This past month, I have learned that inspiration for teaching and life can come from many places: a photograph of a curled up Dachshund, a simple quote from Shakespeare, a 2nd grader’s writing assessment, or an educational email with the subject line: Are we preparing students to be chefs or cooks?
This email came from A.J. Juliani, who has written many books about student empowerment, technology, and innovation. He is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Centennial School District in Pennsylvania and also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Juliani believes that teachers and students should approach their work life chefs. He explains it this way:
When my brother passed away a few years ago, my thoughts turned to my own children. How could I help raise them to be chefs? How could I raise them to not follow the recipes of life, but instead make their own recipes for their life? But, it is not just my kids, it is all of our kids.
This is one thing I know for sure: every single one of us is not getting off this planet alive. And since this is the case, I believe we should be kind to ourselves and each other, and always put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Most importantly, we should follow our dreams and play. This is why I’m so glad that my work and my play are the same thing. Maybe I have always approached life like a chef: creating, improvising, putting things together that aren’t normally supposed to go together. To me, it makes life fun and interesting. And it’s worth it, even when I encounter mistakes. Or maybe especially when I encounter my mistakes. The mistakes make me grow and learn and try on new adventures.
This week, I was tasked with reading our students’ writing assessments. Wednesday night after dinner, tired with a cup of tea in my hand, I read this little gem from one of our 2nd graders:
I smiled when I read this passage. This student didn’t want to be pigeon-holed at the tender age of seven about what she would like to be when she grew up, so she created her own role. Nobody told her she couldn’t do that. She invented her own path. I was so pleased to see this, so happy that we were encouraging kids to think outside the box, to go beyond what lies behind them.
Reading about chef-scientists made think about all the times I’ve spent in the kitchen with children creating holiday foods, foods inspired by children’s books, and foods for the fun of it like the time I made hand-cranked watermelon ice with a rambunctious group of four-year-olds that required six cups of sugar. That recipe was the definition of SWEET!
My favorite times in the kitchen with kids were the times we created cakes using no recipes. The students had to create the recipe as we went along. I called this activity Monster Cake. I would put out a bunch of different ingredients and the children would decide which ingredients to use and how much to put in. A number of years ago, one little boy was adamant about putting a ¼ cup of salt into the cake batter. I allowed him to do that because we were making two batches and this way the children could all learn what happens to a cake with ¼ cup of salt in it. It actually was a beautiful cake, but it didn’t taste good. We crumbled it up and put it out for the birds, but even the birds and squirrels didn’t eat it! The other cake had 2 cups of chocolate chips in it and the chips sank to the bottom making a fudge layer. That cake we all ate with gusto!
While searching the web, I found that actually creating food without a recipe is now a cool and trendy thing. Some call it free-style baking. I love this idea. We should make our one trip on this beautiful planet sweet, spicy, comforting, and sometimes a bit surprising! I’m about to enter my kitchen now to make some Blustery Day Oatmeal cookies, a recipe I invented. Try them, if you dare!
February is a hard month for me. It is the middle of winter: the snow is no longer a novelty, and the cold and gray gets to be too much for my spirit at times. I try to lighten up the days literally with candles and sunny yellow tulips from the local supermarket. I’ve grown fond of eating tart lemon curd pudding. I’ve grown too fond in fact!
This past Thursday, February 25th would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. She died almost eight years ago at the age of 91. She had a nice long life, but not long enough for me. I miss her every day. I miss her smile, her shining eyes, her chats about books and kids and recipes. She was my first teacher, and she was also many children’s teacher for over twenty years. She loved her 2nd graders and would regale our family with story upon story of their triumphs and tribulations. Later, I would regale her with stories of my own students.
It was one February day when my dad called to say that my mom had had a heart attack. She was seventy-one at the time. I remember rushing to the hospital where she had to undergo a quadruple bypass operation. I was terrified but tried to hide it. She looked at me, grabbed my hands, and looked me in the eye, “Don’t worry. I am no ready to go. I am going to make it through. I’m not going anywhere.” And I believed her. And she was right. She had an incredibly long and difficult recovery, but in May that year on Mother’s Day, she was finally released from the hospital and began a slow and steady healing process.
February brings with it a bunch of conflicting emotions for me. Time to celebrate my mom’s birth, time to remember and honor her, but also time to miss her and long for her soothing voice and calm reassurance. She would tell me everything was going to be okay, and I would believe her. This February, her 99th year, I wanted to find a way to celebrate her life.
When I read those words and suddenly a sad, icy facial image came to mind. I smiled to myself. I immediately knew what I was going to do to honor my mom and her love of books and children. I would have my 4th grade students draw and write about February Faces. During class, I explained that I was reading Julie’s blog and came across Shakespeare’s quote. I wanted students to understand that inspiration for writing can come in many different ways and to always be on the lookout for writing ideas. I read the quote and asked the children what they thought a February face might look like. A multitude of adjectives came flying towards me: sad, grumpy, depressed, icicle hair, hard beady eyes, pale blue skin, happy, wrapped in wool, loving February 14th. I loved that I received both positive and negative images of February. After I read the quote, the students said that they wanted to read it aloud. It wasn’t something I planned for but something they all added to the lesson. It was an important way for them to connect to Shakespeare’s words. Many students volunteered, some donning English accents and projecting their dramatic best. This naturally added to their engagement. Before I set them out to write their own poems, I modeled what I thought a February face looked like, drawing a simple sketch on the board. Then I asked the children to help build a poem together. These are two examples of the group poems we created.
After we created the group poems, the girls set to work drawing their February faces and composing their poems. They worked diligently and I cannot wait to see what they finally create. One student called me over to her desk and asked if the February face had to human and gave me a mischievous smile. When I looked at her paper, she was in the process of drawing an Ice Dragon. “Brilliant idea,” I whispered. “Keep working. I want to see what you create!”
