Breaking the Silence

Over the last, say, 56 days, I have suffered from alternating waves of being.  I slosh back and forth from a deep need to speak out and be heard to a profound pull to cut myself off from the world and hide in silence. I wrote my last post during my most recent wave of voice. In the three weeks following, I hosted a Women’s March huddle with 20+ people from my area, including friends and now-friends who want to organize in support of a variety of causes. We learned about recent efforts of organizations like Moms Demand Action, Battleground Texas, TX21Indivisible, and American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. We broke out into groups to get to know more about each other’s priorities, availability, and skill sets that can help increase our active engagement as democratic citizens.  We started a facebook page to communicate action items and a google folder to record our work and share information we’ve gathered.

A week later I met with two inspiring women who work with TAMSA, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment. We talked about my experiences working in schools where over-testing had significant negative effects on students, teachers, and the quality of instruction in schools. We brainstormed about opportunities for me to testify to legislators about my experience and provide ideas for authentic student assessment of writing.

On February 25th, I worked alongside my Heart of Texas Writing Project colleagues to put on a workshop for 50+ Austin Area teachers entitled Building on Strength: Multilingual Students and Writing Workshop. We engaged teachers of multilingual students in conversations about how to create safe spaces for our immigrant students even with today’s  hostile climate, how to provide authentic and student-centered writing instruction, and how to use strengths-based teaching to push back on deficit-based programming and pedagogy in our Bilingual and Dual Language classrooms. In my opening, we marveled at the linguistic strengths of three of my former students.


Following the Building on Strength workshop, I met with my HTWP book club group. We’re reading For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action.  I cried a bit as I asked my colleagues/peers/friends for help with how to take the same strength and conviction I have speaking at conferences along with me when I talk with family that differs sharply from me politically.  Besides the bout of tears, I mostly sat silent. My wave of voice had hit its peak and began to slope down to its trough.

Three days later I got up early to attend the Texas Tribune’s Conversation with Congressional Public Education Committee Chairman, Rep Dan Huberty. I was uplifted to hear about his strong opposition to school vouchers and to over-testing in schools though dismayed at his part in and support of the A-F rating of our Texas schools. I listened but didn’t raise my hand when the moment came for questions, though questions I had.

I made it to my March 5th meeting with our newly formed South Austin Action and Advocacy Group, though barely.  I skipped my appointment to get deputized as a voter registrar with Battleground Texas. I have writing to do, I rationalized. I can reschedule.

In the following period of silence, to fight the urge to drug myself with mind-numbing television, I am reading and writing. I just finished writing a grant application with more fervor and verbosity than the grant reviewers will be anticipating.  Don’t hold it against me, NWP. I continue to read For a Better World and also to re-read segments of Teacher Organizing for Change: Making Literacy Learning Everybody’s Business.  I am up at night scribbling in my notebook and sneaking off to my desk where I can re-write the outline for the book proposal I’m determined to send off in a few months.

And three days ago, before the camping trip where Rob, Maya, Fritz and I unplugged entirely, Maya said something that created a ripple that reverberated through me until I had to sit down and write here again.  I was deep in the trough when she said it and so we were watching a movie. A princess movie. And I was feeling guilty.  And then she said, “Mama, all the people in this movie have white skin.”  And I felt this little glimmer of hope.  I had forgotten to notice but Maya hadn’t.  Maya reminded me to put on the critical contact lenses that only some of us in this world have to be mindful to put on every day.

She reminded me to wake up and that through talking with her about issues of privilege and representation in our consumption of all forms of media, she has been awakened. When we teach critical literacy skills, when we talk to our children about the marginalization of people, languages, and cultures, they are listening. And changing.  They begin to see the world and how it favors some over others. And that is the first step not just to changing but to making change. And so, though in my action there are periods of silence, maybe, if my periods of voice are strong and focused enough, I can rest assured that when I am silent another person in my tribe will let her voice rise.






Getting Cozy with Conflict

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For my first 26 years of life, I, rather unapologetically, self-identified as someone who avoids conflict. Dodging debate is pretty easy when you’re white, privileged, and largely surrounded with like-minded classmates, colleagues, friends, and family. When I moved to Texas eleven years ago, however, I found it more difficult to avoid heated conversations. I found myself in work, social, and familial relationships with people who have views of the world that sharply counter my own and, for the first time that I was aware of, simply being honest often put me where I was not used to being–at odds.

First through graduate school and professional communities, I began to reflect on my privilege and my beliefs. I began to equip myself with the knowledge of history and its affect on the present and with the vocabulary and research I needed to defend my beliefs. And so it was first in professional settings that I grew the courage to actively advocate for equity and justice.

It has only been over the last two years or so that I have begun, as many of us have, to challenge myself to engage in these same debates about the truths of the world and its injustices with family and friends.  In those discussions, on facebook, over the phone, over email (but not yet in person), one theme I have heard is that we should shield our children from such conversations.

Though it is still a little difficult for me to say, I must disagree.  While we must be thoughtful in the ways in which we engage in dialogue with our children about sensitive topics, avoiding these conversations or waiting until our children are “old enough” is perpetuating the problems that are pervasive in our world.

A few months ago, a friend and her 3 children visited me for a few days.  While she was here, she saw a picture book out on the table that I had recently read to Maya about immigrants coming to America to flee persecution.  In the beginning of the book, the main character, a child, is hiding under a bed with her family.  Later, they board a ship to America. My  friend asked me, “Aren’t you worried Maya will be afraid, that she will wake up and worry that someone will come after her? That she will hide under her bed in fear?”

