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There are words to be written
and words to be read
there are times to forgive
and times to forget
there are lines that are seeping
right out of my soul
there are feelings and ragings
beyond my control
though I live to serve others
I don't serve myself
inside I've been taught 
to deliver, not melt
but this life bears scars
that haunt me at night
they have robbed me of love
they have robbed me of light.
Though change has arrived
I live with this ache
dreading and waiting
for something to break
It's the grip of the past
it's the grim that is left
it's the leftover torture
hardwired in my breast
don't look behind now
just look ahead
of that I am sure
but too easily said.
                  --Janiel Wagstaff   7/22

A New Year for Writing + The Promise of Collaborative Conversations with Students

    A New Year of writing, a new commitment. I plan to write every single day in 2020. I won't be posting much of that personal writing here...I keep thinking someday I will, but something holds me back.  However,  I do, finally, after 20 years, plan to finish my so called, "Oprah book" (so named since it would most certainly have been featured on Oprah's book club  :)), now named __________'s book to be featured on ________'s book club.  We'll see.  Like so many writers, I hope my experiences and thoughts can touch a wider audience--help someone somewhere deal with something or feel something they otherwise wouldn't have felt.
     I have so much to say about education, as well.  So much to say.  One of my biggest breakthroughs last year was within the realm of collaborative conversations with students. I posted some ditties on Facebook and Instagram, vowing to expound on these experiences, so I've done so below. I have been literally blown away by the level of deep thinking students can go to when given the chance to explore texts in open-ended ways, piggybacking off each other's comments, focused on reading texts with particular attention to their own wonderings and noticings.  To my surprise, students of all ages (I work with K-6) come up with impressive thoughts, that lead to more and more conversation--noticings or thoughts that hadn't even occurred to me after reading some of these books a dozen or more times.
     A few of the conversations I had right before winter break included the following observations: 
*Reading 'Ish' by Peter Reynolds: 
S:  I notice the use of color.  He uses blue backgrounds to show sadness and yellow backgrounds for happiness. 
 Huh!  He was right.  I hadn't ever noticed that before and  I've used the book in workshops on teaching writing for at least a decade.  This thought led a different student to notice how many of the pictures are circular in nature, indicating the sort of infinite nature of the ideas being portrayed.  Wow--and these are just two notions I can recall off the top of my head. 
*Reading 'The Most Magnificent Thing' by Ashley Spires:
S: I notice how everything in the picture is black and white except the living things.
Another S:  That's not quite right, see how the stuff she is going to use to create her invention is in color?
Me: Huh.  I wonder why that would be?  I thought the same thing about the use of color--the living things seem to be the only things depicted in color.
Another S:  I think the parts for the invention are living.  She (the main character) will be using them to create the most magnificent thing so they are growing and changing.
S: I notice the author gave us a hint about what she would be creating.  It's in the illustrations. (Note: Readers don't find out what 'the most magnificent thing' being created is until the very last page in the book).
Me:  Tell us more.  Where?
S: The picture where the dog is worn out and panting and the girl is still calling him to come run with her as she rides her scooter.  Right there!  That's when she realizes if she makes a sidecar, the dog can come along even if it is worn out.
Another S:  That's called 'foreshadowing.'
Another S:  I didn't know author/illustrators foreshadowed in pictures.
Later, another S: Growth mindset is obvious in so many ways.  I love this!  I need to remember this!
Me: I just had a thought based on yours.  I think the growth mindset theme in this text is particularly useful to you young students because, look at the age of the character.  She is a young girl. And, look at her gloriously grand plans--to make a sidecar for her dog!  Nothing is going to stop her.  Ha, I'd have no idea where to even start.  But, she has done several things like this before as it says in the text and she...
S interrupts:  She plans her thinking on paper like you are always trying to tell us to do.  She drew and jotted notes before she started.  This is what helped her begin and then her growth mindset kept her going through all of her failures.

I could go on.  These are just a few of the thoughts I remember. I do know this...kids are amazing.  Having students read books and respond in static, lifeless ways is just a sad way to go about business.  Practices like worksheets and filling out tri-folds about every single aspect of every single chapter including all the text evidence for blah blah blah and all the vocabulary words (define and use in a sentence)...UGH.  I just hate to see this happening to students when we can be doing things that are so much richer, so much more revealing of their thinking, and so much more motivating.
   I bring this up because I am seeing this happen to my sixth grade son. He is so turned off to reading at this point, he hardly wants to read outside of school and he complains about the reading done in school.  If you've followed my blog, you've seen how, over the years, I've celebrated his huge reading appetite as I've highlighted strategies that motivate all readers.  I don't blame him for his waning interest.  I wouldn't want to fill out a tri-fold for every page I read, either.  Would you?  Teachers say, "I have to have something to grade."  Why not grade students' notes from collaborative conversations?  A simple rubric could be used as a guide and teachers could share models of notes that show deep thinking and effort -vs- those that do not (they could show their own notes, use notes from pervious year's students, or use notes from another teacher's class with names removed, of course.)
   Signing off for now.  Thank you for reading.  As always, I love to hear your comments.
Be well and write on!  Again, Happy New Year!