More than concentrating purely on the product, I think it is essential for kids to experience the process of generating and idea, brainstorming possibilities, and thinking outside the box to create one’s own images, whether they are visual or written. At first, when I said my writing idea this week was from Shakespeare, they all squirmed in their seats a bit. They thought Shakespeare was going to be too hard for them. But in the end, they realized that they could understand Shakespeare and respond to his words with unique and well-thought out ideas.
This week, I will give them plenty of time to share and respond to each other’s work. I hope Shakespeare will be a source of inspiration for them for years to come.
Shakespeare for Children
A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories by Angela McAllister
I cannot remember a time that I did not like to write. Putting a pencil in my hand was giving me my turn to speak. I loved creating imagined worlds, pouring my heart out, and writing about what could have been and what might yet be. Writing expanded my horizons. I get to live more life by writing. Sometimes it baffles me when the small children in front of me have trouble finding an idea or organizing a thought. I study them intently, hoping to find a magic strategy that will get them to see themselves as people who enjoy writing. Magic does come, but not in the way I think it should or would. Magic comes by writing every day. Allowing space in your day to put the pencil to the page or the fingers to the keys. It comes from allowing yourself to tell your story to others through your hands.
It had been more than forty years since I was part of a community of writers. In college, I took part in writing groups, collectives, workshops. After college that stopped, and I wrote for myself, not sharing with anyone until I forced myself to put the piece in an envelope and send it to strangers, who would return it most often with a kind rejection. That did not feel right. I started to think of those stories and poems as rejected, not good enough and that made me avoid writing every day. But I have an intrepid heart and a yearning to be heard so I eventually picked up the pencil and started writing for myself and my invisible audience. Over the years, I have written with and for my students. I encourage them to have intrepid hearts and tell their stories. We build communities and we cultivate gardens of ideas to write about.
The simplest magic strategy is to LISTEN. When we listen to kids, whether they struggle to write or easily skip along the page, we can help them move along as writers. We can connect to them and start the conversation. Sometimes we go off topic. Okay, many times we go off topic, but that’s just the point. Our magical winding conversations always lead to wild writing that excites us and beckons us to write more.
Another simple strategy that works for me all the time is to READ. When I was a very young writer, I would read and imitate. When I was a young adult writer, I considered that way of writing to be cheating, so I stopped reading. Do you know what happened then? My words became stiff and wooden; my ideas were flat and dull. When I picked up books again, it kickstarted my imagination, and I was off and writing again.
I am so grateful to be part of a blogging community this year. As much as I love to write every week, I love to read the posts of my fellow bloggers. I have a connection to them even though we have never met. I have shared their joys and their sorrows, their book recommendations, their recipes for apple cake and jerk chicken taco, their photos of gardens and pets, and oceans and grandchildren. I am fortunate to have this treasure of ideas waiting for me each week.
Last week, Fran Haley posted a photo of her dog, Dennis, and a poem called “Little Dog Dreams.” This small piece of writing got me to thinking how I could help my 4th grade students out of their winter doldrums. They have been sitting listless behind their shields of plexiglass for weeks now, and I needed something to perk up their imaginations. Fran’s little poem was just the thing! I knew my nine and ten year old girls would fall in love with Dennis and that would spur them to write “Little Dog Dream” poems.
First, I showed them the photo of Dennis circle up in a comforter, head bowed, ears inside out, a picture of perfect sleep. Then I read Fran’s small 8-line poem. We talked about how Fran constructed her poem: two stanzas with four lines each. We talked about the rhyme scheme and noticed Fran’s word choice – vivid adjectives and strong verbs. Next, we brainstormed words that might go into a “Little Dog Dream” poem. Our list looked something like this:
Now the girls were ready to write. They quickly got out their pencils and started to compose.No one had trouble getting started. They began talking to each other – telling funny dog stories.I had forgotten to leave some time for talking and sharing, but they did so naturally, and I let it be. Soon the room was quiet and poems began to appear on their papers just like magic.
Emily and Hadley wrote acrostic poems:
Loves a belly rub
Lauren and Maddie tried their hand at rhyming:
LITTLE DOGS DREAMby Lauren
Little dogs dream about an owner who cares
Little dogs don’t dream about teddy bears,
They are not selfish. They’re happy and proud.
They are happy to be alive and they don’t ask for much
Now it’s your turn. Put yourself in the dog’s shoes.
You would love treats and teddy bears, but
No! I bet that you would be happy with an owner
Now imagine you on the streets with no owner.
I bet you would not ask for much.
You are happy to be alive.
Now come back!
And imagine that dog life!
LITTLE DOG DREAMSby Maddie
Snuggled up on their own little bed
Thinking about warm thoughts in their head.
Running through the cold snow
Sinking and getting low
When they reach their owners arms
Safe but alarmed
When they hear a weird sound
They cover it up with howling and jumping around.
When they get back to their cozy home
Happy thoughts are what they dream.
My dreamers, Laila and Caroline, added some imagery:
Little Dog Firefly
Flying in the air,
A firefly lands on my dog’s nose
My dog just sits there
Staring into the starry sky,
Loving and kind.
Little Dogs Dream
Little dogs dream of jumping
Into a pool of treats,
Little dogs dream of owners
Petting and loving them.
Little dogs dream of going outside,
Chasing squirrels, hugging trees,
And scaring all the birds.
Little dogs dream
What little dogs dream!
And always practical, Ashley, easily took on the voice of her beloved dog, Gerty.
Gerty’s Dog Dreams
Some yummy food better come soon!
Otherwise I go to the bathroom on the floor!
Ahhhh … YAY… I see food!!!
Wait… Mom is LEAVING ME
Oh no. I have to FOLLOW HER.
Even though I know she hates it
when I follow her. Whatever.
