A Candle in the Darkness

This week I am celebrating.  I am celebrating 52 and 65. I have blogged for 52 weeks straight – one whole year of weekly writing!  As of this week, I will have been living on this small blue planet for 65 years.  My personal philosophy is that there are people on this planet who are candles – placed on Earth to light the way for others. All my life, it is teachers and writers who have lit my way to new and better understanding; opened my mind to possibilities and promise.

Writer and educator, Ruth Ayres, is one of these people.  I have read all of Ruth’s books and have followed her blog for years.  I was attracted to the honest way she talked about teaching and raising her family.  She is an advocate for children who come from dark places. And as a former child who survived a dark place and thrived, Ruth’s children’s lives were of great interest to me.  I worried about their troubles and cheered when they overcame obstacles. Healing from trauma is no easy matter. It is a lifelong process.  Ruth’s stories helped me to heal.

A year ago, she invited me to come write with her community of bloggers at SOS: Sharing Our Stories – Magic in a Blog.  I was hoping that Ruth’s kind invitation would help me write more successfully, come out of the shadows, and share the poems and stories I had been storing up for years. And indeed, it did work.  I have been writing consistently this year, and I have met a group of insightful, affirming, and inspiring writers and teachers.  They have lifted me up and given me ideas to ponder, books to read, and their stories have brought me equal parts of tears and laughter.

When I was ten-years-old, I was deeply affected by the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. The story of the young deaf and blind girl who, with the careful guidance of her teacher, learned to speak and write, becoming an international lecturer and advocate for the deaf and blind. If Helen could learn to speak and light world up with her ideas, then who could I become?  What could I accomplish?  It was Helen’s young teacher who served as a candle lighting her way, giving her language.  Helen describes the moment she began to understand that Anne’s finger signings were words:

I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! (The Story of My Life)

Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:

My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened!  The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed!  

William Gibson made Helen’s autobiography into a play, The Miracle Worker.  In the first act, Anne explains to Mrs. Keller that “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” The 1962 film of The Miracle Worker was one of my favorites and made me want to become a teacher like Anne Sullivan when I grew up.  I wanted to teach children, connect with them, and show them what words can do to free them to learning.

I have been teaching for over four decades.  I am proud of my work and immensely proud of all the children I was so fortunate to get to know.  Over these years, I have met children who have faced immense obstacles: abuse, poverty, abandonment, death of a beloved one, illness, and difficulty learning.  I hope that the books I read and the stories I told were of comfort to them.  I hope I provided them with a candle in the darkness.  Some days, I think back and wonder how they all are doing and hope they are having happy lives.  Some students I have been fortunate enough to still have contact with and who still reach out to me to tell of their triumphs and tribulations as young adults – grown up people.  I am very grateful.

This week, I happened to see an article on the Internet about a former student and his important research.  He now has a doctorate in some very complicated and technical field of statistics that I cannot even try to fathom.  I marveled at the list of his publications.  But the simple line that made me smile was this one: “I love to paint.”  When I read that, I knew that Marco was safe and sound. Over twenty-five years ago, when Marco was in my 3rd grade class, we studied a new artist every month, and we would take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of art (it was only nine blocks away). The children would sit, wonder, and sketch in front of some of the world’s greatest paintings.  Back in the classroom, they would experiment with paint, torn paper, and glue.  All things were possible.  In that school, with those children, I was able to teach freely.  It was a wonderful time.  And then, as life would have it, something terrible happened in Marco’s life that made our world tilt upside down.  His grown brother, the brother he loved and wanted to emulate, was killed. We mourned.  We gathered around Marco and his family. We did and said all the things one is supposed to do and say.  It did not take away the pain.  We knew that. One day, I noticed that some Lego pieces were missing.  More and more – more and more rapidly.  And it wasn’t the blocks that were missing, it was the people.  Soon we had no more Lego people.  I brought this problem up to the class.  I waited for someone to confess and give back the people. No one did for weeks. My co-teacher and I searched the classroom and school looking for Lego people. No luck.

