I am currently an ELA Curriculum Coordinator (JPK-5th grade) and have been an educator for 40 years. Over the years, I've worked with students in pre-school to 12th grade. The power of story, creativity, and curiosity have kept teaching and learning exciting and new. I'm always looking forward to the next chapter!
This summer, I am setting my intentions on listening: listening to my body, to my friends, and to the awesome nature around me. I am being mindful of my surroundings. I am paying close attention to what is important. All around me over this past year was noise: people talking, talking, talking and me worrying, worrying, worrying. So I decided to turn everything off – no television, no radio, no endless chatter. I am becoming more discerning of what I listen to. I want beautiful noise: great books, beautiful music, uplifting messages. To do this, first I had to get very, very quiet.
I had to pay attention to life with little sound. I had to cue into my other senses and learn to become present to vibrant colors, fragrant smells, and soft textures on my skin. I found myself being grateful for these simple wonders. I began to slow down, listen to my body, become kinder to myself. I paused and learned to nourish myself with, not only good food and exercise, but with positive media. So much of the media is intended to distract and cause anxiety. I turned away from the constant barrage of news and information. I decided I should be the curator of what I wanted to listen to and take in.
In the last six weeks of using this approach, I have found calm and contentment. I don’t need the noise to keep me company. I can just look up or out or down and be present to my surroundings. I can better tune into what my husband and friends are saying. The more I listen with attentiveness, the more calm I have become. It feels good be present to others. I don’t need to talk. I don’t need to do anything. I just need to listen. Listening is enough.
As I think about returning to teaching in the fall, I think about how I will talk to children about the importance of listening. I’ve been thinking about ways to teach them to center themselves, ignore distractions, and concentrate on the thing or person right in front of them. I continue to reflect on the best ways to do this, and so this will be my summer project for school this year: tuning out the unimportant and tuning in to what is essential, to what nourishes, to what gives us positive outcomes and peace.
Recently, I went to a nearby organic market and found a colorful mural on their cafe wall. It is a perfect example of placing importance of what’s necessary for meaningful communication. I am reflecting on how I will share this with my students as a way to help them develop more thoughtful speaking and deeper listening.
Books about Listening For Adults
Emotional Intelligence: Mindful Listening by The Harvard Business School
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen
Just Listen by Mark Goulston
Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred by Mark Nepo
The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James E. Miller
The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh
The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus
The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters by Kate Murphy
Picture Books about Listening for Children
Listen, Listen by Phillis Gershator
“I Have a Problem,” said the Bear by Heinz Janisch and Silke Leffler
The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall
I am as curious about color as one would be visiting a new country, because I have never concentrated so closely on color expression. Up to now I have waited at the gates of the temple.– Henri Matisse
This summer, I am color-curious. I look out my living room window to the meadow and woods beyond. I congratulate myself for getting through the drab, bare winter into the spring that exploded with golden forsythia, and now unfolds to summer surrounded by all shades of verdant green. I watch the jays flit and dip from branch to branch and then to the rail fence. How did they get so blue? Who decided this would be a good color for them? And the cardinals – bright red males and the beautiful dusky red females – who created that hue for them? Are the sparrows, crows, and doves jealous? Do they yearn for a splash of bold color? After a little research I found that blue jay feathers contain melanin, the brown pigment which is also responsible for human skin tone. The blue color we see is caused by light scattering through cells on the surface of the feather barbs like magic. For the cardinals, their color also comes from melanin, but their red hues come from the chemical compounds, porphyrins and carotenoids. I was so mesmerized by the science of color that I wondered about humming birds – how can that miracle be explained color-wise? Well, the hummingbird have special melanosomes, structures within a cell that store and synthesize melanin. The hummingbird’s melansomes are shaped like pancake and contain many tiny air bubbles, which create a complex and multifaceted surface. When light reflects and bounces off those surfaces, it produces iridescence. And this, along with nature’s abundant wonders, is what makes humming so much more colorful than other birds.
I have always been color-curious. As a little girl, I’d marvel for hours at a new big box of 120 Crayola crayons. I wouldn’t want to use them and dull their points. I just wanted to ponder their lovely colors, sort them by hue, pair them with shocking opposites. I loved the special names given to the colors. They were like poetry to me.