Oh man, Cameron is taking me to her zoom call.
Ahhh... why is everyone saying AWWWW?
What is so cute? Wait is it me?
Heh, probably I am so… cute!
Is this my purpose? Haha! Yay.
The next day ...
Wait... what? Why is Ashley screaming my name?
Let me go to… Taylor's room!
Ahhh… I am trapped!
Man, I should have gone to Ashley.
Let me out Taylor!!
Please!!!!!!! Help someone!!!
Yay Dad let me go!!
Wait, Taylor has me.
She is taking me… AHHHH.
Ok let's follow Mom again!
Mom is moving the furniture again
She said it’s the last time!
Ok let me go to Dad and make him pet me!
Ok… just been 10 minutes. 20 minutes..
Dadddddd pay attention to meeeeeee, pleaseeeee!!
The next day when Emily comes….
Hmmm… What should I do?
I am bored of following mom..
So… Wait, Emily is here!
Yay! She is wearing her black leggings
now I can shed on her again!!!
Mommy gets mad
when I shed on her. Whatever.
And Olivia, who is a devoted cat lover, quietly flipped the theme and wrote this:
Little Kitten Dreams
Small kitten sleeping
Snow covering its white pelt
Dreaming about prey
Catching sixteen mice
Running free in the wild
Freedom is so sweet
Waking up at dawn
Went to fulfill its wishes
And fulfill its dreams
I am so grateful for Fran’s inspiration this week and ever so grateful to be able to spend my weeks writing with children. They never cease to provide me with magic and promise. Indeed, I learn from them every single day.
February holds a special place in my heart. Not because it’s my birthday month, that will come soon enough, but because it is the month of my anniversary, my Grandpa Charlie’s and my mother’s birthday. She would have been 99 this month! When February rolls along, I bring out my red: little heart dishes, candles, flowers, and little things to brighten and cheer this long winter space.
In the classroom, I turn to poetry and talk to the children about loving kindness, first to themselves and then to others. We make lots of lists of the things we love. These lists mostly revolve around family and food. We practice writing odes and shout outs to all the things we love and are grateful for. Odes were originally songs performed to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, and sometimes a brave soul will write a song and perform it. I love these small moments of celebration: no cake, no presents, just the simple pleasure of the written and spoken word.
To begin introducing odes to the children I choose Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes.” I think the sparseness and brilliant imagery will capture their attention and imagination. This is how Neruda begins:
Ode to TomatoesThe streetfilled with tomatoes,midday,summer,light ishalvedlikeatomato,its juicerunsthrough the streets.In December,unabated,the tomatoinvadesthe kitchen,it enters at lunchtime,takesits easeon countertops,among glasses,butter dishes,blue saltcellars.It shedsits own light,benign majesty.
Neruda perfectly places each word and gives each the importance it deserves. After the students choose an object of their affection, I ask them to write a list of all the words to describe that object. We share the lists and our classmates offer more suggestions. Then it is time to write. Here are a few the students created.
Ode to Horses
in the middle of the night
when nobody is watching,
their manes flying in the wind
as they go by.
They talk to each other
with a simple “Neigh.”
When the sun comes up,
they are all tired from a long night.
Their eyes still glow with delight.
They have a long day,
but they keep on trotting on
because they know
what the night brings.
Ode to Candles
Out in the living room
Aspiring to burn the brightest
Standing tall and proud
Wax running down the side
When the flame has died
It goes to sleep
Dreaming about a great flame
The people huddle round
Outside the snow falls
Ode to Puppies
Your fluffy feet
And velvety ears
Make me want to cuddle you all day long!
You make me smile
When you run around on your fluffy feet
And when you curl up into a ball to sleep
You make me want to hug you
Your tiny teeth may nip,
And your miniature claws may scratch
But I love you just the same.
I love your little tail
As it wags, wags, wags
And your round tummy
As you chow on yummy food
You make me laugh
When you chew on a bone
And chase your tail
And lie down on your bed
I love you
Ode to My Goggles
During the day my goggles
Open their eyes and see
All the swimmers swimming.
They swim with me
In the pool
And protects my eyes.
At night they dream
Of swimming in the ocean,
Seeing all the fish and coral.
They wake up,
Ready to swim.
Thank you, goggles!
Another poem type I came across recently are Shout Outs. Shout out poems are poems that thank people, animals or things that are personally important. Sekou Sundiata created this type of poetry. His poem has a lot of music in it. Here is a small part of his poem. You can listen to the entire poem here: SHOUT OUT!
Shout OutHere’s to the best wordsIn the right place at the perfect timeHere’s to three hour dinnersAnd long conversations, and a beautiful day.To the increase, to the decreaseTo the do, to the doTo the did to the didTo the done doneTo the lonely.To the brokenhearted.To the new, blue haiku.Here’s to all or nothing at all.Here’s to the sick, and the shut-in.Here’s to the was you been to the is you inTo what’s deep and deep To what’s down and downTo the lost, and the blind, and the almost found.
Here is my attempt at a Shout Out poem. When teaching poetry to children, I think it is essential to write and create and revise right alongside them so that the class become a community of writers fully engaged in the process.
Earth Shout Out
Here’s to the seasons turning
To the bright spring flowers
To the cardinals and jays singing in the trees
Shout out to the clear blue sky
To the fluffy whipped cream clouds
To the children running and playing
To their laughter and wild freedom.
Shout out to the peaceful world
To the beautiful earth
To the golden sun and silver moon
And to the twinkly diamond stars!
I encourage students to describe the things they love in unusual ways. I don’t make them stick to one form and have fifteen cookiecutter poems. I want them to explore the form and push the boundaries of their thinking. One great book to share with children is Shout!: Little Poems that Roar by Brod Bagert.
Winter SHOUT OUT!!!
