Category: literacy

Day 1 Slice of Life Challenge


Full Disclosure: I love a good challenge and I love to abandon these challenges with just as much vigor as I began. Who knows what this Slice of Life Story Challenge 21 will hold for me. Will this be the first time EVER that I’ve actually completed a challenge? Or will it be tossed to the side in the pile of the ever growing, ever-abandoned other challenges? I cannot yet answer this question, but I can say that I am beginning this challenge with the hope for consistency and with an actual purpose! There’s reason for this madness and it is not simply so I can post on social media that I, Krista McGowan, the queen of not completing things, have finally completed a challenge. I also cannot say that this challenge is for me to become a better writing teacher, practicing what I preach. But really, this is all for me…

A notebook, pen, and a rock alongside the lake. From an early age, I would meander through the woods until I found the perfect spot, overlooking the perfect piece of scenery to write down some imperfect thoughts. I was never one to write the goings on of my days, it was more of a contemplation of life. These were also the days where I plunged into the worlds of “dead British authors” and felt as if there was nothing more romantic than Jane Eyre finding her Mr. Rochester. As I grew older I turned my attention to Carrie Bradshaw and her tight sisterhood navigating through the craziness of New York City in high heels.

This habit has somehow dissipated through the years. I can blame the Beijing drabness, or my two needy wee ones, but the reality is, it’s all me; I’m the one to blame. Like so many others, I have become comfortable with the day to day routine, the constant focus on my two daughters, and other people’s sons and daughters, as well as my husband, and have made little time thinking about and then exploring the things that have actually been all about me and no one else. In this crazy world of go, go, go and do, do, do, I’ve lost sight of myself. And so, this 31 day challenge is about me reconnecting with me.

I’m no longer that young, naive girl who felt as if Jane Eyre was the perfect heroine; or the selfish 20-30 something who craved days in NYC with a Cosmo and late nights with friends. I’m something else entirely and I’d love to spend some time with that person. I’m that person whose idea of a great night is a book and bed by 8:30. Whose high heels have been tossed aside for much more comfortable foot attire, and who desperately needs to get back into a daily habit of writing and finding more moments of calm. And so, I am committed to this 31 day challenge. Who knows where it will lead, or if I will even finish. But today, for now, I am optimistic and excited.

This post is a part of the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge. After a few years away, I am challenging myself to write every day in March this year, along with an amazing community of other bloggers. You can find our writing linked up on the Two Writing Teachers blog.

4 Weeks in A Smattering of Images and 6-word Memoirs

To launch our new unit, we wanted students to think about what they had been experiencing over the past four weeks. For most of us, we were excited about heading off to Chinese New Year break, anxious to go on holiday to visit family, sleep in, or travel to new places. I remember the smiles and energy on the last Wednesday of break. It was virtually impossible to get the students to engage in conversation as they were amped up on sweets and excitement. I suppose I was too as I was getting ready to meet my ILCC cohort buddies in Muscat, Oman. I had visions of camel riding, date-eating, and good times ahead.

As news of COVID-19 (simply called Wuhan Coronavirus at the time) began to spread, there was anxiousness and anticipation that perhaps holiday could be extended and we would not return to school. Initially, this seemed like a great idea and in thinking about how we could begin this project, wanted to capitalize on the fun and excitement our students had prior to discussing what the hear-and-now looked like. Hence the idea of a good, ole fashion collage. Who doesn’t like collages? They’re colorful, engaging, fun, AND allow each person to tell his/her/their own story.

At first, the students responded with a lot of questions: “Can my collage be this?”, “Can I do my collage by hand”, “Do I have to include today or can it just be my break?” on and on the questions were asked and I responded: “Whatever you think best tells your story.”

Along with the idea of collages, we also brought in 6-word memoirs. The idea was for students to whittle their days down to six meager words that would end up being crazy powerful in the end. Most students talked of their struggles with the situation and almost all voiced their frustration. The 6-word memoirs were also unique and as different as can be. Some students shared the many places they had moved over the past 4 weeks, while others shared that they hadn’t left the walls of their apartment. The collages and memoirs ended up being an added bonus: I was able to very quickly and obviously tell how my students were coping with this time. I reached out to many students I was concerned about and had the counselor reach out to others. I gained a new appreciation for what my students had been experiencing throughout this time.