Then one day, as I was walking a back staircase, I saw a little glimmer of yellow high up on a ledge – a Lego person!  What was it doing there?  Who put it all the way up there?  I took the Lego person and went back to my class with the evidence.  I asked them what they thought happened.  No one said a word.  Then later in the day, Marco came to me and quietly said, “I put him there.  He is resting forever, but he is still with me.” I tried to stop my sudden tears.  Now I understood. The Lego people were Marco’s brother, and he was hiding them all around the school so he would never be alone.  I went with Marco back to the stairway ledge and put the Lego person back in place.  I told him that he could keep the Lego people where he had placed them, and I would just get some new ones.  Months went by, Marco and his family slowly healed.  One spring day, we were writing fractured fairy tales.  Marco asked if he could write a play and have his friends be the actors.  I encouraged him to write.  As he wrote, he shared his work with his friends, who erupted into gales of laughter.  I wondered what he was writing, but he told me it was a surprise.  Finally, the day had come, and he unveiled his play, The Three Little Wolfies and the Big Bad Pig.  Marco and his friends acted out the silly scenes and the rest of the class clapped. It was so wonderful that I decided to invite all the parents to hear their children’s work. When it was time to present the play, Marco’s parents sat in the front row.  They laughed, they held each other’s hands, they hugged Marco when he took his final bow.  There was a little light in the darkness.  A small glimmer of hope.

And now this week, to know that Marco is an accomplished scholar who loves to paint, this is the best 65th birthday gift I could have ever wish for.  Marco is happy and healthy and safe.

Thank you, Ruth, for holding out a candle to light our way as we tell our stories.

Possibility of The Blank Canvas

In his latest post, “A Crowd of Me,” Mario Perron writes about the process of beginning a new painting:

Staring at the big (30″ x 30″), white canvas is often the most stressful part of my process. How do I start? Where do I start? That very first mark is so important to me that I find myself in a battle against my fears and insecurities. A multitude of voices clamour for dominance in my head… It’s the same every time! I hear the light-speed and intensely elaborate debate between overthought and instinct, then my hand rises to the canvas and the first mark is there. When I let my mind go, the entire image starts to come into view in my imaginations and muscle-memory does the rest for guiding my hands.

This got me thinking of my own process of creating. I think a blank anything whether it is a canvas, paper, or piece of cloth – gives the artist a moment to ponder and stress.  Something about the purity of the whiteness maybe. We don’t want to put something down that is wrong, ugly, or unintended.  We want the marks, whether words, a painted image, or a quilted line, to be beautiful and meaningful and what we envisioned in our minds in the first place. With writing, the blank page is not so daunting to me.  I create ideas in my head for a good long time, I let them percolate, and then I start placing them on the page.  I’ve been doing this for about sixty years, so with practice comes familiarity and a kind of easy flow.  With canvas or cloth, I am more hesitant.  These I’ve done sporadically over the years; these hold more anxiety for me.  It’s harder to undo a stitch or a painted line.  Typing can be easily deleted, no one will ever know those awkward, ugly, simplistic words were ever there.  But the painted or stitched line is harder to remove.  There is evidence of my lack of ability permanently cast.  So I wonder how to get beyond that.  Abstraction and collage help.  Making abstract images helps free my mind and in doing so it frees my hand.  I don’t worry as much about perfection. I can just flow with the rhythm of what I’m feeling in that moment.

Black Dots on Red
Black Dots on White

Abstraction helps me get in touch with the child inside.  The young child, who hasn’t yet been touched by judgement.  Peter Reynold’s picture book, The Dot, addresses this idea of self-judgement.  In the story a young girl faces desire, hesitation, and ultimate success in making her artistic mark on the world. It’s a wonderful book about creativity and being brave making your mark.  When I do creativity exercises with children, I change the blank paper into a paper with a dot or mark or hole in it.  The paper already has an “imperfection.” Now they don’t have to worry about the first mark, it is already there.  I challenge them to take that mark and use their imagination to create a design, image, or story.  Young children don’t hesitate – they take up the challenge and just draw.  Another activity I’ve done with students after reading Reynold’s book is to have them work together to create a mural using colorful self-sticking dots and.  It is wonderful to see that there was a time we didn’t self-edit.

