Grow where you’re planted

I’ve always loved the month of May. Not only is it my birthday month, May is also the time for digging in the dirt, planting window boxes, and hanging baskets. May is green grass and leafy trees and lily of the valley and impatiens and pansies and begonias.

When I was a young mother, my husband and I purchased our first home. My birthday gift one year was a pink dogwood tree, and we planted it in our otherwise barren front yard. We were not gardeners my husband and I, but we did the best we could, following the advice of the nursery. After several weeks, the poor tree looked bedraggled. Something was wrong, but we had no idea what to do. A neighbor stopped by to see if he could help. An avid gardener, he saw the problem immediately. We had over watered, and the solution, he said, was to dig up the little tree and dry it out. We propped it up against the garage, and watched and waited. After about a week, our neighbor proclaimed that it was time to replant. He improved the soil by adding fertilizer, cleared away debris, and declared that the dogwood would thrive. He was right. Forty-four years later that tree is still blooming. My son, who was a baby when we moved into that house, drove by the old homestead last weekend and texted me a photo of the front yard with the tree in full flower.

I wonder how often I have “over watered” –given too much guidance, too much direction, too much counsel.  How much better that dogwood tree fared after a bit of benign neglect, after having time to dry out and start over again. We owe our children the opportunity to grow where they are planted, to bloom in the sun that they find for themselves, to experience the joy of independence.

Your Turn Lesson -Transition

Your Turn:  Using Transitions

Transition words and phrases help readers to navigate their way through a piece of writing. Teaching young writers how and when to use transitions is time well spent. Younger writers can start with transition words that show time changes and proceed to more sophisticated transitions as they grow as writers.

Hook: Revisit the mentor text Trouper by Meg Kearney

Note the use of transition words for change of time. The introductory sentence uses “before” several times, repeating the word to show Trouper’s life in the time before he was adopted. Point out also the use of “while,” “next,” “then,” “last,” “until,” “now.” (Other transition words can be discussed with older students as well, such as “because,” “although” and so on. Be judicious about not trying to cover too much in one lesson.  We suggest sticking with time transitions to start.)

Purpose: Writers: Today I want to show you how you can use transition words to help your reader to discover why something is important at that place in time.  You can change the meaning of your sentences depending on the transition words that you use.

Model time transitions:

Show two sentences on sentence strips or project on the white board:

Dad and I played catch.

Mom made our lunch.

Demonstrate how using transitions works with the words: Meanwhile, After, Before, and While.

Dad and I played catch meanwhile Mom made our lunch.

After Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Before Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Dad and I played catch after Mom made our lunch.

While Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Discuss how the different words change the meaning of the sentences by changing the sequence (order) of events.

Guided Practice:

Prepare three sentence strips:

Marty saw the tabby cat.

He recognized it.

He picked it up.

With the students’ input use three transition words: First, Then, After that to connect the three sentences. Then try other transition words, After, as soon as, immediately to connect the sentences. Ask students to turn and talk about how the meaning changes depending on the transitions they choose to use. After sharing their thoughts, ask students to work in pairs to connect other sentences, such as the following:

The tabby cat shivered.

It was afraid.

Liam spoke in a gentle voice.

They can experiment with connecting the three sentences with other transition words:

Because obviously, even though, although, without warning, because, then, for example.

Independent Practice

Give student writers a handout of useful transition words. (Although, Because, Before, After, At the same time, Even though, Finally, First, Meanwhile, Next, Then…)

Ask them to go back to their drafts and highlight transitional words they have used.  Writers can choose a paragraph in their drafts or in their writer’s notebook to revise by adding transitional words.  Give students the opportunity to share their revisions in small or whole group.

Reflection:  Ask the class to respond to one of the following questions.

What do you now know about using transitions?

When will you use transitions in your writing?

Why is it important to use transitions?


Why (not)?

“Poetry is an art form; poetry is a craft.” Bill Knott

I am savoring the new book  I Am Falling Into Myself a collection of selected poems by Bill Knott. It has been edited by his friend and colleague Thomas Lux, who wrote the admiring and inspirational introduction to the volume. By all accounts Knott was a complex, sometimes depressed, often combative personality who happened, also, to write poetry that I read with awe.