The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color. Our entire being is nourished by it. This mystic quality of color should likewise find expression in a work of art. – Hans Hofman
This summer, I have found myself attracted to a local garden. I am lucky that I can return again and again each week to witness the radiant changes. I’ve been taking early morning walks along the gravel paths trying to spy new vegetation. Each time, I am surprised. Abstract Expressionist artist, Hans Hofman, had once said,“ In nature, light creates the color, in the picture color creates the light.” As a photographer, I am continually playing with how color and light fill the picture, how shadows play upon surfaces, how the color is muted or brightened, how it pleases the eye.
White, black, gray
What if the world
Was just that clear?
White, black, gray.
No diving jays,
No swaying tiger lilies,
No yellow heads
Of the dandelions
Emerging from cracks
In city sidewalks.
Only a world
of shadows and light
Until we see
Until we pause to ponder
The tiny hummingbird
From wild lupines and
Until we see beyond
White, black, and gray.
In two previous blog posts, I wrote about celebrating a zen, self-care mindset: How Does Your Zen Garden Grow? and Zen Toolbox Redux. My busy life, like the lives of all modern women, scream out to me from time to time to pause, to ponder, to notice and wonder, to take a deep breath and focus on myself. What is good for me and me alone? What do I need. How can I nourish myself?
This COVID school year posed many stressors: masks, plexiglass barriers, six feet distancing, virtual, hybrid and in-person learning, weekly COVID tests (we lovingly called “Spit Tests”) and finally the vaccine. The would also posed many stressors – political upheaval and social unrest with no signs of resolution any time soon. All these things have made my students anxious, angry, and worried. So all year, I focused on helping them find calm and purpose . Right around May, I realized I had forgotten to focus on myself. I forgot to pace myself, to keep focus on creativity and nature – two areas that restore my sense of well-being. But I did hold on to faith.
We are now hurdling towards the end of June. I am trying to put the reigns on summer: “Hold up, Summer! Don’t go running wild. Slow and steady, now!” I cajole as if speaking to a spooked horse. I am just beginning to unwind, just beginning to take a long slow breath, look up into the impossibly blue June sky and be grateful for this season, for this time away from work, for this time to spend with friends, family and myself.
I’ve been telling my friends that I’m naming this summer – Project Jojo. I’m planning to do things that restore and replenish my body and spirit. When I reached the end of the school year, I found myself completely exhausted. I usually make lists of all the professional development courses I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the school projects I need to get done by August. “No!” I breathe out. No frenetic pace this summer. This time I will return to the lazy summer days of my childhood: sleep late, make beautiful salads with treasures from nearby farm stands, brew peach tea and let it steep in the sun, read nothing that has anything to do with education – a romantic novel, a mystery, a memoir, a cookbook perhaps.
I’ve been frequenting our local botanical garden and nature preserve. I am grateful that I live in a place with these natural resources. I miss walking among the trees and flowers, watching the birds flit from branches to branch and bees sip summer nectar. Immediately my shoulders drop, my heart rate slows, I find myself smiling. Slowly, ever so slowly I am re-learning the zen of summertime. And I know it is necessary. And I know it is sweet and brief.
Today, I came to the garden
And walked the gravel paths,
Among the white rhododendron
And soft pink hydrangea.
I follow the path to the burbling creek,
Which flows into the pond laden with water lilies.
This morning I face my lone and tired shadow,
Let it sink into the grass to be restored.
I continue along the path in the noon sun,
Swollen bumble bees sip nectar from the peonies.
I try to capture them with my camera;
They are too fast, dipping from flower to flower.
White clouds drift slowly in the blue,
Reflecting on the surface of the pond.
The weight of my body lifts,
Free from earthly troubles,
What cares can vex my mind?
Clear water sparkles like crystal over the rocks
You can see through easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free now from every thought,
Nothing can ever move it.
I am here in the present forever.
The sweet summer outside has come in,
I have regained calm, I welcome peace.
Summer to me is a wide open space. I am a teacher and that means I have eleven weeks to play, wonder, and wander. I am grateful for this. I need this – especially this year. I need time to rejuvenate, regenerate, and grow in spirit. I am completely drained, but I know summer will help me heal.
Every summer, my husband and plan lots of trips. We used to go out West, then we explored all of New England, and then we traveled all along the Southern Coast. Then COVID came and our travels ceased. We are planning one small trip to Maine this summer, and I am looking forward to it. I cannot wait to get there. I travel there every night in my sleep. Maine is my happy place, my place of possibility.