I had to pause, to think. “No,” is pretty much all I said. Even though she had asked me out of absolute curiosity and maybe even looking for guidance, I still didn’t feel ready to belt out my reasons for making the choices I do.  Maybe her question even made me doubt myself for a moment. But now, today, in a time of so many decisions and orders based upon fear, I feel braver than ever to say that I know that to avoid such discussions with my daughter would be to side with the silencer.

The days are numbered when I will have my children’s undivided attention. I want for them to hear from me loudly and clearly that I love them and they are safe, yes, but also that we have friends and neighbors who are not as privileged as we are to simply avoid the uncomfortable, to ignore the injustices, to evade the truths. I want them to be aware and to want change.

I have been meaning to share resources with parents about how we can use children’s literature to begin to talk to our children about the topics of inequity and diversity that some of us have long been avoiding.  Today’s the day. Here’s what I have to say.

Professional Educators: Revising Practices, Responsive Teaching

The National Writing Project‘s model of teachers teaching teachers depends largely upon the belief that teachers are professionals. Professional teachers collaborate with their professional communities to be responsive to their students, reflective in their planning, and to constantly revise their practices as they encounter new students, experiences, and educational research.  They resist “we’ve always done it this way” habits of mind and push back on scripted curriculum by providing individualized, research-based instruction for their diverse student populations.

Last summer, the Heart of Texas Writing Project at UT Austin, a National Writing Project affiliate, conducted week-long mini institutes with Bastrop ISD’s K-12 teachers.  During Heart of Texas Writing Project intensive institutes, teachers are treated as professionals, engaging in graduate-level work, reading professional articles and books, and using inquiry and debate to merge prior experience and knew understandings. Then, participants are challenged to design plans to apply this new knowledge through the implementation of writing workshop in their classrooms.

It requires courage to embrace the type of autonomy and responsibility that a Writing Workshop classroom expects of its teacher.  Calli Caperton, a third grade teacher at Red Rock Elementary, participated in the HTWP institutes in Bastrop last summer.  She had studied Writing Workshop in an undergraduate class but had yet to try it out in her room. The opportunity to process and prepare for implementation during this week-long PD, motivated Calli to put these practices into place in her classroom.

In the first weeks of school, Calli and her students began to set up routines and procedures for mini lessons, conferences, and share time.

Q: What are a few of the example routines you taught students that helped you get your writing workshop going?

Calli: The first mini lesson I did was how to come to the carpet and what it should look like when the kids are participating in a mini lesson. Then I did a mini lesson about “What is a mini lesson?” The next lesson was on “Ways to get started”. I shared my experiences with having trouble writing as a child. I also did a mini lesson on how to share stories. It was mainly about how to do the author’s chair because they were excited about sitting in my chair. We did mini lessons on how to share in other ways such as partner or group share and gallery walks as we came to a time that we were sharing in those ways.

As Calli describes above, a writing workshop teacher thoughtfully structures workshop time and designs mini lessons that lead to student independence and autonomy. Explicit teaching and practice of routines are the key to getting Writing Workshop going strong from Day 1.

This early work includes teaching students strategies for how to explore topics of their own choosing rather than depending upon the teacher to provide a prompt.  In a writing workshop classroom, students are not given prompts. They choose topics about which they are passionate, knowledgeable, and interested. Calli designed a series of mini lessons that equipped students with strategies on how to get started.

Once students had spent the first weeks of school practicing many ways of getting started writing, including such lessons as jotting lists, looking around you for inspiration, or getting inspiration from their lives, students delved into their first unit of study to take through the writing process.  Rather than putting their notebooks aside to start anew, students used these entries to unearth topics for more in-depth pieces of writing. The “choice” writing students had done in the first weeks of school now served as a treasure chest of ideas that could be used in a crafted piece of any genre. An entry about a pet could inspire a fantasy piece about talking animals. An entry about a farm could inspire a memoir about family working together.

Q: What are some of the mini lessons you taught that helped students to explore topics of their own choosing for their first published pieces? 

A:  I taught a mini lesson about flipping through my journal to find what I was writing the most about. We talked about how they could flip through their own notebooks and find a topic based on what they write most frequently about. I also gave them a lot of books that they could read and look at to come up with ideas.We also did a a lesson on jotting a list of things that we know a lot about because authors often write about the things they know. 

For this first piece, students were in charge of choosing their own genre and topic for a piece they would bring through the writing process to publication. Students wrote fantasy, memoir, and informational texts inspired by their family, their interests, and experiences.


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As is also crucial in a writing workshop classroom, students chose an audience for their work. For this first piece, they decided to have the administrators at the school read their publications and provide positive feedback.

As students were still publishing their first pieces during writing time, Calli began to prepare students for their next writing unit of study through the reading curriculum.  She immersed her students in a study of poetry.

Q: In your unit of study on poetry, what mini lessons in reading and writing did you do to help kids study different type of poems?
Calli: We read different types of poetry and recorded on chart paper all the things we noticed and categorized the poems that we read by what they had in common. We looked at how poets organize their writing and how they used punctuation and then practiced that in our own writing. I also wrote a poem and shared that with my class. We also looked at videos of people performing their own poetry. I always left out a variety of poetry books out for them to explore and use during writing. 
As you can see in this video, Calli used published poetry and also tried out writing her own poetry as students took on roles as poets. As she explains below, Calli’s mini lessons were responsive to the observations she made about students’ knowledge of various kinds of poetry.



