Monthly Archives: April 2015

Teachers Teach


This week the celebration is bittersweet. And thank you to Ruth Ayers, for your lovely blog that reminds me about the importance of celebrating.

The seven of us sat around on the deck, taking in the view. The wind whipped our hair, and we chatted easily. We ate, and laughed, and we raised our glasses to Michelle, and to each other. We were a little sad that it was coming to a close. But our sadness was tempered by our awareness that what we had been through together changed us as teachers and as people.


Michelle has been our guide through the past two years of a professional development journey provided to us by Cotsen. The Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching is an amazing program that has been the only exception that I have ever found to the rule my dad taught me: You don’t get something for nothing. In this case, you kind of do. No strings, no expectations to give back, or “gotchas”– nothing to prove or pay. But here is what we received:

1. Monthly inquiry meetings, with food, fellowship and an extended period of time in which we discussed and studied a subject of our choice.

2. Two to three Saturday conferences a year. We were taught by leaders and authors in our field, including Kathy Collins, Jennifer Serravallo, Ralph Fletcher, Smokey Daniels, Stephanie Harvey… and many, many more. We paid nothing, just showed up.


3. $1,000.00 per year, for two years, to spend as we like on professional development opportunities and books.

4. Five sub-days so we could head on out and see other teachers in action and attend weekday professional development opps.  (Unfortunately, LAUSD didn’t allow us to use most of these– that would be the subject of a very different post– but still, they were offered to us)

5. A mentor (a fellow teacher at our school whose salary is paid by Cotsen so they can step out of the classroom and mentor seven teachers for two years). The mentor is a co-learner and a fellow traveler. Michelle spent time in my classroom, and we met regularly to discuss how my self-chosen area of focus was developing. She offered me feedback when I asked for it, ideas for further study, and was an amazing partner as we talked about the professional books we read together.

makejustonechangeWhat’s not to love? The gratitude I feel for this opportunity is immense. I focused on reading instruction through small groups. I also learned a lot about fostering independence among my students, and the significance of the narrative children develop about themselves. My biggest take-away was this: Shut my mouth. Listen more, nudge more, smile more, let them be who they are. And then, armed with all of the information I gathered by listening and not talking, observing and not orchestrating, then move in and teach.

As we sat around yesterday afternoon, I think we were all filled with gratitude for each other too. The discussions we had during inquiries will stay with me forever. To be surrounded by professional, thoughtful, diverse, and insightful colleagues– it doesn’t get much better than that. And while I am sad it is officially over (although you are always a Cotsen fellow and get to attend Saturday conferences and other professional development opportunities forever), I am certain that we will continue to support each other. Onward. Thankful. Inspired.




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A Lot of Dashes

sliceoflifeA Slice of Life… thank you Two Writing Teachers for the space to write and share! You can read other slices there.


The other day I was telling my students about how much I love the dash. H– one of my most antsy students– made an astute observation that knocked me off of my chair for its immediate and clever insight. But first– THE DASH! It is my favorite punctuation mark. It does so many things– so many different things– yet it seems to be underappreciated. It is not a hyphen, it’s longer than a hyphen. And it is much more creative than the hyphen. Poor hyphen, relegated to open compounds, split words at the end of lines, and number words. But the dash– it gets to imitate commas, show pauses or interruptions, it even gets to go freestyle and do whatever the author wants it to do. Ha! it says, find that in a style guide!

Dashes love informational text. Or writers love dashes – whatever.

“At times in the writing I have imagined myself as a defense attorney making the case for the “low status” narratives enjoyed by boys– comics, jokes, media games, plot-driven fiction, sports tables.”


“I will also take a more generous view toward the visual media– TV, movies, computer games–  that children appropriate in their writing.”

In his book Misreading Masculinity, Thomas Newkirk often uses dashes instead of commas when showing apposition. He also uses them frequently as a sort of modified coordinating conjunction.

“I am arguing that the professional middle and upper-middle class, to which most teachers belong, sets up a hierarchy of cultural experience – and that TV watching is near the bottom of that hierarchy.”
When teaching my students how to navigate their way through informational text, understanding the various uses of the dash is vital. I find it useful to introduce after we have studied the various forms of sentences, so they can see how authors bend rules and change grammar to fit their purposes. But one of the things I love most about the dash is that it isn’t too technical for my students to grasp quickly. They sort of get it naturally.

Dashes are most fun to study in literature. Noticing it comes first, but it can be a useful window through which to understand a character more deeply.  In Rain, Reign, the main character Rose is talking to a shelter employee on the phone. She is trying to locate her lost dog. The person on the other end of the phone says,

“… so glad you have called, we have been trying to–”

and Rose hangs up the phone. My students were great at noticing that Rose had cut off the speaker. “She got interrupted, that is what the dash shows.” Yep. But what else can we learn? They looked at me. My third eye must have been showing. “No, I really want you to think about this! What else can we learn from this? Let’s pretend we are the shelter employee. What was she going to say?” Oh! That question led us to some possibilities and another few questions. It opened our eyes to what was probably going on at this point, and we hadn’t been able to see it, yet. But now we could. Just from one little dash.

It can be a lot of fun to study what the character was going to say…

“Hold your fire!” Barbara Jean screamed. “I’m already half buried, and the ghost is biting me right on my–

or, when Bobby was about to be unceremoniously dunked into the creek by the town bullies,

“Then a giant hee-haw went up. “Underwear?? Preacher’s kid wears underwear? Whooooeeey. Got lace on it? Git it off.” They sure weren’t wearing any underwear. I had to notice, because they were so tall I only came up to their– “

These gems are from Richard Peck’s A Season of Gifts, where we get to once again spend some time with the righteously funny Mrs. Dowdell from the earlier A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder. Granted, these passages are right on the edge, but what better way to grab our students and convince them that books are full of the kinds of adventures they want to have. The laughter is real. Almost forbidden. But not quite.

So when H and the class were talking about dashes and noticing the one that gave us the big insight in Rain, Reign, I brought up the idea that we could use them in our own writing. If we had a moment where we– or a character we were writing about– were interrupted, a dash could show our reader just that. H started wiggling in his chair and waving his hand around. I reminded him that when there was space for his voice he was welcome to talk, he didn’t need to raise his– “Mrs. Skubik! If someone one day writes the story of your teaching us, there will be a lot of dashes!”



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