The Power of Personal Writing--Do You Make Time for it In Your Classroom?

                   *(I'll share below why I included this quote.)
     I wanted to take just a moment to write about the power of personal writing.  I don't see enough time for this type of writing being put aside in our classrooms K-12.  Yet, giving students this time to explore and figure out the power that personal writing might have in their lives can be truly life-changing.
     All good teachers think a lot about the life-changing experiences we share with our students.  We know the power of reading for both personal and academic reasons.  We know the power of academic writing and writing in general as students make their way into the world.  But, do we realize the power of personal writing and how impactful it can be?  Do we take "time out" of the traditional curriculum to allow students to explore their thoughts and feelings on paper?  I know, I know, we are all in a massive time crunch every day.  But, if we don't help students with their social and emotional growth; if they don't grow up to be successful adults in that realm, beyond the academic, what good has all of our teaching been? 
     We have an epidemic of anxiety and depression among our young people.  We have students taking their own lives.  I believe we ARE giving more time to mental health and to mindfulness in educational settings.  I wish we would include personal writing as a kind of meditation, as well. 
     I've been divorced multiple times.  I've had a lot of trauma that isn't fun to talk about.  I continue to struggle with my past, my present, the way the world is, hearing some of the sad stories of my students' lives, and even talking about any of this because there is so much more trauma, so much more disaster and ruin in the world.  I often think, what right do I have to share my struggle when others are struggling so much more?
     In the end, though, my struggle has led me to know the power of personal writing.  It was a junior high school teacher who really started me along the path.  She had us do what would be considered nowadays 'frivolous writing,' like writing down the lyrics to a song that was meaningful to us, composing stories just for fun and exploring free verse poetry.  We kept a portfolio of our work.  She responded so positively to what I'd shared--she responded to my content, to my thoughts and feelings.  I treasured that construction paper piece folded in half; that tattered  'writing portfolio.'  I treasured her comments.  I don't believe any of it was shared at parent conferences and yes, it may have been used for a grade--I simply don't remember.  I DO remember how she made me feel--like my thoughts and feelings mattered and that I was a writer with some skill.  I don't remember writing anything personal after that--I believe that occurred in 7th grade.  I DO remember writing essays and more essays.  All the essay writing certainly improved my ability to communicate and to write and to make my mark in the academic world.  However, it's the personal writing that has saved me all these years. 
     I think I mentioned in my last post that I've been writing poetry since my early 20s.  This all started due to a fledgling and quickly failing marriage.  I found if I sat down with a notebook, pencil in hand, and just waited quietly, my feelings would start to flood the page.  The feelings took the form of poetry.  After writing, I was tired, but satisfied.  My feelings were out--right there on the paper--concrete.  I could see them, touch them, revisit them, re-examine them, if I chose to do so.  My mind felt relief.  My spirit calmed down. 
     In times of severe trouble, I stopped writing.  Couldn't bring myself to get the notebook out and stare down at the empty page.  Yet, research shows that simple journal writing can help people who are feeling depressed or who have other mental health or emotional issues.  I knew this fact then.  Sometimes the place is too dark and the lights turn off on the writing, as well. 
     Funny I'm writing this because due to my last two years of chronic pain from a car accident (described in my last post,) I hadn't been writing much until recently.  Same story, different trauma.  So much pain, I turned away from the writing.  Suddenly, though, it all comes back to me every time, like a close friend who's been out of the country on extended leave.  I realize I'm doing myself (and my family) a disservice by NOT writing, and I pick up the pen again.  And, I'm always happy when I do.
     One of my school missions this year is to engage students in more informal writing across the curriculum.  That is, writing that is thinking on paper.  Just like engineers work out problems with pencil in hand, just like inventors do, scientists do, mathematicians do.  These thoughts conjure up images from the films 'Hidden Figures,' 'Apollo 13' and 'Good Will Hunting.'  These are the kinds of writings I'm referring to: when one struggles to find answers by puzzling things through on the page (or, in these cases, on the chalkboard).  Research shows our brains hyper-focus when we write.  This allows for the generative process to happen.  One thought leads to another, then another.  More questions and clarifications surface as we work ideas on paper.  There is HUGE power in this. When I engage in this form of writing, I always discover things I didn't know were there or answers to problems I'm struggling with.  This is another type of writing that is truly impactful.
Photo attribution: https://www.greensboro.com/blogs/allen-johnson-more-hidden-figures-connections-to-greensboro-revealed/article_1c705a4e-758b-5e8f-b576-f07e38f3a7e5.html  (Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson in the movie Hidden Figures)

