Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Altar of Freedom


I hadn’t considered posting this weekend.  I spent a while in my garden, cleaned out the closets for summer, and even went to the movies.  I haven’t really been on Twitter, or working on my lesson plans, or even preparing for an important meeting I have on Tuesday.  Well, that’s not completely true. I have been thinking about my lesson plans and how I can best honor Memorial Day and the men and women whom we celebrate.

Some years, I go to You Tube and find a video montage of patriotic photographs. Other years, we have read about the beginnings of Memorial Day or how different towns celebrate.  It’s always felt very token, unfortunately. I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think about what has been sacrificed for my life to be what it is. Somehow, though, I have never translated those feelings into an effective time of rememberence in my classroom. This year, I’ve been thinking about how I can get my students to see the big picture, the multiple perspectives. Serving in the military is such a foreign thing to so many of them.  I’ve been wondering, what can I bring to my students that will really make an impact?

One of my favorite pieces of history is President Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby. There is some controversy over whether he in fact wrote this, or Secretary Hay wrote it in his place. Even amidst that uncertainty, I post this letter for my friends and family to read each Memorial Day, and this year, I will be sharing it with my students.  I am moved each time I read it, and I never tire of the unwavering message of devotion to country. I’m quite certain that I won’t be able to read it in its entirety without any emotion, but my students know my propensity to cry over the written word.


Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,–
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln

I also plan to show portions of the video below, because I think that more than anything else we can read or watch, this will help them “get it.”  I’ll be the one in the back of the room sobbing, and that’s okay.  We can’t be separate from the emotion that moms, dads, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters have felt for hundreds of years.

bixby 4

They are America. We are America.

To all who have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom: Thank You. 

Soldiers Surprise Loved Ones Video


How do you plan to celebrate with your students?



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Follow That Blog!


I am excited to share another post in my blog series Follow That Blog!

Two Writing Teachers


This week I would love to introduce you to some educators who have had a profound effect on my teaching of writing and reading. The team at Two Writing Teachers publishes outstanding content for ELA teachers on a daily basis. Their blog can only be described as a gold mine of resources. The posts are most relevant to elementary and middle school teachers, but writers of all backgrounds and experiences will be inspired when they visit TWT.

Whether you are looking to reinvigorate your writing instruction, find mentor texts, or elevate your conferring, you will be energized by the variety of content you will find.  Recently, teachers across the nation took part in their Slice of Life Challenge.


Slice of Life is a weekly challenge that encourages writers to share a personal story from their own lives every Tuesday. During the month of March, TWT invited educators and students to be deliberate about their writing habits by writing every single day for an entire month. The results were astounding, as this practice encouraged all involved to see themselves as writers with a powerful voice.

I am pleased to offer you some words from the writers themselves. They graciously answered a few questions about their work.


Please describe several ways that blogging for TWT and being a part of the edu-blogging community has impacted your professional life?
We are so amazed and honored at the ways that Two Writing Teachers has brought together a whole community of educators looking connect with like-minded colleagues. We are thrilled every time an educator or another blogger shares or likes one of our posts. We have particularly been proud of the response we have received to our two blog series, one on Writing about Reading, and one on Independence, and the accompanying Twitter chats.


Although every post is different, what can readers of your blog expect each time they read an article on TWT?
It’s true that each article is different, and now with the new team, there is even more range in voice and topics. You might read an article by Betsy about creating found poetry in the primary grades, or an article by Tara about integrating technology in middle school writing workshops. However, there are several important commonalities in the articles we publish.

First, all articles stem from our collective belief in writing workshop principles. We believe in supporting independence, and choice, and in giving students plenty of time to practice writing in school with coaching from a teacher.

Next, in all of our articles, we strive to highlight practices that teachers can implement right away to lift the level of their students’ work. They might take the form of a list of tips, or a narrative describing one teacher’s process. Our hope is that after reading any article on our site, a teacher could take away an idea or two to try immediately.

A final commonality is our belief in teacher writing. Though not all of our articles are specifically about teachers doing their own writing, they all hold true to the principle that we are a community of writers in addition to being a community of writing teachers.


Who are your writing and/ or professional mentors? What blogs inspire you?


My professional mentors for writing are Nancie Atwell and Katie Wood Ray.  They are my go-to sources whenever I have a question or need support in the teaching of writing.

Personally, I adore the writing of Lois Lowry.  Her memoir Looking Back is beautifully written, and I reread it often.  I also love Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.  It is a must-read for anyone who fancies themselves a writer.

