Belonging

Oxford defines belonging as an affinity for a place or situation. Webster says it means a possession or a close or intimate relationship.  I’ve been reflecting on what it means to belong this week. I am getting older.  I could and have said this at any age, but now approaching sixty-five, now it is a very true statement. I feel it, especially with the holidays upon us and my family members quarantined and scattered across the country. Actually, I have yearned to belong since I was quite young.  It’s a human thing.  We all need connection.  And I have found innumerable ways to do it.  Teaching was the perfect profession for me.  I am very grateful for that. This week, I sent off a small army of 4th grade girls with shoe boxes filled with junk for them to explore.  For the last few days, I’ve been receiving emails and even a video recounting the fun they have had and the wonderful inventions they created from their personal trove of junk. This is what is important.  Creativity connects us.  Imagination is key.

I’ve also had time this week to reflect on just how I belong in the world.  This place, this place I’ve known for six and a half decades is becoming increasingly complex and enigmatic. I try hard to make sense of it, but I feel the world’s tug. I feel it pulling me down.  Then I realize the political and social world is just a human construct.  It is not the true world.  Our Earth is the true world, and I’ve lost the connection to it a bit allowing myself to get too busy teaching and managing daily life.   So I reminded myself that I must go back to the woods: search for the turkeys, gaze at the ravens wheeling in the gray sky. Nature has always been a healing place for me; a place that encourages my curiosity.  And this too I will share with my students.  Maybe we will collect items for a nature box: acorns, sticks, smooth stones, dried flowers and leaves, and a wild assortment of other bracken.  I have already spent the better part of an hour this week standing in a parking lot in the dark under some honey locust trees collecting their long, gently curving, velvety, deep purple seedpods. I’m imagining all types of things the children can make with them. 

It’s more critical than ever that we help children connect to the living world. It is integral to them becoming whole, healthy people who can manage stressors and show compassion.  I’ve been a long-time proponent of eliminating nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Over the years, I’ve provided experiences with nature to my students, even my students who lived in New York City.  I made sure they had regular contact with trees, flowers, and animals.  I knew that these connections were important for both their intellectual and social-emotional growth. Indeed, one parent quipped one day that the best part of 3rd grade for her son was that he learned to climb a tree! The once timid boy became intrepid and had a powerful sense of himself.

More books by Richard Louv:

  • Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life
  • The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life int he Virtual Age
  • Our Wild Calling: How connecting with animals can transform our lives and save theirs

A Dozen Nature Picture Books for Children:

  1. A Stone Sat Still by Brendon Wetzel
  2. Butterfly Park by Elly Mackay
  3. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  4. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  5. Pax by Sara Penny Packer
  6. Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst
  7. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  8. The Hike by Alison Farrell
  9. The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark
  10. The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith
  11. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
  12. The Tin Forest by Helen Ward

In our regular weekly phone conversations, my friend, Molly and I ponder the possible. We talk about teaching, art, and healing.  She tells of a walk she recently took with her brother at a nearby nature preserve.  She describes an old bathtub she found on the trail, and my poet mind start running.  I’m already composing as she speaks.  Then she says she has taken photos of it and would like me to use it as a prompt for writing with her Kindergarteners.  I promise to do so, and we ponder why a bathtub would be sitting serenely in the middle of a trail. When I get off the phone with Molly, I know the bathtub poem is in me and will come out in a couple of days.  It sits in my mind, constructing itself in various ways: a branch here, a new shoot there, a winding vine curving and turning until it is ready to come out onto the page.

 We Belong Here
  
 For Molly
  
 I
  
 At the nature preserve
 Right in the middle of the cleared trail -
 The red path, not the blue one,
 There is an old white rusted bathtub,
 My dear friend tells me.
 Right there in the middle of the path,
 Right there with nothing else around it
 Just woods on either side,
 Thick, thorny undergrowth,
 Mounds of fall leaves
 Now becoming muddled and colorless,
 Skeletons of themselves really.
 What is the bathtub doing there?
 Who would leave a tub in the woods?
 We ponder and wonder.
 There is a small shack nearby,
 But it stands on the bank of the river
 And the bathtub sits squat
 In the middle of the trail
 On a ridge overlooking the river.
 Most times the tub is filled
 With a puddle of rainwater
 Or an assortment of leaves, seeds, and acorns.
 It has been there a very long time.
 It has no intention of moving.
 It has planted its rusty feet 
 firmly in the ground.
 It belongs there.
  
     II
  
 I have a sudden urge
 To run full tilt down the path -
 The red trail, not the blue one,
 Breathing in the trees,
 All the musty ancient smells,
 Hear the gurgle burbling of the river.
 I rush down the path,
 Leap with all my might,
 Hurdle myself toward the tub,
 Landing gently into its abundance:
 Soft pine needles and dusty leaves,
 Landing softly in the autumnal spa,
 Covered in its natural warmth
 Almost up to my chin,
 Sinking down into the tub
 Soaking in the woods, the air, the river
 My head tilted up to the blue sky,
 Every one of my muscles relaxing.
 I have no intention of moving.
 My feet are firmly planted.
 I belong here.
   

Simple Gifts: Balloons, Fox Traps, and Marvelous Medicine

At this time of Thanksgiving, I want to pause and reflect upon the simple gifts for which I am grateful.  When I think back, I realize that my grateful moments revolve around books and children.  For the last forty-two years, I have been so fortunate to build my life around serving children and celebrating stories. This year has been especially critical because my school has had in-person learning five days a week with some students learning remotely. We have been in school for about 40 days and we feel a sense of accomplishment.  This past week, both students and teachers were seeking a way to celebrate, to sit back a bit, and have some fun.  It has been an uphill task this fall to muster fun behind masks, plexiglass and gallons of hand sanitizer. But we are all so grateful to be together.  Humans are social creatures, and it is essential that we share.