Start with a dot and then freely explore.
Composing with Dots

I often take an art mistake and incorporate it into a collage.  A couple of months ago, I began dabbling again with watercolors.  What was in my mind did not translate to the page.  I was disappointed.  I looked at the work again and decided I loved the colors, but not the image, so I cut the image into strips and woven them together into two squares.  I liked how the watercolor was transformed and put it a way to use in a collage.  This week, I took a twelve-inch square canvas, painted an undercoat of lemon yellow, yellow ochre, and vermillion.  After that layer dried, I added a coat of green (a mixture of white, sap green and viridian).  While that coat was still wet, I drew on top of that layer with rubber shaping tools creating a design of swirls and dots. I let my hand move freely and added bits of flourish as I saw fit. I let that layer dry and then placed my collage objects: the two woven watercolor squares and six wooden hand-painted buttons.  I spent some time assembling and dissembling until I like the composition. Then I will permanently attach the pieces by sewing the into place of the canvas.

Process of Making Garden Trellis

Instead of focusing on purity, I focus on possibility.  It’s not important to me if the strips are the same width or that the weaving is not perfectly straight.  To me, these imperfections make the work more interesting. What is beyond the canvas, page, cloth that I can imagine into being?  How can I express what I’m thinking and feeling?  How can I connect?

Picture Books That Stimulate the Imagination

Twenty Books and More that Join Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon Creative Tradition:

  1. A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
  2. Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
  3. Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
  4. Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
  5. David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
  6. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  7. How to by Julie Morstad
  8. Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
  9. Journey by Aaron Becker
  10. Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
  11. Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
  12. Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
  13. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  14. Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
  15. Perfect Square by Michael Hall
  16. Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
  17. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
  18. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
  19. What if? by Samantha Berger
  20. Windblown by Edouard Mancea

Transformation: The Things We Carry

Spring approaches.  It seems to be coming from underground this year.  I look out on to the field behind my home, and I can see the warmth spreading: the green tenderly returning…  slowly, ever so slowly as to be almost imperceptible.  But it is there.  It is no doubt there.  This week, I have some respite from work, a spring break of sorts: a little time to reflect, relax, do some spring cleaning.  It started with my heavy woolen winter clothes, but then I read fellow blogger Stuart M. Perkins’ post, “One Man’s Trash,” and I turned my attention to my junk drawers.  Stuart recalled his mother keeping a junk drawer in the kitchen full of things, which she left intact for years. He vowed not to have one himself but to no avail.  After reading his post, I went into my kitchen and realized I had not one, but two junk drawers full of things I have not used in months and in some cases years. Why do I keep these bits of things.  Apparently, I have a thing for collecting plastic bottle tops. I think I’m going to use them with the kids on some school project, but that never happens, or hasn’t to date.  Then there are the pens, the pens that are out of ink, or whose springs are lost.  Why am I keeping those?  And at some point my husband bought a gross (144 packs!) of rubber bands.  Some of those are shoved at the back of the drawer threatening to make it stick shut forever. 

The kitchen is only the half of it.  I have two more junk drawers in my art table in my bedroom.  I pulled them open tentatively to survey the damage. There, I found more pens, dried up markers, dusty finger splints, a little rubber ball, a book of prayers and affirmations among the assorted bric-a-brac. How can I transform this junk into something artful?  How can I make it something not to leave and forget, but something I want to return to?  I want to make it more than spring cleaning, more than an executive function organization project.  Seven years ago, when Marie Kondo’s first book was published, I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up cover to cover and back again. I went to my closet lifted each item and asked myself “Does it bring me joy?” I ended up giving away at least half of my clothing.  Then I attacked my sock drawer.  Truth be told, I am obsessed with socks.  Somehow I always lose one of them, and I do not have the gumption to toss it out because somewhere in my heart I hold out hope that the other sock will return.  Ever the optimist. I even bought a sock drawer organizer, so that it is the only drawer in my house that is neat and perfectly aligned.  My socks are mostly black, maybe navy, with some simple gray and as Marie Kondo teaches, folded tightly. It is beautiful.  It is a little boring.

Sock Draw KonMari Style

What if I took my junky art drawer and treated it as a piece of art?  What could I make?  How could it become a pleasing aesthetic part of my art space?  All my life, I have loved to make collages and assemblages, to build something or make sense of the pieces.  I could now do this with my art drawer.  I took some of my favorite small bowls and baskets and started to play with the arrangement. I tried many different variations.  I had fun thinking about color and shape and placement within that three-inch deep rectangle.  I chose blues and green because those are my favorite calming colors: the colors of the woods and fields around my house, the color of the sky and the sea. I mixed squares, rectangles, and circles. There was suddenly possibility instead of mess.

