Mrs. M: You’re going to write about your grandmother’s kitchen table, Milo?

Milo, his notebook closed, nods.

What’s the memory attached to the table?  (The 5th graders are writing stories connected to important objects in their lives.)

Milo shrugs. Don’t know. He slaps the notebook open and riffles through pages tagged with post-its.

Wow. You’ve marked all your notebook entries that relate to the table. You’ve got a lot!

Milo and Mrs. M go head-to-head and read the entries silently. Mrs. M learns that Milo lives with his Granny and Mom, how the light plays on the table from the window in the kitchen door, about the honey tones of the wood surface, and how Milo always sits at the same spot at the table.

You always sit at the same place?

Yup. He points to another flagged entry. I like how the sun comes in the door window and warms my back.

Cozy. What else?

I watch my Granny cook oatmeal every morning from my seat. Milo looks at his teacher and smiles. Earlier he’d read an entry to the class about how when he was little he could hardly wait for his Granny to finish stirring brown sugar and golden raisins into the thick, bumpy oatmeal. Once he was so excited he’d knocked his chair over.

Are you going to write about the time the chair tipped over with you in it?

Milo shakes his head.

Mrs. M waits.

I sit at the gash.

The gash?

Milo sits straight and points to the pencil groove on the desk. It’s about this long but deeper.

Is it an inlay table–you know with decorative carving on it?

It’s not a design. It’s from the knife.

It’s like Milo has dropped a fishing line into a memory lagoon and snagged onto something he’d forgotten.

It’s from a knife?

The carving knife.

A carving knife?

My Dad had it.

Was he carving the turkey, and it slipped?

Nah. He wasn’t carving no turkey!

What was he doing?

Fighting with my Mom. I was hiding.

Where were you hiding?

Behind the door. It was wide open. I could feel the cold on my feet.

What happened?

He’d burst into the kitchen and grabbed the knife. It was in that wooden knife holding thing on the counter.

Then what?

He chases Mom around the table.

With the knife?

He’s waving it. Mom’s screaming. Milo pauses. Then he sees me.

Behind the door?

I’m peeking. Through the window. On my tiptoes.

And he…?

He stabs the knife into the table. And runs out the door.

So the gash you always sit at…?

Milo nods. I sort of forgot how it got there ‘til now. He picks up his pencil.  I never saw him again. He turns to a clean notebook page. I put my pencils in it now. He makes a margin on the left side of the page. When I was little I stood my Lego men in it.


Note from PATTY:I wrote this in 10/14/12 and feel it would be helpful for the new education czar to learn what it looks like in schools where, despite high-poverty, the students are high-achievers, where the teachers have finely tuned their skills at listening and questioning. You can’t teach a child until you know what he’s bringing to school with him besides his trapper keeper and empty lunch box. Teaching memoir as a genre is one way of helping kids get a handle on who they are and what they’ve got going for them to value and develop. 

12 thoughts on “BETSY DEVOS? NEED A PENCIL? TAKE A NOTE: We do not teach and learn wisely and well if certain sturdy stances aren’t in our repertoire. This is a Listening-Conversing-Questioning-Routine from “my” high poverty-high achieving school.

  1. Patty, I can’t tell you how much this piece moved me. Words are failing me but tears are plentiful. I’m afraid a nerve has been struck. This child is so fortunate to have the opportunity to use this “teaching memoir” genre. So many don’t. So many don’t.


    1. I credit Mary Winsky, Lucy Calkins, Nanci Atwell, Toni Giarnese, Ronnie Santo–and all those teachers who sat together at the round library tables at Vogel-Wetmore and learned to write so that we could teach writing, as in “watch me while I do it” teaching, not assign and assess “teaching.” As for shedding a tear, while I re-wrote this last night, I was tearing up too.


    1. You’re welcome! This kiddo made it through high school and is in the service now. His Mom and Granny did a good job. (He was lucky also in that he had a string of strong teachers to get him off to a good start.)


  2. What a memory for this child. It is good that some get the opportunity to remember why they feel like they feel at that moment. While I did some memory healing with young kids they open up some much pain and then they can start healing with the help of someone who just listens or reads what they say


  3. These stories you share are so sweet and so important…. Thanks for sharing. We need to hear the good that is happening in our schools. It gives us hope.


  4. What worries me is that unless someone like me is in the classroom watching, super teaching goes unflagged, even by the principal. I wish that there were streams of observers flowing into these Vogel-Wetmore classrooms. It would be The Best professional development ever.


  5. Vogel-Wetmore was able to hire a critical mass of amazing teachers who were able to raise the level of all of the instruction going on. Simultaneously I worked nights at Saint Joseph University where all of my graduate and undergrad students in the Education Dept. got to see what teaching looks like in a high-poverty, high-achieving school. I hear from those students who are now teachers that this experience was the Keystone of their preparation.


  6. Wow. This brings back memories of my failed attempt at “teaching” inner city high school kids when I was only 25. I had not been trained to deal with anything but discipline for the job and the administration would not allow me to teach anything other than the curriculum. I wish I had been able to help some of them.


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