I am an English Language Arts Curriculum Coordinator.  That title sounds a bit stuffy and boring.  However, my job is anything but ordinary.  Every day is a truly new adventure.  Every day is an opportunity to learn from children.  Every day is filled with problem-solving and creativity.  I love visiting our elementary classes, observing literacy lessons, and then letting my mind loose – thinking of ways to extend learning.   Here are three classroom adventures that unfolded this week.

The 2nd grade read Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet about the puppeteer, Tony Sarg, who created the first balloons for the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City.  Sweet’s illustrations are phenomenal.  They inspire children to draw and design.  Over the years, this project grew from drawing paper balloons to coding robots that would carry actual decorated balloons through a replica of the parade route.  Since it would not be possible in this time of social distancing, we went back to the idea of making paper balloons that students could easily take home.  However, I wanted to make the balloons three-dimensional.  That’s when my early childhood teacher-mind kicked in.  I took a small brown paper lunch bag, stuffed it with strips of newsprint and then inserted a twelve-inch dowel, taped the bag securely around the dowel and added a colorful ribbon.  I now had my balloon base. Then I took construction paper and quickly cut out a turkey shape.  I glued the turkey onto the paper bag balloon and voila, a Thanksgiving balloon was born!  The project was ready to be launched.

When I walked down the hallway and entered one of the 2nd grade classrooms, the children called out my name and started to clap.  All of them.  For several minutes.  Without stopping.  Let me say that 2nd graders are really good for bolstering my sense of self! If you ever find yourself in a doubting mood, find a 2nd grader and she will reassure you that all is right with you and the world. Shortly after I arrived, the children quickly got to work.  The room was soon quiet with creating.  When I looked out into that small sea of intent faces, I was reminded that children’s work is important and that, above all, creativity matters.

The following day, I worked with 3rd graders who just completed a Roald Dahl study.  One class read Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Their teacher and I prepared an engineering activity where the students needed to design a humane trap to catch Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I made a kit for each student which included cardboard, tape, string, pipe cleaners, straws, popsicle sticks, paper towel rolls, and fabric. What was fascinating about this project was that even though every student was given the same materials, each trap was different, proving that every mind is capable of unique and wondrous things!  For homework, the children created short videos of their traps explaining how they worked and what design problems they encountered on the way, and how they re-designed their trap.  Critical and creative thinking were evident.  The students took ownership and pride in their constructions.

The other 3rd grade class had read George’s Marvelous Medicine, and I decided to have students create a class concoction. As I arrived and peered through the classroom door, one child whispered, “She’s here!,” and the others started bouncing up and down, reminding me again that I am so grateful for the role I play at my school. The night before, I had gone to the supermarket to gather edible ingredients, though the children would not be tasting our concoction.  In the story, George’s medicine is made from toothpaste, hair tonic, and all sorts of gruesome ingredients from Dahl’s wicked imagination.  Our class ingredient included: pink Himalayan salt, blue Gatorade, grape juice, Karo syrup, Golden Syrup, mustard powder, beet juice, sugar cubes, chocolate syrup, and pink peppercorns. I selected items that would be edible, but interesting. Once the students were seated, I showed them all the ingredients.  Each student got a chance to select an ingredient and decide the amount to put into our concoction.  As we created our marvelous medicine, I wrote the recipe on the black board, and the children had their own recipe templates to fill in and take home.  Once we created the medicine, I poured the concoction into small plastic bottles, one for each girl. Meanwhile, the girls named their medicine, wrote directions on how to take it, and explained what the medicine would do.  Their ideas were wild and brilliant.  It was truly inspiring to see their level of engagement.

And so balloon, fox traps, and marvelous medicine are indeed very simple things.  Things that, at first glance, are of no significant consequence.  But it is precisely these simple things and the time spent with children for which I am profoundly grateful.

Magic & Imagination in a Box

When I was a little girl, my older sister and I would spend hours sorting and playing with my mother’s large tin button box. The buttons were as different as snowflakes.  My sister and I spent hours looking for pairs or triplets. Sometimes we were successful, but mostly we intrigued by the uniqueness of each button – almost the same but just a shade different.  I can still see them in my mind: the round ivory button imbedded with light yellow daisies; the large round pale pink button embossed with small rectangles; the heavy gold ones etched with anchors and ropes; the tiny pastel buttons like delicate seashells. We would line them up, stack them, create mosaics, trade them, and then tenderly scoop them up and put them away for another day.  Tender. That’s a good word for how I feel about those times spent imagining and playing with my sister.  We played like this well into our teenage years.  When we actually used the buttons for sewing projects, I think we both did so reluctantly.  It was like saying good-bye to an old friend.  These small ordinary objects were precious to us.  They signified a magical time, a respite from the real world.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I encountered Gertrude Stein’s poem, “Tender Buttons.”  It is a long abstract, experimental poem that unwinds and wanders in and out of common objects, but there is a certain glittering magic within. Here’s a bit of it.

Tender Buttons

… A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

GLAZED GLITTER.

Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing…

And then as a young woman working in New York City, I came across a brick storefront one day on the Upper East Side called Tender Buttons.  I spent many a Saturday afternoon gazing at the boxes full of buttons.  I began my own collection of buttons, not to actually use, but merely to sit with and marvel. Diane Epstein, the owner of the shop had once described the buttons as “Each one is like a tiny evocative event.”  And that is precisely how I saw my childhood buttons.  The deep, sea green ones, the tarnished silver ones, the ones in the shape of shiny horns – all told a story – all held a secret. Unfortunately, Tender Buttons closed its doors permanently in 2019.  All the more grateful I am that I have kept a small collection of those buttons.

Thinking about my mother’s button box made me realize how important small common objects are for children: bottle caps, erasers, doodads – all manner of ephemera. They collect a myriad of these things in their desks at school.  I have confiscated thousands of tiny pencils, paper clips, and beads in my time as an elementary school teacher.  These treasure troves are important to children.  They are connectors to the imaginary.  They are a passport from the real world to an imaginary one.  They are indeed important.  In fact, they are essential. This is more and more evident in the time of COVID, as my students are going to school in-person behind masks and plexiglass, having to remain in their seats most of the day.  The urge to play is palpable.  They must sit, but they can still create with their hands. And to my delight they do! They fold paper, link paper clips, use great lengths of tape to transform their school world.  

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues showed me the great gallery of objects her 4th grade students had created.  I decided the 4th graders each needed a box of objects with which to create.  I talked to the girls about my idea and they enthusiastically gave me ideas of what objects to include in the boxes.  One student dubbed the boxes fidgetneering boxes.  I loved that name and promptly drove to my local dollar store to buy the boxes and label them with the students’ names.  Then I filled the boxes with all kinds of childhood treasures from The Wonder Lab, our school’s maker space: straws, yarn, popsicle sticks, paper tubes, Styrofoam balls, bags of buttons, bags of beads, pipe cleaners, etc. This week, I distributed the boxes to the girls.  It was so gratifying to see them uncover the boxes and sort through the objects.  Their excitement was electric.  It was a rainy day, a great day to play and ponder.  Off they went for fifteen minutes to design and build.  Watching them reinforced my strong belief that children (both young and old) need the opportunity to wonder and imagine on a regular basis.  I told the girls that when the boxes get near empty, I would replenish their stores.  Their reaction was like I was giving them gold.  One student exclaimed, “This is marvelous junk.  Look what I made!”  Yes, just look. Marvelous common junk made magical!

THE WORLD IN A BUTTON

The world in a button,

Spherical and hard,

Sometimes shiny,

Sometimes tarnished with age,

Holes and embellishments,

Disappointments and surprises,

Ocean blue and earthy red,

Buttons in my hands

Slipping through my fingers

Making imaginary music,

Listen.

Signs of Fall – Listen, Look

This has been a stressful week to put it mildly: a heated election cycle, COVID rising in New Jersey and across many parts of the U.S., pending lock-downs, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.  I try to put things in perspective.  I concentrate on my work, my art, my friends, my family, and my faith. I try, in small places, to cultivate hope.  

I relish my time teaching immersing myself in reading and writing with young children.  I marvel at students who seek me out for help.  I do not have to convince them; they come eagerly with fresh ideas.  We develop stories together, we organize desks and homework, we think about spelling like it is an art instead of a chore, and we read together. Indeed, one of the most rewarding times in my day is reading A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond with a gifted first grader.  The naughty bear appeals to her and the British vocabulary intrigues her.  We talk about queues, lifts, lorries, mackintoshes, and marmalade.  She is all ears listening for new words that she does not yet know.  She gasps as Paddington stumbles into one predicament after another, and she enthusiastically anticipates outcomes. This time with her is pure joy.  I cannot clearly say whether I’m teaching her or she’s teaching me.  Our conversation, this exchange of ideas, is reading in its purest form, and I am grateful.

I turn to nature for solace, observing the season’s steady change: her flamboyant turn from green to scarlet to amber to tangerine, and the final turn to gray and rusted brown. I seek beauty in the decay.  I watch for patterns: geese and wild turkeys combing the fields for seeds, squirrels and chipmunks storing seeds and acorns, the deer’s coats turning from golden to tawny brown. The earth is preparing herself for after the harvest; she is ready for a long meditative sleep. This past week, I took some photographs and wrote a poem as I contemplated this change.  I tried to listen and look carefully to all that was around me.  I took notice, reflected, and attempted to capture the feel of this season.

 Early November
  
 The early November wind arrives
 Sounding a symphony of
 Rushes, whooshes, and shushes,
 Rustling leaves, rattle seed pods,
 Whispering softly in the grass.
  
 Black wings tattooed against blue sky,
 A cadre of crows circle
 Above the old golden oak,
 Caw-calling, caw-calling,
 Lamenting winter’s return.
  
 Damp earth and leaves – 
 Mottled brown, orange, yellow,
 Cover the bare garden ground,
 A protective patchwork
 Waiting for next year’s harvest.
  
 A lone crow lands on an old post,
 Surveys the garden no longer green.
 The wind rustles his black feathers,
 He cries of fall’s ending
 And then takes flight. 

Fidget to Think

I have never been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.  It wasn’t even a known condition when I was in school.  I wiggled, I daydreamed, I doodled and constantly fidgeted with my hair, my pencil, the pink eraser in my desk, scraps of paper wrappers, paperclip, or anything small that could go undetected or be quickly hidden.  My mind was and is constantly moving.  I am a great multitasker. It doesn’t seem right to me to just be doing one thing.  I notice that when I do concentrate on just one task at a time, a great wave of calm washes over me, and I feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment.  This usually happens on Fridays when I work from home.  In the early morning, I sit at my kitchen table and I just focus on one item at a time.  Okay, to be completely truthful, I sometimes listen to a podcast and check my email in between, but for the most part, I have learned to tame my monkey mind.