Art Drawer Transformed

With the superficial things in order, it was time to think about my mind.  What clutter was I carrying that I could let go?  Usually, I push away not clear out.  Push all the doubt and anxiety to the edges and make a simple clearing.  Lately, the doubt, anxiety has been creeping in more and more quickly with a ferocious tenacity.  I remembered Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a powerful testament to memory and the Vietnam War.  I’ve read it a few times over the years with high school students.  The power in the listing of items at the beginning of O’Brien’s tale is evident:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.

I can see all these items clearly.  I can imagine those young soldiers’ faces. I can smell the jungle and hear the mosquitoes whining.  I can begin to grasp their pain. Though I have not experienced the unbearable cruelty of war, I think all humans carry things deep inside of us: joyful things and things that bring untold despair.  I’m especially thinking of some of my students who are trying to wrap their minds around this pandemic.  They smile, they laugh, they play, they keep their desks in order. But I know inside they are struggling to understand all the death and restrictions.  They move less and stress more.  We all do.  I do.  And so in coming to terms with the state of our world, I think about how to reframe the things I carry into creativity and play.  How can I take those things, both good and bad, both seen and unseen, and shape them so they live together harmoniously? Is it possible to re-organize and transform an assortment of objects and words, and in the process transform yourself?  I believe so.

Junk Drawer

Old rusted key
To something I’ve
Forgotten how to open,
I’ve forgotten,
I cannot remember.
It is locked in my memory
And I know it was terrible,
I can feel it
And I want to run,
I want to
Hide my eyes,
I want to forget.
I collect things:
Keys, bottle tops, bits
Of paper, broken pens,
Little boxes of 
Assorted sizes,
Buttons, marbles,
Anything small
I can store away,
Safe and protected,
Safe and unnoticed,
Safe and forgotten
Until I open the drawer
And see those things
With new eyes.
Those old things
I carry,
Those forgotten
And rusted things
Useless to everyone,
But me.
Transformation

When I put a pen in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
I can rewrite the tragedy,
I can illuminate the dark places
With bright colors,
I can make things whole.

When I put a brush in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
Sweep cobalt into the blue harbor,
Place a line of crimson at the horizon
Of a glorious sunset,
I can create beauty.

When I move through a space
I have the power
To transform things.
Reach up confidently,
Twist and sway,
Breath in and out,
Be in this single moment -
Heart open, mind free.

Mindful Mending

I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro.  It’s cover is patterned and embossed.  I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style.  Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing.  It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together.  I had never seen a book quite like it.  I was enticed and started reading.  The authors’ words calmed and centered me.  I began recalling my history with thread and needle.  Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase. 

Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress.  She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college.  She was amazingly gifted.  She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket.  My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was.  She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves.  I became interested in embroidery in my early teens.  I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans.  I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them.  I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom.  It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.

I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood.  Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus.  I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric.  One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment.  I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard.  It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches.  I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session.  To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking.  His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative.  More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.

In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum.  I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework.  At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project.  She was looking for quilters and embroiderers.  I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit.  To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York.  That was a great experience for me.  I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life.  I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.

But it did not.  Like my mother, I turned toward teaching.  I continued to create with my students.  I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with.  For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts.  We’d read Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too.  We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet.  We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before.  We were creating something together, something that would be joined together.  When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year.  I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts.  There’s a story in that!

The Sewing Corner in The Wonder Lab

For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells.  I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own.  I do these projects purely for myself.  I love choosing the colors and textures of paper.  I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design.  The buttons and beads are a particular favorite.  One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons.  They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect. 

I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to.  It seems there never is enough time.  I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity.  I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life.  It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands.  Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:

Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken.  Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve.  A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.

That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country.  I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.”  They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt.  By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw.  I love this idea.  Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew. 

Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi.  Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible.  This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice.  She artfully and thoughtfully explains:  The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.

I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again.  Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along.  Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.

One of my paper quilts, Five Buttons
 Mindful Mending
 
 Clothes sit in a pile
 On the edge of my bed,
 Waiting for attention.
 I sit down next to them:
 The khakis with the torn hem,
 The sweater missing its button,
 The shirt that split it’s seam,
 The sock with a hole in its toe,
 The old pair of worn-out jeans
 With a huge tear in one knee.
  
 I take a deep breath,
 I rather be doing something else,
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention,
 Pick up the pants,
 Examine the hem,
 Thread the needle with
 As close a khaki colored thread
 As I can find – and start.
 I pierce the supple surface 
 Down and up, down and up again and again
 The thread slides through the fabric
 Until the hem secured.
  