When I was in grade school, summer meant weeks of reading on the beach. I would walk to our local library and stock up on novel after novel – historical, realistic, fantastical. I loved traveling to other worlds while I sat in my beach chair and listening to the crashing waves, smelling salty breeze, and letting my mind wander into blissful imagination and then peaceful sleep. That was summer to me, and it was endless. It seems to last forever.
Now for me, summer is short. It comes and goes. I vow to not waste it. I vow to savor it. I plan to enjoy it. I am ever grateful for the summer and its sunny disposition.
When thinking about the summer and the big possibilities it offers, I thought of a poem I wrote several years ago while my husband and I were on vacation in Colorado. We were driving to Aspen in the middle of the night, and there is it was – the golden moon – the biggest moon I had ever seen – an August moon – rich and ripe with possibility and promise.
Hide and Seek with the Moon
The road winds
up the Rockies
and I awake
to the twisting
and turning curves.
We’ve been playing
Hide and seek
with the moon.
First she’s on the left of us,
then on the right.
She dances and
skips across the sky.
Then is cradled
in the clouds.
As we climb higher and higher,
We are amazed
by her size.
She is a world aglow.
It seems that if
we could drive
just a bit further,
We could reach her,
I embrace mistakes. I do. Really. I don’t mind making mistakes. I always think of creative ways to fix them. I’m not sure how I developed this mindset. Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family. I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece? How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right? I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity. It will be a success not a defeat.
Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead. On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness. Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.” And I teach this to children. No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block. Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes. Don’t be afraid. Create something new.
I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom. I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate. It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine. And they did. The space was loud and messy at times. Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning. It was a true play space. No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design. When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken. From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun. Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!
I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities. The Wonder Lab started to remedy that. We were just beginning. But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton. However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play. They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets. As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands. This space was necessary. It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around.
For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air. It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened. There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office. It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials. I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter. It would make a great wonder space for a small group! I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building. This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts. When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head. I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?” She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up. You are always thinking of another way to do things.” I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them. I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids. I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!
One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative. She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison. A bison? Yes, a bison. Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison. I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison. Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned. We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions. During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play. Simone asked for another big box. I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.” It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with. Looking back, Simone has had a rough year. COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated. She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments. But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus. She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her. She thought of a work around. That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear. I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.
During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately. We talked about the obstacles she faced this year. We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year. As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head. I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling. Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity. Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.
Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes
Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg
Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg
Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker
Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae
Ish by Peter Reynolds
Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess
Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones
One by Kathryn Otoshi
Only One You by Linda Kranz
Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty
The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott
The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett
The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein
The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie
The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken
Was That on Purpose of by Accident? By Janelle Fenwick
Zero by Kathryn Otoshi
Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.
As the end of the school year approached and I looked out at the plexiglass-framed faces before me, I knew I had to do something to energize the last month of school. I teach a Study Skills class to 4th graders, and I have tried this year to make organization, time management, and planning fun. Sometimes, I admit, it is hard to make executive function skills fun and engaging. I try hard, though. I used videos, art, photography, poetry, movement to keep the girls actively participating. However, as March turned to April, the girls’ exuberance was fading, and I knew I had to come up with a plan. My plan was PLAY!
The students had been cooped up all year: learning behind plexiglass, wearing masks, keeping socially distant from friends. This year has been difficult, and incredibly difficult for children. I’m not sure of what the ramifications will be in the future, but I do know that children have more fear and anxiety now. The only remedy I know for fear and anxiety is collaboration and play. So, in mid-April I gathered my students and told them that for the rest of the school year they would be researching PLAY. Many of them looked at me skeptically. “You mean we are putting on a play?” they asked. I chuckled. “Well you could put on a play, but I mean you are all going think about and tell about why playing is important.” All of a sudden, the room became electric. They buzzed with ideas. I smiled. That’s just what I hoped would happen.
The first thing I did to prepare my students was to create a slideshow about the importance of play. I added videos of children giving their opinions on play as well accounts from experts about how play helps people learn and thrive. I found some great videos of animals playing, which I knew would be of interested to my nine and ten-year-old students. I loved watching their faces as I played the slideshow. I had them hooked. When the slideshow ended, they ran to me with ideas. I told them to think about what they wanted to research about play. It could be making a game, conducting an interview with a play expert, designing fidgets, or anything else they could imagine.