This has taken many years and lots of practice.  I still have difficulty sitting and meditating.  I was so happy to hear that one can meditate while moving.  That is when I feel most comfortable.  There is a large circular garden maze where we vacation in Vermont.  I love winding my way through the flowers, following the path over and over until my mind is clear and my body is relaxed.

This school year, I am designing and teaching a Study Skills class for 4th grade girls.  Part of the curriculum leans heavily on giving the girls time to practice executive function skills:  planning, initiating, organizing, prioritizing, self-monitoring, flexible thinking, impulse control, and time management.

I had not planned to create lesson on fidgeting, but the girls kept talking about their need to move and how teachers often become upset by their fidgeting.  Though I have a high tolerance for my own fidgeting, I often get distracted by students’ fidgeting.  I have had to become keenly aware of this and learn to tune out a certain amount of that type of distraction. And I have had to have quiet, honest conversations with students about how best to navigate their need to fidget and others’ needs for sustained attention.

I wanted to honor students’ need to move. I also wanted to create a space for them to really think about why they fidget and what strategies they could use to both keep moving while also actively listen. This week, we read an article about fidgeting: 9 Constructive Fidgets that Promote Focus. As a student read aloud the article, she came across the words doodling and pacing.  Everyone in the room stopped and looked at me.  I was on my fifth journey around the room.  Pacing was fidgeting!  I hadn’t ever considered that.  We all had a good laugh, and I said, “I guess I fidget as much as you all do!”  I thought pacing was a teaching strategy.  Who knew it was really fidgeting?

Then we created pencil fidgets using a pipe cleaner, some beads, and Washi tape.  While the girls were busy working, the room was absolutely silent.  They were all concentrating on the task at hand.  I brought their attention to this, and they responded that the fidgets help them focus and didn’t distract them from listening.  While the girls worked on their fidgets, I showed them Jessica McCabe’s video, Classroom Friendly Fidgets with Special Guest Bailey. The girls immediately connected with Bailey, the ten-year-old girl who was being interviewed about her collection of fidgets.  Sitting back and observing, I realized how important it was for children to learn from their peers.  They were intent on Bailey’s words and actions.  The video got me thinking about giving girls choices of fidget and having them try out different types to find the one that is right for them.  McCabe emphasizes that fidgets should be simple, quiet, and able to be use without being looked at.  In the coming weeks, my classes will be able to test this out and decide whether and when to use fidgets.

Caroline’s Fidget Pencil

During this lesson, we also wrote acrostic poems as a collaborative class activity.  The poet, Janet Wong, visited virtually in the morning and had showcased many poems that expressed the need for movement.  I thought it was a good time to bring movement and poetry together.  As the girls shared their ideas, it was interesting to see the word choices they employed to construct meaning. 

When composing poems, I often take long walks or pace around the room to the beat of the poem.  I understand now that maybe I chose poetry as my main artistic outlet because it allowed me to move.  I was able to make the words move. And I made myself smile with the realization that I named this blog, Word Dancer.  That says it all.  Movement is totally part of my nature. It is clear that my students are also passionate about their need to move in order to learn. They want to learn how to tune in and not shut down. They were so passionate about and motivated by this subject. It is something we will continue to explore. And I am ready to move!

Add. Change. Remove.

Add. Change. Remove.  This is a strategy we use in our 2nd grade writing workshop to explain the revision process.  In the lesson, which I think originally was an idea from a Six Traits lesson, the students create with Play-Doh and then at various intervals are asked to add something to their creation.  Then they are asked to add another feature or two.  Eventually, the students are asked to change something, and finally, they are asked to remove something they created.  The children are allowed time to talk through their creative process.  Usually, this has been done through a gallery walk. This year, during our COVID structure (remote, hybrid, in-class), we used a document camera and asked students to explain their thinking.

Bear at the Beach
Family of Snakes
Crabs at the Beach

As I reflect on this activity, I realize that Add. Change.  Remove.  is not only a revision or creative process, it is the cycle of life.  We are born. Many people, places and events are added to make our lives rich and interesting. Then people, places, and ideas change. Over the years things are removed from our lives until ultimately we are removed.  Instead of this being a morbid anxiety producing thought, it has become a comforting thought.  We all are going through a natural process, and I need to be mindful of the powerful and wondrous journey we are on.  Sometimes, I am so intent on adding, adding, adding that I forget to sit back and enjoy all I have.  Sometimes, I am either so desperate for change or so anxious about change that I forget to think about what lessons I can learn from these changes.  I forget to ask myself:  How have I grown? And finally, I am aware of what has been removed from my life – both positive and negative.  I am learning to be grateful for what I have and what I have lost.

Add. Change. Remove.  – such a valuable skill for students to utilize in their writing; such a powerful life force to embrace.  This week, I decided to apply this strategy to my art and poetry.

My collage below is in process of play.  I am creating, adding, changing, and removing until I am satisfied with the composition.  I am not sure how the final product will turn out, but I am enjoying the process.  I think this method allows me to not get so set on the final image.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  I can play until I am pleased.

Simple Watercolor
Watercolor Cut into Strips
Woven Watercolor

If I extend this idea to my poetry, I encourage myself to think more fluidly.  The words and images can be played with. They don’t have to be set in stone so quickly.  I can create many versions, read them aloud, stand back to appreciate their impact and choose what expression I want to publish.

