Celebration in the Wonder Studio: Lunar New Year

A dozen girls gather at recess time to work in the Wonder Studio.  They are in the midst of painting, decorating, and constructing projects of their choice.  This week, I added a box in the shape of a dragon’s head to celebrate Lunar New year.  I quickly cut the box to look like a dragon with a wide pointed-tooth grin.  The girls collected some found objects to make the dragon’s eyes, nostrils, and teeth.  Then we all took turns collaging bright colored tissue paper all over the head in layers upon layers.  Once completed, the dragon would be hung right outside their classrooms to celebrate Lunar New Year.

I have done this dragon project with countless students over several decades.  I love this tradition because it always sparks children’s imaginations and makes the classroom atmosphere festive.  I think the best way for young children to learn about other cultures is through celebrations (food, storytelling, and art). These are powerful ways in which to hold memories.  When I was a classroom teacher, this art project would be the anchor for deep research into the holiday and the Asian culture.  We read widely and began to understand these cultures and traditions more organically.

These days, I’ve noticed that with more and more emphasis on curricular initiatives there seems to be less and less time to celebrate, less and less time for conversations, and less time for connection. The classrooms are a rush of activity, one lesson after the next – go, go, go.  Don’t stop. Don’t think.  Don’t feel the struggle and joy in learning.

I’m glad I can eke out some time for kids to converse and create; some time to experiment and play; some time to celebrate the small things.  They need to know the joy of taking a risk – of taking a cardboard box and transforming into something whimsical.  There is magic held within that simple box, and I want children to experience that creative power.

As they worked, they began asking questions about Lunar New Year.  They began talking to each other naturally.  Some of them knew quite a bit about the holiday and supplied lots of information with facts and personal experiences. Questions grew and so did the students’ understanding.  They wanted to know more.  They wanted to become part of the celebration.

Books About Lunar New Year

3rd Grade Makers: Creating in the Wonder Studio

Sometimes the best learning environment

for students isn’t a bunch of devices powered by Wi-Fi,

sometimes it’s a huge pile of cardboard

powered by pure imagination.

                                                                        -Krissy Venosdale

It’s January, and it’s finally time for the 3rd graders to have time in the Wonder Studio during recess. They are beyond excited.  I look out onto a sea of eager faces, and they are literally bouncing with energy. I gather them on the porch before we venture inside, “Listen please.  I’m giving you two sets of directions: Number one – go into my office, take off your coats, and put them on the chairs on the left side of the room.  Number two – Then go into the Wonder Studio and sit on the steps. When you are all seated, I will give you a guided tour of what we have in the Wonder Studio today.”

To my surprise, they quieted down immediately, listened to my directions, and followed them to a T.  Note to self: when something is dearly important to children, they will tune in and engage in the process with their whole hearts and curious minds. The 3rd graders have been patiently waiting for this day.  The 5th graders participated in October and November, the 4th graders participated in November and December, and now it is their turn.  The quota for each session was 9 students.  Every single 3rd graders signed up to participate! In order to give everyone a chance, so I increased the quota to 12 students per session.  The studio is a very small space. I crossed my fingers and hoped that this group could navigate the room and materials without too much chaos.  To my delight, they got right to work, setting up their spaces and helping each other.  Long before this day, they had been thinking hard about what they wanted to create.  Soon, the studio was abuzz with activity.

Carlie wanted a small box, which I found for her.  “I’m making a bed,” she declared.

Francee wanted a bigger box and some cardboard.  “What are you making?” I asked.

“A hotel for my scrunchies,” she said, holding up three colorful fabric scrunchies.

I laughed.  I had never thought of making a hotel for scrunchies.  I marveled at her creativity.

Francee’s enthusiasm was contagious, and she soon had two classmates helping her construct the hotel.  It had three floors created with plastic strawberry baskets and needlepoint canvas.

Some people would observe this scene and define it as childish.  I suppose it is, but childish not in a dismissive and frivolous way.  When I think of the word childish, I think of creativity, imagination, a great sense of play, adventure, and wonder.  The studio session captured these childish times: a child painting paper plates with bright colors, another child duct-taping blocks together to make her own version of a Rubik’s cube, and yet another child stringing beads and wooden snowflakes together to make a winter garland.

