soon that fervor will calm and that the day to day will begin to wash away the smell of the new clothes, the bulletin boards will begin to fade in the slowing summer light, the shiny new sharp crayons will dull and break and the real school year will begin.

So when I am reading I am asking myself, what professional book can I find that will actually sustain my teachers throughout an entire year? What will help them to think more deeply? How do I find a text that will “speak” to everyone? Can I find a “forever” book for someone?

And so here I have decided to pay homage to those tried and true texts about the teaching of Reading; the ones that have changed me. The ones that are forever on my shelf through yearly discards and endless book drops. I have also decided to limit this list to 5 books and I realize that was much harder than I thought it was going to be!! That is good news.

mosaic-of-thought2Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keen and Susan Zimmerman

In the early 90’s, I was part of a committee in Barrington, NH and Grant Cioffi was on the committee. I had his son in my 3rd grade class and had taken several courses with him at UNH. He was nothing short of brilliant and his death was a loss beyond comprehension.  He is loved and missed by so many.

We were working on reading interventions and I remember saying, “I wish I could just ‘see’ inside the minds of my kids.’” Grant and I spent overtime batting this idea around but always came up short. Enter Mosaic of Thought. Never had I read a book on reading that actually created a way to begin to make thinking visible. And while I fully admit to my “teacher crush” on Ellin, she remains an icon of change in the teaching world. During that time the PEBC out of Denver was a force to be reckoned with and many other great work came out of this collaboration. (Oh I want to include Cris Tovani here too!)   If you have not read this book and the new edition then you are truly missing out! Read it as a reader, just purely READ it and savor it.

download (2)In The Company of Children by Joanne Hindley

For many years this book was a fall back for me!! Whenever I couldn’t find anything I would seek out this purple, pink and blue gem and find what I needed! Joanne brings both the Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop to life in between these covers and allowed me to see that this rewarding work was something that anyone could do. If you don’t know Joanne, she was part of  The Manhatten New School in NYC where Shelley Harwayne (Oh man,  how can I not include a Shelley book?)   was principal. Upon visiting this school it was apparent that EVERYONE was a reader, from the security guard sitting at the door, her stack of books beside her, to the bathrooms that were wallpapered in book jackets. Reading was valued, adored and respected and it was something EVERYONE did! Joanne’s book oozes with this collaboration and connection. Thank you Joanne.

41DAM18YC7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You Gotta Be the Book by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

If you know anything about me then you also know that I have this affinity for dressing people up in hats and props and bringing reading and writing to life using drama. Enter Jeff Wilhelm. He wrote the book that affirmed all of the “silliness and fun” in my teaching. He validated and gave language to what I intuitively knew was good teaching.   We brought him to UNH years ago to our annual Learning Through Teaching One Day Workshop and he had teachers eating out of his hand, playing historical rolls, futuristic rolls and all with great depth and meaning.  Thank you Jeff!

9780325030739_p0_v1_s260x420What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse

Reading this book was a breath of fresh air that I didn’t know I had been craving. Vicki and Dorothy combine the language of writing and the ideas of revising to thinking and distill the strategy work started by Keene and Zimmerman into a holistic approach to thinking. The simplicity of noticing and naming are at the foundation of this brilliant book that again, aims at getting at the thinking of our kids! Thank you Vicki and Dorothy for this masterpiece!  I have already used it with several of my graduate students and it is always a hit!

12099809The Art of Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk

I remember sitting at a Learning Through Teaching meeting and Tom laughing at himself saying, “Who am I to write a book on reading?” And yes, in perfect Tom style then went on to rehearse this book with our group. He “outed” himself on the first page as a slow reader and invited the rest of us who are slow readers into the conversation. When I read this manuscript I sat down with Tom at The Bagelry (and yes it WAS still the Bagelry then!) I told him that what I read felt like his love story with books, it is passionate, heartfelt and brutally honest.   Per usual, Newkirk did not disappoint with this book and his uncanny ability to put into words what so many are thinking, but are afraid to say. In this age where speed is king, Newkirk demands that you stop and think…