  
 My hands take up the sweater
 It is my favorite: black, red, and white
 Thick and warm from Norway
 With embossed silver buttons
 One is missing now
 I find another in my button box
 It is not quite the same
 Will anyone notice?
 Does it matter? Do I care?
 I snip off the top button
 And put it in the place of the missing one
 Then I take the mismatched button
 And place it on top in full view
 Like that’s where it was meant to be
 I wrap heavy black floss around and around
 The button shank keeping it 
 Snug - sure not to fall off.
  
 My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
 With it’s tiny split seam is next
 I hold it up to my nose
 It smells like him
 I take a deep breath,
 I’m doing something for someone I love,
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention,
 I find delicate white cotton thread
 And another sharp needle
 I concentrate on make tiny
 Identical stitches one after another
 After another until it is complete.
  
 There’s my old worn sock
 I take it in hands and examine it
 Is it worth keeping?
 The hole is quite large
 But the rest of the sock is perfect
 And they are my warmest
 They make my feet happy
 I search for charcoal gray yarn.
 But find only Prussian Blue.
 I begin to knit with my darning needle
 Chains of wool connecting loops
 Upon connecting loops
 This work is different
 I am not so much as attaching
 As I am creating more material
 I am making a toe-shaped space
 Prussian blue, all its own.
  
 My mending pile is gone
 Only my worn jeans are left
 The tear is huge and threatens
 To extend mid-shin.
 The fabric is flimsy and thin
 I think a patch is possible.
 I place a pretty blue and pink print
 Underneath the tear 
 Stitching it quickly in place
 Then I take up an abundance
 Of pastel floss and create blossoms
 Around the knee and down
 Along one side of my pants leg
 I keep adding flower upon flower
 Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
 A vine of mint green winds in and out
 My needle pokes and pierces,
 Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
 My mending is done for the day.
 I take a deep breath.
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention.
 
 
Mending Still Life

Books About Mending

  1. Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
  2. Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
  3. by Raleigh Briggs
  4. Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
  5. Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
  6. Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
  7. Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
  8. Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
  9. Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
  10. The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
  11. The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
  12. Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
  13. Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
  14. What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure

Quilt Books for Children

  1. Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
  2. Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston       
  3. Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
  4. Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  5. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
  6. Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
  7. Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
  8. The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
  9. The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
  10. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
  11. The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
  12. The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
  13. The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy  
  14. The Quilt by Ann Jonas
  15. The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston
  16. The Seasons Sewn by Ann Whitford Paul   

Sketchnoting II: Big Words

I have been playing with teaching sketchnoting for the past month.  I naturally doodle while reading and listening.  It helps me focus, remember, and make connections from familiar concepts to new ones.  I thought that by teaching our 4th graders this strategy they might be able to focus, remember and understand better and more deeply.  I hope it will become an integral part of their reading toolbox.  My first lesson encompassed introducing how to sketchnote and providing time to practice the basic drawing techniques.

We practiced sketchnoting about something very familiar – ourselves.  Each student made a sketchnote introducing many aspects of themselves: their likes and dislikes, their family members, and what they enjoy doing.  In the next lesson, I read the picture book, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. I chose this book due to its strong visual nature and use figurative language. I thought these elements would help the students create sketches and write down vivid images.

This week, I continued to give students sketchnote practice time.  First, I made sure to review the sketchnoting basics.  Next, I had the students warm up for sketchnoting by sky writing, which is writing in the air with their index fingers. Then, I asked them to make simple abstract doodles on paper while listening to music for a few minutes.

Now, the students were ready to sketchnote.  I explained that I was going to slowly read the book, Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport.  I asked students to share what they already knew about Dr. King’s life and work.  Some students proudly shared their knowledge, while other continued to ask questions. Soon they were ready to focus on the story.  I chose this book because it focuses on the nonviolent concepts Dr. King taught and believed.  I wanted these concepts to be the focal point of the students’ sketchnotes.  In this way, I believed the students would continue to remember King’s big words and the peaceful way in which he led others to protest against inequality. King’s words were so important then and are incredibly crucial now: freedom, love, God, faith, goodness, kindness, courage, trust, compassion, together, equity, justice, bravery, equality, care, determination, respect, unity, resilience, hope, and dream.