Q: How did those mini lessons affect students’ poems? For example, what types of poems and authors’ craft did you see them trying out in their poems?
Calli: I limited the amount of rhyming poems that they could see, so I found that only a few kids did a rhyming poem. At first I saw that the kids were writing a lot of shape poems, so I pulled out a lot of narrative and other styles of poems and they began to branch out. When they saw a type of poem in a book that they hadn’t been exposed to in a lesson, I saw them modeling their own poems based off of the new ones that they saw. Most of the kids tried using onomatopoeia in their poems after I read my poem to them. 
This type of responsive teaching challenged students to “branch out” as Calli says.   When students are challenged to try new techniques and styles and to learn from a variety of poems, they form opinions and preferences, deepening their knowledge and ability to not only write, but also read and understand poetry.  In the below clip that shows the rest of Calli’s mini lesson, we witness students’ understanding of the craft of poetry.
As Calli moved through the unit, she identified prior knowledge and misconceptions that students had about the genre.  This way, she was able to be responsive in her teaching and design mini lessons that met students’ specific needs.  As a professional teacher who reflects upon and revises her practices based on research and students’ needs, Calli was able to differentiate for every student in her room.  She carefully crafted mini lessons and conferred with students to challenge them and move them forward in their work.
Q: What are some of the successes you saw through these units of study?
Calli: I saw that my students had a better understanding of the particular genre that we were studying. I exposed them to a genre in reading first for a couple of weeks before incorporating it into writing lessons and having them write. When they listened to different read alouds in one genre they were able to identify noticings and then apply that to their own writing. I found that the majority of the kids were able to find the main noticings and apply it to their writing. 
Q: What are some of the things you had to troubleshoot or do some responsive teaching around in these units of study?
Calli: The main thing I had to troubleshoot were misconceptions about poetry and how poets format their poems. We spent a lot of time on punctuation in poetry and how to apply that to our own writing. I found that we had to keep cycling back in how poets use punctuation. 

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Before students had finished publishing and sharing their poetry, students began reading and studying various fictional genres during her reading block.  Just as they had with poetry, students noticed the characteristics of various types of fiction and prepared for trying out fiction as authors.   And after fiction, came a unit of feature articles.
And so it continues. Through each genre study, Calli continues to spend time immersing her students in a genre, guiding them to make observations and develop understandings, preparing them to write in that genre on a topic of their choosing for an audience who is anxious to read their work.
It may feel risky, at first, to throw out the script and trust in our professionalism and knowledge of our students to guide us through units of study.  This year, in her first year as a teacher of writing workshop, Calli had to trust herself and the mentors around her.  She allowed herself to be guided by the authors she’d read, the colleagues supporting her, and her students whose work gave her inspiration for each next lesson.
Each unit informed the next.  Each mini lesson taught her something new about herself as a teacher and about her students.  By the end of February, Calli’s students will have developed the confidence to fill their notebooks on topics of their own choosing and the knowledge to craft any genre–from poetry to feature articles–using as resources the guidance of mentor authors and their writing community. Audiences inside and outside the walls of their Writing Workshop classroom will continue to have the pleasure of reading and being affected by their work.
As professional educators we should thank other professionals, like Calli, for reminding us to trust in our professionalism, in the research and published authors that inform our teaching, and, most of all, in the belief that our students have important things to say and original, inspirational, ways to say them.

Omnivore’s Dilemma: How the Book I Never Read Changed My Life

When I first met Rob he was a backpacker.  It was 2004 and I was living and working in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Rob had made his way there after the first year and a half of his three-year backpacking trip through Central and South America.  He owned a pair of zip-off pants and a coupla t-shirts.  The rest of his backpack was filled with books.  I was intrigued.

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He had a lot of time on his hands and a lot of that time was spent reading.  Rob was the first person to pass me Vonnegut and Dostoevsky.  He let me borrow his copy of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I think he’s almost forgiven me for writing in the margins.  I’m pretty sure, however, that he hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that I lost his copy of Ishmael . (It’s no longer in print in Spanish!)

I remember reading his well-worn copy of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent while standing on the subte on my way from Belgrano to Zona Norte for work.  I would wrap my arm around the metal pole for support, pinky and thumb of my left hand holding the pages in place as my right fist grasped my cafe con leche in its American-sized to-go cup.

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Each book that Rob lent me changed me but none in quite as tangible a way as the one I still haven’t finished reading.

In the decade since we moved to Austin from AR, our reading habits have shifted. We devour the news but it takes us much longer to get through a full novel or autobiography. My cooking has also undergone serious revision. Rob has always insisted on cooking everything from scratch–like, even spaghetti sauce. I used canned beans to make chili once and he refused to eat a bite. This was all fine and good when Rob had no job and did all of the cooking. But when we got to Texas, we were both working and started to split the task. In our first years back in the states we had more than one “discussion” about how complicated we wanted to make, or not make, our cooking and eating routines and habits.  I made a lot of salads.

Around the time I had finally learned to make about 4–optimistically, 5–dishes, most involving chicken, Rob came across the book, Omnivore’s Dilemma. Rob is an animal lover who grew up hunting and an environmentalist in his ideology as well as his work.  The book spoke to him, to the self he was when he was young and to the self he was turning out to be.  Little did I know as I watched him flip through those pages that we were about to throw out my new, hard-earned recipes and start from, well… start before scratch.

What do you mean, Rob, that you’re only going to eat the meat that you hunt yourself?  What do you mean that each of my go-to poultry dishes is now, literally, off the table?  The salami-eating city-dweller I met in BsAs is now a vegetarian hunter? Huh?

