Living a Life in Verse

So many times, when talking about reading, teachers put an emphasis on decoding and comprehension.  They want to make sure kids are reading accurately and fluently.  They want to make sure they teach their students how to predict,  how to find the main idea, how to infer from the breadcrumb trails the author leaves her readers.  They want to check off all the boxes. And yes, these are all important, but in the midst I think we are losing the importance of the story.  Why is this story important?  How does this story connect to you?  How has it changed you?  What differences has it made in your thinking, in your life?  Isn’t that what reading is all about?  Isn’t that what keeps us reading?  It isn’t my ability to read accurately and fluently; it isn’t my proficiency in finding the main idea or making an inference, it is my love of and connection to the characters in the story.  I want to crawl into their lives for a while and live their experiences.  That way I become more them and less me.  I am able to take on different points of view; I am able to grow in my thinking and being.

Recently, I have been reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson with a sixth-grade student.  She is a proficient and prolific reader and writer.  She loves Percy Jackson novels and all things Greek mythology.  She was in a rut.  Whenever this happens, whenever students gets stuck in their reading, I often turn to poetry novels.  I find that verse creates a space where kids can take more chances.  Verse seems to challenge their thinking, but does so in a gentle, playful way.  By reading Brown Girl Dreaming, Hadley and I are able to step into Ms. Woodson’s reality.  We get to see and feel what a brown girl growing up in the south experienced – parent conflicts, loving grandparents, sibling rivalry, the love of reading – all things we can connect with.  There are also lots of historical and geographical pieces that nudge Hadley’s knowledge and make her curious to want to know more. This is the very essence of reading; this is why we read.

We are almost at the end our journey with Ms. Woodson, so I thought we’d take a break and write using the first line of the title poem of the novel for inspiration.  When I ask students to write, I also write alongside them.  I think this is so important.  We write quietly beside each other and somehow there is such power in this simple act.  Hadley types.  I write long-hand.  She marvels at how fast I can scrawl words across a page.  I find that the act of writing by hand magically connects my mind and fingertips.  Sometimes I wonder what my fingertips are writing. How exactly am I creating? It’s like my fingers have a mind of their own.  Hadley pauses. “I’m stuck,” she says.  Well, I say, “Let’s read it out loud and see what comes to mind.”  She is twelve now.  She does not like hearing her own voice, so I read her poem aloud to her. She reaches for the laptop again, “ I got it now,” she says and continues. I love being within this process with her.  I don’t want it to end, but it does.  She is finished.  She has run out of steam.  She says that she is done.  I do not argue.  I read it one more time aloud to her.  .  I read mine aloud, and we enjoy the fact that Ms. Woodson’s one line could create two different poems. We are satisfied.

.

Thank a Veteran

November 11th is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember and lay honor to all those men and women who have fought for this country.  It is celebrated on November 11th because that day in 1918 marked the end of World War I: “The war to end all wars.”  But of course, it didn’t end all wars.  It was made a national holiday in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.  For many years,  I’d thank my father for his service in World War II, but I truly did not know what he had sacrificed until he wrote a memoir, The Timid Marine: Surrender to Combat Fatigue, in 2005 when he was seventy-nine-years-old.  Only then, did I start to put the traumatic pieces together and how his trauma became my trauma, not on the beaches of Okinawa, but in the suburbs of New Jersey. When my father was a soldier, PTSD was not a known disorder, and there was no help or treatment for World War II veterans. 

In 2013, journalist Dale Maharidge wrote a book about his father’s experience in World War II called Bringing Mulligan Home: The Long Search for a Lost Marine. In preparation for writing his book, he came across my father’s self-published memoir, and they became fast friends culminating with a heart-felt acknowledgement to my father at the beginning of Dale’s book. In writing about his father, Dale was able to come to terms with his own childhood upheaval and start to understand and explain the true cost of war.

As I read my father’s memoir, I realized how much his war experiences had infiltrated our family life. Some of my most traumatic childhood memories were directly connected to his wartime trauma. I turned to poetry to make sense of it all.  I took pieces from my father’s memoir and turned them into poetry.  Then I intertwined his poems with my own creating a trail of lived experiences, trying to come back from war not broken, but whole and blossoming.

So, to all our Veterans of this Veteran’s Day 2021 – Thank you for your service and sacrifice.  You have paid dearly, as have your families.

War Victims

For Two Voices: Father and Daughter

Marine Boot Camp –
Parris Island, South Carolina 1942
			All the days of summer 
That year of our young lives
Were spent in a continuous monotony
Of drills and abuses and marches
Learning the ways of the Corps,
Learning to be heroes.
Little by little at his leisure
At his best opportunity
At his chosen place and time
The Drill Instructor would strike out
To drive home another lesson 
He was trained to do.
			“Today,” he shouted, “You will learn
One of the most important lessons
Of being a Marine.”

