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. 

Add. Change. Remove.

Add. Change. Remove.  This is a strategy we use in our 2nd grade writing workshop to explain the revision process.  In the lesson, which I think originally was an idea from a Six Traits lesson, the students create with Play-Doh and then at various intervals are asked to add something to their creation.  Then they are asked to add another feature or two.  Eventually, the students are asked to change something, and finally, they are asked to remove something they created.  The children are allowed time to talk through their creative process.  Usually, this has been done through a gallery walk. This year, during our COVID structure (remote, hybrid, in-class), we used a document camera and asked students to explain their thinking.

Bear at the Beach
Family of Snakes
Crabs at the Beach

As I reflect on this activity, I realize that Add. Change.  Remove.  is not only a revision or creative process, it is the cycle of life.  We are born. Many people, places and events are added to make our lives rich and interesting. Then people, places, and ideas change. Over the years things are removed from our lives until ultimately we are removed.  Instead of this being a morbid anxiety producing thought, it has become a comforting thought.  We all are going through a natural process, and I need to be mindful of the powerful and wondrous journey we are on.  Sometimes, I am so intent on adding, adding, adding that I forget to sit back and enjoy all I have.  Sometimes, I am either so desperate for change or so anxious about change that I forget to think about what lessons I can learn from these changes.  I forget to ask myself:  How have I grown? And finally, I am aware of what has been removed from my life – both positive and negative.  I am learning to be grateful for what I have and what I have lost.

Add. Change. Remove.  – such a valuable skill for students to utilize in their writing; such a powerful life force to embrace.  This week, I decided to apply this strategy to my art and poetry.

My collage below is in process of play.  I am creating, adding, changing, and removing until I am satisfied with the composition.  I am not sure how the final product will turn out, but I am enjoying the process.  I think this method allows me to not get so set on the final image.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  I can play until I am pleased.

Simple Watercolor
Watercolor Cut into Strips
Woven Watercolor

If I extend this idea to my poetry, I encourage myself to think more fluidly.  The words and images can be played with. They don’t have to be set in stone so quickly.  I can create many versions, read them aloud, stand back to appreciate their impact and choose what expression I want to publish.

Sparrows Gather I
 
Dusty-feathered bodies
                      In constant motion
Heads turn, wings flutter,
                     Eyes blink, feet twitch
Hopping from one
                    Place to another
The birdbath, the bench,
                    The old stone toad
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter
                    Recalling memories of summer
Warm sun, sweet rain
                    They sing of worms and seeds
Just plain brown birds
                    So numerous, so common
 
Sparrows Gather II
 
Just plain brown birds,
So numerous, so common,
In constant motion.
Dusty-feathered bodies:
Heads turn, wings flutter,
Eyes blink, feet twitch.
Hopping from one place to another:
The birdbath, the bench, the old stone toad.
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter,
Sparrows sing of worms and seeds.

As I begin a new school week, I think about using this poetry idea with our curious 2nd graders.  I plan to use the William Carlos Williams’ “As the Cat” and have the children recite it, visualize it, and the write their own versions. 

Some questions to help students to re-imagine the poem could be:

ADD.

What color is the cat?

Where is the jam closet?  

What does a jam closet look like?

What color, size, shape is it?

Is it empty or filled with jam jars?

What color, size, shape is the flowerpot?

Change.

Make it a different animal.

Make a different place the animal climbs.

Make a different place the animal steps into.

Show another way the animal walks.

Remove.

Reread your poem.

Remove any words you think would make the poem stronger.

I am so curious to see what the children will create.  I hope they begin to understand the awesome pleasure and power of Add. Change. Remove.

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

When I was a child, I spent long summer days looking up at the sky watching the clouds shape-shift.  I loved gazing up at what I thought looked like the continent of Africa slowly drift and pull apart until it became a magnificent ocean schooner sailing across the blue, then only to turn and twist to become a white serpent with a long, forked tongue.  To me clouds represent possibility.  What can I come?  What adventures await beyond the blue?  How can I stay quick, nimble, active.

When I taught young children, I always read to them the pattern book, It Looked Like Split Milk by Charles G. Shaw. The book starts off with the refrain: It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn’t spilt milk.  Sometimes it looked like a rabbit, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It steadily progresses, changing shape from page to page.  The repetition and simple graphics silhouetted against the bright blue background were easy for the children to remember and read.  In fact, I have taught many children to read using that book.  They felt successful and loved creating their own versions with endless possibilities.  And they read, and read, and read.