The girls listened carefully as I read and showed the pictures.  Some students asked me to repeat some pages with text they wanted to remember.  During this thirty minute reading session, I had the students’ complete attention.  They all diligently sketchnoted   for the entire time.  From observing their work, I could gauge each student’s level of understanding.  It is such a quick and graphic way to assess student understanding.  Next week, I plan to have them add to their sketchnotes after some discussion and reflection about their process. Most of the students enjoy this strategy and find it helpful. I know that listening and selecting important details is a skills they will continue to use throughout their lives, so I encourage them to keep practicing and take risks.  There are no right answers, no absolutes in sketchnoting. It is another free and creative form of expression at their fingertips.

MORE TO READ:

  1. A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson
  2. As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson
  3. Be a King by Carole Boston Weatherford
  4. Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
  5. I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  6. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
  7. Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney
  8. My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris
  9. My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King III
  10. My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold
  11. My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angel Farris Watkins
  12. That is My Dream!  By Langston Hughes

These are examples of my playing with sketchnoting. I did not show my work to the students until after they had created their sketchnotes. I stressed the process and the elements of sketchnoting, not the artistic quality. I wanted to give them a sample of how to build a presentation.

My Quick Sketch Practice
My final copy.

Sketchnoting: Making Thinking Visible

I love to doodle.  Whenever I am sitting and people are talking, I am drawing.  I never got in trouble for this.  In fact, teachers encouraged me to sketch while I was listening. It was the only way I could still myself and really listen to what was being said.  Instead of tuning out, I tuned in. Making pictures helped me to remember.  If I couldn’t understand a word problem, I drew out the little story in front of me, and all of a sudden the solution jumped out at me.  I drew graphs, T-charts, and clocks to better understand mathematical concepts.  Drawing helped in science too.  Making pictures of cells and plants and chemical reactions helped me to ask questions and learn more. When reading on my own, I often draw in the margins, not just underline or highlight. If something is really important to me, I draw it so I can deepen my understanding.  No one taught me to do this.  I just experimented and found my own way to represent my thinking.

The first time I heard about sketchnoting as a teaching technique was several years ago in a book called Comprehension Connection by Tanny McGregor.  It was an integral part of the reading strategy of visualization. Since then, Tanny has published other books with her sketchnotes:  Ink and Ideas, and Harvey Daniels’ The Curious Classroom.  Last month, I attended one of Tanny’s webinars offered by The Rutgers Center for Literacy Development. It came right at the right time because the following week I was planning to teach sketchnoting to our 4th grade students.  Tanny showed lots of examples of where sketchnoting can be used to help students see concepts and help teachers see what exactly their students are thinking. 

The emphasis is not of the art but rather on the ideas, and I wanted to be sure I expressed that understanding to our students.  I didn’t want the girls who do not see themselves as proficient artists to check out of the lesson.  I wanted them to feel empowered, to want to take a chance and create. To do this I focused on having students visualize an object or a scene first, and then showed them how to use shapes to convey ideas.  First, I showed them some short video clips of sketchnoting. Then, I shared a slideshow I had created introducing all the elements they would need to sketchnote: banners, arrows, call out boxes, thought bubbles, shapes, lettering, and people. As I shared each element, I asked the girls to create their own version of these elements.  It was a safe space to try things out and make mistakes.  I drew on a whiteboard to model that my drawings did not have to be perfect – they were quick sketches. Once we had all the elements in place, we were ready for our first project.

I wanted to start with something familiar and nonthreatening, something the students know very well: themselves.  As soon as I explained what I wanted them to do, they grabbed their pencils and started to sketch.  The room was completely quiet, illustrating the fact that when students are completely engaged in creating, they can concentrate and bring themselves into the flow of learning.  I was able to step back and watch: They didn’t need reassurance; they weren’t off task;  they weren’t bored; they were thinking and drawing.

After the girls finished their sketches, they added color if they wanted and then shared their work.  They not only shared the content of their drawings and ideas, but also described their design process, which was marvelous. They were doing more thinking about their thinking than I had imagined!

For the next lesson, I wanted to incorporate sketchnoting while reading.  Before my lesson, I visited the 4th grade English classes and sketchnoted in front of them, while their teacher read aloud from a class novel.  I was sure to incorporate the elements they had learned the week before. Then, I asked the girls to critique my sketchnote.  What did they notice?  What did they wonder?  What did they feel? Was there something important I missed? What else might I have included?