Photo attribution:  https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/01/hidden-figures-and-the-appeal-of-math-in-an-age-of-inequality/513434/   Hidden Figures, Twentieth Century Fox

Photo Attribution: https://infowetrust.com/hollywood-dataviz/  Movie:  Apollo 13

Photo attribution: HuffPost UK  Movie: Good Will Hunting


      But, I digress from my main focus here--personal writing--leaving the curriculum behind, honoring time for students to address their personal needs on paper.  I'm sure personal writing doesn't appeal to everyone, but in our classrooms, if we devote time to it then allow students time to share with us and/or their peers, if they choose, we will discover many students will find the process helpful and, indeed, therapeutic.  I have no doubt of that. 
     I had a second grade student way back near the beginning of my career that had a baby sister who was dying of cancer.  I gave my students time to write personal stories and poems and this little girl found huge relief in writing about her sister, the family trips to the hospital, the confusion, the not knowing.  She even wrote and published a non-fiction book she titled: "My Baby Sister Has Cancer." Though the baby received treatment, she died during that school year.  I will never forget how this child's parents came to me at the end of the year to thank me.  They said, "Chandra** is dealing better with this tragedy than anyone else in the family (they had five other children ranging in ages).  We know it's because of all the writing she's been doing.  We owe that to you."  That hit me hard, and it has stayed with me since, affecting how I've fashioned my classroom schedule in my thirty years of teaching.  The experience spoke to me on another personal level, because I was already struggling in my marriage and writing up a storm to find some relief. 
     I wish more writers, regular everyday people, would come forward with their personal stories of how writing has helped them cope throughout their lives.  I wish, too, more teachers would explore this use of time, for what could be more important than imparting skills to students to help them successfully navigate this tumultuous world?
   I'll end with a personal poem (this one is about 16 years old--I looked for something current, but I simply can't bring myself to post one of those here--still too hard--this type of vulnerability on my blog or in public anywhere is new to me).   Thanks for reading. 

*The Einstein quote--though this is not a true application of the quote, when I read it this morning, it reminded me of how I sit in silence with my notebook and all the thoughts come.  It's like taking that simple silent pause from our busy world to meditate--to come to new understandings and to find some peace.  Personal writing, silent, in my room--has the same affect.
**This is a pseudonym, of course.
Your smile
carries me, cradles me
Your laugh
slays me
lays me flat.
I laugh beside you
like we used to.
I long for now.
You are in a better place,
so am I.
What holds you back?
Us, under the sparkling sky
with the moon just right?
What holds you back
from this raw
this rare
this bond we share?
What ties your lips,
your tongue,
your hands?
I want to understand.
Instead, you go numb
silence your tongue
get in your car
and drive away.
I’m withered,
and left with questions
I won’t voice.
Throat lumps.
Heart thumps.
You’re gone again.

Afire with Poetry

Hello friends!
I am so sorry for my absence.  I was rear-ended in September 2017, suffering major injuries to my back and neck.  It has been a long road to recovery, but I feel I am finally getting there.  

I hope to post more regularly again.  It all depends on my pain level.  As some of you know, I am also a single mom who teaches full-time, so I often come home from work without enough reserves to take care of my child in the manner I would like.  So, the blog and all the other social media have slipped into the background.

Lately, my brain has been afire with poetry.  I can't stop writing  poems down, they just keep spilling out.  I've been writing poetry since my early twenties due to some traumatic experiences in my life.  I found the writing was therapy.  I found I could put my pencil to the page and come up with astonishing things, some beautiful, some ugly, that I didn't even know were in my head.  When I finish, I am often surprised when I reread what I've written.  And, it is the BEST feeling--so hard to describe--like I'm letting my mind slowly (or furiously) unfold all kinds of intricate layers I didn't realize existed. It really is a feeling of freedom and of relaxation--once it's on the page, I can let go.  I am often quite exhausted afterwards, especially if I write several at a time. 

In my workshops, I always say, "writing is generative."  The above describes a bit of what I mean.  When we let students write, across the curriculum, in all subjects, and for personal reasons, we are inviting them to not only own new information in a personal way, but also to discover their questions, their inner thoughts that, for many, don't unveil themselves without putting the pen to paper.

I wrote a Facebook post the other day and ended it with this hashtag: #yourlifeliesinyournotebook.  I instantly loved it!  I truly believe in the power writing holds to change lives, to unveil our own lives to us.

I have many stories of how I've witnessed this with writers--even as young as first grade.  I shall take some time to write them down and share.  But, I'm in a rush to get to a school meeting.  I'm back to work full-time.