Even many years after the war,
			Whatever object that happened
to be in my father’s hands
			could possibly become a weapon:
			A coffee cup, a broom handle, a basketball,
“Don’t you know how to do anything?”
He snapped as he lobbed the ball at my head.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
I tried to duck, but he was too close to me.
“Stop crying, damn girl, have to toughen you up,”
And he kept hitting me with that basketball
Bounce….bounce… bounce… bounce…
“Can’t you do anything right?”
My head was ringing, tears were flowing
I tried to get away from him,
But he followed me wherever I went.
“Don’t walk away from me!” he screamed,
And kept bouncing that damn ball on my head,
“You’re nothing,” he barked, “You’ll always be nothing.”
I finally ran into the house and up into my room,
But his words seeped in and for years I believed him.

A Marine near me had a White Owl cigar
Still in good condition 
After the long voyage,
And I was in the mood
To play a game with him – 
Give you five dollars for that cigar,
He looked at me like I was nuts,
I realized that the five dollars
would not be of any use,
We would all be killed anyway.
It was the last money I had on me.
We made a deal –
I smoked two puffs of that very bad cigar
Before throwing it away,
For my five bucks I got a memory
that returned every time
I smoke a cigar in later years,
But I never bought one for five dollars again.

On a clear blue Father’s Day,
I proudly gave my father
A glass container of White Owls
Because I knew he liked cigars,
I went all the way to the mall
With my friends to buy it for him,
I was eleven-years-old.
I remember it had a bright red bow,
I thought he would be so happy
That his little girl chose a present 
For him so carefully.
When my father unwrapped the container
And saw the cigars,
His face contorted from happy to rage.
He took my beautiful glass container
With the shiny red bow
And threw it against the wall,
Screaming something about
How I should have known
That White Owls were cheap, bad cigars
But how was I to know?
I was an eleven-year-old girl
Getting a pretty present for her dad,
What did I know about cigars?
The glass splintered everywhere
And I ran out of the house crying,
Vowing never to speak to him again.
Later, he apologized, said he was sorry
But I didn’t speak to him for a week
And I didn’t buy him another present for years,
I promised myself that I would never forget.

There seemed to be a shortage of everything
Sometimes we did not have a complete uniform
Needing a hat or pair of boots or jacket
The only thing you could do was requisition 
Something for yourself if you wanted it
Requisitioning was a Marine translation for stealing
The Marines were great for requisitioning.
Unofficially the Corps condoned it without argument
If you needed something, you did not have
You were expected to supply yourself the best you could
Requisitioning was easy to do
And I had no problem with it
			I had trained during The Depression
I’d stolen food from stores,
Pilfered clotheslines at night 
to get a shirt to wear to school
Stole coins from various areas 
to attend a movie or buy an ice cream soda.

Several years ago, my mother had a heart attack,
She had to have quadruple bypass,
Hospitalized for many months,
But we were sure that she would survive,
Just as she had survived colon cancer three years before,
You see, my mother was a fighter.
When we’d visit the hospital, my father would show us
All the things he requisitioned:
Basins, pillows, extra blankets, boxes of tissues - 
He stored them in the closet next to my mother’s bed
- A Marine is always prepared –
That was the way he took care of my mother
Those awful winter months,
Sitting next to her bed watching television,
Stalking the hallways always on the lookout
For something she might need,
Everyone was his enemy:
He sniped at my sister, my nieces,
My aunt, my husband, and me, as usual.
No one could do anything right,
He was the only one who cared,
He was the only one who could comfort,
My father was my mother’s fortress
And in the spring she got well,
Returned home with a new heart.

I shot an old horse in the head
As it was lowered to eat some grass
I was only a foot from the horse’s head
And placed the carbine muzzle 
Close to the head between the eyes,
Hoping to hit the brain.
The horse gave a shriek
And lifted its head high in the air
Before it fell to the ground twitching
And jerking in spasms of pain and ensuing death.
I shot the horse out of boredom
And the need to see something die.
The horse did not die instantly like in the movies.
I was agitated seeing the horse bleed from head and mouth
Twitching and jerking all over its body.
I wanted to end the experience.
I quickly shot the horse in the head several more times
To stop the quivering and pain,
“What the hell are you doing  you crazy bastard?”
Several of the Marines asked.
“It was an old horse.” I said.
It was my only explanation
And no one pursued another explanation.


I have to find a way to release my rage,
Set it upon its own course away from me -
Good-bye Rage, you childish thing
That cripples my life,
I can no longer respond in anger
For all things lost.
Be off with you down that dark forest path,
Howl to the moon and be gone forever,
You are of no use to me,
I must take a new path,
The one in the mist,
The one lined with fear,
That path – that as the day breaks
Burns off the mist
And fear becomes flowers.