Here’s to the snowy blizzards
To the skiing vacations
To the warm winter coats
Shout out to the Christmas fun
To the cozy Vermont cabins
To the tight ice skates
To the creamy hot chocolate
Shout out to the warm, doughy cookies
To the steep sledding hills
To the family movies, snuggled under blankets
And to the winter wonderland outside my warm, cozy house
Shout out to Pizza
Pizza is cheesy goodness
Pizza is a great wheel of sauce
Pizza I love your hot and cheesy flavor
I love you with veggies on top
I adore pepperoni too
I shout to the sky
Pizza you are the BEST!
Shout Out to Ice Cream
Ice cream you are the dairy king
You taste better than anything
You come in a lot of flavors
All which I savor
Even though you’re very cold
That makes you even more bold.
You can be eaten in bowls,
And you can be eaten in cones
And with your toppings that are so delish
You are my number one wish!
Odes and Shout Outs are a great way to liven up these dreary winter days. They serve as a little light in the darkness. They remind us about what we love and why. They help us to reflect and have gratitude for the big and small things in our lives.
Here are some great books to celebrate loving kindness and Valentine’s Day.
Arthur’s Valentine by Marc Brown
Guess How Much I Love You? By Sam McBratney
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
Here Comes Valentine Cat by Deborah Underwood
Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes
Llama, Llama, I Love You by Anna Dewdney
Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Love from the Crayons by Drew Dayward
Love Letters by Arnold Adoff
Love Monster by Rachel Bright
Love, Splat by Rob Scotton
Louanne Pig in the Mysterious Valentine by Nancy Carlson
Ollie’s Valentine by Olivier Dunrea
One Zillion Valentines by FrankModell
Pete the Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool by James Dean
Somebody Loves You, Mr.Hatcher by Eileen Spinelli
Snowy Valentine by David Peterson
The Best Valentine in the World by Marjorie Weisman Sharmat
I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro. It’s cover is patterned and embossed. I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style. Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing. It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together. I had never seen a book quite like it. I was enticed and started reading. The authors’ words calmed and centered me. I began recalling my history with thread and needle. Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase.
Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress. She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college. She was amazingly gifted. She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket. My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was. She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves. I became interested in embroidery in my early teens. I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans. I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them. I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom. It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.
I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood. Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus. I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric. One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment. I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard. It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches. I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session. To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking. His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative. More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.
In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework. At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project. She was looking for quilters and embroiderers. I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit. To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York. That was a great experience for me. I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life. I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.
But it did not. Like my mother, I turned toward teaching. I continued to create with my students. I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with. For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts. We’d readTar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too. We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet. We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before. We were creating something together, something that would be joined together. When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year. I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts. There’s a story in that!
For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells. I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own. I do these projects purely for myself. I love choosing the colors and textures of paper. I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design. The buttons and beads are a particular favorite. One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons. They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect.
I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to. It seems there never is enough time. I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity. I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life. It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands. Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:
Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken. Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve. A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.
That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country. I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.” They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt. By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw. I love this idea. Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew.
Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi. Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible. This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice. She artfully and thoughtfully explains: The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.
I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again. Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along. Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.
Clothes sit in a pile
On the edge of my bed,
Waiting for attention.
I sit down next to them:
The khakis with the torn hem,
The sweater missing its button,
The shirt that split it’s seam,
The sock with a hole in its toe,
The old pair of worn-out jeans
With a huge tear in one knee.
I take a deep breath,
I rather be doing something else,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
Pick up the pants,
Examine the hem,
Thread the needle with
As close a khaki colored thread
As I can find – and start.
I pierce the supple surface
Down and up, down and up again and again
The thread slides through the fabric
Until the hem secured.
My hands take up the sweater
It is my favorite: black, red, and white
Thick and warm from Norway
With embossed silver buttons
One is missing now
I find another in my button box
It is not quite the same
Will anyone notice?
Does it matter? Do I care?
I snip off the top button
And put it in the place of the missing one
Then I take the mismatched button
And place it on top in full view
Like that’s where it was meant to be
I wrap heavy black floss around and around
The button shank keeping it
Snug - sure not to fall off.
My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
With it’s tiny split seam is next
I hold it up to my nose
It smells like him
I take a deep breath,
I’m doing something for someone I love,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
I find delicate white cotton thread
And another sharp needle
I concentrate on make tiny
Identical stitches one after another
After another until it is complete.
There’s my old worn sock
I take it in hands and examine it
Is it worth keeping?
The hole is quite large
But the rest of the sock is perfect
And they are my warmest
They make my feet happy
I search for charcoal gray yarn.
But find only Prussian Blue.
I begin to knit with my darning needle
Chains of wool connecting loops
Upon connecting loops
This work is different
I am not so much as attaching
As I am creating more material
I am making a toe-shaped space
Prussian blue, all its own.
My mending pile is gone
Only my worn jeans are left
The tear is huge and threatens
To extend mid-shin.
The fabric is flimsy and thin
I think a patch is possible.
I place a pretty blue and pink print
Underneath the tear
Stitching it quickly in place
Then I take up an abundance
Of pastel floss and create blossoms
Around the knee and down
Along one side of my pants leg
I keep adding flower upon flower
Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
A vine of mint green winds in and out
My needle pokes and pierces,
Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
My mending is done for the day.
I take a deep breath.
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention.
Books About Mending
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
by Raleigh Briggs
Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure
Quilt Books for Children
Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston
Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
Though I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was four years old, I sometimes find it hard to actually sit down and write. Often I walk and write in my head or just upon waking, write in my mind the wonderful idea I had while I was dream-waking. Sometimes, I make the time to write them down, but most times they slip away, and my day gets filled with daily minutia. As I’ve grown older, I try to be more consistent with my writing, because I am keenly aware of time and life slipping away. Writing is important to me, and I need to be mindful of giving it the room it deserves in my life. Without writing I know I would not fully be me. Without writing, I would not be able to think through my problems or create new things. Writing needs a conscious, breathing space. Writing needs time.