I follow several blogs to help support my passion for writing such as: Ralph Fletcher’s blog, The Writer’s Desk or Sunday Cummin’s blog, which is an excellent source for nonfiction mentor texts.  I must say, though, that the majority of my inspiration and ideas for writing come from reading the posts eachTuesday on the Two Writing Teacher’s call for Slice of Life Stories.  These offer a plethora of inspiration, craft moves, and structure ideas for me as a writer!


I always look to Lucy Calkins and professional mentor. I studied with her at Teachers College and respect her as one of the leaders in the field.

Since I moved to Pennsylvania, I’ve gotten to know Lynne Dorman and Rose Cappelli, who’ve become professional mentors. They know so much about children’s literature and teaching kids… and they’re incredibly nice people!

I’m constantly inspired by the writing the members of the Slice of Life Story Community. I look to them whenever I want writerly inspiration.


Lucy Calkins has been an mentor to me throughout my entire professional career, as a teacher and as a writer. I first met Lucy as a graduate student. On the first day of class, she passed around a crumpled piece of notebook paper and invited any of us who needed three more credits that semester to apply for an internship with her. I scribbled my name and email address on that paper and the rest is history. I’ve worked for Lucy for over a decade now as a staff developer, coauthor on books and materials, and she’s been my advisor and sponsor as I’ve moved (slowly, slowly) through the doctoral program at Teachers College. As for blog-inspiration…I’m inspired in some way by pretty much everything I read. I try to be a sponge for ideas. Lately, I’ve been sort of obsessed with the online magazine, Rookie, where the editor is Tavi Gevinson, a brilliant teenage girl, and most of her staff are teens or twenty-somethings. I am so impressed by their talent, and what they are doing to represent young women.


My mentors:
Nancie Atwell
Lucy Calkins
Mary Ehrenworth
Georgia Heard
Penny Kittle
Kylene Beers
Chris Lehman

Inspiring blogs:
Vicki Vinton – To Make A Prairie
Kate & Maggie Roberts – Indent
Mary Lee Hahn – A Year Of Reading
Chris Lehman – Christopher Lehman



My writing mentor is Geri Williams, a student of both Don Murray and Don Graves. Her guidance and advice over the years has nudged me to search for the best practice in writing instruction. 
Bogs that inspire? Linda Baie’s blog, Teacherdance, has such a variety of both educational and personal posts that are always inspiring. I also continue to be amazed at the consistency of relevant content at the Nerdy Book Club. Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp and all the contributors who tirelessly find the best reading material for children leaves me in awe.  


Like Stacey and Beth, I consider Lucy Calkins to be one of my most important writing mentors. I have learned to much writing for her, and with her. I know I would not be where I am in my writing career today were it not for my professional relationship with Lucy Calkins. 

I also admire so much the writing of Katherine and Randy Bomer, both their style and their refusal to budge from their core beliefs. I adore Georgia Heard and hope to be able to capture children’s voices like she does one day. I read Ralph Fletcher, Roy Peter Clark, and Annie Lamott to become a better writer. 

Vicki Vinton’s blog To Make a Prairie is stunning in its beauty and its message. Kate and Maggie Roberts’ blog Indent is powerfully written and spot-on. Each post brings me to laughter or tears. I love Kristi Mraz’s and Marjorie Martinelli’s voices in their blog Chartchums. How they manage to pack in so much useful content alongside hilarious anecdotes, both personal and from the classroom, amazes me. 


I know that you will be as inspired by these ladies as I have been, and I hope that you will take advantage of their wonderful work by visiting their site often.

Be sure to follow Two Writing Teachers via email so that you can have their posts delivered to your inbox each morning.



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Confessions of a Reformed Poetry Avoider (Part 2)


Since admitting to you in my last post that I had avoided teaching poetry in my classroom for many years, my students have been working on a new batch of poems just in time for Poetry Friday.  After reading William Carlos Williams’ poem This Is Just to Say, the boys and girls in my class fell in love with the false apology poem.


We started by making a list of the rotten things that we have done, but secretly felt no remorse for, in our writer’s notebooks.  After choosing a juicy idea, my students began creating webs of words and phrases that included why the offended party was upset, but also why the offending act was quite enjoyable.  As a teacher, it was wonderful to watch students giggling to themselves as they worked in their notebooks. Then, we took our ideas and began writing them into the four line stanzas used by Williams. This part proved to be tricky, as my fourth graders were tempted to write long sentences or phrases. In the end, I made a rule that no line could be more than four words (What, Mrs. Brittin??? We can’t do that!).  I modeled by writing several of my own; one from my point of view and one from the point of view of each of my three children.  Here is the one from my point of view.

