The Things We Carry

Zachary,  came home from high school one day with three poems chosen by his English teacher to “figure out”.  The assignment was to decide what “kinds” of poems they were and to look further to figure out what “literary devices” were used.

He came to me.  “Mom what kinds of poems are these?”

And the teacher in me responds to his question with a question.

“Well, what kinds of poems are you learning about?”


“Well, haven’t you been looking at different kinds of poems in class and identifying them and what makes that what they are?”

“No.  MOM, we were just given these poems and told to find the literary devices.  This is what I have to do.  Can you just tell me?”

And so I look at the poems and instantly realize that even for me, these poems could fall into several categories.  So I tell him I am not sure.  Again I ask to see the poetry and begin to slowly look at them with him one at a time while asking him questions about what he notices in terms of how the poem is written, thus a way to discover “literary devices”.  In my head I am wondering, as well, just what this teacher is asking for and in this process I am removed from the poetry myself in an effort to “please” the teacher.  I too have fallen into school mode right alongside Zachary.

“That is NOT what the teacher wants Mom.  She just wants me to know what kinds of poems these are and what devices are used.  Mom, she doesn’t teach.  She just gives us assignments.”

“Well, what kinds of “literary devices” have you  looked at in other poetry or forms of writing?”

“None Mom, can you just help me get this done?”

“Well, how are you supposed to know if nobody every showed you.  Let me help you with this…”

If you are a parent then you know that teaching your own children is akin to trying to grocery shop with a group of young goats in tow.  Oil and water I say.

He stomps off  to spark notes and google to try to figure out what I cannot tell him and what he does not know because there has been no “model” in terms of what to look for.  These beautiful poems are reduced down to a hunt and peck on the internet in an attempt to figure out and “do” whatever it is the teacher has asked him to do.  There is no meaning.  There is no connection.  There is only the sense that he wants to get this done and done quickly and hopefully, somehow in the process he has figured out whatever it is the teacher is asking for at the same time.


Pushing my extreme frustration aside, I reflect on this conversation and realize his teacher is not modeling for him.  That the missing piece is and may always be that we are not “showing” our students what it is we are looking for.    In my work with teachers I often hear about how students are just not “getting it” and in this statement is a sense of blame.  They are frustrated with the students because they don’t know what they already know and the blame game begins. And yet, if nobody has ever taught or shown then how is the student supposed to know?  As an educator of students of all ages from kindergarten to adults, if a student is not understanding I have to ask myself what is my responsibility in all of this?

When a student is not understanding I have to stop and ask myself,

  1. What is it that they do not understand and why?
  2. What is it that I have not “shown”?
  3. Is there another way that I could model this for them?

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And although it sounds simple, it can transform your teaching.  This “in the moment” reflection allows us to connect with our students and to consider what they are learning from their point of view.  In doing this we begin to form a connection with our students and view them not as the object of blame, but as a human being to connect with, to teach, to show, to model for.  And once this connection has been made it lays the groundwork for further teaching.  These connections can also reach across the classroom as we identify models in others that are in the classroom as well.  Modeling is about “noticing” and naming what it is that we notice.  In this our students can then see that they too can notice and name.

Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart, under my arm, I enter Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I am greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands.  I receive the confection’s love, knowing it will never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

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I settle into the comfy rocker and take a brief time to reconnect as they tell me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices ring all around me as they share their latest “sound” words, onomatopoeia  the craft we worked on last time I was in.    Three little girls get closer, asking about the pink necklace I am wearing, twirling it in their hands and marveling at its sparkle.

Taking this time to reconnect with these kids is a critical part of the teaching process.  It only takes a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions show them I am interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and ideally trust and can then move into our writing time together.

I read aloud, knowing that I want to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with.  I stop and write some examples on the white board:




We talk about these words and wonder why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identify that it makes it into one word, makes the reader say the word more quickly and creates rhythm.

We then brainstorm a name for these words and the list consists of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It is democratically decided that DASH-ing words describe them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  Next, I ask them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

I first check in with Morgan, who seems to be struggling because she is not writing.  Her hands are poised under her chin and her page remains blank.  I sit to talk with her.  I am wondering what is keeping her from writing.  I ask her questions, but she just sits and looks up.  Finally I ask if she just needs some time to which she responds, “Yea.”  I leave and tell her I will check back with her.  In my mind I am wondering if I am copping out because it was a flat and uninteresting conversation.  I secretly hope that my decision to leave her and trust her is one that will work, but I never really know.  What I do know is that was I was doing was not moving her along and so I make the choice to let her work on her own.

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I move over to Nick, who also seems to be staring off into space.  I ask him how he is doing.  He responds, “I don’t know what to write.”   In my head I am asking, what does he not understand?  After a brief conversation I realize he does not understand what I had just modeled and that he needs further modeling.  I am not upset that he is not working, I am curious about why he is not.  I ask myself what is missing for him and what can I do to help this young writer to move forward?  What else can I model for him?  Is there another way in?   I lead him back over to the white board and we leaf through the book again looking at the DASH-ing words.  We finally realize together that he does not know how to start making his own word because it is not clear that the first word is often an object, a noun.  And so I model another example asking him to name an object.  He says pencil and I ask what a pencil might do.  He responds that it writes.  We work together and make it into pencil-scribbling because he liked that better than pencil-writing.