For the last three weeks, the girls have been thoroughly engaged in the process of creating. They set goals, planned, organized materials, worked collaboratively, monitored their own progress and adjusted their plans to complete their projects. I saw their independence and self-confidence blossom. They were play engineers. They were in charge of their learning.
At times, they asked me for assistance, but these requests were mainly in the realm of getting specific materials. Their work was their own. They did not seek me out to generate ideas or resolve problems. I stood in the wings ready to help but found myself having free time to just observe and document their progress.
Sometimes, when my colleagues witness my students at work, they think it is too chaotic. The children are moving and talking constantly. They are building and dismantling, and building again. This is the process of creation. It is messy and noisy and marvelous. It is the true nature of play.
Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.
It renews our natural sense of optimism
and opens us up to new possibilities.
– Stuart Brown, MD
SOME RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT PLAY:
It was February turning to March and the bright and motivated 5th grader, Hadley, whom I have been teaching privately for the last three years suddenly became dull and bored. Nothing could spark her interest. Her normal bookworm self was now not interested in any book in any genre. Her penchant for writing was also gone. All her academic energy and engagement was zapped. Week after week this winter, I stared a cross my screen into the face of a girl who did not want to do a single thing except quietly stare at me and say, “No.” So, I got out my secret weapon, poetry, and that worked for a while. She created a wonderful assortment of poems and made a digital book. Then one day, I introduced another poem and that dull stare came back onto her face. She was listless, passively sitting, responding to me with one-word answers. I knew I had to figure out another idea but what? We normally read a short nonfiction current event passage each week to gain insights into the world around us and to get ideas about what we might want to read, writer, or research next. I timidly suggested we read a nonfiction article I found about Japanese Fruit Sandos (sandwiches). Food! I often resort to poetry and food to engage students and usually it works! It did this time too!
I went to my trusted nonfiction resource, Newsela, and found an article in the Arts section titled, “Sweeten Your Springtime with Japanese Fruit Sandos.” I had never heard of fruit sandwiches before. They were so surprising and beautiful that I thought they might be just the idea to stir Hadley out of her doldrum. At our next session, we took turns reading the article aloud. I watched Hadley’s face intently. She was as intrigued as I was when I first read the passage. The article briefly explained the origins of the fruit sando and then gave a recipe. “Oh, we should make these!” Hadley shouted to me from across her zoom screen. And then a wisp of sadness came across her face because she knew we couldn’t get together to cook. I asked her in a cheery voice, “Do you want to see a video of them being made?” and she readily answered, “YES!” I shared my screen and showed her a YouTube channel I found called Emmymade. Emmy had a 17-minute video called “FRUIT SANDO – Japanese Fruit Sandwich Recipe Test.” Emmy’s presentation was upbeat and funny, a perfect video to engage an eleven- year-old girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdZxLetJSZg
At our following session, Hadley wrote her own fruit sando recipe. And as luck would have it, COVID restrictions were being eased, I had gotten the vaccine, and I would be able to see Hadley again in person in a couple of weeks. Hadley’s curiosity had returned, she started a new fantasy series, she began writing and illustrating a story to enter into a contest, and most importantly she started smiling, laughing, and asking questions AGAIN. The Hadley I knew had returned!
Last week, I gathered together all the ingredients for Hadley’s fruit sando and went to her house for our first face-to-face session since the fall. We constructed sandwiches on her back porch, which conveniently connects to her kitchen. Though Emmy used Texas Toast for her bread, I found a French Toast loaf that was cut in thick slices. You might also use brioche bread cut thickly or throw caution to the wind and use pound cake! We used canned whipped cream because of time constraints, but the sandwiches will hold together better with fresh whipped cream. Hadley and I also brainstormed about other fillings: Nutella, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff. The varieties are endless so that these sandwiches can appeal to any palette, even the finickiest of eaters!