Many of my writing ideas come from books I’ve discovered. In the pre-COVID years, I loved to browse my favorite indie bookstores, wandering and reading hoping to come upon an interesting find. I miss those days. Buying books on Amazon is not the same experience. I hope those bookstores find a way to survive because they were an important part of my inspiration. It was in one of these now defunct bookstores where I found the little yellow treasure, FEG: Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch. In this book, Hirsch includes the poem, “Entering a Poem,” which is a brilliant and humorous way of introducing poetry to children. It begins:
You enter a poemJust like you enter a room.You open the doorAnd what do you see?A sink, for example,A bathtub, a toilet(Does a toilet belong in a poem?)And you say to yourself, “AhaIt’s a bathroom.”
Needless to say, I bought the book immediately and shared it with everyone I know. I wanted to see what I could do with this subject. I began to think of the old row house my husband and I lived in decades ago in Princeton. It dated back to the early 1800’s and had a quirky charm. It is this place that I thought of as I wrote my poem.
When You Enter A Poem
You enter a poem
through the basement.
Walking down several steep steps,
you inhale a musty odor –
the damp darkness.
You reach above for the string
that will turn on the light,
you can’t find it.
You shuffle and stumble,
trying to adjust to the light.
You begin to see outlines –
shadows of things
Could that be your old wagon?
Is that a box of your books?
You bump into an old rocking chair,
you always loved that rocker.
You’d sit on your mother’s lap
as she told you stories,
a cobweb gently touches your face.
You swat it away.
Where’s the light?
You find the string and pull,
but it does not go on.
You know the poem is in here, somewhere,
you reach out your hands
and feel your way around -
the cool, rough cinderblock walls,
the smooth, curved oak chest
the ragged, chipped-painted pipes.
Your eyes are getting accustomed to the dark.
You can now make out the wooden ceiling beams,
the various pieces of furniture stacked with boxes
the small, odd door on the far side of the room.
There is a sudden scent of lavender
from some abandoned blooms
forgotten in an old vase.
You walk on feeling your way
in the murky darkness.
You come to the small, odd door.
It is really just some rough-hewn planks
crudely hammered together.
A brass key protrudes from the lock.
You try to turn it, you try to pull it out,
but it doesn’t budge.
You wonder what is inside
and why it’s locked away.
You try the key again.
It won’t turn.
You knock on the door -
There is no one on the other side.
You boldly bang and kick it,
Throw your shoulder against it,
it remains steadfast.
You walk back towards the steps,
You can make your way
more easily through the darkness.
A poem is like that –
Some things become clearer,
some remain secret,
you turn and ascend the stairs.
Whenever I think of a lesson for children, I must try it out first and make mistakes. Mistakes guide me in how to make the lesson better. I welcome mistakes. If my idea comes out too perfect, I don’t trust it. There must be something I’m not seeing, not realizing. This poem came out all at once, and I wondered if children would be able to create a visual space for how they enter a poem. I tried it out with some 5th graders, and they easily delved into their poetry place. I think the humor imbedded throughout Hirsch’s poem helped them understand that poetry is accessible. It can be about toilets and musty basements. It can ask questions and not provide all the answers. Indeed, it should raise more questions and make us wonder.
When sharing this idea with students, I first read aloud both Hirsch and mine own “entering a poem” poems. We talked about how each poem was constructed and the form, language, and images the poets created. Then I asked my students to think about a poem as a room in a home or space somewhere. How do you get inside? How do you begin to understand it? I asked them to write an “Entering a Poem” poem. I told them that their “room” can be any type and anywhere. It could be a bedroom, kitchen, secret room, tunnel, spaceship, a place outdoors, – whatever they imagined it to be.
When You Enter A Poem
When you enter a poem...
It’s like entering a kitchen
First you stick out your hand,
Reach for the cabinet with the bowls.
Take one large bowl and one small bowl.
Then comes the eggs, flour, sugar,
chocolate icing, and honey
out of the refrigerator.
Next, beat two eggs
and some honey in the small bowl.
Then mix the sugar and the flour
in the large bowl.
Time for wet ingredients!
Put them in the large bowl
and mixed them together.
Pour the batter in the pan,
And put it in the oven.
A half an hour later,
Take the cake
out of the oven
and ice it
Making a poem is like
Making a cake
Keep adding ingredients
Come into the Poem
Come into the poem,
It is a cool pool,
Blue and deep.
All the way.
The fish swim
Between your feet.
The slick seaweed
Wraps around your shoulders.
Something sparkles on the
Rocky ocean floor
But you cannot reach it.
The current takes you
In another direction
The water is murky
It's hard to see clearly
Then something beautiful
Comes into view,
Into the Poem,
Cool and blue and deep,
Delicate and full of wonder,
A starfish on the sand
Into the Poem.
I look forward to playing with this idea with more groups of children. What rooms will they create? What fresh language will they invent? How will they show me a new way of thinking? What will they teach me next?
January is almost over. We have elected a new president. We have for the first time in history a woman vice president. The COVID virus has several new vaccines, and they are slowly being distributed. My family members and friends continue to be safe and healthy. I should feel hopeful. I do not. I feel drained. I have taken on two positions at school this year – learning specialist and curriculum coordinator – two giant jobs, and back in August I was certain I could handle both if I kept myself in balance.
Now, I am not so sure. It seems that there is premium on students who need support. I am not the only one feeling stressed, anxious, and in desperate need of a shoulder, outstretched hand, or warm smile. This week, a student cried giant tears, which rolled down her cheeks soaking her mask. “I always get in trouble at school,” she declared.