Okinawa, April 1945,
I looked into the dirt 
Saw a yellow flower 
That looked familiar, a buttercup. 
It had pushed itself up out of the earth
In this remote rice field. 
It was so incongruous growing there,
So far away from my childhood meadows
where I sued to pick them,
I turned my head without lifting it
so that I could see the sky above me,
Which was just perfect 
white clouds and pale blue expanses
 and there I was,
getting ready to resume running to save my life,
I held a handful of the dirt to my nose to smell it,
It looked dark and alive with organisms.
This is what men die for,
Earth -  dirt -  inches of it, and mile of it
Stretches of earth in the form of countries
all over the world had been fought over
and I visualized the various armies
and hoards that fought over the land 
with various weapons from stones to aircraft.
I saw all the small flowers
had been pushing themselves up
out of the black earth
here the sunlight caught them
and transformed them into gold. 
Now around me the enemy bullets
were kicking up bits of stone and earth. 
They had located us where we fell. 
Men were crying and shouting
all around in a mass confusion
Voices more frightened than my heart 
that pounded in my chest.


Dandelion
Your golden head rises
Out of the rusty rubble,
Just another weed –
You push your way out
Between cracks in the sidewalk
Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass,
You grow strong –
Impervious to your surroundings
Your leaves, jagged toothed
Spread green along the old gray ground,
You are not discouraged –
You’ve never depended
Upon rain or fertilizer,
You provide your own sunlight.



Harvesting Pumpkin Time

I absolutely love October!  And one of the reasons I love October aside from the Halloween hoopla is the advent harvest time and all the wonderful colors of the season.  Gold, red, and orange abound to cheer up the dreary chilly days in the northeast.  They offer solace to the bare branches and the November wind. 

Pumpkins are a jolly sight and I love visit farmer markets to survey the fall bounty.  There are soups, stews, and hearty muffins waiting to be made.  I feel a nesting instinct in the fall – to come inside and rest, relax, and reflect.  This harvest time gives me pause to think about sitting down in a cozy spot to read.  This week, I was thinking about how pumpkins are quintessential to magical tales both old and new.  One of the very earliest tales that included pumpkins was French writer, Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella.  The pumpkin carriage had always intrigued me and a number of years ago a group of 2nd graders and I built our own magic pumpkin carriages.  And I have always enjoyed Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to excite and scare me.  Another great pumpkin character, Jack Pumpkinhead, was created by L. Frank Baum in his book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This character is benevolent instead of scary and display all the wonderful magical qualities that Baum’s characters portray.

I learned something new this week!  Jack-o-lanterns were not originally carved from pumpkins! They were carved from potatoes and rutabagas.  The tradition comes from Ireland and you can read more about it here: History of Jack-O-Lanterns

Pumpkin Poetry

In the pumpkin spirit, I decided to create my own poetic form: The Diagonal Poem.  The poet decides on a word and then spells that word out in a diagonal fashion throughout each line of the poem.

Pumpkin Reading

  1. A Pumpkin Prayer
  2. The Good Deed Crew and the Pumpkin Surprise (Grace Notes Book 1)
  3. Henry’s Big Pumpkin
  4. Me and the Pumpkin Queen
  5. Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden
  6. Pumpkin Jack
  7. Pumpkin Town! 
  8. Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie 
  9. Sophie’s Squash
  10. The Roll-Away Pumpkin
  11. The Ugly Pumpkin
  12. This is NOT a Pumpkin

Poet’s Notebook: White Mountain Color

September and October have buzzed by at a hectic pace. One week’s “To Do” list is accomplished only to be replace with the next week’s list.  I feel like I will never get off this seemingly never-ending cycle.  I keep arranging and rearranging my schedule trying to find bits of time to breathe.  The bits are not enough, and I feel stress and anxiety creeping in.  I know that I have to make myself slow down and concentrate on what makes me healthy and whole.  I need to go back to poetry and photography.  I need to return to natural beauty.

This summer, my husband and I planned an October trip to New Hampshire, and I’m glad we did.  We thought that because of COVID we might not be able to follow through on our plans, but we found ourselves in dire need of nature and restoration.  We headed out of New Jersey, up through New York state, into the Green Mountains of Vermont, and into the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  The nine-hour trip slowly melted all my tension away.  As we drove, I watched the lush autumn scenery and forgot about all the things that need to be done; that tugged at me for attention.

I started thinking about how to capture what I saw with my camera and how to put words to the beauty I was witnessing.  I focused on color and played with ways to express the fall foliage in a new way. 

Fall Flow: Haiku for Autumn

This week, I entered a 4th grade classroom to see students at their desks silently moving their lips and quietly tapping their fingers.  I heard a hum, “5-7-5… 5,7,5…” and then tapping, clapping, and snapping.  I knew immediately what they were busy creating.  They were constructing haiku.

