Wednesday, February 17, 2010



Tom Newkirk used to talk about the Heinemann classroom. You know, one of those classrooms where all of the students gaze in rapt attention as the teacher delivers a flawless minilesson (and no one picks the gravel out of the bottom of their tennis shoes or has flatulence issues). And then those same students leave the meeting area, open their beautifully decorated writers' notebooks (no one's notebook ever disappears or has pages glued together), pick up their previously sharpened pencils (which never break within the first 30 seconds of quiet writing time) and write masterly, carefully crafted pieces, which they then share with well-trained conference partners who deliver brilliant advice which leads to still more wonderful published pieces.

I have a confession to make. I am so NOT the Heinemann teacher. I so DO NOT have a Heinemann classroom. Take last Wednesday, for instance. I am in a second/third grade grade ELA-E/ELA-S classroom (a room where students whose first language is Spanish speaking are transitioning into English). My state says that if ELL kids have been enrolled in schools in the United States for three or more years, they have to receive most of their instruction in English and they have to take the state reading and writing tests in English. And so now, a week before the writing test, we are doing our best to prepare them.

Today's prompt, "Everyone has things they like to do. Describe one of your favorite activities and tell why it is your favorite." I believe kids need to talk before they write, so we spend time talking about our favorite activities-- I tell the kids I love walking my dogs in the park. We talk about sports- baseball, soccer, football and basketball. We talk about games (mostly video) and craft activities. We talk about things kids do with their families- swimming, camping, picnics. After a few minutes of conversation, I think we are almost ready to write. I draw a large four square planner on chart paper, model my thinking, then send the eight and nine-year-olds off to plan and write. Sounds pretty Heinemann-ish so far, right?

Actually, midway through the mini-lesson, X started to get very teary and now he is in full scale crying mode. I sit down next to him on the rug and ask what's wrong. Sick? Worried? Someone hurt his feelings? X cries harder. "I just want to go home," he wails. "I just want to go to bed." X lays down on the rug, curls up in something akin to the fetal position, pulls his hoodie over his head, and continues to weep softly. I am not quite clear on what is wrong, and I don't know how to fix it, so I sit next to him and rub his back.

In the meantime, E announces that he has lost his notebook, and several students engage in a mad search (there really are classrooms where someone's writer's notebook doesn't get lost every day?). Eventually the lost notebook is found under E's chair and most of the other kids settle in and begin to write. A small crowd of X's friends, though, are concerned that X is unhappy and they bring their notebooks to the rug and formed a kind of circle around X. Usually I'm pretty strict about the first 2o minutes of writing being at your seat, but today, I let it go.

R, one of my friends from a second grade intervention group, is X's good friend, and sits right beside him. R wants to write about playing baseball. He is on a team, he tells me. "What's the name of that team?" he asks me. "You know," he says, "the ones with the red and white shirts. They start with kuh." I actually don't know much about the baseball teams in the area, although I might be able to play "Name That Team" if we were talking about football. X raises his head slightly. "It's the Cavaliers," he says. "We play on the Cavaliers."

L, another second grade friend, appears at my left shoulder. "I want to write about explosions," he declares. "You know, the ones where the red and blue stuff bubbles. They do it in Mr. M's class," he says, pointing toward the fifth grade room next door.

I don't know much about the red and blue explosions in Mr. M's class either. "You mean the science experiments," I say.

L is a little irritated with me. "You know," he says. "Like this…" He begins to sketch. First he draws something that looks like a beaker.

"Science experiments?" I repeat. "You mean you like to do science experiments."

"No," says L. "Like this." He uses his eraser to scrub out the beaker-ish thing, then draws what looks like a test tube and someone in a lab coat.

"You mean you like science club?" I ask. L does not look totally convinced, but evidently decides that that is as good as it's going to get. He scrubs out the picture of the scientist-looking person and goes back to his seat.

R is still writing about baseball. "And I did it four times," he says proudly. "You hit the ball four times?" I ask.

"No," says R. "I catched it."

"You caught the ball four times?"

"Yeah, I catched it," says R. X pokes his head up again. "Does that say favorite?" he says, pointing to a word on R's paper where the spelling is a little questionable.

L, still trying to figure out his plan for science experiments as his favorite activity, is back at my shoulder. "What else can I say?" he says. I try to remember what science experiments they have done this year. "Butterflies?" I say. "Did you like watching the butterflies grow? Or how about dissecting the pigs' eyes in science club?"

L looks a little unsure. "How about I just write that I like learning about eagles?" he says and heads back to his desk (I SWEAR most days there is not this much activity during quiet writing time!)

I turn back to R, who is trying to help his friend G with English spelling. "You know," he says, "an e, one of these." He forms an i in the air in between them. E is the name of the letter i in Spanish, and the information appears to be helpful to G. I try not to think about every grad school class I have ever taken- children are supposed to work in one language or the other-- they are not supposed to code switch. "Do you know how to spell brother?" G asks me.

L comes back again. "Do you know about Michael Jackson?" he asks.

Michael Jackson??? What happened to the explosions with the red and blue water and learning about eagles? I glance over at his paper and see that he has totally changed his plan and is now writing about Michael Jackson.

"Do you know about Michael Jackson's dances?" he asks.

"A little. I know the moonwalk." Evidently, so does A, because he jumps up from where he has been sitting next to X and proceeds to demonstrate.

"No that's not the one I mean," says L. He stands on one foot and uses the other to make a scissor motion across his shin, in a move that looks vaguely like someone trying to itch a mosquito bite on a hot summer evening. Much to L's annoyance, I don't know the name of that dance either.

"You could say you like to do his dance steps," I suggest. L gives up on me and goes away.

"So do you know how to spell brother?" G asks again.

Mrs. S. catches my eye. "Carol, we have to end. I have a bunch of stuff to pass out today." I look up at the clock and it's 3:30. The kids leave in ten minutes so share time will have to wait until tomorrow.

Someday, I would like to visit one of those Heinemann classrooms. The rooms where I teach are so far removed…


Unknown said...

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breannep said...

I don't have a heinemann classroom matter how hard I try.

Someone's writer's notebook usually is found in someone else's desk..and that would be a good day.

I feel your pain with standardized tests. They take all the joy out of teaching.

Katie Dicesare said...

Ok...I love this post.

Arden said...

Carol, you have always been my hero. It is comforting to know we are still struggling with the same issues!

Carol said...

Hi Arden,
I'm hoping that you are the Arden that I taught with at Boston Primary School, but I couldn't access your profile. If so, feel free to email me at

Beth S. said...

I try really hard to have a Heinemann classroom (especially since my uncle is a Heinemann author) but I understand your point. It's frustrating to read these inspiring books and rarely come across these teachers' frustrating, non-compliant students. Every year I have a group of students who I'd love to just give them to Nancie Atwell and say, "Here, make them read and write. I dare you."

Stella said...

Sounds like the real deal Carol! That's life in the classroom, unpredictable for sure!