When it was time for our second sketchnoting lesson, I chose Jane Yolen’s book, Owl Moon to read aloud because her language is so rich and visual.  Before I read, we again went over the design elements used in sketchnoting, the girls got out their papers and pencils, and they were ready to begin.  Once I finished reading, the girls continued to draw. Some asked me to reread specific parts in the story.  The rereading helped them to add more details. It was another quiet session with total concentration.  At the end of the lesson, they each had a creation they were proud of and were eager to share. As we shared, the students began to see that even though we all listened to the same story, our sketchnotes were very different.  They also noted similarities, places in the text where the message stood out to many students.  This is such a strong way to show main idea and figurative language.  The week after this lesson, during our winter break, I received a holiday card from one student noting: “I’m practicing my sketchnoting.  I hope we do more when we return. It is so much fun!”

Well, how can I ignore that?  My next lesson will be sketchnoting using nonfiction texts both social studies and science.  I cannot wait to see their results.  I cannot wait to keep learning alongside them!

Books About Sketchnoting

Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting

Educated Design by Michael Cohen

How to Sketchnote: A Step-by-Step Manual for Teachers and Students by Sylvia Duckworth

Ink & Ideas by Tanny McGregor

My Pencil Made Me Do It: A Guide to Sketchnoting by Corrie Boughcum

Sketchnoting in the Classroom by Nichole Carter

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

Visual Note-Taking For Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity by Wendi Pillars

Visual Thinking by Williemien Brand

Resolution: Free the Hand

There is no must in art because art is free. – Wassily Kandinsky

The best way to describe my educational approach is – Hunter-Gatherer. I get an idea from reading, listening, or just being in the world, and something sparks my curiosity.  That little something leads to something else, and something else, and something else until I’m not quite sure how I got onto the path I’m currently going.  I love the journeys I’ve taken. I hadn’t thought of them as a learning process. I didn’t really think about them at all; I just naturally follow my thinking. When I work with children, I teach them this process to get them interested in reading. We talk about things that interest them, and I invariably will find something more they can read about the subject.  After reading about the topic, I encourage my students to write or create something from what they’ve learned.  I continue to nudge them:  What inspires you? What does that make you think or feel?  How do you want to express yourself?

This method has worked well with students over the decades.  If reading is hard or uninteresting at first, it is the ideas which must grab the child, the ideas that call for her to act and learn.  Often while reading novels with children, we will come across an idea that we want to try out.  A few years ago when I read The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs and Knee-Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt with one of my private students, she got interested in how clocks work. We read some articles about clock mechanics and decided that we should try to make a clock.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  Maren wanted to make the clock that was described in Knee-Knock Rise.  It was a cuckoo clock made my Uncle Anson and was described like this:

“But not like any other clock you ever heard!” warned Uncle Anson, his mild face beaming with pride.  He wound it carefully and set the hands near twelve. They stood and listened as the clock began to tick toward the hours. Even Ada, with Sweetheart in her arms, came up to watch. Suddenly, there was a whirring and a click. The egg in the nest opened like a door and out came a little bird.  Jerkily it spread its wings, wings made of real red feather tipped with black.”

Maren and I read and re-read these lines carefully as we planned to make the clock.  In the story, Sweetheart the cat pounces on the clock-bird and destroys the clock smashing to bits of springs and feathers. As Maren read about the clock, she was determined to restore it by making a clock of her own.  And indeed, for about a month we worked on making the clock.  I bought a basic wooden clock kit, and Maren and I set about to create a clock with fancy numbers, a pendulum, and a nest with a bird and eggs at its base.  It does not exactly tell precise time and it cost me what I usually charge for a tutoring session, but it was money well spent, because it is something Maren still keeps next to her bed and treasures because she made it.  She read, she got an idea, she read some more, and she created something beautiful.  This is a lesson she will never forget and so she goes on reading.

My hunter-gatherer approach is my foolproof idea box.  Whenever I get worried that I may develop writer’s block, I start reading, observing, listening and I find that the ideas coming rushing towards me.  I then have to decide which one I will act upon first.  Last week, I was just scrolling through some blogs and one led to another and then to another.  I came upon the 99% Invisible website, which highlights the creative thought that goes into ordinary objects.  It celebrates the people and things that have been forgotten.  From this site I learned about the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi.  Specifically, I became intrigued by Noguchi’s idea of Play Mountain, an abstractionist playground for children. Noguchi expressed his relationship with sculpting this way:

 To search the final reality of stone beyond the accident of time, I seek the love of matter. The materiality of stone, its essence, to reveal its identity—not what might be imposed but something closer to its being. Beneath the skin is the brilliance of matter.