Maybe my connection to clouds is poetic in nature.  Metaphor. Simile. The cloud was a gossamer cloak ready to take me in and render me invisible. The dessert was topped with whipped cream which was as light and soft as a cloud.  Indeed, clouds often resemble whipped cream.  Maybe it’s not so much a poetic connection as it is a connection to food! Heaps and heaps of heavy cream whipped into lovely fluffs of all shape and shades. One wishes she could just reach out and scoop up a healthy handful.

One day recently, I escaped to the beach to take photos of the clouds rolling in to capture that sense of wonder.  Looking out towards the horizon, the sky and sea seemed infinite. Maybe that’s what intrigued Alfred Stieglitz about clouds: their ever-changing shape above Lake George and reflected on its surface. For over a decade Stieglitz photographed clouds. He first called his cloud work, Songs of the Sky, after the music he could surely hear as they drifted.  Later, he called his work Equivalents, noting the clouds reflected his own inner emotions.

Stieglitz created the first completely abstract photographs. He was influenced by abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas and his belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  Self-expression and development of the spirit were key to Kandinsky’s approach and greatly affected Stieglitz work. Being abstract and dynamic, these elements have a very musical quality. Although Stieglitz’s work was in black and white, I wonder if the viewers’ response would be the same for color photography.  Does the tones of blue and white alter the message?  I’m not sure.  I’m still gazing up at the clouds.

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.

Some Thoughts on Geese

I’m taking some time to think and wonder about the world right outside my window. Since I live near the Great Swamp flyway, I get to witness lots of birds.  I am so lucky to look out my window and see hawks, vultures, turkeys, and all manner of songbirds.  It is the Canada geese who most grab my attention.  Geese are monogamous.  When they are two or three years old, they find a partner and mate for life.  Their loyalty has always intrigued me.  When I was young, Canada geese were a rare occurrence, but now they are common and are usually viewed and an annoyance.  A whole industry has been created to get rid of them: Birds Beware, Bird B Gone, Goosinator, and GooseBuster – to name a few. But I think geese are beautiful, graceful, and devoted friends.  They are bold and forthright. There is nothing deceptive about geese.  They are unapologetically simple and true.

Commitment

The Canada goose decided

To lay five perfect shiny white eggs

On the curb near the busy road

She did not choose the meadow

At the edge of the woods,

Or the thick grass by the pond.

No, she decided to lay her eggs

In the middle of the housing development

Where she would have no end

Of Human contact.

Cars whizz past and

Suddenly slow down to gawk,

Children screech from their car seats.

A middle-aged woman

Trots out of her apartment

With a plastic container

Full of cool spring water,

The goose hisses and flaps her wild wings,

The water spills, the woman retreats,

The children clap and laugh.

An hour later workmen come,

Cordon off and caution

With bright yellow tape.

The goose settles down softly,

Turning her eggs regularly,

Waiting so patiently.

We keep our distance, we wait.

Days and days pass, almost a month.

She does not eat, she does not drink,

She is vigilant.

Suddenly one day without fanfare

Five perfect fuzzy yellow heads emerge

From their steadfast mother

Peeping, peeping, peeping,

Their mother bends her

Sleek, graceful black neck

Tenderly caressing,

No longer waiting,

She stands, ruffles her feathers,

Her yellow brood following behind her.

Freedom

I draw open 

The heavy drapes 

In my bedroom

Look out to the

Shrubbery and thorny flowers

There he stands

A dark-headed sentinel

Staring with one black beady eye

Quiet and still

His webbed feet 

Providing sturdy balance.

He looks in my direction

And meets my gaze.

He rustles his sleek feathers,

Moves towards the adjacent patio

To stare intently through

The sliding door windows 

At the neighbor’s

Orange tabby cat,

Who suns himself

On the worn blue ottoman.

The goose unmoving watches

The cat stands, circles,

And shape-shifts –

All the while his 

Massive tail twitches.

This interests the goose

And he steps closer

To the window.

What creature is this?

What predator behind

Clear, strong glass?

The cat pretends not to notice

And turns his back.

The goose returns to his place

Under the cool pine tree.

He stands proud  

lifting his wild wings slightly

Catching the wind

Knowing he is free.