I grew up in the suburbs of DC. If I met anyone who owned a gun before meeting Rob, I didn’t know about it.  I’ve never shot a gun and don’t have any interest in ever shooting one. To be honest, just typing the words shot, gun, shooting, make me terribly uncomfortable.

Under the influence of Michael Pollan, Rob had decided to make our culinary choices more sustainable.  He was going to quit eating meat–except the meat he, himself, hunted or fished.  He already had access to the family’s ranch to hunt deer and turkey and figured that he’d pick his rifle and fishing pole back up.  He’d never enjoyed hunting simply for the sport of it and Pollan had reminded and further educated him on the benefits to our health and to the earth. If we were to eat animals who had enjoyed a life in the wild and to boycott the meat raised in cages, we could eat both hormone and guilt-free.  I had heard these “back to the earth” arguments before. I even had friends who lived according to these convictions. But I didn’t relate to those decisions.  I liked my deli sandwiches and ground beef tacos. And though I had listened with interest to those friends speak of their choices, I certainly hadn’t cooked for anyone who had such dietary restrictions.

I did a lot of huffing and puffing when Rob made this life decision that would affect us both.  I rolled my eyes and ordered beef fajita tacos or steak just about any time we went out.  I refused to cook the venison even though, by the time it got to our freezer, it was processed, packaged, and looked store-bought.

Earlier this month, Rob went to the processor to pick up this year’s kill: two white tailed deer and one axis.  Four years ago when he stocked our freezer in the same manner, I cried. And for those of you who don’t know me that well, I mean I really did cry. There was no more room to store breast milk for Maya or frozen bananas for my shakes.  Where was I going to stash the baby teethers or back-up meals of black beans or chicken soup?

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But this year, as Rob labeled and sorted each package of sausage, backstrap, ground venison, and cutlets I asked, “Are you sure this is enough to get us through the year?”

Since Maya was born and I’ve been home more, I’ve taken on even more of the responsibility of cooking and grocery shopping and I have, begrudgingly, learned to cook. Though it’s been a long process, my cooking has become less-processed.  When I want to cook Argentine-style I make venison-filled empanadas.  When we’re in the mood for Asian food, I make vegetarian sushi rolls or spring rolls and venison-packed potstickers or ginger venison stirfry. I cook vegetarian Indian dahl and channa masala (with dry chickpeas, of course :)) and when we want Mediterranean food I make falafel from scratch.  20161214_183126For pizza night, I make the crust with oat flour, pumpkin (canned–sorry, Rob) and chia seeds.  In the past year or two I have even begun to experiment with baking cupcakes, breads, granola bars, or muffins sweetened with beets or honey or dates.

This year, for my birthday, Rob surprised me with a tablet for the kitchen that I’ve been hinting at “needing” to display recipes as I cook.  My best friend, Vicki, sent me and the kids matching superman aprons.  I still don’t consider myself a cook.  Many days, I can’t even bring myself to say that I enjoy cooking. But I have begun to really appreciate eating a well-prepared meal and having a good idea of where the ingredients came from.  Maybe this holiday break I’ll take the time to finish Omnivore’s Dilemma or another of Michael Pollan’s books like Cooked.

While I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people who strays from my measuring cups  to create my own concoctions, I look forward to trying new recipes and to writing and posting about them here. Maybe it’s through writing and sharing that I will begin to identify as a cook who loves the process–or at least loves to write about it.


Drawings and Wishes

In 2014, for Maya’s 2nd birthday, I went all out.  I sewed her crown. And the gift bags.  Oh, yeah, and the monkey finger puppets (it was a “monkeys and bananas” theme) and the monkey bean bags to throw in the mouth of a monkey I painted on some cardboard. I made frozen chocolate covered banana bites.  I also made chocolate covered pretzels and 80 empanadas even though monkeys don’t eat either of those.  I was 6 months pregnant.  It’s been 2+ years and I’m still exhausted.

For Maya’s 3rd birthday we went to the movies.

This year, we decided to have another party. I thought back to her 2nd birthday party. I knew I wanted to make it special but would have to take it down a notch–for all of our sake.

Maya loves to draw these days.  Sometimes she just asks to go in the playroom to draw for awhile.  It’s wonderful.  She sticks her tongue out and leans over her work, taking care to add three long eyelashes on each eye and three triangles on each princess’s head.  As a writer, a teacher of writing, and a teacher of teachers of writing, I’m thrilled.  I keep pretty much all of the drawings that are always strewn around the floor. Sometimes I videotape her talking about her drawings. Especially if they’re of me.

What if we had a drawing party? I thought. Drawing is quiet and calm and easy and Maya loves it!


I framed all those strewn sheets I’d saved with craft paper and we had our decorations.

I called La Mexicana down the street and ordered breakfast tacos.  I threw some fruit in bowls and set up ingredients for make-your-own mimosas or bloody marys.

I covered tables with brown butcher paper and put crayons out.  Gift bags? I bought mini clipboards at TOPS and used paint pens to write the kids’ names on ’em.


When they arrived, little guests put on gold dollar-store crowns and grown-up guests grabbed silver-wrapped food.

Then, I rang the teacher bell I use at work and brought the kids together for our lesson. I read The Dot by Peter Reynolds.

Maya came up to the easel and drew an oval person ala Talking, Drawing, Writing.  We passed out paper and frames and note cards.