In the last two weeks, the teacher introduced haiku as an accessible way for students to get to know each other.  She asked them to write haiku which described who were without giving a physical description. First, she had laid the groundwork reminding them of the haiku form and reviewing background information, sharing examples of haiku from the Japanese poets, Basho, Shiki, and Issa. As I listened, I learned something I had not know before.  In Matsuyama, Japan and its surrounding prefecture,  they have built special mailboxes expressly for the purpose of sharing haiku.  They are beautiful works of art in and of themselves, and as I saw the pictures of the mailboxes placed all around the city, I had an idea. I asked the teacher if I could construct a haiku mailbox for the 4th grade.  She thought it was a wonderful idea and reported that her students have been happily depositing their work into the mailbox.  I am looking forward to the time when we share our poems.

The school year began in a rush and is continuing at a frenetic pace.  I have been trying to pause throughout my day and catch a breath. I’m finding that this is not enough.  I am making it my intention to pull away on the weekends and devote time to poetry, photography and art.  Photography helps me get into the flow of the moment.  When I am walking in the woods, gardens, or parks, I direct my attention to what I see. It is like going on a treasure hunt, and my camera records my beautiful or surprising sights. When I am looking through my camera lens, I am not thinking of anything else.  I am only concentrating on the object.  I let it tell me how it wants to be captured and remembered. I experiment with angles and exposures until I feel I have expressed the object’s mood and essence. Immediately,  a sense of calm permeates my spirit.  I have entered a fall flow.  After I have collected several photographs, I sit quietly and let the words come to me.  They come tapping into my mind – “5-7-5,… 5,7,5…”  The rhythm relaxes me.  I can continue to flow.

Orange pumpkins now
sit heavy in beds of leaves
expectant with seeds.
Leaves float down the stream:
yellow, orange, red, rust, brown –
reflections of fall.
Here, hidden toadstools
peeking through the fallen leaves,
silent guardians.
Spring-summer green wanes –
In its places brilliant yellow,
Autumn returns now.
Baskets abundant –
October’s golden harvest,
Gathering plenty.

HAIKU BOOKS FOR CHILDREN


A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes.

Cool Melons – Turn To Frogs!: The Life And Poems Of Issa Story and translations by Matthew Gollub, illustrated by Kazuko G. Stone.

Dogku by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Tim Bowers.

GUYKU: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. 

Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth.


If It Rains Pancakes: Haiku and Lantern Poems by Brian P. Cleary, illustrated by Andy Rowland.

If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Ted Rand.

I Haiku You  by Betsy Snyder.

My First Book of Haiku Poems by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, illustrated by Tracy Gallup.

One Leaf Rides the Wind by Celeste Mannis, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung.

The Cuckoo’s Haiku: and Other Birding Poems by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by

Stan Fellows.  

The Horse’s Haiku by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Stan Fellows.

The Maine Coon’s Haiku: And Other Poems for Cat Lovers by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Lee Anthony White.

Today And Today by Kobayashi Issa, illustrated by G. Brian Karas.


Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young.

Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku by Paul B. Janeczko and J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. 

Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku

Haiku Mailbox: Wrapping paper, Washi tape, and image from My First Book of Haiku

The Gift of Grandmothers

This week, I came across two picture books that reminded me about how important grandmothers are in the lives of children.  Grandmothers are wise leaders and mentors.  They have gentle and guiding hands.  They offer solace for scraped knees, dented feelings, and broken hearts.  They can set the world right again.

In my own life, I never knew my maternal grandmother.  She died six years before I was born.  I know her only from the stories told to me by other family members.  I was told that I look a lot like she did.  My name resembles hers.  Her name was Josephine; mine is Joanne, but my parents always called me Josie.  They told me I had Josephine’s eyes and smile.  It was hard, at first,  for me to see myself in the old photographs of her.  It took me years to find my smile in hers and her eyes in mine.  But yes, she is within me even though I never had the good fortune to meet her. 

My paternal grandmother divorced my grandmother when my father was twelve years old.  At ninety-five, my father continues to be bitter about this and his relationship with his mother was distant and fraught with anger.  Olga lived in Florida, so we did not see her often.  We went a few times to visit her in the sunshine state, and she came north to visit us in New Jersey a few times.  Every Christmas, she would send straw-filled crates of  oranges, grapefruits, key limes, and chocolate covered coconut patties.  For this, Olga  held a special place in my heart, but we did not have the close, supportive relationship that I craved.  That empty spot was filled by my incredible grandfathers, Charlie and Tony.  They were my confidants and my champions. With them I was able to be myself, and just be held.