Finding Paris

A Paris State of Mind

This summer, not being able venture far away as I normally do, I have become very aware how important place is to my identity.  My identity has been definitely shaped by being born, growing up, and aging in New Jersey. But it was also shaped by my travels throughout this country and abroad.  The geography, natural resources, diverse people, food, and architecture have all impacted my sense of beauty and adventure.  I’ve been missing that sense of adventure this summer, and so I’ve found that I have been traveling in my mind through reading books.  For the past several weeks, I’ve been in Paris by way of Hemingway.  First, I read his memoir of Paris in the 1920’s, Moveable Feast.  After I finished the book, I was missing Paris so much that I found the novel, Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which is a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s time in Paris with his first wife, Hadley Richardson.  What so intrigued me about this book is that the author describes the same events from Moveable Feast, but from Hadley’s perspective.  It is clear that Paris in the 1920s shaped the identities of so many American writers and artists.  As a young couple, Hem and Hadley moved to Paris so that Hem could concentrate on his writing.  There, he met Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and countless others.  I traveled along with the Hemingways through the Boulevard de Montparnasse, past the many cafes they frequented: La Closerie des Lilas, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, La Rotonde, and The Dingo Bar. I envision their tiny tenement apartment on the rue Cardinale Lemoin. I can see the brown water of the Seine, I can hear the music of the dance halls, I can smell the sawdust of the nearby lumber mill.

When exploring cities, I love waking up early and taking long sensory walks, getting a feel for the people and culture.  Camera in hand, I focus my lens on the shop windows, the man sweeping the sidewalks, the young woman setting out trays of bakery treats, the pigeons swooping down on small crumbs scattered at the curb. I go down side streets, trying to find the secret places, the soul of the city. Many times, I’m surprised by the treasures I’ve found: a tiny shop with skeins of bright colored wool in the window; the brightly striped awning of a café, which serves a fragrant and rich mochaccino; the young, homeless family walking in slippers down the street with their daughter in tow, who is holding a large conch shell to her ear, which her father had retrieved from the garbage. These discoveries are what sustain me.  They are times of uncovering raw beauty that keeps me to connected to my place in the world.  I travel with a poet’s heart, always observing, always seeking the essence of the place to express its truth in that very moment.

Paris at 13

When I was thirteen years old (1969), I was able to travel to Paris with my family. When looking back, I remember the food first and foremost. We stayed in a six-story narrow pensione, which served continental breakfast every day: loaves of warm, crusty bread wrapped in white linen, glass jars of homemade thick strawberry jam, and strong steaming tea.  And some mornings we had eggs – deux oeufs frit – the first French words I learned to say.

I remember the Paris attractions: the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon.  I can see myself climbing the steps of Notre-Dame and Sacre-Coeur. I was astonished to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was exquisite – small and dark.  And I remember the walking through the Tuileries, down the Champs-Élysées, through the neighborhoods and narrow winding cobblestone streets.  I was mesmerized, walking slowly behind my family taking it all in like it was some lovely misty dream. I loved stopping into all the cafés: the long elaborate bars, the marble tabletops, the waiters in crisp white aprons, the blackboards with the daily menus etched in chalk.  I tried everything – croissants, raclette, croque monsieur, coq au vin, pot-au-feu, and even escargot. But it was the simple meals that made a lasting impression.  On our last night in Paris, we stopped at a small café, and I ordered jambon aux épinards, which was a small plate of cheesy creamed spinach with a paper-thin slice of ham on top.  It was the most sumptuous thing I ever tasted.  I could have eaten two more platefuls.  I vowed to come back to Paris one day when I was all grown up.  I have yet to go back.  But I know that the Paris today cannot compare with the Paris of my memory.

Paris in Montreal

Though I have yet to return to Paris, my husband and I have ventured to Montreal every summer for the last six years.  It was the place we also honeymooned thirty-six years ago.  Montreal is our North American Paris.  We have spent many a summer day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal taking photographs, window shopping, and stopping to rest at sidewalk cafés.  My favorite patisserie is Cookies Stefanie because all their treats are gluten-free, which means I can sample pain au chocolat, apple and maple muffins, and rich gâteaux, worry free.  Another favorite spot on Rue Saint Sulpice is a lovely teahouse call Ming Tao, where the busy street life fades away with every steaming cup of tea.

One night, my husband and I stopped into a café on Rue McGill, and I coaxed him to try something new on the menu – halloumi, which we thought was fish and were surprised when the waitress set down our plates of farm-fresh sautéed vegetables topped with a firm square of grilled white cheese. We both had a good laugh together about that!

One of my favorite places to photograph is Jean Talon Farmer’s Market in Montreal’s Little Italy.  It is filled with fresh produce, honey, cheeses, bread, and pastries. It also has a creperie, which I must indulge in every time we visit.

Paris Metro

Standing on the platform –

Gleaming white tiles,

Everything clean and fresh

Even though we are underground.

It is a busy time in the morning,

The train screeches in –

I take a step back,

My father urges us into

A packed car and motions us

To get off again and then on again.

I get lost in the confusion.

They are on the train,

I am on the platform,

The doors slide shut.