When I asked her to explain what happened to me. She said that she couldn’t but that she could draw it. So I gave her a piece of paper and some markers thinking she was going to draw the problem she was facing. Instead, her markers created brilliant springtime flowers, deep green grass growing wildly around a happy, fat house, with bright jaunty windows, a crooked chimney and a red door with the number 32 above it. When I asked, “How is this the problem you are telling me about?”
She looked at me like I had two heads and replied, “It’s not. You see it’s 32, not 42 like the school. I live at 32 Jockey Hollow Road and that’s where I want to be.”
I smiled under my mask. She was a clear as clear could be. She did something wrong, and she wanted to escape back to safety. And safety to her was to be at home with her parents. I was so glad she had a safe place. I needed to help her feel that way at school more often, instead of feeling like the kid who’s two steps behind and doesn’t know where she put her pencil again, and the teacher is waiting, and her classmates are saying her name impatiently. Again. So I listen and I problem solve, and I offer her some kindness. When we get back to the classroom, they are doing art. She returned to her seat and picked up her scissors and glue. Her shoulders relaxed. She had regained a bit of her balance.
I can empathize. I often feel like that student did: I’m going to be in trouble. I can’t keep up. I’m tossing all the plates, but I cannot catch them. I try in vain to create pockets of peace and pleasure, but they are fleeting. I remember my mother’s words: “Be good to yourself.” I try. I do try. I remember the list I made in August, a Zen Toolbox to keep me content and on track and not to slip into the girl with her shoulders hunched up to her ears, running from task to task, holding her breath. I look back at the toolbox and see the list of books, art, and music. They are useful tools, and I have returned to their pages often to gain some inspiration. But now, at this time of year, I need another plan. A more active direct plan, one in which I can push out the walls of my stress and create an artistic positive and more hopeful space.
I know it is imperative for me to do this. I’ve read the literature on teacher burn out. According to some recent research, 66% of teachers want to leave education and 41.3% of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years on the job. Given those numbers, I feel quite successful because I have been teaching for forty-two years. I must have a secret, some ancient wisdom I can bestow on my fellow teachers.
This week, I came up with these ideas. They are not so much RULES, as they are affirmations about who I really am and the important work I do each day with children. If I am to connect with my students and lift them up, I definitely need to make sure that I am being good to myself.
1. Create tissue craft paper collage studies. Do a couple a week. Remember to play.
2. Treat myself to flowers at work often. Do not make excuses. Buy them on Monday.
3. Whenever I feel stressed at work, pull back, go inside myself, take a walk, write or draw for 15 minutes. No one needs me for 15 minutes. Take the time.
4. Remember to stay professional. Be about teaching and not personalities.
5. Continue walking, exercising, stretching every day. Try to exercise before school – at lunch and after school whenever possible.
6. Make a list of writing projects and finish them.
7. Remember creativity. If I don’t do writing and art, my spirit dies and I become bitter. The best part of me is my childlike enthusiasm. Celebrate that!
8. Make a list of art dates – schedule a day each month to do some extended art dates: sketch, collage, print making, water color, finger paint.
9. Try something new every week: a new vegetable, a new shampoo, a new song, a new way of looking at the same things.
10. Be an observer. Go out into nature, breathe in calm, write what you see, write what you feel.
This is what I played with this week. Some reflections on nature and the healing power of trees, trying to find the quiet places.
The trail is laden
with rain soaked stones -
brown, gray, pale green
and rust colored pine needles
and last fall’s leaves
now brown and brittle
returning to the earth.
The forest canopy -
a colossal verdant umbrella
letting the rays of the sun
only in certain sacred spots.
A huge elm has fallen,
its two main branches
now rest on its trunk
like two great arms
still seeking salvation.
Clouds loom over the ridge line,
Whipped cotton cumulus clouds
Casting shadows on the hills,
On the forest floor,
Glints of reflected light
On the river’s surface.
Dark green cool spots,
Rocky crags and uprooted trees
Hidden in silent repose.
I have been playing with teaching sketchnoting for the past month. I naturally doodle while reading and listening. It helps me focus, remember, and make connections from familiar concepts to new ones. I thought that by teaching our 4th graders this strategy they might be able to focus, remember and understand better and more deeply. I hope it will become an integral part of their reading toolbox. My first lesson encompassed introducing how to sketchnote and providing time to practice the basic drawing techniques.
We practiced sketchnoting about something very familiar – ourselves. Each student made a sketchnote introducing many aspects of themselves: their likes and dislikes, their family members, and what they enjoy doing. In the next lesson, I read the picture book, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. I chose this book due to its strong visual nature and use figurative language. I thought these elements would help the students create sketches and write down vivid images.
This week, I continued to give students sketchnote practice time. First, I made sure to review the sketchnoting basics. Next, I had the students warm up for sketchnoting by sky writing, which is writing in the air with their index fingers. Then, I asked them to make simple abstract doodles on paper while listening to music for a few minutes.
Now, the students were ready to sketchnote. I explained that I was going to slowly read the book, Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport. I asked students to share what they already knew about Dr. King’s life and work. Some students proudly shared their knowledge, while other continued to ask questions. Soon they were ready to focus on the story. I chose this book because it focuses on the nonviolent concepts Dr. King taught and believed. I wanted these concepts to be the focal point of the students’ sketchnotes. In this way, I believed the students would continue to remember King’s big words and the peaceful way in which he led others to protest against inequality. King’s words were so important then and are incredibly crucial now: freedom, love, God, faith, goodness, kindness, courage, trust, compassion, together, equity, justice, bravery, equality, care, determination, respect, unity, resilience, hope, and dream.