One last word, I rarely, rarely share my personal poems with anyone.  I have hundreds since I've been writing them for over 30 years.  They are scattered about my house, in this notebook and that notebook, in sealed boxes never again opened from moves across the country, inside closets, inside cupboards.  I was hoping to find time this summer to search some of these notebooks out, to record the poems on my computer so I'd have them rediscovered and actually together in a place I can find.  Haven't done that yet. ;)

Maybe I'll take a risk and share some poetry here.  If you know my work, you know I've already published books of poetry for children.  But, personal writing, writing that comes from the gut, has been safely locked away...for my eyes only.  

In fact, here's one I quickly wrote this morning (not personal, so easy to share).  Still in draft form.  Still needs work...

POEM!                                        8/1/19

I tell my head



There is not another poem there


ready to spring

ready to strike

like a tiger

holding back all its instincts

waiting to jump

with all its tenacity

with all its force

waiting for the words

to explode

out of my head


onto the page.


I don’t have another poem in my head.

Much love to you and for all you do for writers, including yourself!

All I Really Need Is...Ten Non-Negotiables To Guide My Literacy Instruction

All I Really Need Is...Ten Non-negotiables To Guide My Literacy Instruction a blog post by Janiel Wagstaff
  I can't believe I haven't posted here all summer, but...I've been in the middle of moving from my Title I school, the place I've been for 10 years, to my newly assigned school.  As you can see from the mayhem in the photo above, I have a lot of teacher STUFF.  I keep asking myself, why?  Why can't I just trust my own brain, and 30 years teaching experience, and leave some of the stuff behind? I'm not worried about moving the picture books (I have gazillions), chapter books, professional books and hands-on materials.  It's all the 'papers' that get me.  Papers, papers, papers!  Papers of every lesson I've ever concocted (since I like to think things out on paper), thoughts I've had about literacy, handouts from conferences and meetings, copies of journal articles and articles from the internet...this endless sea of tattered white sheets that should all be filed away neatly.  Oh, and the files!  I actively use many of them, and I don't have an issue with those, but it's the others that are bulging with the best strategies and lessons EVER that I haven't touched in 5 years.    
     I know people will say I should be more digital (I am of the age at which saving these 'essentials' on a device and needing paper copies still feels most comfortable), but here I am.  In the midst of it all, I ask myself, after 30 years of teaching and immersing myself in literacy instruction, why can't I trust that all I really need is in my head and I can confidently enter any school without all this clutter?  I can imagine how freeing to walk away with much less and walk in much lighter, ready to problem-solve with the teachers and students that are right in front of me at that moment.  
     As I've packed in the 90 degree heat (of course, no air conditioning in a public school in the summer), I've spent time thinking about this.  All I really need is...?  What?  What do I know that are the non-negotiable practices, the ones I absolutely believe in and know by heart?  The ones that will give my students the most success? What better way to soothe the anxious mind than to write them down.

I know:
  1) Students need to read, write, speak & converse, and listen across the curriculum.  Literacy is always on the menu.
  2) The work must be meaningful and relevant.  Why are my learners engaging in this process?  What does it buy them in their world? Work that is purposeful is automatically engaging.
  3) Students need choice and voice--lots of it!  Empower your learners and they will surprise you.
  4) The foundational skills of literacy must be explicitly taught and the majority of our time should be spent applying our learning in real reading and writing contexts.
   5) Gradual release of responsibility within a balanced literacy framework is key.  Students need my explicit modeling, and to learn from each other. (The more students lead the learning the better--their models capture the attention of their peers.)  We need to puzzle through a lot of the work together.  But, students also need plenty of time to read, write, and think independently.
  6) I am a co-learner in a collaborative, student-centered classroom.  Relationships are key.
  7) Supports and meaningful references in the classroom (like Word Walls and anchor charts) are helpful scaffolds if they are co-created with students and used consistently in modeled, shared, guided, interactive, and independent experiences.  
  8) Feedback is HUGE, both the feedback I give and get from students, along with the feedback they give each other.
  9) Formatively assess--all day, all the time, and guide instruction accordingly (hold small groups, meet with individuals, whatever is needed to make learning happen).
 10) Ongoing student self-assessment and goal setting makes learning more impactful.

     There are 10 things (the number was not planned, by the way)--10 non-negotiables--I'd hang my hat on any day.  I DO feel better now that I've written them down.  I can further examine and tweak my list.  I welcome your feedback to assist me as I refine.  I figure with this taped in the front of my teacher planner, I am headed in the right direction whether I have this resource or that one, whether I can find this file or that one, and whether or not I throw out reams of these papers I'm holding onto that are simply cluttering my space.  Oh yes, clarity is a good thing.  Wish me luck as I move!

Here's to a happy and successful 2018-2019 school year!

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