Sparrows Gather I
 
Dusty-feathered bodies
                      In constant motion
Heads turn, wings flutter,
                     Eyes blink, feet twitch
Hopping from one
                    Place to another
The birdbath, the bench,
                    The old stone toad
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter
                    Recalling memories of summer
Warm sun, sweet rain
                    They sing of worms and seeds
Just plain brown birds
                    So numerous, so common
 
Sparrows Gather II
 
Just plain brown birds,
So numerous, so common,
In constant motion.
Dusty-feathered bodies:
Heads turn, wings flutter,
Eyes blink, feet twitch.
Hopping from one place to another:
The birdbath, the bench, the old stone toad.
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter,
Sparrows sing of worms and seeds.

As I begin a new school week, I think about using this poetry idea with our curious 2nd graders.  I plan to use the William Carlos Williams’ “As the Cat” and have the children recite it, visualize it, and the write their own versions. 

Some questions to help students to re-imagine the poem could be:

ADD.

What color is the cat?

Where is the jam closet?  

What does a jam closet look like?

What color, size, shape is it?

Is it empty or filled with jam jars?

What color, size, shape is the flowerpot?

Change.

Make it a different animal.

Make a different place the animal climbs.

Make a different place the animal steps into.

Show another way the animal walks.

Remove.

Reread your poem.

Remove any words you think would make the poem stronger.

I am so curious to see what the children will create.  I hope they begin to understand the awesome pleasure and power of Add. Change. Remove.

Relentless Hope: The Power Of an Avocado

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reminded of the fragility of the human spirit and the power of hope. But it is more than hope.  Hope seems more passive to me now.  I hope I will be healthy and happy, but how do I going about putting that hope into action.  What craft moves can I make to have a positive, affirming life?  I used to think that if I worked hard everything would fall into place.  I would just work harder and hard and harder.  Sure, I received some positive results but at what cost?  I was working so hard until I was soon completely exhausted.  I not only was exhausting my body; I was exhausting my mind and spirit.  I was depleting all my reserves.  Then I realized that my dogged tenacity could be used in a different way.  I could relax into the difficult parts.  I could begin to trust myself.

This week, I read Ruth Ayres’ article in the Choice Literacy Newsletter called “Slightly Alive.”  In the article Ruth talks about her tenacious belief that a houseplant would heal and revive.  With consistent watering and care the plant did begin to grow again. Ruth declares, “It wasn’t complicated to restore, but it did take relentless hope and a belief that the things I knew it needed would be enough in the end.” I love the idea of relentless hope – that belief in eventual positive outcomes. It is what has always pulled me through.

My friend and fellow blogger, Molly James, also wrote about restoration this week in her post, “Nourishing Me and My Creativity.”  Molly described a recent journey into her garden: “The chard was hidden beneath zucchini plants that grew to an enormous size. When we finally removed the behemoths, the chard was there, a bit worse for wear, but still there. I’ve been watering it, admiring it, and encouraging it to grow. Amazingly, it’s producing beautiful new leaves.” I embraced the idea of worse for wear but still there. I think of myself that way. I am have some visible and invisible battle scars but I’m still here. I’m still growing and can produce beautiful leaves.

I smiled when I read Ruth’s and Molly’s words. I have had a similar mindset and experiences.  When I was in college I grew an avocado tree from a pit.  It grew lush in a corner of my dorm room.  Mr. Avocado became my great green friend.  It felt so good to grow something from a seed. The plant grew and grew and grew he became over three feet tall in a very short time.  When it was time for winter vacation, I shared a ride home with a friend of mine and her boyfriend. I took my beloved avocado with me wrapped in blankets.  On the way home we stopped at my friend’s house for a few hours.  I wanted to bring Mr. Avocado in the house with me.  My friend’s boyfriend laughed at me.  He thought I was silly and said the plant would be fine in his car.  In knew he was wrong, but I didn’t argue, and I left Mr. Avocado out in cold.  Of course, the plant got frostbite.  When I got Mr. Avocado to my house, his leaves drooped dried and turned brown.  After mourning the loss of Mr. Avocado for a few days, I cut his stem back and hoped he would revive.  I stayed hopeful for months, I watered and fertilized him well into the summer.  Mr. Avocado was not slightly alive, he was totally dead; he was not coming back. But I never forgot him.

Many years later, I gathered the courage to grow another avocado plant.  This time, I started the project at school to show the children how plants grow.  To my delight the pit began to sprout and soon there were leaves.  A second Mr. Avocado was born and began to flourish.  I was so happy.  Year after year, I brought the avocado plant home for winter and summer vacation.  I was determined that this one would not suffer the first one’s fate.  Then one January weekend the furnace at school broke, and it was ice cold when we returned on Monday morning.  I ran to my plants.  The small ones looked a bit wilted but seemed like they would recover.  Mr. Avocado’s leavers had fallen to the floor.  I was in despair.  This could not be happening again.  This time, I had a partner to help me.  Benita, the woman who cleaned my office every night was an avid gardener. Benita and I often talked about our grandfathers: hers from Colombia, mine from Italy.  Both men had amazing green thumbs. Benita had helped me care for my plants over the years.  When I showed her the avocado, she clicked her tongue and shook her head.  Together, we cut down the stem and watered the soil.  Then Benita suggested to put the plant in the window of another office with a southern exposure.  I agreed and tried to hope.  Every couple of days I would check Mr. Avocado.  I found the same thing: a stem sticking out of the dirt.  I was disheartened.  I didn’t visit him as much.  Then one afternoon, Benita came to my office with the large pot in her arms. “Mira… look,” she said.  I jumped up, “It’s growing?”  I asked.  Indeed it was! A bright green shoot was poking out of the dirt! Soon it was growing strong.  Today, it is six feet tall, and I’m trying to figure out what to do when it hits the ceiling.  It’s funny how such a simple living thing can give such hope.  I firmly believe in restoration.  So many times when we face obstacles we think it’s all over, there is no hope, all is lost.  However, if we are patient and stop to reflect, we can find a way for hope to overcome and bring little joys.