The girls listened carefully as I read and showed the pictures. Some students asked me to repeat some pages with text they wanted to remember. During this thirty minute reading session, I had the students’ complete attention. They all diligently sketchnoted for the entire time. From observing their work, I could gauge each student’s level of understanding. It is such a quick and graphic way to assess student understanding. Next week, I plan to have them add to their sketchnotes after some discussion and reflection about their process. Most of the students enjoy this strategy and find it helpful. I know that listening and selecting important details is a skills they will continue to use throughout their lives, so I encourage them to keep practicing and take risks. There are no right answers, no absolutes in sketchnoting. It is another free and creative form of expression at their fingertips.
MORE TO READ:
A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson
As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson
Be a King by Carole Boston Weatherford
Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney
My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris
My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King III
My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold
My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angel Farris Watkins
That is My Dream! By Langston Hughes
These are examples of my playing with sketchnoting. I did not show my work to the students until after they had created their sketchnotes. I stressed the process and the elements of sketchnoting, not the artistic quality. I wanted to give them a sample of how to build a presentation.
I love to doodle. Whenever I am sitting and people are talking, I am drawing. I never got in trouble for this. In fact, teachers encouraged me to sketch while I was listening. It was the only way I could still myself and really listen to what was being said. Instead of tuning out, I tuned in. Making pictures helped me to remember. If I couldn’t understand a word problem, I drew out the little story in front of me, and all of a sudden the solution jumped out at me. I drew graphs, T-charts, and clocks to better understand mathematical concepts. Drawing helped in science too. Making pictures of cells and plants and chemical reactions helped me to ask questions and learn more. When reading on my own, I often draw in the margins, not just underline or highlight. If something is really important to me, I draw it so I can deepen my understanding. No one taught me to do this. I just experimented and found my own way to represent my thinking.
The first time I heard about sketchnoting as a teaching technique was several years ago in a book called Comprehension Connection by Tanny McGregor. It was an integral part of the reading strategy of visualization. Since then, Tanny has published other books with her sketchnotes: Ink and Ideas, and Harvey Daniels’ The Curious Classroom. Last month, I attended one of Tanny’s webinars offered by The Rutgers Center for Literacy Development. It came right at the right time because the following week I was planning to teach sketchnoting to our 4th grade students. Tanny showed lots of examples of where sketchnoting can be used to help students see concepts and help teachers see what exactly their students are thinking.
The emphasis is not of the art but rather on the ideas, and I wanted to be sure I expressed that understanding to our students. I didn’t want the girls who do not see themselves as proficient artists to check out of the lesson. I wanted them to feel empowered, to want to take a chance and create. To do this I focused on having students visualize an object or a scene first, and then showed them how to use shapes to convey ideas. First, I showed them some short video clips of sketchnoting. Then, I shared a slideshow I had created introducing all the elements they would need to sketchnote: banners, arrows, call out boxes, thought bubbles, shapes, lettering, and people. As I shared each element, I asked the girls to create their own version of these elements. It was a safe space to try things out and make mistakes. I drew on a whiteboard to model that my drawings did not have to be perfect – they were quick sketches. Once we had all the elements in place, we were ready for our first project.
I wanted to start with something familiar and nonthreatening, something the students know very well: themselves. As soon as I explained what I wanted them to do, they grabbed their pencils and started to sketch. The room was completely quiet, illustrating the fact that when students are completely engaged in creating, they can concentrate and bring themselves into the flow of learning. I was able to step back and watch: They didn’t need reassurance; they weren’t off task; they weren’t bored; they were thinking and drawing.
After the girls finished their sketches, they added color if they wanted and then shared their work. They not only shared the content of their drawings and ideas, but also described their design process, which was marvelous. They were doing more thinking about their thinking than I had imagined!
For the next lesson, I wanted to incorporate sketchnoting while reading. Before my lesson, I visited the 4th grade English classes and sketchnoted in front of them, while their teacher read aloud from a class novel. I was sure to incorporate the elements they had learned the week before. Then, I asked the girls to critique my sketchnote. What did they notice? What did they wonder? What did they feel? Was there something important I missed? What else might I have included?
When it was time for our second sketchnoting lesson, I chose Jane Yolen’s book, Owl Moon to read aloud because her language is so rich and visual. Before I read, we again went over the design elements used in sketchnoting, the girls got out their papers and pencils, and they were ready to begin. Once I finished reading, the girls continued to draw. Some asked me to reread specific parts in the story. The rereading helped them to add more details. It was another quiet session with total concentration. At the end of the lesson, they each had a creation they were proud of and were eager to share. As we shared, the students began to see that even though we all listened to the same story, our sketchnotes were very different. They also noted similarities, places in the text where the message stood out to many students. This is such a strong way to show main idea and figurative language. The week after this lesson, during our winter break, I received a holiday card from one student noting: “I’m practicing my sketchnoting. I hope we do more when we return. It is so much fun!”
Well, how can I ignore that? My next lesson will be sketchnoting using nonfiction texts both social studies and science. I cannot wait to see their results. I cannot wait to keep learning alongside them!
Books About Sketchnoting
Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting
Educated Design by Michael Cohen
How to Sketchnote: A Step-by-Step Manual for Teachers and Students by Sylvia Duckworth
Ink & Ideas by Tanny McGregor
My Pencil Made Me Do It: A Guide to Sketchnoting by Corrie Boughcum
Sketchnoting in the Classroom by Nichole Carter
The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde
Visual Note-Taking For Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity by Wendi Pillars
There is no must in art because art is free.– Wassily Kandinsky
The best way to describe my educational approach is – Hunter-Gatherer. I get an idea from reading, listening, or just being in the world, and something sparks my curiosity. That little something leads to something else, and something else, and something else until I’m not quite sure how I got onto the path I’m currently going. I love the journeys I’ve taken. I hadn’t thought of them as a learning process. I didn’t really think about them at all; I just naturally follow my thinking. When I work with children, I teach them this process to get them interested in reading. We talk about things that interest them, and I invariably will find something more they can read about the subject. After reading about the topic, I encourage my students to write or create something from what they’ve learned. I continue to nudge them: What inspires you? What does that make you think or feel? How do you want to express yourself?