6-word memoirs:

  • “E-learning and food, the main stuff”
  • “Masks everywhere. Extra safety precautions. Stuck.”
  • “I want normal life. DIE VIRUS”
  • “Caged in silence. Street’s asleep… When?”
  • “Same Day, Same Week, Same Month.”
  • “Disaster is just around the corner.”
  • “First trapped, now safe but chilly.”
  • “everyday the same, every day repetitive”
  • “In and out of the pool”
  • “Elearning has taken over my life.”



An Unexpected Opportunity: COVID-19

I’ve been meaning to blog for quite some time throughout the past 5 weeks, but then when I sit down to do so, I have nothing to say. We are now 5 weeks into the COVID-19 epidemic in Beijing and 4 solid weeks of e-learning. At first, my team attempted to carry on with business as usual in the thinking that we would be back to school shortly; however, that has not proven to be the case.

We began hitting our Ancient Civilization unit hard. With each new lesson recorded via Zoom, I felt as if I was becoming less and less attached to the curriculum, to school, to my students. It felt like Ancient Sumer (while normally quite exciting for me) was irrelevant. I became a bit apathetic and spent less and less time thinking about the actual lessons and more about the virus and how it has impacted, not only students, but my children as well. I watched my daughters struggle through full days of e-learning and dealt with the inevitable temper fits that resulted after too much screen time. In a moment of extreme frustration, I emailed my team…I’d had enough and knew that if my baby girls were struggling this badly, so were my students. Something had to change.

After a very long, emotional email, I did feel better. I shared with my team that I felt we needed to look at this time as an opportunity to lean heavily on what reading and writing does best-help us through times of uncertainty and help us gain new perspective. Initially, there was some hesitation and rightly so. This would be an entire new unit developed for only this one year and as teachers we were already stretched emotionally and time-wise. However, I work with amazing people and they of course saw the value in using this time to help students beyond just academically. Soon, we were pop-corning off of each other. It was as if we had a sudden jolt of energy. And so, a new unit was born: COVID-19 2020.

We’re still finding our way and are uncertain as to what the end result will be or when it will be, but so far here’s what we have:

  • students will create a primary source of living through a historical event
  • The primary source will become narrative nonfiction, integrating nonfiction and journal writing
  • we will divide the workload so each teacher can focus on an area of passion/strength
  • daily lessons will be recorded and shared with the team in the idea of working smarter, not harder
  • we will bring the counselors into the discussion to glean from them how we also support the social-emotional piece during this unit.

It’s a rough sketch and one that I know will have many changes prior to its completion. I’m excited that the students will be provided the opportunity to engage in an authentic experience that relates to what they are going through right now. I also know that this has the potential to be cathartic to the adults involved as we will be engaging in the unit alongside students.

Extended Metaphors and Borrowed Lines

I love children’s lit and so anytime I can bring in a favorite book of my girls to share with my students, I do it. I think about how I can model amazing writing for my students through these books that is accessible to them, but stretches them as writers. Today I read My Mouth is a Volcano, by Julia Cook.

The students immediately picked up that the title was a metaphor, as we have been working on figurative language in class (YAY! They remembered!). There were smiles and giggles as I read, modeling fluency and feeling in my reading. Many students could relate to the boy who clearly had a problem with spewing out anything that came to mind whether someone was speaking or not. They were hooked from the start.

My purpose today was to get the students interacting with physical feature geographic terms, while thinking about extending metaphors (two for one!). Metaphors for G6 students are tricky and extended metaphors are quite the beast to have them tackle, but I knew they could do it. So, I began by borrowing a line from Cook’s book: My __________________ is a (insert geographic term here). I modeled this for my students first.

And then they tried it out on their own. After about 3 minutes, the students were struggling to put down their pencils as so many ideas sprung to mind-video games are an oasis, my sister is a volcano, my room is a forest… on and on it went. This was no problem for the kiddos, and so I pushed. I introduced to them to the idea of an extended metaphor and shared how typically G6 students wouldn’t be able to write these on their own but I knew they were ready. The students were pumped and anxious to get started. I shared one I wrote with a 15 minute timer. Perhaps there were bits and pieces I would change, but no matter, whatever I wrote in 15 minutes (typos and all), I shared.