This reminds me of all my work with students over the years.  I have always been drawn to the kids who were facing obstacles either academically or emotionally.  Maybe it’s because I see myself in them.  Maybe it’s because I have not abandoned hope and believe everyone can recover and thrive.  On the surface, they may be Dyslexic, Dysgraphic, have ADD or ADHD, anxiety disorders, or any number of learning differences, but way down underneath there are strong roots taking hold that will keep them upright and allow them to grow.  As a teacher, I feel that it is my responsibility to take a breath, keep an open mind, and look beyond the surface.  What tools can I use to nurture these tender beings? I know that if I am relentless and keep my sense of humor, these children will grow and flourish.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

Kitchen Literacy: Fall Treats

When adults invite children into the kitchen to cook, they provide memorable experiences. When the recipe is connected to literature, children become more involved in reading as a form of enjoyment.  They are intrigued by the comforting, adventurous, and magical qualities food has in these stories.  Children feel a great sense of accomplishment as they open the oven door and see the results of their efforts.  They gain a sense of pride in knowing that they could take a few simple items and create something wonderful to eat.  Children enjoy being kitchen magicians.  They can take a few ordinary items, mix them together, put it in an oven, and out comes a sweet treat – some magic! In a way, writing and reading are like cooking: letters are mixed together to make words, words become a story, and the story creates a magical world.  Cooking sparks children’ imaginations and develops in them a love of literature, which lasts throughout their lives.

I began cooking with children in my classroom over forty years ago as an extension activity to the literature we were reading.   While in the kitchen, the children naturally began to talk about the story, commenting on the illustrations and extending the story with their own imaginative sequels. The first few excursions into the kitchen with children, made me realize the importance cooking activities have on the development of lifelong readers.  Together, the reading and cooking, led children to use their imaginations to question and find their own solutions.  As active participants, the children increased their interest in reading, writing, talking, and in learning as a whole.

As the children became more familiar with mixing and pouring, they began to experiment.  For example, if someone didn’t want raisins in the muffins, we’d substitute the raisins with walnuts.  At snack time, they began to concoct their own juices, combining apple and orange juices.  The ultimate lesson in experimentation was something I call Monster Cake.  The name of the activity came when I read Nancy Winslow Parker’s book, Love from Aunt Betty.  Unlike Charlie, the main character, this monster cake activity has no recipe from which to work.  The children have to use their reasoning powers to decide what to put in the cake.  I have been baking Monster Cakes for many years with children from as little as three to as old as sixteen. Every cake has been delicious with the exception of one.  That one time, a child wanted to put a quarter cup of salt into the cake.  Since we were preparing two cakes, I encouraged him to experiment.  The cake came out beautifully.  It was golden and gleaming. Then it was time to taste it.  The children learned an important lesson:  Not even birds will eat a cake made with a quarter cup of salt!  Although this monster cake was inedible, it was the most memorable cake I have ever baked with a group of children.  Baking Monster Cake gives children permission to use their own ideas, observe the results, and alter the ingredients.  They have truly invented something all their own, something unique. The best thing about it is that they can write down the recipe and use it again and again.

Another wonderful cooking experience during the fall is making Pumpkin Shell Pudding.  Mix up a fragrant bowl of bread pudding, and then baking that pudding in a pumpkin shell.  Children love scooping out the pumpkin goo, collecting baking the seeds, and then stuffing the pumpkin with cinnamon-sugar dusted bread pudding. As the pudding bakes, it time to take a break and do some fall reading. Three of my favorite fall books are Harvest Home by Jane Yolen, Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, and The Ugly Pumpkin by Dave Horowitz. When it come out of the oven, it smells delicious and looks magical. After the pumpkin cools for a bit, take a large knife and slice it as you would a cake. The pumpkin is lovely smooth consistently and the bread pudding sticks to the pumpkin and adds to its sweetness.

A simple treat to make with children is inspired by the book, Apple Pigs by Ruth Orbach.  The story is written in verse and tells of an old apple tree that is not very well cared for.  A young girl takes care of the tree and the tree responds to her kindness with a bounty of apples. Lots and lots of apples!  There is a recipe from the books on how to make apple pigs.  I created my own version with children over the years.  It is a simple and quick activity which children remember and love to replicate at home.

It is true that cooking gives children experience in following directions, measuring, relating events in a sequential order, and working cooperatively in a group, but most importantly, cooking gives children the opportunity to talk with each other and to think creatively.  While cooking, a natural conversation develops and children begin to share their ideas, predicting what will happen as they mix in each ingredient.  In this kind of relaxed atmosphere, children are encouraged to take risks, which is essential for learning to take place.

KITCHEN LITERACY RECIPES

Monster Cake

Monster cake is a cake without a recipe.  Children decide what to put into the cake and an adult writes down the recipe as the cake is made.  This activity is great fun and children love having control over what goes into their cakes.  When using this idea with a large number of children, you might want to split up into groups with each group making a different type of monster cake.  This way, the children can compare the cakes and learn how different ingredients can change the cakes.