This method has worked well with students over the decades. If reading is hard or uninteresting at first, it is the ideas which must grab the child, the ideas that call for her to act and learn. Often while reading novels with children, we will come across an idea that we want to try out. A few years ago when I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs and Knee-Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt with one of my private students, she got interested in how clocks work. We read some articles about clock mechanics and decided that we should try to make a clock. I had no idea what I was getting into. Maren wanted to make the clock that was described in Knee-Knock Rise. It was a cuckoo clock made my Uncle Anson and was described like this:
“But not like any other clock you ever heard!” warned Uncle Anson, his mild face beaming with pride. He wound it carefully and set the hands near twelve. They stood and listened as the clock began to tick toward the hours. Even Ada, with Sweetheart in her arms, came up to watch. Suddenly, there was a whirring and a click. The egg in the nest opened like a door and out came a little bird. Jerkily it spread its wings, wings made of real red feather tipped with black.”
Maren and I read and re-read these lines carefully as we planned to make the clock. In the story, Sweetheart the cat pounces on the clock-bird and destroys the clock smashing to bits of springs and feathers. As Maren read about the clock, she was determined to restore it by making a clock of her own. And indeed, for about a month we worked on making the clock. I bought a basic wooden clock kit, and Maren and I set about to create a clock with fancy numbers, a pendulum, and a nest with a bird and eggs at its base. It does not exactly tell precise time and it cost me what I usually charge for a tutoring session, but it was money well spent, because it is something Maren still keeps next to her bed and treasures because she made it. She read, she got an idea, she read some more, and she created something beautiful. This is a lesson she will never forget and so she goes on reading.
My hunter-gatherer approach is my foolproof idea box. Whenever I get worried that I may develop writer’s block, I start reading, observing, listening and I find that the ideas coming rushing towards me. I then have to decide which one I will act upon first. Last week, I was just scrolling through some blogs and one led to another and then to another. I came upon the 99% Invisible website, which highlights the creative thought that goes into ordinary objects. It celebrates the people and things that have been forgotten. From this site I learned about the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. Specifically, I became intrigued by Noguchi’s idea of Play Mountain, an abstractionist playground for children. Noguchi expressed his relationship with sculpting this way:
To search the final reality of stone beyond the accident of time, I seek the love of matter. The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity—not what might be imposed but something closer to its being. Beneath the skin is the brilliance of matter.
These words led me to further journeys viewing images and videos of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, the Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, and his California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California. The parks are beautifully simple sculpture gardens and playgrounds allowing visitors to use the structures in imaginative ways. I had never heard of Noguchi before this, and I wondered how someone so accomplished, so in tune with the way I see art and play, could have escaped my attention.
This excursion of Noguchi’s life and work made me think about how I express myself artistically. Lately, I have been sketching and I’ve faced some obstacles since what is in my mind hasn’t translated to what I put down on paper. I’m quickly frustrated with my level of skill and then get mad at myself for not letting myself just create and not worry about the product. Over the years when creating, I love building with scraps of cardboard, handmade paper, twine, beads, wire, and buttons. I let the objects form the art work. I come out of my head and into my hands.
I started to search for something to read that would help me build on this idea, and I came across Cathy Weisman Topal. Cathy is an art instructor at Smith College who created a teaching approach called Thinking with a Line. Using simple straight and curved cardboard pieces, Cathy designed art lessons to help children explore the elements of design and structure. Using these basic printmaking objects, children are able to create and express what they feel and see in their minds’ eye. Cathy has written many books about teaching art to children and has gathered inspiration from Friedrich Froebel and Rudolf Arnheim, as well as the Reggio Emilia teaching approach. Her books, Beautiful Stuff and Beautiful Stuff from Nature show children ways to use found objects to create art.
As I started to play with line printing, I thought about how I have always loved to doodle, not intentionally making a shape or object, but just allowing my hand to wander across the page. Then I asked myself: What if every day I wrote a meditation and then let my pen travel across paper? I decided to make a resolution this year to keep a journal of line meditations. I start with writing some thoughts down usually reflecting on my relationship with nature. Then I use a gel pen to loop its way over the paper without thinking. I have even closed my eyes while drawing because it helps me not to be representational. I also have drawn to classical music which helps flow and production. I don’t lift my pen; it is one continuous swirling line. At times, I pause and draw in the air extending my arm moving with the music something similar to what I do when teaching small children handwriting. We call it skywriting, and I’m think I’d like to try it again using a large sheet of paper with charcoals.
I wanted to see what would happen when I did lift my pen to make a series of lines, and I was pleased with those results too. They reminded me of the marks I would make as a young child before I knew about how to form letters and words. I used to sit for hours at the kitchen table and write, giving my mother note after note and composing fantastic stories, which would change after each retelling. I think that in doing these daily meditations, I will get closer to that childhood wonder and openness. I hope that over the next year, these line meditations will help me focus on the process of art making and not get preoccupied on artistic merit. My goal is expression and play because it’s only through play that we can fully learn.
A Line is a Dot that Went for a Walk: An Inspirational Drawing Book by Sterling Children’s
Art and Max by David Weisner
The Dot by Peter Reynolds
Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates
Going for a Walk with a Line: A Step into the World of Modern Art by Douglas and Elizabeth MacAgy
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Ish by Peter Reynolds
Lines that Wiggle by Candace Whitman
The East-west House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan by Christy Hale
The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaefer
What if… by Samantha Berger
When I Draw a Panda by Amy June Bates
Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal
Beautiful Stuff from Nature: More Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal
Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topal
Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal
Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky
Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera
Point and Line to Plane by Wassily Kandinsky
Thinking with a Line Teacher’s Guide by Cathy Weisman Topal