Their turn came. I set the timer for 15 minutes and off they went. 15 minutes went by like a flash and I struggled to get them to put down their pencils. They were excitedly writing their own extended metaphors and happily shared


Not bad at all for a first attempt at extended metaphors. I am pretty proud of these kiddos and what they could do with 15 minutes of push. I’m a huge believer that these kids can do more than what we imagine if we provide them the opportunity and support. Borrowed lines from nonthreatening texts is one way we can demystify writing for students. An added bonus, I learned so much about my students through this activity!

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

As a teacher of literacy, I have always tried my best to have a variety of books in my classroom library. At first, it was all about genre-how can I make sure I have a fair representations of all genres so students look at the library and see all equally represented. Over the years, I’ve worked hard to make this happen. I’ve read books outside of my comfort zone and stretched myself as a reader. After genre, I started looking at making sure I have books that focus on kids who go through things most middle schoolers experience. Now though, I’m realizing that more importantly, kids need to see themselves in books.  I suppose this is one of those “no duh” comments. Of course I have heard that books should be mirrors (as well as windows) for students. The idea is that students should see themselves and their family reflected in the texts they are reading. I’ve always believed that but never really, truly saw what that meant.

This week has been one of growth for me. We’ve had the amazing experience of Baba the Storyteller sharing traditional storytelling from West Africa. Baba captivated my students and began by saying, “You don’t listen with your ears, you listen with your heart.” As he spoke, I saw a little boy in the front row captivated by his words. The smirk he usually wears turned into a knowing grin and his hand was raised constantly. The questions this little boy asked were ones specific to where in West Africa these stories came from. After a few questions, the boy in full voice announced that his father is from West Africa. Baba switched quickly to French (the boy’s home language) and once again, the boy beamed. This sixth grader saw in Baba, a mirror, a reflection of him, his family, his identity. I sat there with goose bumps in awe of the connection Baba made that was far beyond what I have with this boy who has been in my class since August. This boy’s heart was open.

Last night, my daughter came home with the book, El Deafo, given to her by Super Librarian: Bec. SLM insisted I read it immediately. El Deafo, written by Cece Bell, is a graphic novel (not short) loosely about Bell’s life growing up and living with being deaf. My daughter is classified as “severely deaf” and is an emergent reader who also happens to LOVE books. SLM wouldn’t leave me alone so I started to read. Cece survived Menangitis at 4 and lost her hearing as a result. This took place in the late 70’s and shows Cece with a phonic hearing device, complete with a huge box strapped around her neck and wires coming from her hearing aids into the box. Bell describes the process of going to the doctor, being diagnosed, and then being fitted for hearing aids in such detail that SLM’s eyes lit up as she added to the narrative. She was hooked! As I read, my eyes filled with tears as my daughter’s experience was so clearly being told. 

El Deafo by Cece Bell

After 80 pages, my six-year old had more questions and was upset that it was time to go to bed. She wanted to know why people would make fun of someone who couldn’t hear. Then, she began to tell me stories of what other students have said to her. She told me stories of the kind, brave, children who stick up for her on a daily basis. SLM went to bed smiling and happy. 5:30 am the next morning, this morning, SLM drug herself out of bed, asked for her hearing aids to be put on, and handed me the book. Another 40 pages down before 6:00 am when I needed to stop and get ready for work.

For me, all of these things have come together at the right time. My daughter hasn’t seen herself reflected in the books she brings home. The boy in my class hasn’t been able to connect on a deeper level because he hasn’t seen himself in the hallways of our school. I know I need to take another look at my library. But that look should not only be done in February when orders are due. As students enter into the classroom in August, I need to be more proactive about making sure that every student is represented in what they see around them. As the year progresses and issues arise, I need to collect the books that will help my students see they aren’t alone. This is a process and not one I expect to ever perfect or a job I expect will ever be complete.

For now, I want to thank Baba, Bec, and Cece Bell for helping kids find that mirror, for opening the hearts. We all deserve to know that even though we are unique and special, we also are not alone in our struggles or in our uniqueness.