This Is Just To Say
~Jennifer Brittin
I have
hidden zucchini
the brownies
and watched
you eat them
by bit
Forgive me
they’re healthy
and you’ll never
know the difference

As I circulated to confer, I noticed that one group of students seemed to be off task in the front of the room. Making my way up to their circle, I saw that one of them was actually rolling on the floor.

“What’s going on up here?” I asked, already summoning up my disappointed teacher speech.

“You just have to hear this poem, Mrs. Brittin! It is soooo funny!”

And it was.

They all were.







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Dear Me,


I’m joining with other educators across the country to participate in Talks With Teachers’ May Challenge. The theme of the month is reflection. Be sure to check out their website and download some of the great podcasts available.

Week One Challenge:

Watch this video.

Read this article.

Write yourself a letter for the first day of this past school year OR for the first day of your teaching career.


Dear  2002 Me,                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
You’re feeling a little nervous today and rightfully so. Even though you have some idea that what you are about to do is important, you have NO idea just how important your chosen vocation really is.  And, I hate to tell you that you might not figure that one out for a while.  
So, let me give you some advice that will help you see that sooner. 
First, I know that you want to do your best. You’re a go-getter, and you have good instincts. Unfortunately, your instincts won’t always be right.  How will you know?  You’ll listen.  You’ll listen to the people who have gone before you; the ones who have been there forever. But you will also need to find new voices.  Voices outside of your hallway, your building, your district and town. Find voices in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.  Sometimes those voices will oppose your well-intended ideas and thinking. Sometimes they’ll scare you, and you’ll want to turn them off. Don’t. Your instincts make you good.  But, surround yourself with people that will make you better. 
I’m sorry to say, that even though you thought you were done with statistics when you left college, you’re not.  Very soon you will realize that everything comes down to statistics.  Student data will potentially take over your life, causing you to break out in random cold sweats, start having nightmares each August, and sometimes make you regret your career decision.  In the coming years, even you will become a statistic, AND they’ll put your number in the newspaper for everyone to see. But WAIT! There’s good news. You should hear now that none of that really matters.  You should hear now that there are things worth worrying about at 11:30 pm, and things that are not.  When given a choice between worrying about how you’re going to get Johnny to pass the state test and how you’re going to get Johnny to see himself as a writer, choose the latter.  If you are going to worry about something, worry about how your students in poverty will find books to read this summer, not how you’ll meet your SGP or your SGO.  Numbers have a way of being important one day and insignificant the next. Remember this: your students aren’t numbers, and neither are you. 
There are so many little things I’d like to tell you. Things that will help you be a good classroom manager.  Things that your students will love or hate. Things that you should never say to a colleague or a parent or the custodian. But, you’ll learn all of those important lessons along the way.  So, let me finish by telling you the key to your success as a teacher. Yes, the key! It’s one word that will make or break you, and I want to tell you now, so you don’t spend too many years trying to figure it out. Relationships. Yep. It’s true. I know you’re rolling your eyes right now. You’re not a warm and fuzzy person, and you’re thinking that there is too much to be done in the day to worry about the warm and fuzzies.  You’re going to be a respected teacher almost right away, because you’re a hard worker. You’re going to plan good lessons that engage your students, and they will like your class. But something will be missing. You won’t know it right away, because everything will look right. But if you take my advice, and give this relationship thing a try with your students, they will really surprise you.  You will really surprise you.  
You see, I told you that listening to voices is really important. The most important voice you can listen to is the one that comes to your desk every morning just to chat.  The most important voice is the one that wants to tell you about a new cat, when you want to talk about geometry. Listen to the voice that tells you that the homework isn’t done again. Listen to the voice that says, “I can’t do it.”  Listen to the voice that says, “I don’t like to read.” And then, ask, “Why?”
Remember, I told you that numbers don’t matter? To many people, your students will be a number, and unfortunately, it will be all too easy for them to live down to everyone’s low expectations.  Don’t let them. Tell them they matter. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Know them, love them, affect them, and let them affect you. You’ll be a better teacher for it, and they’ll be better students. 
So, that’s it. I wish I could tell you that it won’t feel like work, you’ll always be appreciated for your efforts, and you’ll skip out to the parking lot every day at 3:40 pm. I’m so sorry, but it will feel like work, hard work, the kind of work that exhausts you. But most days, you will be a good tired, the kind that makes you fall asleep with a smile on your face.  You won’t be celebrated, your students won’t always love your carefully planned lessons, and some days you will run for your car at 3:38 (shhhh). 
But, one day, hopefully soon, you will see past all of that and realize that you have the most important job in the world. 
The me that is still learning

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Confessions of a Reformed Poetry Avoider (Part 1)

poetry 2

I love poetry. Love it.  I have Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg as bookends on my living room table. The teenager me kept a journal is full of collected poems: Maya and E.E. I memorized Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? and felt very proud of myself.