Here are ten books to spark a budding cook’s interest:
Cooking Class Glob Feast!: 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook
Cook Anime: Eat Like Your Favorite Character – From Bento to Yakisoba by Diana Ault
Easy Peasy Japanese Dishes for Kids!: Easy but Yummy Japanese Meals Kids Can Help to Make by Heston Brown
Japanese Cooking for Kids by Kimberly Ono
Japanese Cooking Made Simple by Salina Press
Japanese Kids Cookbook: A Dedicated Selection of Japanese Recipes for Kids by Sarah Miller
Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan
Super Simple Cooking for Kids: Learn to Cook with 50 Fun and Easy Recipes for Breakfast, Snacks, Dinner, and More? By Jodi Danen
The Complete DIY Cookbook for Young Chefs: 100+ Simple Recipes for Making Absolutely Everything from Scratch by America’s Test Kitchen Kids
The Manga Cookbook: Japanese Bento Boxes, Main Dishes and More! by Chihiro Hattori
Last week, I was reminded of all the ways kids play with language. They are not bound by grammar or convention. They use their imaginations to express what they see and feel. I read a recent post by fellow SOS blogger, Ramona. She wrote about her recent trip to the Oregon Coast with her grandsons. At the end of the trip, she told her grandson Jack, “You make my heart happy!” Jack replied, “Grandma, you make my elbows laugh!” This memory made me smile, and I was reminded of how wonderfully bright children see the world. I guess that is why I have been a teacher for so many years. I love to witness the wonder that little children experience every day. I don’t want to let go of that. I am holding on tightly.
A Little Orange
At the beginning of my teaching journey, I worked at a nursery school. I taught a mixed class in the afternoon of three to five-year-old children. It was a play-based cooperative school, which meant parents served as assistant teachers in some classes. My afternoon class was wonderful because of the students’ mixed ages. The younger children learned from the older ones, and sometimes the older ones learned from the younger ones. One day, one of the girls, Anna, was sad and missed her mother. I put my arm around her and consoled her. Fat teardrops ran down her face. Just then, an older boy, Henry, came up and asked me why Anna was crying. I said, “She’s okay, Henry, she’s just feeling a little blue right now.” Immediately, Henry went over to Anna and patted her shoulder. He said, “Don’t worry Anna, I’m feeling a little orange myself.” I laughed. “What does it mean to be a little orange?” I asked Henry. “It’s a little angry and a little sad mixed together he said matter-of-factly. I pulled Henry close and hugged him too. I just loved how, without thinking, without knowing the conventional idioms, Henry was able to communicate and create his color code of feelings. He didn’t need permission, he just created on the spot.
Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown
When I taught 2nd grade, we would study a new artist every month. We would read about each artist and then try out an art project in that same style or with the same materials. During one of these classroom studio sessions, I set out a still life with colorful flowers and a deer skull since we were exploring the art of Georgia O’Keefe. I set out pots of paint and paper, encouraging students to create what they saw. One of my students, Matthew, who had limited experience with mixing paint, became engrossed in the activity. He dipped and blotted moving from one pot to the next, eventually announcing that he had discovered a new color. “Look everybody!” he shouted excitedly, “I made Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown! He was so excited by his discovery that he gave each of his classmates a sample of his new color, and they in turn added his color to their palettes. That day, Matthew began to see himself in a new light, as someone who could create art out of simple materials. He was the inventor of Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown! That free exploration and the process of reading, writing, and making art, allowed the children to think of themselves as creators of both art and language.
Looks Like Mashed Potatoes
This past Monday, I got to spend recess time with our Junior PreK. Every time I walk out into the playground, three-year-old (now four-year-old) faces run up to greet me with shouts of: “Look at me! Let’s play catch! Tag! You’re it. Come on, RUN!” One of the boys, Ian, ran up to me and said, “It’s sunny.” Ian is an English language learner. His vocabulary has grown tremendously this year. He is now ready to take more risks, reaching out to teachers and peers to express what he is thinking. I wanted to extend our conversation, so I said, “Yes, it’s warm today and look at those big white clouds.” Ian looked up and said, “Clouds.” I replied, “That one looks like a turtle. And that one looks like a pirate ship.” I exclaimed. Ian kept looking quietly. Emma heard our conversation and looked up at the sky intently. “I see a big doggy and a fish over there,” she said, pointing. Emma and I kept looking and listing all we saw in the clouds: a castle, a banana, a tree, a giraffe, even an elephant! Ian looked up watching the clouds. Then Brittany came over and looked at Emma and me. She looked up at the sky, “Don’t be silly,” she said, “They all look like mashed potatoes,” and walked away. I laughed. There has to be one practical one among the dreamers, I suppose. The children played for the rest of recess, running, skipping, digging, and sliding. As we were about to go back inside, Ian tugged at me and pointed at the sky, “Dragon,” he said with a smile. I smiled and looked up into the sky, “Yes, a dragon,” I said. There stood another dreamer, who skipped happily inside.