Since the cakes have no recipe, an adult will have to determine when cakes are done.  Place cakes in a preheated 350º F oven and start checking after 30 minutes.  When toothpick placed in center of cake come out clean, cake is ready. Be sure to record the time on your recipe so that you can re-make the recipe if desired.

Pumpkin Shell Pudding

Ingredients:

One 4-5 lb. Baking pumpkin                      2 cups stale white bread (cubed)

2 Tbsp. Melted butter                                   3 eggs

1/3 cup plus 2 Tbsp. Sugar                          2/3 cup golden raisins

2 cups milk                                                     1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 cup butter                                                2tsp. cinnamon

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)         1/2 tsp. nutmeg

Whipped cream (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350º F.
  2. A child can help wash and dry the pumpkin.  An adult needs to cut a hole around stem like you would if you were making a jack-o-lantern.  Then children can take turns scooping out seeds with a spoon.
  3. When the pumpkin is all cleaned inside and out, brush the inside of pumpkin with melted butter and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of sugar.
  4. Place pumpkin on baking pan and bake in oven for 20 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, an adult should heat milk in a medium saucepan to scalding (not boiling).  Then add 1/4 cup butter and 1/3 cup sugar.  
  6. In a medium bowl, place bread cubes and walnuts.  Pour milk mixture on top. Let stand 5 minutes.
  7. In a small bowl, beat eggs.  Mix in raisins, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
  8. Gradually stir the egg mixture into the bread mixture, until well incorporated.
  9. Pour bread pudding into pumpkin shell and bake in oven for one and half to one and three-quarter hours.  Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving.  Slice into wedges.  May be served with whipped cream on top. 

APPLE PIGS

How to Make an Apple Pig:

You need:

8 toothpicks

1 apple

1 marshmallow

4 raisins

Directions:

  • Use 1 apple as the pig’s body
  • Add 4 toothpicks for legs
  • On the blossom end of the apple, attach1 marshmallow snout with 2 toothpicks
  • Add 2 raisins to the marshmallow for nostrils
  • Add 2 raisin eyes
  • The stem is the pig’s tail.
  • Enjoy!

Magic on the Page: Encouraging Reluctant Writers

Magic on the Page
 
Big round, brown eyes
Are looking up at me;
They are brimmed with tears.
“I don’t know what to write,”
The little girl before me whispers.
I pause and breathe,
Calm everything inside me
Until my breath and hers are one.
“Well, you are supposed to tell about a memory.”
There is a vigorous shaking
Of her dark curls from side to side,
“No. I can’t remember anything.”
“A birthday? A holiday?”
I offer in hopeful expectation.
“No. Nothing.  I started but I can’t,”
She says, pushing her paper towards me.
Let’s think,” I say slowly, patiently.
“How about something you love?
What do you love?” I ask.
Her smooth young forehead furrows,
“UNICORNS,” she exclaims.
There is now a twinkle in her wet eyes.
“Unicorns. Most certainly,” I say.
Soon she is sitting among the others,
Busily scrawling words upon her page:
Sky… rainbows… fly… fairies…soar… sparkle…
The magic has begun.

Usually, I write the narrative and then add a poem when constructing my latest blog posts.  This time, I started with the poem because it came to me all at once after working with a group of 2nd grade writers.  The assignment was part of our fall writing assessments to create an on-demand narrative piece from a prompt.  The prompt was to write about a favorite memory from 1st grade. We had talked and brainstormed about favorite 1st grade memories, and then they began to create writing web plan.  Everyone was primed and ready to write.  The classroom was a quiet buzz of pencils on paper.  I navigated between desks that were set six feet apart.  I monitored from a safe distance.  I started to write my own piece to show students they were not alone in working through the writing process.

A few minutes passed when Avani got up and walked over to me with her plan in hand, her eyes brimming with tears.  My mind started to move into action what were all the strategies I knew about how to deal with reluctant writers?  What do you do when someone gets stuck in her writing?  How do you help her keep her pencil moving? How do you grow confidence, support without taking over?  All these thoughts raced in my mind.  All the while, I looked in those big round brown eyes.  I knew the first think I must do was to stay calm and build trust.

In the past, the students would turn and talk and tell their stories to their writing partners before they started to write.  This time, I conducted the lesson as a whole class with only a couple of students sharing because COVID restrictions made partner sharing very difficult, if not impossible.  Students partners would have been shouting their stories six feet apart.  So we made accommodations and moved forward. Everyone seemed to have an idea of what to do and was busily creating a web of ideas, and then one go stuck.  She had her plan filled out but started writing about something else.

She saw the plan and the story as two different things.  I had never had a student do that.  Usually, they have trouble thinking of a topic or sequencing a story or adding details to make the moment come alive. This writer thought the plan and the story were two different entities.  When I suggested a place in her web where she could start her story, she said that the web idea was not the story she wanted to tell. So I asked her to tell me the story she had in her mind.  She said she wasn’t sure but the story in the plan was not the story, and she started to cry.  The story plan was about Halloween.  So I asked Avani if she wanted to continue to write about Halloween. She was silent.  When I asked her again, she looked at me fiercely and said that she was thinking.  I gave her a little time but she began to fiddle with the eraser on her pencil, and I was afraid I was going to lose her.

“Avani, if you didn’t write about Halloween, what would you write about? What do you love?” I asked her.

Her eyes lit up, “Unicorns,” she said brightly.

Then write about unicorns,” I said.

She looked at me questioningly, “I can change my plan?” she asked

“Yes, of course, if it isn’t working, change it.”