This year, we only invited kids ages 4 years and up.  Fritz was here, of course, but we had to really reign him in so he didn’t steal markers and tear up artwork.  Sweet little Vivienne wrote a Happy Birthday card for Maya.  Darling Kate asked me to hang up her artwork, too. Maya’s friends from school and from the neighborhood drew and played.  Parents sketched and coached their kids to write their names or add some more color.   I passed out adult coloring pages on clipboards and some of us shaded in snowflakes or owls.

When it was time, we lit the candles and stuck them into the chocolate beet cupcakes with cream cheese beet icing I made (I couldn’t order pre-made everything!)

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and sang Happy Birthday. Then we sang Feliz Cumpleanos.  And we all made wishes. Because in my family, we all do.  When we were all ready, Maya blew out the candles.

I don’t know about the rest of the crowd, but when I saw that 4-year-old’s smile I know my wish came true.





Bastrop Students’ Writing: Personal, Public… Powerful

This year, Bastrop Independent School District has contracted the Heart of Texas Writing Project to train the district’s K-12 English Language Arts teachers in the teaching of Writing Workshop. Writing Workshop classroom teachers use a project-based approach to writing that is rooted in student autonomy and authenticity.

The scope of this year’s work in Bastrop included week-long intensive institutes for K-12 teachers over the summer as well as on-site coaching sessions during the year which entail model lessons, planning times, and support with implementation.  It has been incredible to see Bastrop’s teachers and students respond to this professional development.  Teachers have reported so many positive observations including students’ enthusiasm about writing, self-motivation to improve their writing, and publication for broad audiences.

The more I have talked to teachers about audience, the more I have become adamant that it is not just unfortunate but, honestly, unacceptable for the teacher to be the primary audience for students’ writing.  As I have worked in Bastrop, this message is one that I have seen make a visible and immediate impact on teachers’ practices.  Students and teachers have begun to organize and host all kinds of publishing opportunities for students.  In my last post, I promised to share examples of how other teachers have taught units of study that cover curriculum and raise students’ voices.

This summer, I met Meggie Smiley, 3rd grade teacher at Lost Pines Elementary School. She participated in the week-long mini institute that I led in Bastrop to give teachers a basis for the components and pedagogy of writing workshop. Twenty-one teachers participated in my session while other Heart of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultants ran sessions for, collectively, almost 200 more Bastrop K-12 ELA teachers.  Meggie was one of the many teachers who was quickly processing our conversations and mentally preparing to revise her practices for the upcoming school year.  One day, as a group, we discussed the common question of whether or not to post on bulletin boards student work that contains mistakes.  As important as the long-winded ‘answer’ we came up with together (the blogger at this link sums it up!) is where this question led our conversation.

We began to talk about so many different ways–in addition to bulletin boards–to publish student work.  We talked about big celebrations and small, elaborate and simple, in-process as well as culminating work.  The primary conclusion of this discussion was the agreement that students need to:

  • start publishing early in the year
  • continue to publish often
  • publish for broader audiences than solely the teacher

Meggie Smiley heard those messages and ran with them.

Start Publishing Early

In September, Mrs. Smiley’s Back to School Night doubled as a publishing party.  As pictured in the slideshow below, on each desk sat a student’s published piece of writing and space for parents to provide positive feedback.  In addition, Mrs. Smiley and her students created a photo backdrop collage of students’ favorite authors’ names (including their own names, of course!) and About the Authors centerpieces.

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In this first publishing party, Meggie took advantage of a date when she knew she already had a captive audience.  She didn’t let the September date intimidate her. There were no excuses of “Oh, I haven’t had time to teach  them anything yet” or “We don’t have time to make all the edits.”  Meggie’s readiness to have her students publish early in the school year sent the message to students and parents that students have important things to say and there are people who are waiting to hear them.  There is an urgency and a purpose to our writing, Meggie was telling her students.

As you can see in the photos, Mrs. Smiley’s class publication celebration was complete with cookies, centerpieces and even a signature cake. An appealing set up and snacks help the gathering feel celebratory and special, but when we look deeper, beyond the initial awe that Meggie’s stellar event-planning talent inspires, we see that the source of the true magic is in the sharing of student writing and the response students get, early in the year, from an audience who is hanging onto their every word.

Publish Often

Now that Mrs. Smiley and her class had gotten a taste of the excitement of publishing, Meggie looked at her unit plans and noticed the next opportunity for publication–poetry. Her poetry unit began on October 10th.  Students read many examples of all kinds of poetry. They studied the craft of their favorite poets and used their favorite poems as inspiration to write their own poems on topics of their own choosing. With Halloween approaching, it would have been easy for Mrs. Smiley to have encouraged students to stick to a holiday theme, which is a common prompt in many elementary classrooms.  But Writing Workshop teachers know that students do their best writing, their most authentic and motivated writing, when they choose their own topics, topics they care a lot about.

Students wrote poems about topics as broad as family and as specific as stripes, as close as Christmas and as far away as Colorado.  They paid attention to the world around them and let the environment, the times, and the people they love inspire their work.

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Once the poetry unit was underway, Mrs. Smiley considered students’ families’ schedules and chose a publication date that she thought would be convenient for most students.  On October 18th, two weeks before the publishing party, students wrote and delivered invitations to their parents.

The invitations informed parents that on the 1st of November, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd grade class would be hosting a Poetry Publication Party at Gracie’s, a restaurant well-known by many Bastrop locals.  One of Meggie’s student’s grandmother owns the restaurant and so it was the perfect spot to take their writing outside the school’s walls.