Carlie has returned to request a stapler. “What do you need it for?” I ask.  I’ve learned to ask this question because often students do not request the tool that they actually need.  In this case, Carlie wanted the stapler to “sew” pillows for her bed.  I looked at the tiny fabric squares in her hand.  She had put a cotton ball in each square and showed me where she wanted to staple.  “May I show you something?’ I asked her gently.  She nodded her head.  “Staples are not the best tool for making pillows.  Let’s try sewing instead.  Would you like me to teach you how to do it?” Carlie nodded again.  We worked together to sew two small pillows perfectly for her cardboard bed.  “Do I have time to make a quilt?” Carlie asked. “Next session,” I promise.

I looked at the clock. “We have five minutes to clean up,” I announce to the girls.  They moan in unison. “I know.  I know.  You have done excellent work.  There will be more time next week.”  They slowly complied, as I stood directing where to put palettes and paint brushes.  Someone had spilled some water and others come to her aid.  We found space for paintings to dry and beads to stay organized.  Francee’s hotel was put on a high shelf, as was Carlie’s bed.

This childish time is essential, so nourishing.  I know it, and the girls know it. We have formed a strong bond.  There is such satisfaction, such a sense of purpose when making something with your own two hands out of your own wild imagination.  We all want to stay here in the Wonder Studio just a little longer.

Christmas Zen: Shed Some Holiday Cheer

During the weeks before Christmas, I enjoyed frequenting local garden shops to take in the smell of pine and look at all the holiday decorations.  This year, one neighborhood garden shop had several sheds set up covering their extensive grounds. Each shed held different types of decorations: wreaths, floral arrangements, ornaments, and bells.  I walked inside each one and breathed deeply.  Every particle in my body relaxed in those small cozy spaces.  I felt safe and calm surrounded by nature and seasonal beauty.

I often have thought if I lived in a house and had a backyard, I would love to have my own shed – a she shed.  It would be constructed of unvarnished wood that would weather into a soft gray.  I would paint the interior bright white and have a large set of windows on one wall. It would have French doors to let in as much light as possible.  I would have some simple shabby chic furniture: a table with mismatched chairs and an enormous overstuffed arm chair to sink into while I write and dream.  I would have a cozy rug in blue and green and bookcases to display pottery, books and trinkets I’ve collected over the years.  It would be a shed of my own where I could create and set free my imagination.

As I stepped into each of the garden sheds, I was filled with delight.  The wreath shed smelled like pine, juniper, and cinnamon.  I inhaled the scent and felt so happy.  I didn’t want to leave, but I pressed on to a small shed with floral centerpieces in rustic tins and brass bells.  Another shed contained a display of jingle bells on leather straps along one whole wall.  I stood in the middle of the shed, closed my eyes, and stretched out my arms.  I took in all I could from this special Christmas magic.  I was desperately in need of some holiday cheer.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering from shed to shed looking at my reflection in the glass ornaments, picking up small treasures to decorate my tree, and brushing my hand against prickly pine boughs.  I came in search of the wonder of the season, and I found it here in these rustic sheds filled with joy and light.  The last shed I came to was closed.  I could not enter.  At the threshold was a concrete stature of a frog sitting in the lotus position. Above his head hung a small slate with the words: “Santa is coming.”  I smiled.  All was well with the world.  Santa is indeed coming, and small things still hold great joy.

She Shed Inspiration

She Sheds:A Room of Your Own

She Sheds Style: Make Your Space Your Own

Building a DIY She Shed on a Budget

Inspiration and Handiwork

Over the years, bloggers have blessed me with new ideas, book suggestions, encouragement, beautiful artwork and photographs, and myriad moments of inspiration.  I have learned so much from strangers, and I am so grateful for their knowledge and generosity.