“But then I have to write another plan now?” she asked.

“Oh!” I began to understand.  Avani took time to write a plan.  The plan didn’t work out and now she had to start at square one again.  Her stamina was waning.

I knew that trust and flexibility were key.  I told Avani to go back to her seat and just start writing her unicorn story.  Away she went, wiping her eyes.  Soon the purple and pink unicorns were flying across the page.  Magic had been restored.

When I teach writing, I have an arsenal of teaching strategies and moves I use depending on the situation.  This arsenal includes the ideas and books of some of America’s best writing teachers.  I stand on the shoulders of these giants so that my students, with pencil in hand, can reach for the stars or the flying unicorns, whatever the case may be!

Great Books about Teaching Writing:

And some picture books about writing:

Room to Read

This school year, I have taken on two positions rolled into one: curriculum coordinator and learning specialist.  Yes, it is a lot of work.  Yes, it is good I have a monkey mind and enjoy spinning lots of plates on long wobbly sticks all at the same time.  But the best part of my job is that I am the one teachers call upon to solve student puzzles.  I love having the opportunity to read and write with children and figure out why they are having trouble. I calm my monkey mind and I focus in on the student reader.

This week, a fourth grader confided to her teacher that she couldn’t understand any of the passages that she had been assigned.  She started to panic.  There were tears.  Then her teacher called me.  The next morning, I came to Lindsay’s class. As I entered the doorway, she jumped out of her seat and was eager to come with me.  I was surprised by her response because the year before, Lindsay tried her best to avoid me.  But now she was ready.  She wanted help. She wanted to read better.  We walked together down the long, bright hallway chatting about the summer and the best flavors of ice cream. Then we went out the door, through the courtyard, up the stairs to another building where my office is located.

Lindsay and I settled into our seats in front of a large picture window.  I was glad the room was large and cheerful with lots of light streaming in and a view of beautiful trees and flowering shrubbery.  I could tell Lindsay was a little apprehensive, so I kept the conversation pleasant and positive.  I asked her about what she had read during the summer, and she confessed that she read only two books. Instead of focusing on quantity, I asked her what the books her about.  She could not remember the titles or the topics.  This told me that she was definitely not connecting with books.  She had not yet entered the story and become part of it.  I knew that was going to be my job this year, and I was energized by that knowledge.

I told Lindsay that I had not always liked reading.  I told her that my dad was a writer, my mom was a teacher, and I had an older sister.  They were all readers.  I wanted to be different.  I wanted to do something else.  Then, when I was in 5th grade, Mrs. Skovron was my teacher.  She helped me to learn to read better.  She told me that I did indeed love stories and that together we would find the right ones for me to read.  And that’s exactly what she did, and that’s exactly what I promised Lindsay we would do together.  I looked at her and she was smiling.  She was ready to take the first step.  First, I taught her strategies for when you come across an unfamiliar word. We broke several words apart syllable by syllable, and her shoulders relaxed.  She read a passage silently and made a key comprehension error.  I pointed to a part in the passage, and I asked her to read it aloud.  She did and her eyes lit up. 

“Oh, I was wrong!” she said.  “I understand now!” 

We both laughed together.  I told her that for now she should read aloud so that she can hear the story unfolding and can pay better attention to it.  I talked about making pictures in her mind as she read.

She read the next passage aloud to me. I stopped her when I knew her understanding was breaking down, and we talked about what was happening in the text.  Little by little, slowly we make our way through the text.  When she reached the end, I could tell by her facial expression that she really understood the story and could retell it confidently.  She had worked hard. It was time to return to class.  Lindsay saw a colorful box on the windowsill and asked me what was inside.  I opened the box to reveal a collection of seashells. 

“Pick two,” I said. She looked up at me,

“Really? They are so beautiful.” 

“Yes, you worked hard.  Take two,” I told her. 

I knew that I had made a reading partner, we were ready for a year of adventures.

Room to Read
 
I was not a born reader
For me, reading was work
Long, hard work,
Words stretched out
Each and every sound
Slow... slow... work,
Work that required patience and precision,
Which, at times, I had a short supply.
 
 
Everyone in my family was a reader
All my friends were readers
I would rather be running
Swinging, swimming, biking
Hiding in the woods, skipping stones
Reading was slow
Reading was done inside in a quiet room,
Reading required singular attention.
 
Then I entered 5th Grade,
Loved my teacher at first sight,
And I knew she like me.
Very soon, she realized I was not a reader.
I read aloud in a staccato monotone,
I gulped, sighed, and struggled my way
Through sentence after sentence.
When I was done, I had no idea what I had read.
 
My teacher didn’t give up,
She was patient and precise,
She helped me unlock the sounds
And read more smoothly.
She held out book after book to me,
I shook my head – no, not this one –
Or that one – or that one –
None held my interest
 
Until Misty of Chincoteague.
I loved horses, and wild ponies
Piqued my curiosity.
That day I brought the book home,
I filled my bathtub
With pillows and blankets
and climbed inside - book in hand,
Snuggled down and began to read.
 
I was there on the island surrounded
By sand dunes, tall grass, the smell of salty air.
My mother knocked on the door
Wanting to know what I was doing.
“Reading,” I responded.
She peaked in to see me
Reading in my reading nest
And quietly closed the door.
 
Those ponies, those words, that book
Unlocked reading for me.
I read horse book after horse book,
Then books about ancient Egypt,
After that, I read about a girl named Harriet
Who got into a lot of trouble.
Now, I was a reader.
Now, I was ready for another story.