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Again, attendees enjoyed reading “About the Authors”, rich snacks, and a celebratory vibe.  This time, instead of a gallery-walk style with written feedback, the publication experience was to watch young poets take the stage, hear them read their poetry, and react with smiles,  chuckles, nods, and applause.  Poetry, as poetry should, projected out to an audience listening to poets whose words roused emotions.

After the celebration, once the nerves had subsided but while the excitement still lingered, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd grade poets wrote reflections.  They wrote about the experience of writing, preparing, and presenting their poetry for an audience.  Students’ reflections exhibited such themes as increased identity as authors, enthusiasm to engage in revision, and pride in making their poetry public.  Click here to read what, specifically, Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders had to say.

Broad Audiences for Students’ Writing

The most recent publication party that Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders took part in was not their own.  This time, they got to be the audience, the readers, for the writing of Melissa Wright’s 1st graders at Lost Pines.

In the same fashion as in Mrs. Smiley’s unit of study on poetry, Mrs. Wright’s first graders had engaged in a unit of study on fairy tales. They read fairy tales in class, paid attention to the components, and wrote original fairy tales of their own.  Mrs. Wright shared that once she had worked with Mrs. Smiley to set the date for publication her students were “very excited and eager to get their writing done”.  Writing for broader audiences than those of the teacher and immediate classroom peers often has this “deadline” effect on students. There are people who will coming to read our writing!?  We need to get ready!!

On the day of the fairy tale publication party, the first graders had the option to, in addition to the gallery walk, share their fairy tales by reading them in front of both classes.  Mrs. Wright was surprised at how many of her students volunteered.  Even a shy student who she would not have guessed would have been interested, stood up and read aloud in front of both classes.

Again, students enjoyed snacks and a gallery walk around desks and chairs from piece to piece as Mrs. Smiley’s students provided the feedback.  The 3rd graders, knowing how it feels to publish for an audience, read carefully with awe and excitement.  It was their turn to look at other students’ writing with appreciation, interest, and the knowledge of the work and effort that went into each letter, each drawing, and each “once upon a time” in the 1st graders’ original fairy tales.

Mrs. Smiley’s 3rd graders wrote their words of praise and encouragement on bright-colored notes while the 3rd and 1st graders mingled, enjoyed cookies, and patted the backs of other young authors for a piece well done.

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Mrs. Wright shared that after the publication party she began to see her students do more writing.  Not just at writing time, but across the curriculum, on little pieces of paper or on other pieces of their school work.  When students publish for audiences who show appreciation for their words and ideas, they begin to identify as writers.  Mrs. Wrights first graders see themselves and writers and writers write!

When I think about what Mrs. Smiley, Mrs. Wright and their 3rd and 1st graders have accomplished in less than 4 months of classes, I am inspired.  These Lost Pines Elementary students are published authors. They have experienced the nerves of not knowing how their audience will respond. They have battled the challenge of projecting their voices to be heard. They have worked diligently with energy and love for the craft.  Now that they know what it feels like to be heard, to make an impact, they are armed with the powerful skills they need to walk into the world and let their ideas, their interests, their presence, be known.

Teaching after Tuesday

If you’re a teacher and on facebook, then it’s possible someone has recommended this HuffPost piece to you, What Do We Tell The Children?  One thing contributor, Ali Michael, PhD, recommends is to “say that silence is dangerous and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.”

I agree. Wholeheartedly.  I must go on to say, though, that this message must also ring true in the teaching pedagogy we embrace.  This conversation with students will be for naught if that same teacher who says “silence is dangerous” then silences students by reverting to traditional teacher-centered strategies that are common in classrooms across the country, especially classrooms that serve underprivileged populations.

Paulo Freire coined this type of teaching a “banking model” of education in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When we set up our classroom dynamic such that the teacher is the owner of the information ready to share her wealth of knowledge through daily deposits into all the little empty minds, we are oppressing students’ agency.  We are modeling the “I alone can fix it” mentality that robs students of agency and power. And so, we need to adopt a pedagogy that supports the second part of Dr. Michael’s advice to “teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.”

As a Heart of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultant, I lead teachers in professional development in the teaching of writing. Through intensive institutes, workshops, and in-services, I often talk with teachers about the power of identifying authentic audiences for student writing. We guide students to be agents of change in their world by writing and crafting pieces on topics of their own choice for audiences who are waiting to hear what they have to say (For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action, Randy and Katherine Bomer).

These days, teachers are overwhelmed (google “overwhelmed teachers”) and the thought of taking on responsibility for not only teaching the curriculum but also to take on the problems of today could put us over the top if we don’t learn how those two goals can happen at once.  The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE)’s  Professional Knowledge of the Teaching of Writing states ten research-based “professional principles that guide effective teaching.”  “Writing grows out of many purposes” may seem to be one of the most simple of statements.  For teachers, this statement may even bring to mind the teaching standard that expects students to “determine an author’s point of view and purpose for writing a text.”

In many plan books, a week in reading may be dedicated to teaching “author’s purpose.”   Why did the author write this piece?  To Persuade? To Inform? To Entertain? We orally give children a multiple choice question and they answer us, eyebrows raised, to see if they have “bubbled-in” correctly.  Did they earn their deposit?

However, if we want students to truly understand this complex idea of authors’ purposes, we need to recognize as true another of NCTE’s principles, “Writing is embedded in complex social relationships and their appropriate languages” and guide students to write pieces on topics of their choice for audiences who are waiting to hear what they have to say.  Students can talk to each other about why they chose these topics. They can make their audience laugh, reflect, ponder, change. Students not only improve and revise their writing for the eyes of their teacher, but for the reaction of the reader.