My mother’s face is agony,

My sister’s face is amusement,

My father’s face is serious,

His hands motioning,

Wait for the next train!

Get off the next stop!

We will wait for you!

The train pulls out

Taking my family away.

The platform is empty now.

Just one lone American teenager.

I sit on a bench and lean

Against the cool tiles

I look at the bright billboards

I imagine myself in a new life

What would it be like

To stay in Paris?

I can see myself at school

Becoming fluent in French

Creating a new life.

The places I’d go,

The food I’d eat,

The person I was meant to be.

I hear a low, slow rumble

The next train arrives

Pushes the daydream

Out of my mind

I step aboard.

How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

As I look towards the end of August, cognizant that my new school year is on the horizon whether it is virtual or in-person, I am committed to keep cultivating my own garden.  By this I mean I want to keep in the forefront of my mind, my health, my writing, my artistic expression, and my connection to friends and family.  It has not always been easy for me to have clear boundaries between work and my personal life.  For decades, I put my work before everything else.  Oh sure, I talked about balance, but I really didn’t know how to achieve it.  How do I juggle a great jumble of responsibilities?  How do I prioritize?  What do I need to do to be successful?  I struggled and struggled with these questions.  I read about how to reduce stress.  I practiced tai chi and yoga.  I drank gallons of steaming chamomile tea.  I smiled. I sang several choruses of, “Let it Go” loudly in the shower.  Still, I felt like the sword of Damocles was constantly dangling over my head. I talked to family. I talked to friends.  Everyone felt the same way.  Everyone had the same strategies. They worked on the surface, but I still felt stressed and anxious.

I turned towards my faith. I prayed for wisdom and insight. I knew that if I didn’t find a way to deal productively with my stress, I would continue to damage my health and relationships.  I’ve watched the failing health of my parents and in-laws as they aged, and I know life is so fragile, so short, so precious.  By continuing to load up my life with endless activities and packed schedules, I was playing a dangerous game.  I was slowly and surely depleting my quality of life.  On the outside, I looked like I was handling my hectic life quite well.  But I knew I wasn’t.  I knew I was over-eating, not sleeping, constantly worrying. I knew if I really loved myself that I had to stop.  Stop immediately, stop without question.

So that’s what I did little by little, I learned to focus on myself, I began to write more consistently.  I read books that interested me, not just books for education.  I made an effort to eat nourishing food and get daily exercise.  In the months that followed, I felt more and more in control.  I stopped worrying about what people thought of me.  I asked myself:  What makes you happy?  What do you want to create?  What is important to you?  And as I pondered these questions, I stopped juggling all the unimportant, distracting minutia.

Even though I haven’t had a chance to travel as I normally would this summer, I have been productive.  I connected with old acquaintances, read books that I have wanted to read for a long time, began to draw and paint again, and began to organize my copious files of photographs. I also made time to walk and bike. I feel I’m ready for the gauntlet that will be this school year.  I’ve been thinking about how to ensure this inner peace I’ve sown will continue.  I want to stay mindful and positive.

I started compiling books and materials that will help me remember to keep my health first and to prioritize what’s most important to me in my life at this very moment in time.  I call these items my Zen Toolbox. If you’d like, take some time and create your own toolbox to help keep you calm, centered, and in the present.

ZEN TOOLBOX

1. The Little Book of Joy by Bill Zimmerman
A terrific little journal where I record my thoughts and insights to the writing prompts.
2. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
A wonderful book by Ryan Holiday on ways to surmount obstacles and make problems into possibilities.
3. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg                           
An invaluable book about how to write using the mindful, Zen approach getting to the heart of the story.
4. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackery
A wonderful children’s book, but really a book for all ages about the resilience needed to live a joyful life.
5. Write the Poem (Piccadilly)
A little journal I found in a thrift store which has a poem topic and suggested vocabulary on each page.  It is a more structured way to approach poetry, and I was pleasantly surprised by the practice.
6. Drawn to Nature by Holly Ward Bimba
A journal and sketch set that focuses on drawing the natural world.
7. Buddha Board
A small painting easel that allows you to paint with water, so your masterpiece is fleeting, but very enjoyable.
8. Joy of Zen Tangles by Marie Browning
A way of doodling that is systematic and teaches how to create various perspectives.
9. A Collection of Notebooks
I love collecting beautiful notebooks.  I’m making a commitment to writing in them more consistently and thoroughly.
10. Music & Meditation: My favorites – King & Country, Lauren Daigle, Andean Flute music, and Guided Mindfulness Mediation – Jon Kabat-Zinn 

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

“Do you feel Zen?” one says to the other

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.