He writes sonnets, one line poems, one two-word poem—three if you count the title, lyrics, free verse and rhymes.  His poems are filled with surprises. He often uses nouns as verbs and can make more happen with fewer words than any poet I’ve read in my 70 years of reading.

Lux tells the story of a chance meeting with Knott on a subway in New York in the late 1970s, where Knott showed him a notebook filled, “over and over, with different variations on two lines that showed up in his great poem ‘The Closet.’” That’s craft; that’s art; that’s workmanship.

When I read poets like Knott, I despair of ever attempting another poem. How can one presume to stand beside such talent? Yet, we writers persist. We have something eating at us, and that something just has to come out. When we encourage ourselves to persist, we make a conscious decision to be brave, to take a risk, to share our stories. I think that all teachers of writing must be writers who share their writing stories as well as their written stories.



say it’s love

that made me do it

say it’s fear

that makes me pause

before I accept

say it’s ignorance

that supplies

my hollow words

say it’s life

that in a moment

climbs the hills

and sees another valley


Laundry Day

When I was growing up, life was predictable. I knew, for example, that if it was Monday, Ma would be doing the wash. Tuesday, she’d mend; Wednesday, iron, and so on. Meals, too, were predictable. Every Sunday we had pot roast; every Friday, Ma’s pizza. In regular order, we all knew we would be awakened by the smell of coffee brewing and toast popping up in the toaster.  When we came home for lunch, we knew it would be ready and waiting for us. That predictability was comforting. It was reliable. It implied that things would never change. The poem that follows is an homage to those memories.

Everyone knows that

On Mondays, all the mothers

Will be busy doing the wash.

If it’s summertime, we kids will

Press our noses

Against the white sheets, and

Breathe in the fresh scent.

We’ll unpin the shirts and socks and unmentionables

And pile them into the laundry basket,

A chore we enjoy doing,

Even though we have to stop playing

And wash our hands with soap first.

When it’s windy, the clothes snap and flap

And dance on the clothes lines.

Up and down the block

All the back yards have the same

Look.  Rope lines and poles and baskets and pins

In every one.

When I grow up

And live on this street,

On Mondays,

I will do the wash.


Celebrate Poetry


can be

the magic


which you say

you want,

but only

if you


stand willing

to pull

that rug out


from under

your own

feet, daily.   Bill Knott (1940-2014)


In this week’s Sunday NY Times Book Review, Kathleen Rooney critiqued “Selected Poems, 1960-2014” by Bill Knott. I wasn’t familiar with his poetry, but the  April 3 edition of the New Yorker also reviewed his work. From these two sources (and the excerpts printed in each review) I became curious. As April is poetry month, I thought learning more about Mr. Knott and his work would be an endeavor worth pursuing.

Knott was brilliant but morbid and an eccentric to boot. In 1968 he published (under the pseudonym Saint Geraud)  “the Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans”.  Towards the end of his life, he self-published collections via Amazon. A friend and colleague of Knott’s has just released a collection through Farrar, Straus & Giroux:  “I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014” which I have just ordered. From the reviews in both publications I am expecting a roller coaster ride through (as Rooney says: “free verse, strict rhyme and meter, with subject matter zany yet poignant, romance, terror, and hilarity.”)

I admire poets, and though I have written “poems” myself, I don’t consider myself to be a poet. Love of language notwithstanding, I lack the ability to communicate that “shock of recognition” that true poets exhibit. Yet, I persist. Why? I guess I want what Bill Knott suggests is possible—that stamina “to pull /that rug out/ from under/ [my] own/ feet daily.” Instead, I’m more like the speaker in another of Knott’s short poems “Security.”

If I had a magic carpet

I’d keep it

Floating always

Right in front of me

Perpendicular, like a door.

April just may be the month (the cruelest month?) to try again.



Things that make me go “Huh!”