My latest spark of inspiration comes from Adam Zucker who blogs at Artfully Learning. Last week, Adam wrote about Black Mountain College in North Carolina and its founders, teachers, and alumni.  He wrote about the life and art of Ruth Asawa. I had never heard of her, but I had read and studied the work of her teacher, Josef Albers.  As I looked at the work of Ruth Asawa, I had a tingling “Aha” moment. I had such a strong visceral reaction to her sculptures. They were curved and intricate biomorphic shapes. Her organic wire sculptures reminded me of some macramé sculpture I created in graduate school as part of my Master’s thesis in Creative Arts Education forty-three years ago. I carried those sculptures around for years and gave a few away to friends.  I had forgotten about them until I saw Ruth’s sculptures.  I said aloud to myself, “Oh! I wish I had known about Ruth Asawa forty-three years ago.  Her work would have greatly influenced my art and pushed me forward.”  I never thought of weaving with wire and stayed with more common materials such as paper, fabric, yarn, jute, and hemp.

I made twelve sculptures with accompanying poems. Two sculptures I remember very well.  My work was centered around the women who influenced my life.  The first sculpture was a rectangular wall hanging in a natural jute tied onto wooden branches on the top and bottom.  The knots were predominantly Josephine knots in honor of my maternal grandmother, Josephine, who I never met.  She died at the age of forty-six from a cerebral hemorrhage.  Family members always told me that I looked like her.  I never believed them until I came across a photo of her at the age of sixteen.  My heart skipped a beat when I looked at her eyes and smile. Yes, indeed, I look a lot like my grandmother.  I wanted to create a sculpture that would reflect my connection to her.

Another sculpture was a replica of a head of long chestnut hair.  My childhood friend, Roxanne, had the most gorgeous long, straight, thick hair. My hair was short, fine, dark brown, and curly.  I coveted Roxanne’s hair.  I craved long thick tresses that I could toss, braid, and put in in an elegant bun.  I found a wire-framed oval, and I tied long strands of wool year in multi-shades of brown.  Then I created different kinds of intricate braids down the length of the sculpture.  To add interest, I woven in some gold engraved barrel beads.  This is the hair I would have wanted.  This is the hair of my amazing dear friend.  After the exhibition,  I packed Roxanne’s hair in a box and sent it to her in Boston with a note expressing how much her friendship meant to me.

As years went by,  I turned to watercolor and collage for artistic expression.  And my time was spent more and more teaching children.  In my teaching, I always shared the connection of art to literature, and exposed my young students to various artists, genres, and materials.  I knew it was important for children to explore the world of art and use their imaginations to create their own work. This free expression is crucial for building identity, self-esteem, and for nurturing creative minds.

With a little research, I found a picture book A Life Made by Hand: The Story of Ruth Asawa by Andrea D’Aquino.  She recounts Ruth’s childhood on a California farm, her interest in nature, and her studies in art.  She was influenced by choreographer, Merce Cunningham, the visionary designer, Buckminster Fuller, and the abstract artist, Josef Albers.  As Ruth developed as an artist, a trip to Mexico introduced her to write weaving.  When she returned home to San Francisco, she began to tach art and create beautiful nature-inspired wire sculptures.

I cannot wait to try my hand at wire sculptures.  After all, I have been waiting for forty-three years!  Maybe I can combine wire and fiber.  I am looking forward to playing and creating with this new-found idea. 

Josephine Knots in Copper Wire

Forest Bathing: Autumn Plunge

The last time I was in Vermont, it was summer – July to be exact. Everything was green in the green mountains, and I was in need of some physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. I had read about the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. I immediately loved the image that came to mind – walking down woodland paths or up steep mountain paths and soaking in all that nature has to offer. My summer Forest Bathing post can be viewed here.

As is our tradition, my husband and I travel up to Vermont in October to witness the leaves changing color in all variations of radiant yellow, orange, russet, red, crimson, and purple. This year was a spectacular display. Whenever we went there was vibrant color – a real-life watercolor – colors blended into each other and the sky was a clear, cloudless blue. I could not wait to get into the woods, to surround myself with color, with the natural signs of the changing seasons. As I walked, I took photos and wrote poetry in my head. This is what my Autumn plunge created.