For others the playful word combinations take on a life of their own.  Some kids come up with what we call Double DASH-ing Words” such as tweet-tweet-tweeting.  Others begin lists and when I check back in with Morgan I realize that what was missing for her in that moment was think time.  (phew!) She shares this poem with the class, telling us that she chose to write a poem because the book was like a poem.




Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

Wow!  I just love the image of the long white world…

We all reconvened back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.

I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a strong model of what is expected of them and in many instances, more modeling to help them move along in their writing.

In my work with these first graders and all of the students and teachers I work with as an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I ooze passion for words and I do this on purpose.  I talk about what I read, write and wonder.  I show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life. I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me.  It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my ipad.   Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me.  They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them.  It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.

When students see that we, as their teachers are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day.  When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school.  And they begin to consider theirs as well.  We model every day with our words, out behaviors and even what we carry.

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“There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds, and I am constantly thinking of new ways to open up those worlds, modeling at every step, whether that shows in what I carry with me, the conversations I have, I am the walking, talking lover of words and my students know this.

What do your students know about you and what do you model every day ?

6 thoughts on “The Things We Carry

  1. Pingback: The Things We Carry | Conversation Education

  2. Having just written a post myself about the pros and cons of modeling, this really got me thinking. And at the risk of splitting hairs, I think what you did with your son was not so much model as invite him to notice and then talk about what he noticed, which had he not wanted just to be done with it, might have allowed him to come to literary devices—and what they actually can do for a reader beyond identification–through what Peter Johnston calls the backdoor. With the 1st graders, you did put hyphenated words on the table, but then you invited them to think about their purpose and name them in a way that best made sense to them (with DASH-ing words being a fabulous term!). And with Nick, after you jointly figured out where he was stuck, you did do some modeling but you used his material, not yours, which I’m increasingly doing myself because it seems to be far more meaningful for the students. (I also tend to invite kids to notice craft themselves, as Katie Wood Ray does in Study Driven, where she’s got a great example of 1st graders thinking about punctuation.)

    What I’m noticing here is that in each case you set children up to think, not watch you think, and when you did ‘model’ you did it ‘with’ the students, not ‘to’ them, which I think is far more effective than how it’s often done in direct-instruction-style mini-lessons where the teacher is doing all the work. And perhaps the most effective, as you point out, is what we’re modeling when we’re not officially ‘modeling’: ways of being and thinking in the world that opens all sorts of doors.

    It’s all made me think that perhaps the question shouldn’t be, as I’d posed in my post, to model or not model, but what kinds of modeling are truly effective and how might we re-define the term and practice to better capture that.

    • Vicki,
      I so appreciate your thinking in response to my blog about modeling and these are such good questions. Could it be that part of the problem is how we define modeling? How do we show teachers the little nuances that are a part of teaching responsively without boxing them up and making them feel incredibly canned? I wonder if it all lies in the ideas you refer to in Johnston’s work. So much of teaching is “reading” our students and being open and flexible to responding to them and providing opportunities for students to discover that sense of agency that is so engaging. It is what Terry Moher refers to as “teaching not knowing”, in the sense that you never know where you may end up when you sit down to confer with a student or I would even take that further in terms of small or large groups.

      It makes me realize there are many different ways to look at modeling and I have to look back at my own experiences as a reader where I was the most eloquent of word calling and inflection and could “read” anything with great expression…but was never actually thinking about what I was reading. At the end of the story I would simply hunt and peck my way back to the story to find the answers.

      It makes me think of a dramatic experience in the sense that the teacher is on the stage performing with lights in his or her eyes and is unable to see their audience’s reactions. The teacher (actor) just moves forward in the script regardless and hopes that at some point those watching will figure it out. I see lots of great performances, but am looking for so much more in terms of the audience. It is more of an interactive theater where there need to be checks along the way to make sure your audience is with you and even more importantly where their thinking is.

      I like this idea and am going to explore it more…

  3. Love your post and the conversation in the comments. PS Donald Graves was my hero!! I heard him speak many many times and chatted with him a bit. When he died, I cried as I had no idea he was sick and was thus taken totally by surprise. I was sad to think I had never wanted to “waste” time standing in line to have someone sign a book for me, so not even an autograph….. And then I was gathering books for one of my first “big” talks about poetry, I grabbed his book. There was a lovely inscription. “We meet yet again……” I can still hear his voice and since I read his work over and over, he still speaks to me and encourages me to think about my practice. He always inspires. His belief in children and what they bring to the table of their own learning is a message we should never forget. I am happy to have found this blog thanks to Vicki and her FB post that sent me here.

    • Janet,
      Welcome and Thanks for “stopping by”. I too can still hear Don Graves’ voice…such an incredibly gentle voice it was, soothing and so inviting. I am so glad you found that inscription…and it is just so perfect!! I worry about the days when nobody in education remembers who he was and what amazing gifts he brought to all of us, our teaching and our students. I too thank Vicki and hope to “see” you here again soon!

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