So no one found it more surprising than me that when I started teaching, I avoided poetry like the plague. I loved poetry, but I had no idea how I would go about teaching it, or, even scarier, get my students to write it.  I was sure of a few things when I thought about introducing poetry to my class. First, they would never get it.  I could just picture the cloudy expressions and kids whispering, “Whatttt?” And, boys. Forget about it. They would hate it; I just knew it. How could my fourth grade boys who were only interested in sports and video games possibly want to know how fog and little cat feet were a good comparison?

Fortunately, the online educational community I am a part of was saying just the opposite. As April neared, more and more Twitter chats were devoted to poetry (I had nothing to tweet). Post after post on my favorite blogs were success stories of poetry reading and writing (I was starting to feel left out).  And I started to realize that there should be a place for poetry in my classroom (Only took me 12 years).

It is now the first of May, and I am happy to report that our notebooks are bursting with poems and poem ideas. After reading and analyzing a few of my favorites, like To a Daughter Leaving Home and ones recommended to me on Twitter, like Foul Shot, we jumped into writing some of our own.

Our first big project was a pair of poems related to our shared reading. While reading Gorillas by Seymour Simon, students collected words and phrases about Silverbacks which they then arranged into free-verse poetry. After that, they did the same type of work while listening to our current read aloud The One and Only Ivan. I loved the idea of the contrasting poems side by side about wild Silverbacks and Ivan, a Silverback in captivity.  I would love to explore this pairing of nonfiction and narrative-inspired poetry more, possibly working it into my science or social studies centers.

Gorilla Poetry

Inspired by:

gorillas    ivan

I protect my family
I make decisions
I lead my pack
I live in strength at five and a half feet tall
My family trusts me
has faith in me
I will do whatever it takes
to protect
to love
to defend
my family
For I am the mighty silverback
Hear me ROAR
~ Julie
Stella’s gone
Ruby’s here
Projects progressing
More days going past
Water with no flow
Flowers with no scent
I am Ivan
The Ape at Exit 8
The horror on the billboard
is not me
Names I am called
just don’t fit
Ivan is the real me
~ Elizabeth

Following that project, we devoted our attention to writing friendship poetry. I shared a poem that I wrote for a friend on my blog, and decided to share it with my students as well. In my poem, I made comparisons between food and friends. I invited my students to think of topics they could use for the theme of their poems. Some students compared friends to elements in nature, while others wrote that friends were like books or even video games. This work proved to be a little trickier for some students, especially when I asked them to follow the format of my poem: three stanzas with five lines each.  In the end, I found that almost everyone wanted to share their friendship poems aloud, and many beamed with a pride I hadn’t seen all year during writing.  We share some of our poems below.


Good Friends


Good friends
are the sun and the sky
Always together
Having bad days
and good days
Good friends
are summer, fall, winter, and spring
All going together
One after the other
Like peas in a pod
Good friends 
are the scent of morning flowers
Filling the air with happiness
Warming the sky with love
and making the world better
~ Vienna
Good friends
are your favorite sport
that you always watch
on TV
Good friends
are your favorite food
that you always order
at a restaurant
Good friends
are your favorite candy
that you hope you get
on Halloween
~ Will
Good friends
are the books in the library
The ones you look for
The ones you buy
Good friends
are youtube videos
The ones you want to see
The ones you watch
over and over
Good friends 
are your cell phones
The ones that hold your secrets
and photos
The ones you treasure
~ Lizzy

Even though April is over and state assessments are looming, we are continuing our poetry reading and writing next week using William Carlos William’s This is Just to Say. I am excited to see what creative and funny false apology poems my students will compose, and I will be sharing more of our writing in an upcoming post.

A world of thanks to my colleague Renee who has been trying to reform my poetry avoidance for years. And to all of the wonderful teachers, poets, and bloggers who inspired me with your tweets, articles, and poetry: I thank you for leading me back to the words that I loved all along.


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