Small Wonder

September is more than half-way over.  I am beginning to settle in to my school routine: getting up early, working long days organizing student support, and coming home exhausted only to organize some more.  It sounds tedious and parts of my job are very routinized, but then there is the wonder that sneaks in every day.  The wonder from young children engaging with their world.  That I would not trade to witness for all the money the in world – honestly.  Wonder is what sustains me, what pushes me through, what is on the other side of the routines and everyday drudgery. 

I realized that I have been either going to school or teaching in a school for sixty-two years, more than half a century, most of my life!  That is indeed a long time, and I know when the time comes for me to stop doing school, it will be a hard transition.  I absolutely love school.  I love getting up in the morning, picking out a school outfit, getting to school and seeing friends,  going through my way and learning, going home to think about all that has happened in the day, and then doing it all over again until summertime greets me at the end of the school year.

Every day there is a new surprise. Every day, something I didn’t expect happens.  This is sometimes positive and sometimes negative, and whichever it is – it is always a learning experience.  My days are electric, and that’s how I like them.  This is not to say my day are frenetic and haphazard.  No, the electricity comes from learning alongside children.  I get to see the world again through that childlike lens of wonder and discovery.  It fills me with joy, and I am reminded how exciting learning something can be.

One of the best ways I know to spend my time is visiting the JPK classroom, which is home to our three-year-old students.  I started my career teaching three-year-old children, so when I enter their classroom, it is like going back in time, and I feel young again. Three-year-olds are the friendliest people I know.  They engage you from the minute they meet you and want to be your friend.  They like to share information and will tell you without any hesitation what they are doing and how it is going in their world. Even if sometimes they are shy, they are still willing to come up and quietly share what they are thinking.  They thrive on connection.

I came to help out on the first day of school.  As parents were separating from their children, I noticed one little dark-haired girl, Avery, was having trouble letting her mom go.  I sat next to her at the playdough table and engaged her in a conversation long enough for her mom to say good-bye and leave.  We continued to play with our pink playdough balls, and I asked Avery if she’d like me to make a snowman. Her face lit up with an exuberant nod.  She requested that I make snowman after snowman in various sizes. She giggled and clapped all the way through.  I encouraged her to make a snowman, but she just shook her head and said, “You do it.” We played and chatted at the table until it was time for the children to clean-up and for me to get on with the rest of my day.

The following week, I came into the JPK room to find Avery once again sitting with pink playdough.  I sat alongside her and said hello.  She gave me a big smile and commanded me to make a snowman.  I started to make one ball and stopped and said, “You know you can do this.” She shook her head.  “Yes, you can,” and I said, “I can show you.”  Avery looked up at me, and I showed her how to move her hands to make a ball. She took some playdough and tried to form a ball.  She moved her hands back and forth.  When she opened her palms, she looked down and frowned.  “It’s a snake,” she said.  I smiled and explained, “When you move your hand back and forth it turns into a snake.  When you move your hands around in a circle like this it becomes a ball.”  I made a snake and then a ball. Then I helped Avery to move her hands in a circle. I told her to put the playdough on the table and move one hand on top in a circle.  She followed my instructions and slowly removed her hand uncovering a perfect little pink ball. Her face lit up like she had just witnessed magic.  Her face was a glow of delight that spread to me and to all the other children at the table.  I wished I had taken a photo of her.  Her expression was pure joy and happiness.  I tucked that image away with me and will keep it with me to use at times when I need a boost.

A few days later, I returned to Avery’s classroom.  When I walked in the door, she looked over her shoulder and beckoned me to come see what she was doing. When I saw, my heart over-filled with complete joy.  Avery’s playdough mat had a long line of pink balls lined up one after another and stacked one on top of another like a great pink snowball wall.  I laughed and said, “Oh, you have been busy!  You know how to make snowballs now!  You don’t need me.”  Avery smiled at me, patted the chair next to her. “Sit down,” she said, “Come play.”  Who could argue with that?