These words led me to further journeys viewing images and videos of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, the Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, and his California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California. The parks are beautifully simple sculpture gardens and playgrounds allowing visitors to use the structures in imaginative ways.  I had never heard of Noguchi before this, and I wondered how someone so accomplished, so in tune with the way I see art and play, could have escaped my attention.

This excursion of Noguchi’s life and work made me think about how I express myself artistically.   Lately, I have been sketching and I’ve faced some obstacles since what is in my mind hasn’t translated to what I put down on paper.  I’m quickly frustrated with my level of skill and then get mad at myself for not letting myself just create and not worry about the product. Over the years when creating, I love building with scraps of cardboard, handmade paper, twine, beads, wire, and buttons. I let the objects form the art work. I come out of my head and into my hands. 

Clockwork (banana parchment, handmade paper, string, and cardboard)

I started to search for something to read that would help me build on this idea, and I came across Cathy Weisman Topal.  Cathy is an art instructor at Smith College who created a teaching approach called Thinking with a Line. Using simple straight and curved cardboard pieces, Cathy designed art lessons to help children explore the elements of design and structure.  Using these basic printmaking objects, children are able to create and express what they feel and see in their minds’ eye.  Cathy has written many books about teaching art to children and has gathered inspiration from Friedrich Froebel and Rudolf Arnheim, as well as the Reggio Emilia teaching approach.  Her books, Beautiful Stuff and Beautiful Stuff from Nature show children ways to use found objects to create art.

As I started to play with line printing, I thought about how I have always loved to doodle, not intentionally making a shape or object, but just allowing my hand to wander across the page.  Then I asked myself:  What if every day I wrote a meditation and then let my pen travel across paper? I decided to make a resolution this year to keep a journal of line meditations.  I start with writing some thoughts down usually reflecting on my relationship with nature.  Then I use a gel pen to loop its way over the paper without thinking. I have even closed my eyes while drawing because it helps me not to be representational.  I also have drawn to classical music which helps flow and production.  I don’t lift my pen; it is one continuous swirling line. At times, I pause and draw in the air extending my arm moving with the music something similar to what I do when teaching small children handwriting.  We call it skywriting, and I’m think I’d like to try it again using a large sheet of paper with charcoals.

I wanted to see what would happen when I did lift my pen to make a series of lines, and I was pleased with those results too.  They reminded me of the marks I would make as a young child before I knew about how to form letters and words. I used to sit for hours at the kitchen table and write, giving my mother note after note and composing fantastic stories, which would change after each retelling. I think that in doing these daily meditations, I will get closer to that childhood wonder and openness. I hope that over the next year, these line meditations will help me focus on the process of art making and not get preoccupied on artistic merit.  My goal is expression and play because it’s only through play that we can fully learn.

Further Reading:

For Children:

A Line is a Dot that Went for a Walk: An Inspirational Drawing Book by Sterling Children’s

Art and Max by David Weisner

The Dot by Peter Reynolds

Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates

Going for a Walk with a Line: A Step into the World of Modern Art by Douglas and Elizabeth MacAgy

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Lines that Wiggle by Candace Whitman

The East-west House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan by Christy Hale

The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaefer

What if… by Samantha Berger

When I Draw a Panda by Amy June Bates

For Adults:

Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Beautiful Stuff from Nature: More Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera

Point and Line to Plane by Wassily Kandinsky

Thinking with a Line Teacher’s Guide by Cathy Weisman Topal

Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms

Simple Gifts: Balloons, Fox Traps, and Marvelous Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic & Imagination in a Box

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

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

Tender Buttons

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

GLAZED GLITTER.

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

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

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

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

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

THE WORLD IN A BUTTON

The world in a button,

Spherical and hard,

Sometimes shiny,

Sometimes tarnished with age,

Holes and embellishments,

Disappointments and surprises,

Ocean blue and earthy red,

Buttons in my hands

Slipping through my fingers

Making imaginary music,

Listen.

Signs of Fall – Listen, Look

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

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

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

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