  1. Why do drivers ride in the passing lane when they’re not passing?
  2. Why does the guy who holds the door open for you at the WaWa try to run you over in the parking lot later?
  3. Speaking of WaWa, why do some customers park in the filling station space after they have filled their gas tanks while they run in for coffee?
  4. Why do those “Two ingredients that will change your life” recipes usually contain more than two ingredients?
  5. Why do I click on those recipes anyway?
  6. Why is adjusting to Daylight Savings Time more disorienting to me than switching back to Standard time?
  7. Speaking of Daylight Savings Time, even though I love increased daylight at the end of the day, how does it save energy since I need lights in the beginning of the day anyhow?
  8. Why does toast always fall butter side down?
  9. How come salads in restaurants often contain more calories than a burger?
  10. And the # 1 thing that makes me go “Huh!”  April’s Fools Day has come and gone. Why is “He who must not be named” still President?

Your Turn Lesson: The Colon

Introduction: Young writers can use the colon after a statement that introduces a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series.  When writing reports and nonfiction pieces, student writers can use the colon as a way to organize information in lists as well as to emphasize important information. Teaching writers how to use this useful tool is time well spent.  Of course, the colon can be helpful punctuation in any type of writing.

HOOK: To begin the lesson, choose some mentor text sentences that use the colon.

*Colon used to introduce a series:

“He had all sorts of clients: husbands and wives who wanted a divorce; people arguing about money or property rights; farmers quarreling over who owned a certain hog or horse.”

Alan Schroeder, Abe Lincoln: His Wit and Wisdom From A-Z.

(This use of the colon is sometimes difficult for young writers to master since they want to place the colon immediately after the verb. “My favorite subjects are: math, science, and Latin.” for example, is incorrect    “My favorite subjects are challenging: math, science, and Latin.” is correct.  The words before the colon must be able to stand alone.)

*Colon used to introduce an explanation:

“Dew is not precipitation: it does not fall down from clouds but forms directly on cool surfaces, such as a spider web in the early morning.”

Seymour Simon, Weather.

*Colon used to introduce a quotation:

“Finally, they said: ‘You should have your own art show. A one-man exhibition, right here in West Chester.’”

Jen Bryant: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin

*Colon used for emphasis:

After three days of deliberation, the jury returned the verdict: GUILTY!

From Diane’s  notebook

PURPOSE:  Writers, today we’re going to look at a useful mark of punctuation – the colon. We use colons mainly to help readers recognize that they are going to see important information: an explanation, a quotation, or a list. We’re going to practice using the colon to help us add details to our writing in a new way.

BRAINSTORM:  In this case the brainstorming is tied closely to the hook. Post the example sentences on an anchor chart, and ask the class to add to the examples by examining mentor texts and/or classroom text books that use the colon. List the reason for the colon use in each example sentence: lists/series, explanation, quotation, emphasis, or example. Be prepared to discover that students may find other uses of the colon than the ones listed above (separating titles from subtitles, for instance).  List these as well on the anchor chart, explaining that for the purpose of this lesson we will be saving these other uses for another time.

MODEL: Compose several sentences in front of the students using the colon to show emphasis, introduce a list/series, a quotation or an example.


I brought the following dishes to the picnic: potato salad, fruit compote, tortilla chips, and dips. (list/series)

He got what he worked for: he really earned that award. (explanation)

I live by the rule: “Treat others as you would be treated.” (quotation)

I have only one word for you, my dear:  study!  (emphasis)

The hurricane was very destructive: 300 families lost their homes. (example)


Students work with partners to use mentor texts as models for writing sentences with colons.  Encourage them to write sentences that demonstrate the use of the colon in two different ways.   Share student sentences whole group.  Add to the anchor chart.

INDEPENDENT PRACTICE:  Ask students to return to their writer’s notebook or a current draft to see if there are places where they can use a colon to signal important information to come. If they have no draft that works, ask them to try it out by writing a short piece in their writer’s notebook.

REFLECTION: After students have practiced the use of the colon ask them to reflect on one or more of the following questions:

How did the use of the colon make your writing better and/or easier to understand?

How could you use a colon in a narrative? An opinion piece? A poem?

What do you now know about using colons?

When is it most useful for you to use a colon?

Diane Esolen Dougherty and Lynne Dorfman
are the co-authors of Grammar Matters: Lessons,
Tips, & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6
published by Stenhouse.

Look for a new Your Turn Lesson on grammar
and conventions the last Friday of each month. Grammar Matters