But, when the teacher is the primary audience for school writing, the purpose can no longer be anything but, again, to guess what the teacher wants the student to say and how he wants the student to say it.  The student is powerless with no other option than to figure out the formula.

In future posts I will explore concrete examples of how other teachers and I have taught units of study that cover curriculum and raise students’ voices.  The more I have talked to teachers about audience, the more I have become adamant that it is not just unfortunate but, honestly, unacceptable when the teacher is the primary audience for students’ writing.  It’s true, silence is dangerous.  But what is even more dangerous is the echo of a teacher’s voice saying “silence is dangerous” in an otherwise quiet, compliant room.






Wherever we’re headed, we still need to eat

On Monday, I talked to Rob about how I’d like to celebrate my birthday this year. Yesterday, I texted my mom:

“Rob and I just decided for sure that Maya, my friend Amity, and I are going to come stay with you for the inauguration!”

When I picked Maya up from school, I shared with her that, in a few months, we would be flying on a plane to DC to see Nana and Grandpa and to watch Hillary Clinton become president. We squealed with excitement. I pictured us riding the metro down to the mall, like we did last winter.


I could just see her on my shoulders with that puffy jacket, and maybe mittens or a hat with those long braided ropes hanging over her ears, her pink cheeks squinting up her eyes. I could see the sea of people who would surround us, hugging, bonding and celebrating.

This morning, my eyes still puffy from crying and lack of sleep, I told Maya the news.  She said, “Mama, Donald Trump won because girls are smaller than boys.”  My heart sank. It occurred to me that this probably wouldn’t be the last time that Trump’s presidency would cause her to question her self-worth.  I said something very unrehearsed and unconvincing.

We had slept over at our friends’ house, having been up the whole night watching the results.  Rob and I packed up the kids and left quietly early this morning, stunned and needing to move forward.  We made breakfast and I cried a bit for my kids.  I brought the kids to school and I cried for Latinos.  I went to the dentist and cried because the tears needed to come out.  I posted on facebook,

I have been a bit jolted. Not just by the news but by the way people have been reaching out to me. One person texted me with sarcasm last night, as if my favorite football was losing and I might, teasingly, need support. Others have reached out to offer sincere words to see how I’m doing or offer an olive branch or encourage me to unite with others.
Like we all are, I am still processing. But, for now, in case you really are concerned, here is how I’m doing:
I understand how this happened. And I agree that we need systemic change. I am not sad because Hillary lost. Though I will be glad the day we elect our first woman president, I’m not crying today because “this just wasn’t my team’s year.” I am sad that so many people in red parts of our country are hurting right now that they grabbed onto the idea that one person can save them from the injustices they are experiencing. I am sad that the message of hate and fear that Donald unapologetically ran his campaign on rang true with half of the country. And I am afraid that the platform of xenophobic and mysogynistic language will become widely acceptable. I do not believe that people are racist or sexist or classist. I believe that systems, actions, and words can be racist, sexist, and classist. And I believe that it takes a lot more than one person to unearth the roots of those racist, sexist, and classist words and actions. I am lucky. I will not feel the impact of this election as much as many people will but, though I hope it’s not the case, I fear that my gay friends, my Muslim friends, my Black friends, my Latino friends, and all women will be even more disenfranchised under a Trump presidency than they have by any other in recent history.
Thanks again for reaching out, friends. But you don’t need to send an olive branch. I am not angry of hateful. I am mourning for both the people who think they just elected a strong leader as well as for the people who he will step on to show his strength.

After the dentist, I went to buy a few little gifts for tonight.  We are getting together with our dear friends, the Vohls, for dinner.  Our friend, Nikki Vohl, passed away just 3 months ago.  We miss her and I wish she were here to be outraged with us.  She would know just what to say.  Before yesterday happened, our plan for tonight was to have a belated celebration for Anabel’s birthday and an early celebration for Maya’s.

When I got home from the store, I felt drained, like I wanted to hide in bed for the rest of the day.  Instead, I read Hillary’s concession speech and cried for all of our daughters.

Then, because we still have to work, I started prepping for my day tomorrow training teachers in Bastrop.  I started feeling more energy come back to me.  I started thinking about how lucky I am to have a job where I can impact teachers’ and students’ minds and hearts every day.

I started thinking about tonight’s bday celebration and how good it will feel to be together with friends and to talk together about what this news might mean for us all.  I remembered that I don’t have a cake for us to sing and blow out candles.  I remembered that blog I like to go to for healthy dessert recipes.  I decided I’d make a pie for tonight. And as I was pressing all my frustrations into the date and sunflower seed crust, I started thinking about how we still need to eat.  We don’t know where we are headed or where the next weeks, months, and years will lead, but we still need to eat.

Tomorrow? I don’t know.  But tonight, we will take care of our basic needs. We will gather with loved ones.  We will celebrate birthdays and we will eat.  Everyone in the world today is processing this news. Whether it feels to you like the end of the world or a new beginning, we have work to do. Tomorrow we need to get up, get to work, eat well, and get a good night’s sleep. We must keep our minds and our bodies healthy for the work and the days ahead.


Baked Empanadas and Budding Conversations

Empanadas: if you bake them, they will come!  The invitations that Maya and I delivered to close to 100 homes on our street last week promised food–one of the best ways to bring people together. I made 80 Argentina-style empanadas for the occasion and they were a hit!


