Monthly Archives: July 2014





YEAH FOR ME! This past week  found me sitting in a room at the Huntington Library and Gardens . Why celebrate that you ask? Easy! I have been participating in an institute teaching fourth and fifth grade teachers about how to access and use primary source documents in their classrooms. In addition, we are being slathered with generous history lectures from professors and graduate students (along with the books they have written) at UCIrvine, USC, UCRiverside and UCLA. I feel like a kid in a candy store. And I am getting paid. And fed. The only thing I do not celebrate is the commute. Traffic wipes me out and distracts me and stresses me.

However, it is worth it. I have learned a lot, and next week I return to start planning units and lessons with my colleagues. We will learn a little more too. I have already learned so much- and have had revolutionary discoveries and corrections of what I thought I knew about California history. I have seen some artifacts and documents that are pretty cool – in a nerdy history sort of way. Mostly, I have been struck by two things:


1) I have spent a ton of time developing my knowledge of how to teach reading and writing. My study and reading and professional development has been all about that. That is all good, and I am thankful yada yada yada… and of course I have more to learn. But it feels really good to be a learner about something else other than pedagogy and how-children-learn theories. It has felt REALLY good. It is interesting and fulfilling, but also important to stay in touch with how I learn, what it demands of me, and how I feel about the challenging parts. Just like writing helps me teach writing, reading helps me be a better teacher of reading, LEARNING helps me be better in touch with the demands I place on my students when I ask them to do that, sometimes all day long.


2) The second big aha has been about the parallel literacy skills required by primary source documents and the acts of reading and writing. Here are the big three for me, so far.


First, when you enter a primary source document for the first time, you are thrust into a world that is brand new to you. You don’t know much, and you have to be open to absorbing the new information coming your way as you read it closely – observing details and mining the document for clues about what is going on. Just like when you enter a chapter book or short story for the first time!

Second, as you begin to study a primary source, you develop a theory about what you are seeing and you form this theory based on evidence you have collected. Then as you study it more, and perhaps a teacher or historical source gives you additional information, you either confirm what you first thought or revise your theory about what you are seeing. Just like you revise and/or confirm your theories about characters in stories or ideas in informational texts!

And lastly, when you enter a document, you have to hold onto uncertainty. It is not clear what is going on at first, and it may never be entirely clear. The mystery is solved with evidence that makes things clear or evidence that opens up the need for interpretation. Either way, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty and holding on to theories, constantly weighing new information against what is known. Just like in a chapter book or short stories- where authors don’t always wrap things up with a neat bow, and  frequently include mystery and detours to keep us discovering.


I celebrate my aha moment of seeing these parallel literacy skills, because I believe it will be another way to help reluctant readers practice these thinking skills in ways that may be more engaging and exciting than texts are to them at first. Then my work will be to help them transfer those skills to reading texts.



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Steep Climbs



Yesterday my husband and I went on one of our favorite hikes– it’s in an oceanside nature preserve not far from our home. It is known for its amazing views, well-marked trails and fairly easy terrain. Except for the stairmaster. That is not easy. It is killer. It’s straight up with ginormous steps because of erosion, and it seems to go on forever although it is actually pretty short.

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At the bottom he begins his rocket-like ascent and I say, “See you at the top!” This used to make me angry, and I used to huff and puff and say, “Why do you even bother to walk with me? If we are walking together, we stick together.”

He would explain how much he hates hills, and does anything to make them go away faster. Thus the sprint. He remembers doing the same thing on his bike in road races– leaving riders in his dust on long hills when everyone was tired. He would find strength to kick it and be finished with it sooner. And so he does, each time. I take it easy, stop and breathe and wish my thighs would stop burning, and sometimes I curse my laziness and feel grumpy that I can’t make it up faster.

When I arrive at the top, gasping for air, he always asks if I need a minute. “Nope, let’s go!” And we head off. I love that feeling of being winded but not too tired to keep going. My breathing slides back to less-gaspy after about 30 seconds and we enjoy the views. Yesterday it was cloudy and gray, without much to see. So we focused on walking as fast as we could.


“Hey, we are almost at your favorite part– the part where you kick in the power and start moving.” We were nearing the last leg of the hike. I realized he was right, this was the part where I found energy I didn’t know I had. I loved the smooth and level trails here. It required focus only for speed and power, no fancy footwork.


It made me stop and think about how much this is like my life. I avoid steep climbs, I take them slowly, a bit resentfully. But I love a straightaway- where I know what to do. I love doing that. But climbs are everywhere, hills abound, and taking them on is a part of life. I thought about what my hills were. Getting in shape- seriously. Letting go of my eighteen year old, not just a little but a lot – like she is asking for. Okay, those are personal.

What about my teaching life? What are my hills?

1. Staying on top of my game. That is one for sure, always more to learn, always more to read about, always more to try.

2. Keep what works. Don’t be distracted by shiny things.

3. Embrace technology in meaningful ways (see #2) that enhance student learning.

That number three is a tough one. I definitely slow down on that hill. There is way too much to learn, way too many gadgets to master. Easy to give up in the face of very little technical support. I don’t want to spend hours after school doing the maintenance and trouble shooting that comes with bring technology into my classroom. And then I wonder, is it wrong to slow down and gasp for air? Take some time moving up the hill? Too much time and the app has changed, the device is obsolete, the cable no longer works. But a little time – especially to ensure that the tool hasn’t taken away the meaning of the activity or the process – that seems like a good thing.

That hill is not going away. I can’t pretend to be the kind of climber that sprints up it to get it over with faster. But I can attack it bit by bit. And then I will still have some energy left to kick in on the long paths: the labor part of teaching that requires patience, faith, and stamina with a capital S.

See you at the top!


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