When I happened upon Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker and April Harrison in our school library, I knew I held a special gem in my hands.  And I was eager to think about how to share its gifts with our Kindergarten and 1st grade students. The book recounts the relationship between Zura and her grandmother, Nana Akua, whose names means “born on Wednesday” in Twi, the language of Ghana. The children in Zura’s class are celebrating Grandparents’ Day and are asked to invite their relatives to come to school and share their stories.  Zura is a bit worried about her grandmother coming to school because Nana Akua has scars on her cheeks from an old West African tradition where parents put marks on her face to show which tribal family she belonged to.  These marked represented beauty and confidence.  Zura fears that her classmates will be scared of Nana.  Of course, Nana is a wise woman and when she visits, she brings with her calm understanding and shows the beauty of her culture.  She explains the Adinkra symbols to the children, having them choose one that represents themselves, and paints the symbol on each child’s check.  The book’s endpapers show each Adinkra symbol, and I contemplated how best to share this story with our students. I practiced making the symbols and creating some of my own.  When I read this book the students, I will encourage them to explore and create these symbols also.

Thinking about grandmothers, I came across another picture book,  Grandmother School by Rina Sigh and Ellen Rooney. It takes place in India and is based on a true story about a grandmother, Aaji, who is finally allowed to go to school with a bunch of other grandmothers. The thatched roof and mud floors of the school is much different from the shiny schools that American children are accustomed to.  The grandmothers had not be allowed to go to school when they were young.  Now they were able to return to school so they could learn to read and write.  Some people thought, “Learning at this age was a waste of time.”  But of course, it was not a waste of time at all. By the end of the year, the grandmothers have learned so much: to count, to sign their names, and to read beautiful words like mango, river, bird, and rain.

The real grandmother school, Aajibaichi Shala, is located in Phangane, a small village in India 77 miles from Mumbai.  The school was started in 2016 by Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, who wanted everyone is his village to be able to read and write. Twenty-nine grandmothers attended the school.  They were over the age of sixty, and the oldest grandmother is ninety.  This was their first opportunity to learn.  I love the message of this story: Learning is timeless.  No one is too old to learn.  There is hope and opportunity to achieve no matter what age you are. What a wonderful gift to young readers far and wide!

Learning Alongside Children: Math, Craft, & Curious Cats!

Math Cats

It is a typical Monday.  I sip on a cup of French vanilla coffee, inhale the rich soothing aroma, then head off to my first class of the week.  Every morning for about two and a half hours, I observe and support young children from three to ten years old.   Many people might find this job daunting, but the more I do it, the more I realize I was born to do this. I love solving problems.  I love connecting with kids.  I guess that’s why I have been able to teach for over forty years without feeling burned out and uninspired.  The kids always find a way to kindle  my curiosity.

This morning, I settle into the back of a 5th grade math class.  The teacher is eliciting ideas from her students about number patterns on a thousands chart. “What do you notice?” she asks, and several hands shoot up.  Soon, students are taking turns discussing all kinds of patterns, some easily apparent and some more enigmatic.  I am sitting between two students who engage me in conversation.  My role has changed since last year when I was the ELA Curriculum Coordinator so the student on my right is surprised to see me in math class and asks ,“Mrs. E, what is your job?  I just don’t get it!” I laugh and she apologies, but I reassure her that she doesn’t need to apologize.  I tell her that many adults don’t know exactly what I do, and sometimes I myself have a hard time explaining what I do.  Simply put, I help students learn. 

            “If you need help understanding something, I’m here to show you the way,” I say smiling broadly. 

            Then the student to my left begins to explain an intricate pattern she sees in the thousands chart.  I am amazed.  I tell the girls that math is not my strong suit, but I am curious about it. 

            I explain, “Numbers are like cats to me, they want to do their own thing and they are a bit mysterious.” 

            “Me too!” shouts the girl to my right. 

            “On the other hand,” I continue, “ Words are like puppies, they are friendly, and you can play with them.” 

            The girl on my right shouts again, “SAME!” 

            The math teacher is now looking at me, and I know it’s time to get back to business.  I circulate around the room to see how students are tackling fraction problems.  I am able to guide some on the right track and that makes me feel proud.  I want the girls to see me as an adult who doesn’t always know the answers, but who will keep trying to understand and find the answer.

Craft Cats

Later on Monday, a small group of 5th graders join me at recess to craft in the Wonder Studio, which is the lobby outside my office that I converted into a makerspace after the original makerspace (The Wonder Lab), was dismantled to create  a new classroom space for computer science and engineering.  The space can no longer accommodate a whole class of students, but small groups can participate.  This makes for an intimate and cozy makerspace.  I let the girls dabble and get acquainted with the available materials.  I start crafting too.  At the end of our time, Erin tells me to hold out my hands.  I obey and a bright litter of pipe cleaner kittens tumble into my hands.  I want you to have them,” Erin says cheerily.  I thank her and she run back to her classroom.  An hour later, I see Erin in the hallway. She tells me to go to her desk in her classroom.  She has make more kittens for me.  I enter her empty classroom and pick up the kittens.  Erin’s teacher greets me as I turn to leave. “Cute, aren’t they?” I say. She smiles weakly, “She make them all through my social studies lesson.” “Oh,” I say suddenly deflated, “ We will need to talk to her about that.” I quickly exit quickly, walking down the hallway softly petting my new kittens cupping them in my hands protectively.