As the school year wraps up, I have been thinking about how important imagination is for learning. I think about how we don’t so much need to carve out time for play, but just need to step aside and trust the children. They know what they are doing. They can take simple items – a stick, a rock, a box – and create a whole kingdom. They can take simple words and create a language that is expressive, creative, and unique. They can build messages that surprise and inspire.
I have been teaching for over four decades. That’s amazing to me because as a young girl my interests flittered from one thing to another. I never thought I would do one thing for so long, but this one thing has brought me so much joy. I really can’t imagine a time when I won’t be doing it, but I know that day will come. And it is approaching more quickly than I want it to. I push that thought away, and I focus on the children. This year, I am teaching study skills to three groups of 4th grade girls. They’ve learned about time management, planning, organization – all those essential executive function skills. Now it’s May. They are tired and distracted, and so am I. I call it PES – Plexiglass Exhaustion Syndrome. This year has challenged us to stay focused and on task even with masks on that distort our speech and breathing and plexiglass that distorts our view and interactions. A couple of weeks ago, I bent down and peered through a plexiglass-lined desk and said, “Girls, I am so proud of you. I know this year has been hard learning like this. So, for the last few weeks of school we will be doing a project on play. You all will get to create something that shows why play is important. It can be a game, some artwork, a persuasive essay, a brochure, a model of a playground, a video, anything you can imagine. The girls were intrigued by the idea and asked many questions. It took some a while to believe that I was serious. That we were, indeed, going to study PLAY.
Behind the scenes, I was as excited as my students. I quickly put together all the important information I wanted the girls to know about play. I found video clips of animals playing, psychologists talking about play as a human right, and children giving TED talks on the importance that imagination and recess has on learning. I created a wonderful slideshow to start off our project-based study of play. I couldn’t wait for my first class.
Tuesday came quickly, it was a beautiful warm sunny day. I was so excited to start my presentation, but when I got into the room, the girls clamored around me begging to go outside for a five-minute recess. I couldn’t in good conscience say no to them when the whole essence of my lesson was how important play is to learning, so they went out and rolled on the grass, hung from monkey bars, and pretended to be dragons. Our five minutes turned to fifteen by the time we got back to the classroom. That was okay. I still had time to show most of the slideshow. That is, I had time as long as the technology cooperated. And of course, as these things go, the technology didn’t cooperate. I couldn’t get the sharing screen to work to begin the presentation. I pressed all types of buttons. Nothing worked. The girls began to lose focus, and the room became loud. Several of them rushed up to me asking all kinds of questions. I put my hands up and said quietly without thinking, more to myself than to them, “I am overwhelmed.” This is something they understood – this overwhelmed feeling – this year. They returned to their seats. The got a little quieter. I asked them to go to the link that I had posted so they could watch the video individually. This is not what I had planned. My lesson was falling apart. I wanted it to be a group experience, but it might be able to be salvaged a little. I sat down and continued to fiddle with the share controls. Then one of the girls came up to me and handed me a bottle of spring water and a little packet of iced tea mix. “Open the water. Put in the packet of tea. Shake it up. I do this all the time for my mother when she feels overwhelmed. It works.” I looked up at her in wonder. “Go ahead,” she said, “You will feel better.” So, I did. I followed her directions and took a deep breath. I fiddled with the controls once more, and of course as luck would have it, they finally worked. But alas, it was too late to view as a class. The girls were all watching on their own gasping in surprise and laughing. I had a chance to sit back, observe, and sip my mango-flavored tea. My students were engaged in the content, commenting as they went along. Some students told me that they often get overwhelmed and that it was okay. Everything had worked out. I thanked the student who provided the magic tea, and told her that it did, indeed, work. “I know,” she said confidently with a smile.
Play is important, but so is compassion, understanding, and empathy. That day, the girls understood this deeply. And I began to understand also. I could have focused on all the things that went wrong with this lesson, all the content I did not get to share, all the things I should have done. Instead, I reframed those thirty minutes as the room I made to show loving kindness and compassion. Something that is in increasing short supply in our world. I told the girls that I am very lucky because my work – teaching them – is my play. If you love the thing you do and are passionate about it, then it is play and you can do it forever. When you play passionately, others feel your joy too – and it spreads – that is the silver lining.
Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.
I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.
When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.
I take another glance
at my alarm clock,
It's four in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.
Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.
I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.
We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice there are
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."
Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.