newkirk-1And it is no mistake that I end with Tom. You see, Newkirk just retired. Tom has been my mentor, my boss, my friend, and best of all a man who always laughs at my jokes. (Something you don’t want to live without!) I cannot imagine what our Learning Through Teaching group will be without him. (This too is a biggie!)  So I write this out of the deep respect and gratitude as I reflect on my professional life and how forever blessed I have been! You see, I have met many of these authors in some capacity and that is because of Tom. CGbb6piW0AAl2Wx Who knew when I left that classroom so many years ago that I would find myself where I am today.  So Tom Newkirk, I dedicate this blog to you as a Thank You for allowing me the autonomy to teach, the respect to grow and the humor to bookend it all.  My professional life would never have been as rich  had I never met you. (And of course a shout out to the Grand Dame of Education herself, Jean Robbins who started Learning Through Teaching and introduced me to Tom!!)  It is because of you that I have been able to live  “married to amazement” and there is really, no greater gift.  Enjoy your time….  You have not seen the last of me!

Gathering the Light

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle”. Walt Whitman

I love dressing up my house for Christmas. In fact, it may just be my most favorite part of this crazy season. Sure I love seeing people, and finding the perfect gifts and the season of giving and all of that, but there is nothing more creatively satisfying then just being alone in my home and making it merry and bright.


This year I am obsessed with little lights. I have spent more money on lights than anything else…yet. (I haven’t actually even started my shopping yet!) There is something about lighting up every room with twinkling lights that make it feel…dare I say, like sacred space. Lighting up each room combats the shortness of light we get this time of year.

If you have never lived in New England then it is hard to imagine these days, as they grow shorter and shorter. Your every fiber craves sunshine and warmth.  Your hibernation switch turns on and you have to make yourself leave your warm cave.

But this year I seem to be better at embracing these dark days and seeing them as an opportunity to create. I find great comfort on my couch next to the sparkling Christmas tree. There is peace here. There is nothing I “have” to do, other than work.  The spirit of the empty nest has taken over and I find myself incredibly peaceful in that I don’t have to think about anyone or anything else other than myself. I don’t know if I have ever experienced this before and while I am sure that I must have in my youth, this feels very different. It is liberating and while I love and miss my kids, I am also settling into a space of my own where I am not constantly worrying and trying to fix things as much as I trust them to make their ways in the world. How cool is that?

Trust is something I have been thinking a lot about. There is so little trust in this crazy world it seems. We have to “prove” everything beyond the shadow of a doubt with numbers and statistics. My yoga helps remind me every day of how incredibly simple life could be if only we trusted that things will be the way they are to be. They just are and it is not up to us to try to “fix” everything.

This incessant “fixing” has taken over our schools and in that need to always fix, fix, fix we miss what is working. We miss those faces staring up at us from their desks, little sponges ready and waiting and all we are doing is running around trying to identify their deficits and thus putting out the little lights that are within each of them. It is a dark time in education. I really believe this to be true. It is dark because it is rampant with fear, high stakes and lack of humanity, but perhaps it will be in this time of darkness that greatness will emerge. “Out of darkness comes light…”

Recently I have even heard myself saying that I am not long for this work. This work that I love because of the heavy shadows that seems to hide in every corner, and then I have a class with a group of bright people who give me hope and help me to hang on…

I pulled out of the parking lot and into a glow of gorgeous pinks, oranges and hues of blues. The kind of sky you only wish you could capture in some way, but words and watercolors fall short of the miracle of what it is. And so I savor it as I drive home, breathing in every changing landscape bathed in such a beautiful sunset, trumpeting out this day in a glorious celebration of light dancing with light.


I smile at the sky and at the conversation left behind minutes earlier and wonder how did I get so lucky to do this “work”? Work isn’t even a good word for it because I love it so much. Work implies that it is grueling and hard, but for me it is just a natural flow of who I am, a better extension of myself than I am or ever could be in my ordinary life.

And in this darkness I find light. In my teachers, in their students, in the fact that they want to be there to discuss, to explore, to learn, to converse, to connect, to find support, to be together on a dark afternoon in December to look beyond the darkness and into the light in each other’s eyes. They light up my life.

Light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong. Opposites that are always living side by side. Without one we would not have the other and so in the spirit of the season I choose to see the light, the good and the right knowing their counterparts are right there alongside them allowing us the gift of seeing the grey in between because in the end it is both. It is always both and everything in between.   Who or what is the light in your life?

“All is calm, all is bright.”

Let Them Write!

Good Morning. It’s me again, re-establishing my ritual of waking and writing which went to the wayside in a year of grief.   The get up and go to research and write just came and went and thusly my writing has gotten downright rusty. (Please pass the oil!)

Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Ray Bolger Film Set Wizard Of Oz, The (1939) 0032138

I mean it. I have attempted to put together a cohesive blog many times since my last one and what I have put out is not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in churning out crap or what Anne Lamont, in Bird by Bird, refers to as “shitty first drafts”.  It is also what Peter Elbow refers to as low stakes writing in this article.  (Thank you Vicki Vinton for this gem!)


It is just writing for the sake of writing, thinking and learning. I have lived with this knowing I will  get through it and start to find my way back into my writer’s space. It is, after all, part of the process and I honor that over product.  Right?


I preach the holy heck out of getting kids to write everyday, but now I have seen the frazzled fruits of my lazy labor as I struggle to find words and ideas that will come together into a piece that interests me. And yet we have no problem asking kids to write on demand without daily practice. We want them to perform and score perfectly on high stakes test, but we don’t take the time to let them practice.  We don’t allow them the time to write without that pressure and those high stakes.

And it is in the time I take to practice that time becomes timeless.  When caught in the zone of imagining what might be next, in putting words to paper time just simply disappears as we are in the “zone” and don’t bother us when we are there!!.

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Ding!  A text from my son, Zachary, “ I may have just written the best two paragraphs of my life.” What? (Is this REALLY from Zachary? Texting home from college about writing?)

Second text  “We were told that we could write a short story about anything.” End text.

Ding, Third Text, “I am having so much fun with it.”

Let me see this fun!  Yes, in these texts are expressions of sheer joy.  (Who has been trampled by the big bad scary lion named rigor in education)  So I asked him to send it to me and it was honestly one of the darkest things I have ever read of his. In it I could sense the intense sadness he experienced with his recent break up with his first  girlfriend. It was riddled with long, drawn out sentences that were so effective in creating the suspense he was after. And after only 2 paragraphs I wanted to read more. Check it out!


Now mind you this is one of those RARE moments as parents and I was just so happy and excited for him. Even in High School, when given the reigns of choice this kid can just write. And he writes well. (In my humble opinion of course) And he does so without being an avid reader.

Zachary blows that myth of “writers have to be readers” right out of the water. Sometimes we make those sweeping general assumptions  that just don’t hold true for every kid. Zach is one of those kids. I was one of those kids. I was not a reader when I was younger. You could find me out in the woods somewhere creating imaginary houses of sticks and stones or frolicking among the beaver dams or even in my room playing school.  It was my sister  who always had a book with her, preferably a Nancy Drew. In fact my only form of “reading” was my cherished collection of Ranger Ricks, a nature magazine with brilliant photographs that I could fawn over for hours and stop in between to play a hide and seek game. I read short paragraphs, but did not have what we refer to as “reading stamina” today.

I believe there are other kids of “reading”.  Perhaps we are readers of the world.  Could it be that my time spent in my imaginary worlds, pretending to be someone else and creating characters that I would “act out” in my homes made of stick and stone were fodder for future writing?  Or are those acts of imagination a form of writing in their own right?  If writing is about playing with words in worlds then perhaps it can also be done outside the pages of books.  But do we even stop to consider or ask how our kids are thinking anymore?

world globe on a open book

Fast-forward to now and I am always reading several books at a time; one or two for work, a novel and even a dose of daily poetry.   You see we hold all of these beliefs to be true, but never stop to honor what each person IS doing!! And in the midst of all of this it takes so much NOT to get caught up in it.   Walk away from the madness. Walk away!

Photo Credit:pelicanbookstore.com

And of course there is response. Zachary texted because he wanted some kind of feedback. I blog to ignite feedback and start conversations. We write with purpose if we know there is an audience or even a potential audience.


Photo Credit: www.cindyhayen.com

And in all of this there is a sense of honoring the individual; honoring the process or even more deeply, trusting and enjoying the process.  Believing that it will take us where we want or need to go. One word at a time we discover things we never knew we were thinking or feelings who show up in disguise. Writing, for me, is a joyful and heady experience that is somewhat different every time.. On my shelves are  books “on writing” and while I love reading those, ultimately I enjoy being an observer of my own process and seeing how totally me it really is. There is no one way to BE a writer. It just is. It just means you write. If you write therefore you are a writer.  High Stakes, myths and expectations be damned!  Let them write!