I’ve already responded to a few requests for the recipe and folding technique I used, so I’m including them here!  Also, you can find the empanada discs or “discos” at Fiesta. They look like this:20161031_140616

It wasn’t the empanadas that made the evening a success, though, it was the company. We had about 50 neighbors here, getting to know each other and relaxing in our front yard and on the porch.  At the gate, I placed a little note requesting that neighbors use a name tag to indicate their name as well as how many years they have lived in the neighborhood.

With heads cocked, chins upturned, and eyes squinting in thought, each guest calculated just how long they’ve lived here.  They talked to their partners to verify, “Has it been 18 years already?” or turned to a new friend to share, “I just moved in 7 weeks ago!” One guest’s family has lived on this street for 54 years!  Another, for 4 generations.  Just those simple numbers under each of our names served as conversation-starters throughout the evening.

Rob caught up with our next door neighbor who has been helping Rob to diagnose our car’s problems.  We had recommended a surveyor to another neighbor and followed up to see if the rec had worked out. I updated an ER doctor and a pediatrician about how the gash on the back of Fritz’s head has healed.  I learned that the turkeys aren’t in the coop on the corner anymore because they’re out on the ranch with some peacock chicks, offspring of our hood’s favorite wandering fowl–a few of whom strutted by the party.


We congratulated a young neighbor on his acting debut in the horror flick, Follow, which, as we spoke, was playing its final showing at the Alamo Drafthouse nearby. On the spot, he serenaded a show-tune enthusiast with a rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

It had been months since I’d seen my friends, the founders of Please Be Kind to Cyclists and it was only the second time I’d met Will Wynn, two term Austin mayor whose knowledge of sustainability overlaps with Rob’s in energy efficiency.  I bonded with Richard in Spanish and Maya, hearing the language of her teachers, gazed up at him with wide eyes, seeming to think, “?Tu hablas espanol, tambien?”

Maya played with her best friend, who, along with her brother and parents, brought her beautiful grandmother (and several gifts!) from India.  Another grandparent, a Russian-American from Illinois, also accompanied his daughter and grandson.  Babies-due-any-day brought expectancy and predictions.  Children and toddlers stretched out on porch stone, eating and chalking (as Maya says) and played in the side-yard, climbing and chasing.  Conversations, some surface, some significant, connected us to each other in new ways.

In the days since our gathering, I’ve been thinking of the concept of families’ Funds of Knowledge which has influenced my work in schools, with teachers, parents, and students.  That evening, as the mosquitoes nipped our ankles and the front porch light just barely lit the lawn, there was evidence of neighbors, new and old, viewing each other with an appreciative lens, recognizing the funds of knowledge they each had to offer.

Between refilling trays and locating wine corkscrews, I listened, paused, and said, “I want this to be an ongoing conversation. Let’s find more ways for neighbors to come together, to support each other, and build community.”

When Maya and I passed out invitations that Sunday, maybe we were planting the seeds to new conversations. I believe that, if we tend to them, Thursday’s conversations will take root and grow.

Gentrification and an Invitation

One reason Rob and I chose to live in our neighborhood is because of its diversity. We live in Austin which is largely segregated, so by the nature of the city in which we live, even the diversity we do have is limited.  Like many urban neighborhoods nation-wide, our neighborhood is quickly changing. I fear that even the diversity we do enjoy today may be short-lived.  Houses are being  torn down daily.  New residences rise in their places. Some tensions exist between “old” residents who are feeling pushed out by high property taxes or changing dynamics and some “new” neighbors who encourage development and leveling of older homes.

I have made friends in my neighborhood and on my street, some of whom have been in their homes for decades and others, only months.  Over the 8 years we have lived here, we have rebuilt our home. While we did add on to the back, we maintained the layout of the original house and kept the inviting front porch that we fell in love with at first sight.

This Thursday, October 27th, we will be hosting our neighbors for a potluck on that same front porch that has been here since the 1920s.  I started talking about hosting this party months ago. I have talked to just about anyone who has walked by. “I’m going to host a neighborhood party soon. I’ll let you know!” I guess I thought that if I told enough people about the plan, someone would hold me accountable for doing it.

As I started printing off the 90 invitations this weekend, however, I started to feel apprehensive.  Will anyone come?  Do I have the energy or time to put this together? To pull it off?

Doubtful or not, on Sunday my almost-4-year old daughter, Maya, and I walked for over an hour, to at least 80 houses, delivering invitations.  Maya stood on tiptoes reaching mail slots and receiving kisses from labradoodles and rescues.  Acorns crunched under our feet as we crossed driveways and climbed stone steps.  We learned new names to go with familiar faces. As we placed the bright yellow half-sheets into the hands of our now friends the excitement and anticipation began to build.  We kind of skipped and laughed, talking about the fun we will have at the party.

Our walk got me thinking about the power of an invitation, the feelings one elicits in receiver and sender.  There is a nervous excitement and so many questions, Who will be there? What can I bring? Do I have everything ready? Will I know anyone? Will I go alone or with a friend?

Since Sunday, I’ve talked, in English and Spanish, at dawn and at dusk, in passing and across the fence, to many neighbors.  “What can I bring?”  “Are kids invited?” “See you then!”

I wonder who will perch on our porch this Thursday. I wonder who will come and what they will talk about and who they will talk to and how long they will stay. I wonder and wait and hope and expect.  I wonder, Can I be a “new” neighbor and also be a good neighbor?

I don’t know who will come or how it will go.  But I know that I love the anticipation of an invitation. It brings so much possibility for connectivity that just didn’t feel possible before.

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