Curious Cats

Now it is Tuesday at lunchtime.  I am eating in a tight corner in the faculty room.  The same  teacher finds me to say that one of her students cannot come up with a topic for her writing assignment.  The child is stuck, and the teacher is out of ideas.  She asks me to work with the student at recess time, which is in five minutes.  I agree and start packing up my half-eaten lunch.  I walk to Emma’s classroom and find her just about to play a board game with a group of friends.            “Emma?” I say sweetly, “ You are going to work with me.  Please get your pencil.” 

            She looks at me.  She is a smart cookie.  She knows why I have come.  Emma is an avid reader and a talented writer, but sometimes she gets stuck initiating ideas for writing and completely shuts down.  All the. way to my office, I keep the mood light.  I want to set a positive and carefree tone.

When we get to my office, Emma sits in a sunny seat by a window.  I tell her that I am here to help her come up with an idea for her writing assignment.  Half of her writing paper is folded up like an accordion.  I smooth it down and begin to pepper her with ideas that I think she’d be interested in  lacrosse, Vermont, and crafting.

            She shakes her head and then says, ”Well, I am making a sweatshirt.” 

            “Yeah, tell me about that,” I say hopefully. 

            Emma begins to tell me about the sweatshirt she is making, which is dark blue with light blue sleeves.  I stand at my whiteboard easel and make a web as she speaks.  I write down all that she describes.  I ask some questions to guide her.  Soon, the web is complete. 

            I push her paper closer and say, “Okay now write what you just old me.” 

            Emma does not pick up her pencil.  She is biting her bottom lip. 

            “Shall we come up with a first sentence together?” 

            She nods in agreement and we do.  Then I walk away and tell her that I am going to give her some quiet time to write.  When I return a couple of minutes later, Emma is back to folding her paper.  Her feet are tapping the rungs of her chair.  Her eyes are wide and glossy as she stares at me.  I take one look at her and gently take the paper away. 

            “You are not in trouble, “ I say.  “My job is to help kids through problems. Can you tell me what is making you stuck?” 

            Emma remains silent.            

            “You are a great writer.  We just have to find the right story,” I say, silently praying for a miracle.  “What if we pretend it’s after school and we are having milk and cookies. 

            I continue, “Hey Emma, tell me about something you love.  Can you tell be about your dogs?” 

            Emma’s shoulders relax. Her blue eyes begin to dance as she tells me all about her Maltese and Yorkie.

            When she is through, I smile and say, ”Okay do you think you can write about your dogs now.” My heart is beating wildly.  I am holding my breath. 

            “No,” she says quietly.

            My heart skips a beat.

            “But…” she adds, “I can tell you about my cats.” 

            I exhale loudly and grin, “Great, tell me about your cats, and I take up my pencil and begin to make a web from the information that Emma shares.  We have completed a second web, and now it is time to return to class. 

            “Do you think you can write a story using this web?” I ask Emma.  She nods positively. We walk back to her classroom both satisfied.

On Thursday afternoon, I am walking past the play area to my office.  Emma’s teacher points to a patch of grass where her students are busy writing.  I spy a small girl hidden in a blanket hunched over her laptop.  Emma’s teacher whispers, “She’s in the zone.  She has three paragraphs so far.”  I am pleased and relieved.  The writer has conquered her writer’s block.  Curious cats to the rescue!

The Art of Assessment

In schools across the country and probably across the world, September means assessments.  We give all kinds of assessments to get to know our students, or should I say to get to know their academic strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t think assessments have anything to do with getting to know our students.  We determine who is high, medium, and low; who succumbed to “The Summer Slide,” and who excelled without our teaching.  We do this in the grand name of progress.  We pore over every score.  Who is proficient and fluent?  Who is struggling and not retaining the concepts and skills we’ve taught? But what do those numbers and labels that we diligently collect really tell us?  What do we truly understand about the information we gathered?  And how does that data affect our instruction?

As an elementary school learning specialist, I am keenly aware of these questions because I am not sure that copious amounts of data are changing or improving our teaching.  I think the majority of teachers – whether in public, charter, or private schools – revert to the mean.  By which I mean, they revert to what they know: they teach to the middle, often leaving behind the students with weaker skills and also boring to tears the students who have surpassed their grade-level standards.

I am sure teachers mean no harm.  They just lack the awareness and knowledge of how to reach all students no matter their skill level.  Many think you need specialized training and yes, that might be very beneficial, but what teachers really need to reach students is simple: the ability to be present and listen – the ability to tune out the educational jargon and tune into the little scholars in front of them.  All they have do is ask…

  • What does this child need?
  • What is she telling me?
  • What can I do to build her knowledge, her confidence, her motivation, and her curiosity?
  • How can I create a classroom experience that will connect my students to each other and to big ideas too?