I know this seems like such a small thing: a child playing with playdough, learning to make shapes.  Some people might say, “This is the way you spend your day?  You get paid for this?” And I will proudly declare, “Yes – I spend my day in joy and wonder.  I spend my day cultivating play and creativity because it is through these little joy-filled interactions that people learn and grow and invent new ways for our world to be a better place. And so to all of you I say, “Sit down. Come play.”

Avery playing practicing her new skill: PlayDough balls!

A Wall of Wonder

Forest Bathing

I have taken some time off to be in Vermont.  It is a place my husband and I  have gone for the last thirty years. I need this time to relax, heal, and ease my pain.  I am so grateful for this place.  As soon as I see the Green Mountains in the distance, I breathe deeply and feel something release inside of me.  This may be due to the wide expanse of greenery, the clouds sitting gently on the mountain tops, or the roadside laced with an assortment of wildflowers.  There are acres and acres of distance between neighbors and people still put their wash up on clotheslines.  This is a slow and peaceful place.  My eyes tell my body that I am safe; I can rest now.

I have been reading about a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. The idea is the connect with nature by walking in the woods.  By bringing all your senses to that place and being mindful, your body begins to heal itself and you feel restored.  I am practicing forest bathing every day while in Vermont.  My body is beginning to ache a little less and my mind is certainly in a better place.  I so needed this respite, and I am grateful that there is such a beautiful place nestled in the mountains.

Flowery Thoughts

These past three weeks, I have had to put my life on pause a bit to deal with pulled muscles in my lower back.  Needless to say, I am trying to develop a better relationship with pain.  My first reaction is panic, which only tightens the muscles more.  So, I breathe deeply, think of beautiful places, and try to compose poetry out of the pain.

I have needed to talk short, slow walks throughout the day to keep the muscles happy.  The more I walked, the better I felt.  Of course, I had to recognize my own limitations and not walk too long, otherwise I would be back in the pain place, and panic would set in once again.

Nature is always good medicine, and I seek to be among trees and flowers as much as I can. Nature makes me more mindful of the short time we have to enjoy this miraculous earth.  It makes me grateful to be among the flowers.  It makes me feel like I am part of something much bigger than myself.

I have what I call the “Emily Dickinson Syndrome.”  I have a habit of writing lines, stanzas, or whole poems on scraps of paper, napkins, old journal pages, or whatever is at hand. Then I forget about them and find them at a later date, often surprised by my own thinking.  I found a stanza today in a 2018 calendar in the June 25th space.  It was like my previous self was sending me a message she did not want me to forget.

The pale ,yellow tulips

On your bedside table

Bow their buttery heads,

Delicate and fragile,

Their blooms fleeting.

My thoughts turn to flowers.  They help me recover and create a more positive approach to pain.  Poetry allows me to recall times when flowers have given me momentary joy.  This settling of spirit is welcome and necessary.

Mindful Style

I have been traveling in southern Maine this past week. While photographing this beautiful landscape, I was struck by how the style of the homes, shops, and public spaces keep a focus on nature. The seaside and its accompanying flora and fauna become part of a peaceful natural decor. The colors: ocean blue, dune grass green, picket fence white, daisy yellow, azalea pink, and cardinal red are repeated in pleasing patterns so restful to the eye and spirit.

I realize that much of the way I design my home and office is with this same emphasis on nature. I often look for ways to bring the outside indoors. I have collections of seashells, sea glass, and beach stones. I bring in wildflowers and make arrangements in jam jars and earthenware vases. In the fall, I will collect pinecones, acorns, and the spiky balls of the Sweet Gum tree and place them in wooden bowls, pottery and baskets. I find comfort in staying connected to my surroundings whether it be ocean, mountains, or forest. I have always found these places a source of relaxation and restoration.

The Maine coast holds a special place in my heart, however. Something about the wide expanse of sand and sea and sky, gives me permission to pause, to breathe in the salty brine, and breathe out all my worries. At the ocean my shoulders relax, and I feel truly at ease. I want to take that feeling with me. I want to create the same mood indoors and keep it all year long. I can bring my seaside escape with me and make it truly part of my surroundings, part of how I feel and who I am.