This past week, I came across a common assessment dilemma.  A new teacher came to me with a problem.  One of her young students did poorly on a sight-word spelling assessment, scoring 2 out of 27.  I asked to see the assessment. 

            The teacher responded, “You want to see the hard copy?”  And I wondered about her hesitancy until she handed me the student’s paper.  Then my suspicions were confirmed.  The student had left almost all of the test blank.

             I asked the teacher, “What happened here?  Why did she leave all these answers blank?” 

            The teacher replied,  “I don’t know. It looked like she was writing?” 

            “Didn’t you walk around the room and check to see if everyone was following along?”  I thought to myself, knowing full-well the answer. 

            The teacher responded, “I don’t think it’s my job to constantly watch over them.  I can’t stand over all of them all the time!” 

            I took a deep breath and calmly said, “That’s not what I am suggesting.  When I had my own classroom, I would walk around the classroom, so I could assess in the moment what each student was doing and what they may need assistance with.”

            She was silent.  Then I quietly asked to reassess the student the following day. 

            The teacher asked me if that was fair. 

            I asked her, “What is the point of the assessment?” 

            She answered, “To find out if they know how to spell grade-level sight words.” 

            I nodded, “Right, so do we understand what this student knows?” 

            The teacher shook her head. 

            Then I smiled and said, “Then I will need to reassess her.”

            The next morning, I sat in our sun-filled school library in the presence of a little girl with dark braids and big brown eyes.  She was eager and happy to sit with me.  I explained that I would be giving her the spelling assessment again.  Her bright eyes grew even larger.  I told her that she should sound out the words even if she was unsure how to spell them.  I told her to think carefully, go slowly, and try her best to show me what she knows about all the words I was going to read.   She took up her pencil and began.  I started to see what she knew.  Not all the words were correct, but she spelled out each word carefully.  Then I asked her why she had left so many blanks on the original assessment.

            She said wisely, “I don’t like competitions.” I tried hard not to laugh.

“I don’t like to spell in front of people.” she added.

            I asked her, “Were you nervous about getting the words wrong?” 

            “Yes,” she nodded vigorously.

When she was done, I showed her all the words she knew, and we looked at the ones she did not yet know how to spell.  Many of the ones she missed, she was able to correct on her own. I gave her a lot of praise and commended her for trying and really thinking about how each word was spelled.  This first grader, who originally scored 2/27, had now scored 21/27, given a second chance.

Now, why is that?  Did she suddenly remember the sight words?  Or is it more about confidence and performance?  Does this student need more sight word drills, or does she need more encouragement?  I guess it is obvious where I am going with this line of questioning.  I know that assessments are useful, but if teachers are not present to their students, then the assessments can become meaningless.  I humbly suggest five meaningful and mindful ways teachers can approach assessing their students:

  • Remain present and open to possibility.
  • Listen with intensity.
  • Give specific and positive feedback.
  • Find time throughout the day to encourage and motivate.
  • Keep yourself and your students curious.

A Fresh Look at Lists

We are entering the second half of September.  School has started.  My busy life has begun.  I reluctantly shift away from summer – the beach, the mountains, my independent reading time, the sun.  And slowly I enter September already weary from thoughts of all I have to do, all I must do, all the little things that await me.

School to Do

Get the Dresses
Out of the closet.
Buy the notebooks,
New pens, paperclips,
Transparent tape.
Get the class lists,
Start putting names
With eager faces,
Put dates on calendar:
Division Meetings,
Department Meetings,
Student Support Meetings,
Parent Meetings.
Set the kettle on the stove,
Brew a steaming
Cup of vanilla chai.
Breathe in the spice,
Exhale the stress.
In this moment
School can wait.

August to September

I leave…
Sleeping late,
Summer sun
Streaming through
The windows.

I leave…
Book adventures
Of my own choosing:
Romantic,
Mysterious,
Inspiring,
Hilarious.

I leave…
Big road trips,
New sights,
The sea and
The mountains.

I welcome…
Cooler days,
Morning commutes,
Little faces
Ready to learn.

I welcome…
Camaraderie,
Lessons learned,
Moments of
Laughter.

I welcome…
New books,
Crisp pages,
Fresh paint
On old walls,
A new school year.

This past week, I have been thinking of ways to energize myself for my school year. I have been going to school for sixty-two years.  I have been teaching school for forty-three years.  This year will be the twentieth anniversary of working at my present school.  All of these years could feel like a very heavy weight, if I let them.  School could finally become monotonous instead of fresh.  School could become just another long and tedious “TO DO” list.  Maybe instead of looking at all I have to do; I reframe my thoughts as all the wonderful thing I get to do.  One day I won’t be able to do these things; one day soon I will be retired; one day soon I will not be on this marvelous blue planet. So, in this moment, why not appreciate all the things I get to do at school, at home, in my daily life. 

Sunny-side

I Get to... 
Wake up this morning 
To green out my window 
And blue, blue sky.
Canada Geese on the field,
The verdant woods beyond.

I Get to... 
Crack open a brown 
egg for breakfast, sunny-side -
Multigrain toast, fig jam,
Strong Irish tea.

I Get to…
Set this day before me
With intention,
With a devotion to the real,
With a disposition, sunny-side.

I Get to…
Create space and opportunity:
Laughing with loved ones,
Painting the sunset
With words and brushes.

I Get to…
Choose the day I make,
The one that was
Gratefully given to me,
The one I am blessed with.


Some Websites on the Power of “I Get to…”

From “Have to” to “Get to”

How a Small Shift in Your Vocabulary Can Instantly Change Your Attitude

I Have To vs. I Get To: How to Change Your Mindset from Obligation to Opportunity

Improve Your Mood by Replacing “I Have to” with “I Get To”

Life is Good Founder: John Jacobs – Keynote

Where Were You?

This past week many people have been reflecting on where they were on 911.  And also now after twenty years, many young people have no memory or understanding of that day.  The words: Flight 11; Flight 93; Shanksville, Pennsylvania; Twin Towers; ”Let’s roll!,” have no connection for them.  For me, those words still make my heart race and bring me back to that beautiful blue-sky morning – September 11, 2001.  That year, I was a Learning Specialist at the Dalton School in New York City and living in Princeton, New Jersey.  In that early morning, getting ready for work, I went to my car to discover a flat tire.  I had to call my mechanic to get it repaired and left a message at school that I would be coming in late.  Having that flat tire possibly saved my life.

I was an hour late on my journey northeast. If I had not been late, I would have been driving in lower Manhattan right when those planes hit the Twin Towers. Instead, as I drove on the Turnpike north, suddenly an electronic billboard flashed: “Plane hit Tower 1 – World Trade Center.” My husband and I looked at each other.  Right away he said, “Terrorists.”  He remembered the 1993 truck bombing.  But I immediately thought of a small plane from nearby Teterboro Airport where I had grown up.  We continued to travel north when another electronic billboard flashed: “2nd plane hits Tower 2.”  We gasped.  “Terrorists!” I said.  “Turn around,” my husband shouted.  Where do you immediately turn around on the New Jersey Turnpike?  We kept moving north until we were parallel to the towers.  We saw huge plumes of smoke billowing up over the New York City skyline.  It was a surreal sight. I am a lifelong Jersey girl, and as a child and teenager that skyline was once so familiar and comforting to me.  That city skyline signified possibility and creativity.  That’s where Broadway beckons.  That’s where museums filled with my favorites from Renoir, Van Gough, Matisse, and Degas stand.  That’s where some of the best restaurants in the world serve up steaming plates of flavor and flair.  As a teenager in the 1970s, I watched the towers slowly be constructed, rising like double steel monoliths at the southern end of Manhattan.  My father was a public relations director for the Port Authority and worked on the Twin Towers project.  He would tell us about the construction progress and describe how incredibly tall the towers were. The World Trade Center became quite literally part of my family.

Now pulled over on the side of Turnpike, we were watching it burn, and suddenly we saw the towers fall.  In a moment, they were gone.  I was thinking, “They just disappeared into smoke and dust!”  My husband whispered, “All those people!”  I had not thought of the people at that moment.  Of course, all the people who were in the building or close by on the ground were dead.  Of course, the people, the people, the people – 2,996 of them to be exact.  Our country was under attack.  Our national security was brought into question.

My husband and I finally turned around and headed south, silent and stunned.  We called my in-laws in Washington, D.C. and told them that we were safe, and we made sure that they were safe since my mother-in-law worked near the Pentagon at the time.  On the way home, we stopped and bought supplies: giant jugs of water, nonperishable food, and a first aid kit.  We didn’t know if there would be more attacks.  We went home to turn on the television and wait for answers.

In the following days and months, out of the rubble and heartache, our country came together.  We rallied around our flag; we were proud Americans.  Can you imagine – every citizen feeling pride in this country?  Out of this horrible tragedy came unity.

I did not go to school for the next three days.  When I returned to New York, it was forever changed.  We witnessed great acts of heroism and kindness. People went out of their way to lend a hand.  Almost every New Yorker knew someone who had died.  My family’s parish priest, Father Mychal Judge, was the chaplain for the NYFD.  He ran into the North Tower to rescue trapped peopled and never came out.  His death was the first recorded death after the attack. Several of my students lost their fathers and many of friends lost coworkers.  The grief was palpable on the streets of New York.  As Americans, we were steadfast in our determination to always remember and never forget. Twenty years later, the world has changed, and I am not sure unity is in the forefront of our national imagination.  I hope it is.  I pray it is because I will always remember where I was on September 11, 2001 and what I witnessed.

Books for Kids About 911

  1. America Is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown