Something to Believe In

It is time for winter break: teachers are exhausted, children are restless, and COVID is on the rise.  Everyone is weary except the young children.  They are bright with anticipation for whatever holiday they celebrate – Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas. Their sweet voices sing songs of cheer, helping to lift my spirits as I search for something to give me holiday spirit.  I sat down with a table of Kindergarteners this week and asked, “What are you writing?”  They all looked up at me perplexed, and one of them looked down at her paper and answered, “We are writing art!” I chuckled, “Oh, you are drawing!  That’s a good thing to do!”  I am ever-amazed at the new way in which children view the world.  I have sought to keep that fresh, creative  mindset as I age.  Sometimes it is easy to do especially since I am surrounded by young, inquisitive minds, but sometimes I get “imagination block,” and I feel lost and without purpose.  When I feel this way, I know I have to discover new paths to return to my creative source.

A colleague of mine has a ten-year-old daughter who loves Santa Claus and continues to believe.  This has worried some adults who think it’s time for the girl to leave behind childish things.  I, on the other hand, love Cassie’s tenacity to believe in the face of doubters both young and old.  She will not give up her belief in Santa.  I think this is because he represents generosity, hope, and magical thinking.  Why would anyone want to give up that?  Those are qualities that will bolster us as we make our way on this long journey.  There is no need to toss Santa out, instead let’s celebrate him!

To get myself in the spirit of the season, I went to a neighborhood nursery where they sell trees, wreaths, and holiday gifts.  They had an outdoor market with a treat wagon selling hot cocoa, mulled cider, and various kinds of cookies.  Immediately my mood brightened with the smell of apples, pine, and juniper.  I ventured into the gift shop and took my time looking at the ornaments, pottery, candles, and candle holders.  I selected a gift for myself, a small tin candle holder in the shape of a tree.  A smile appeared on my face, and I knew this was the right place to be.  I lingered a little longer watching young children come into the shop to choose their favorite ornament for their tree.  You could tell from their parents’ faces that this was an important moment, that they were building a Christmas tradition, that they were kindling their child’s imagination.  I watched as a two-year-old selected a glass popcorn ornament for her tree.  She clapped as her father picked it up and gave it to the saleslady, her golden curls shaking with glee.  My heart was warm now, and I was ready to venture outside where everyone was awaiting the arrival of Santa.  I stopped to get a cup of mulled cider before leaving.  I breathed in deeply its cranberry, orange, and apple essence.  I walked about the lines of trees and wreaths.  I wasn’t in the market to buy; I just took a leisurely stroll soaking in holiday spirit.

On the way back home, I passed a street I have passed many times since living in this small town for nineteen years.  It looks like every other street in town, except at Christmastime.  The street is named St. Nickolas Way, and at this time of year, the street sign is donned with a Santa hat.  Every time I pass by, I smile.  This time, I decided to stop and take a photo to remind me of holiday hope and Christmas imagination. I headed home, with a warm heart and a mind full of cheer.

Books Celebrating Santa

A Cooke for Santa by Stephanie Shaw

Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera

Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever by Matt Taveras

Dear Santa by Rod Campbell

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood

How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan

How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky

Hurry Santa! by Julie Sykes

Little Red Sleigh by Erin Guendelsberger

Little Santa by Jon Agee

Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough

The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore (Illustrated by Holly Hobbie)

Santa Calls by William Joyce

Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno

Santa Duck by David Milgrim

Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson

Santa Mouse by Michael Brown

Santa’s Stuck by Rhonda Golwer Greene

Santa’s Underwear by Marty Fingley

The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett

The Big Secret: The Whole and Honest Truth About Santa Claus by D.W. Boom

The Real Santa by Nancy Redd

The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold by Maureen Fergus

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

When Santa was a Baby by Linda Bailey

The Gift of Grandmothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Work Around

I embrace mistakes. I do.  Really.  I don’t mind making mistakes.  I always think of creative ways to fix them.  I’m not sure how I developed this mindset.  Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family.  I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece?  How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right?  I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity.  It will be a success not a defeat.

Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead.  On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness.  Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.”  And I teach this to children.  No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block.  Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes.  Don’t be afraid.  Create something new.

I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom.  I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate.  It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine.  And they did. The space was loud and messy at times.  Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning.  It was a true play space.  No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design.  When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken.  From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun.  Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!

I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities.  The Wonder Lab started to remedy that.  We were just beginning.  But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton.  However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play.  They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets.  As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands.  This space was necessary.  It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around. 

For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air.  It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened.  There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office.  It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials.  I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter.  It would make a great wonder space for a small group!  I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building.  This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts.  When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head.  I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?”  She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up.  You are always thinking of another way to do things.”  I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them.  I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids.  I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!

One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative.  She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison.  A bison?  Yes, a bison.  Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison.  I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison.  Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned.  We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions.  During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play.  Simone asked for another big box.  I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.”  It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with.  Looking back, Simone has had a rough year.  COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated.  She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments.  But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus.  She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her.  She thought of a work around.  That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear.  I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.

During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately.  We talked about the obstacles she faced this year.  We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year.  As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head.  I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling.  Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity.  Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.  

Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg

Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess

Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Only One You by Linda Kranz

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Was That on Purpose of by Accident?  By Janelle Fenwick

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.

– Bob Keeshan, AKA Captain Kangaroo

Time to Play

As the end of the school year approached and I looked out at the plexiglass-framed faces before me, I knew I had to do something to energize the last month of school.  I teach a Study Skills class to 4th graders, and I have tried this year to make organization, time management, and planning fun.  Sometimes, I admit, it is hard to make executive function skills fun and engaging.  I try hard, though.  I used videos, art, photography, poetry, movement to keep the girls actively participating.  However, as March turned to April, the girls’ exuberance was fading, and I knew I had to come up with a plan.  My plan was PLAY! 

The students had been cooped up all year: learning behind plexiglass, wearing masks, keeping socially distant from friends.  This year has been difficult, and incredibly difficult for children.  I’m not sure of what the ramifications will be in the future, but I do know that children have more fear and anxiety now.  The only remedy I know for fear and anxiety is collaboration and play. So, in mid-April I gathered my students and told them that for the rest of the school year they would be researching PLAY.  Many of them looked at me skeptically. “You mean we are putting on a play?” they asked.  I chuckled. “Well you could put on a play, but I mean you are all going think about and tell about why playing is important.” All of a sudden, the room became electric.  They buzzed with ideas. I smiled.  That’s just what I hoped would happen.

The first thing I did to prepare my students was to create a slideshow about the importance of play.  I added videos of children giving their opinions on play as well accounts from experts about how play helps people learn and thrive.  I found some great videos of animals playing, which I knew would be of interested to my nine and ten-year-old students. I loved watching their faces as I played the slideshow.  I had them hooked.  When the slideshow ended, they ran to me with ideas.  I told them to think about what they wanted to research about play.  It could be making a game, conducting an interview with a play expert, designing fidgets, or anything else they could imagine.

For the last three weeks, the girls have been thoroughly engaged in the process of creating.  They set goals, planned, organized materials, worked collaboratively, monitored their own progress and adjusted their plans to complete their projects.  I saw their independence and self-confidence blossom.  They were play engineers. They were in charge of their learning.

At times, they asked me for assistance, but these requests were mainly in the realm of getting specific materials.  Their work was their own. They did not seek me out to generate ideas or resolve problems.  I stood in the wings ready to help but found myself having free time to just  observe and document their progress.

Sometimes, when my colleagues witness my students at work, they think it is too chaotic.  The children are moving and talking constantly.  They are building and dismantling, and building again.  This is the process of creation.  It is messy and noisy and marvelous. It is the true nature of play.

Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.

It renews our natural sense of optimism

and opens us up to new possibilities.

– Stuart Brown, MD

SOME RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT PLAY:

Baby Ravens Play

Kids Need Recess by Simon Link

Play is a Fundamental Human Right

Play is Important! by Brody Gray

When Huskies Meet a Wild Polar Bear

World’s Youngest Olympian: Skateboarder Sky Brown

The Silver Lining

I have been teaching for over four decades.  That’s amazing to me because as a young girl my interests flittered from one thing to another.  I never thought I would do one thing for so long, but this one thing has brought me so much joy.  I really can’t imagine a time when I won’t be doing it, but I know that day will come. And it is approaching more quickly than I want it to.  I push that thought away, and I focus on the children.  This year, I am teaching study skills to three groups of 4th grade girls.  They’ve learned about time management, planning, organization – all those essential executive function skills.  Now it’s May.  They are tired and distracted, and so am I.  I call it PES – Plexiglass Exhaustion Syndrome.  This year has challenged us to stay focused and on task even with masks on that distort our speech and breathing and plexiglass that distorts our view and interactions.  A couple of weeks ago, I bent down and peered through a plexiglass-lined desk and said, “Girls, I am so proud of you.  I know this year has been hard learning like this.  So, for the last few weeks of school we will be doing a project on play.  You all will get to create something that shows why play is important.  It can be a game, some artwork, a persuasive essay, a brochure, a model of a playground, a video, anything you can imagine.  The girls were intrigued by the idea and asked many questions.  It took some a while to believe that I was serious.  That we were, indeed, going to study PLAY.

Behind the scenes, I was as excited as my students.  I quickly put together all the important information I wanted the girls to know about play.  I found video clips of animals playing, psychologists talking about play as a human right, and children giving TED talks on the importance that imagination and recess has on learning.  I created a wonderful slideshow to start off our project-based study of play.  I couldn’t wait for my first class. 

Tuesday came quickly, it was a beautiful warm sunny day.  I was so excited to start my presentation, but when I got into the room, the girls clamored around me begging to go outside for a five-minute recess.  I couldn’t in good conscience say no to them when the whole essence of my lesson was how important play is to learning, so they went out and rolled on the grass, hung from monkey bars, and pretended to be dragons. Our five minutes turned to fifteen by the time we got back to the classroom.  That was okay. I still had time to show most of the slideshow.  That is, I had time as long as the technology cooperated.  And of course, as these things go, the technology didn’t cooperate.  I couldn’t get the sharing screen to work to begin the presentation.  I pressed all types of buttons.  Nothing worked. The girls began to lose focus, and the room became loud.  Several of them rushed up to me asking all kinds of questions.  I put my hands up and said quietly without thinking, more to myself than to them, “I am overwhelmed.”  This is something they understood – this overwhelmed feeling – this year.  They returned to their seats.  The got a little quieter.  I asked them to go to the link that I had posted so they could watch the video individually.  This is not what I had planned.  My lesson was falling apart. I wanted it to be a group experience, but it might be able to be salvaged a little.  I sat down and continued to fiddle with the share controls.  Then one of the girls came up to me and handed me a bottle of spring water and a little packet of iced tea mix.  “Open the water.  Put in the packet of tea. Shake it up.  I do this all the time for my mother when she feels overwhelmed. It works.”  I looked up at her in wonder. “Go ahead,” she said, “You will feel better.”  So, I did.  I followed her directions and took a deep breath. I fiddled with the controls once more, and of course as luck would have it, they finally worked.  But alas, it was too late to view as a class.  The girls were all watching on their own gasping in surprise and laughing.  I had a chance to sit back, observe, and sip my mango-flavored tea.  My students were engaged in the content, commenting as they went along. Some students told me that they often get overwhelmed and that it was okay.  Everything had worked out. I thanked the student who provided the magic tea, and told her that it did, indeed, work. “I know,” she said confidently with a smile.

Play is important, but so is compassion, understanding, and empathy.  That day, the girls understood this deeply. And I began to understand also. I could have focused on all the things that went wrong with this lesson, all the content I did not get to share, all the things I should have done. Instead, I reframed those thirty minutes as the room I made to show loving kindness and compassion. Something that is in increasing short supply in our world. I told the girls that I am very lucky because my work – teaching them – is my play.  If you love the thing you do and are passionate about it, then it is play and you can do it forever.  When you play passionately, others feel your joy too – and it spreads – that is the silver lining.

This is the project the girls will be working on for the next few weeks. I’ll keep you posted!

Your Own Best Mother

Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.

I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.

When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.

Dream Mother


I take another glance 
at my alarm clock,
It's four  in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in 
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.

Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.

I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag 
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.

We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice  there are 
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."

Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.
Happy Mother’s Day: Be Good to Yourself

Spring Offering

This post is dedicated to my cousin, Jeanne, who is like a sister to me.  This past year, she had taken care of her husband who lost his battle with cancer last week.  It has been a long painful journey and though I tried to provide comfort, I knew there was little I could do to truly help her, so I did the only thing left to do – I listened. My mother would always tell me how kind and considerate Jeanne was.  She appreciated Jeanne’s cards and visits. My mother made me promise to watch over her.  I would have done so anyway.  Jeanne has the most compassionate heart. She is one of those people who are earthly angels. Jeanne encourages me with my writing, lifts me up when I am feeling almost hopeless, and tells me stories to make me laugh.  She is the best friend-cousin-sister anyone could ever have!  The best offering, I can give her now are my words and my pictures.  I hope this small offering brings her peace and makes her know that she is greatly loved.

Spring Prayer

Sunday morning,
Walking up the steep,
Winding path
Through the cathedral
Of flowers,
I breathe in 
Their fragrance,
Take in 
their vivid color
And let out a slow
Deep breath.
I am present
To God’s glorious
Abundance,
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
Rabbits rustles 
In the undergrowth,
Birds on the branches sing,
My soul takes flight.

The following poems are in a form I hadn’t known about until last week.   Fellow blogger, Ramona, had written a recent post containing a lovely golden shovel poem, which spurred me to try this form.  It is a very comforting form because the writer takes a short quote that is meaningful to her and then use it as the base of her poem.  It is a seed from which the poem grows.  It also takes brain power to puzzle out how to combine one’s ideas with that of the original writer’s words.  The last word in each line of the poem reveals the original quote from top to bottom. I think this is a form that I will continue to play with and have my students play with.

Three Golden Shovel Poems

The Earth Laughs in Flowers. –  Ralph Waldo Emerson


Daffodils, hyacinths, and the
Tulips brightly bloom upon the Earth
All the green garden laughs
Exuberantly, right out loud in
A brilliance of flowers.



Where Flower Bloom so Does Hope. – Lady Bird Johnson

April turns to May where
raindrops become flowers
pink, yellow, orange, purple bloom
up through the green so
quietly, so spontaneously does 
this garden restore my hope.



With the Coming of Spring, I am Calm Again. - Gustav Mahler

Dark clouds fill the sky with
An abundance of rain, the
Drops fall to the ground, coming 
Faster and faster, all of
A sudden it’s spring -
Green and glimmering, I
Turn my face to the rain, I am
Suddenly peaceful and calm 
Spring is within me again.

Here I Am!: Conferring with Student Writers

There are many things I love and enjoy about teaching – presenting concepts, sharing ideas, being witness to creativity and discovery, but the one thing that is most important to me is connection.  I know that connection is key to student understanding.  Without connection there are just untethered ideas.  And that is why I absolutely love the time I get to sit down with student writers and talk about their work. Many teachers are not comfortable with this part of writing workshop. They are tentative.  They are not sure what to say.  They focus on errors in grammar or spelling to guide them, instead of homing in on the content and meaning.  In Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Ralph Fletcher and Jo Ann Portalupi note that, “We should expect plenty of failure: false starts, blank pages, misspellings, and so on.  Failure is an integral part of how people learn.  But we also need to build on their strengths – take notice of and celebrate a great work, sudden twist, surprising image…” Teachers might, indeed, start by asking students to create an “I can be” list.  In this way, the children can explore and ponder all the possibilities that lay ahead of them.

Fletcher and Portalupi suggest that these questions might help you “read” the student you’re working with: 

  • What can I learn from her body language?  Does she seem “up” and engaged, or listless and bored?
  • What kind of writing is she attempting? Is it a poem?  Fiction story?  Personal narrative?  Information piece?  Notebook entry?
  • Where is she in the process?  Has she just begun, or is she almost finished?
  • Is this a genre she has never before tried?
  • What are her strengths as a writer?
  • What is she ready to learn?
  • What surprises me about the student?

In order to promote reflection and make conference time more productive, teachers might ask a student to re-read her writing before the conference.  Ask the student to put an asterisk next to the place in her writing where the writing worked well. Then ask her to put a circle in the margin next to the place where the writing needs more work.  This will help to shorten and focus conference time, and build the scaffolding needed for the student to become an independent and confident writer.

The most important job of the teacher during writing conferences is to listen intently to the student-writer.  Try to put everything out of your mind and be present as a listener. Think about how the student’s writing is affecting you, and then let her know how her words have moved you.  Do not focus on errors and weaknesses.  Rather, give specific, concrete praise: colorful details, a funny moment, a surprise ending.  As Lucy Calkins says: “Teach the writer, not the writing.”  Give the student one strategy to add to her repertoire of writing skills.  In this way, she’s not just fixing this one piece; she now has an extra tool to use on all her writing!

A number of years ago, I read Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.  Bomer urges teachers to search for hidden gems in student writing by focusing on author style, purpose, and language, rather than concentrating on mistakes. She encourages teachers to make conferences celebrations of student writing: “My hope is that as teachers we can respond to all students’ writing with astonished, appreciative, awe-struck eyes.”

As a Curriculum Coordinator, I no longer have my own band of fearless writers, as I did when I was a classroom teacher. Now, I have to invite myself into classrooms and talk to students about their work.  Teachers are happy to share their conferring time and I get to see students in all stages of writing development: from the Kindergartener who diligently labels her drawing, to a 2nd grader who is learning to add dialogue within a complicated fairy tale variant, to a 3rd grader who is constructing a speech using biographical information, to a 5th grader experimenting with forms of poetry.  I wonder at the complexity that writing entails, and I am now beginning to fully understand why writing takes time and patience and presence.

This week I was once again reminded of the importance of being present – of stopping what I was doing – and listen.  I was reading through the students’ submissions to our literary magazine, Spark.  I nodded, I smiled, and I laughed out loud.  The children boldly put their thoughts and feelings on paper in the form of poems, letters, stories and articles.  They chose pieces that were important to them.  They chose pieces that whirled them away into fantasy and pieces that sunk them back down into COVID reality. As I was reading, I gasped as I came across this gem from a 5th grade writer.  This skinny little, brave poem stood up and demanded to be recognized.   I read it again to myself.  Then, I read it aloud and said, “Wow! Now there’s a poet!”

This poem stands up straight and speaks for itself.  I couldn’t wait to talk to the student-poet.  I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I connected with the poem – how important it was.  The next day, I came into school early, hoping to catch Chelsea before classes started.  I found her in her classroom organizing her desk, and I motioned for her to meet me in the hall.  She looked a little surprised and I added, “You are not in trouble.  I have something wonderful to share with you.”  She came out into the hall, and I told her how much her poem meant to me and how powerful it was.  I told her that I was putting it at the very end of the magazine because it was so very powerful that I wanted to end the magazine on a strong note.  I could see her smiling behind her mask, and I was so glad I took a few minutes to connect with her face to face.  Then we went on with our separate days until I got home later that night and found this waiting in my email inbox.

There is no doubt that Chelsea is a writer – no doubt that her strong opinions and emotions will enlighten the world.   And there is no doubt that connecting with student writers is of the utmost importance. Writing is so much more that spelling, grammar, and punctuation – those skills will come in time.  But the students’ lives and how they express their experiences help them better understand and cope with this swirling world around us.  Take a moment.  Sit down. Listen.

Books About Teaching Writing

  1. A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves
  2. After the End: Teaching Learning Creative Revision by Barry Lane
  3. A Time for Wonder: Reading and Writing in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard
  4. Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
  5. Craft Lessons by Fletcher and Portalupi
  6. Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
  7. For the Good of the Earth and the Sun by Georgia Heard
  8. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing by Katherine Bomer
  9. How’s it Going?  A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  10. In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study by Katie Wood Ray
  11. Inside Writing:  How to Teach the Details of Craft by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle
  12. Revision Toolbox by Georgia Heard
  13. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray
  14. Teaching the Qualities of Writing by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
  15. The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
  16. The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer
  17. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
  18. Writing Workshop:  The Essential Guide by Fletcher and Portalupi

A Time to Celebrate Women

It’s March and among other things it means that it is time to reflect on the accomplishments of women.  For me, this means creating another Women’s History Challenge for my school’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students.  I started this event almost ten years ago as a way for our school, a private girls school – the oldest in New Jersey, to honor women.  It is an enrichment opportunity and is optional, though every year at least twenty to twenty-five students eagerly participate.  The Challenge consists of researching ten women plus another of their choice. The girls have six weeks to complete their research.  In mid-February, I present the list of women for that year.  Then the students who decide to participate work independently completing their research by the end of March.  While the students are busy researching and writing, I create a Women’s History Challenge quiz show in the form of a slideshow.  There are ten questions focusing on the lives of each women.  Also, I gather pictures of the women who the students have chosen for their independent projects.  In early April, we all gather to share information and celebrate the girls’ hard work researching.  The celebration is in the form of an elegant tea party. I got this idea from feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation – The Dinner Party, which honors the lives of 39 women.

We prepare a large classroom in the style of high tea: lace table cloths, colorful tea pots, vases of flowers, and table settings in springtime colors.  There is the traditional tea menu: tea sandwiches, tea breads, shortbread, sugar cookies, fruit salad, and an assortment of flavored teas. As the participants enter the room, you can feel the energy and see the excitement on their faces.  The girls are ready to share what they’ve learned and also eager to taste the treats and plop one or two sugar cubes in their teacups.  I learned that sugar cubes are a much favored treat with eight to eleven year old girls!

During the tea we have the quiz show and girls take turns answering questions about the featured women.  The emphasis is on the knowledge they uncovered.  There are no losers here.  They are all winners because they have learned how to conduct research and found out about women they had not previously known.  After the quiz show, each girl presents information the women they individually research.  We ask questions and marvel about the lives of the women we had honored that year. It is one of my favorite school celebrations.

Last year, we had to create a virtual tea part due to COVID-19.  I was worried that it would not be as special because I could not set up the high tea finery or prepare the luscious treats.  But I was wrong.  Even virtually, the girls happily celebrated and their individual presentations were even more spectacular.  This year, I’m in the midst of planning our second virtual tea.  Since we are lucky to have a hybrid/in-person schedule, the girls will be taking home a treat bag and then zooming into our virtual tea when then return home in the afternoon.

When preparing for the Women’s History Challenge, I have learned so much about all different women in all different walks of life.  I try to gather a diverse list every year.  Some years, I focus on women in the arts or women in science.  This year, I chose women, most of whom I had not heard of before but who had picture books written about them.  Every year I learn something new, and the students learn to be curious and are inspired by so many women role models.  I wouldn’t be surprised that one day they may have a book written about them that other children will read and be inspired by.

Recent Picture Books About Ten Remarkable Women

  1. Celia Cruz – My Name is Celia by Monica Brown & Rafael Lopez
  2. Eleanor Foraker – The Spacesuit: How a Seamstress Helped Put Man on the Moon by Alison Donald
  3. Ruth Bader GinsbergI Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy
  4. Amalia HernandezDanza! by Duncan Tonatiuh
  5. Edith Houghton  – The Kid from Diamond Street by Audrey Vernick
  6. Edna Lewis Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley
  7. Sarla Thakral – Sarla in the Sky by Anjali Joshi
  8. Gabriela Mistral – My Name is Gabriela by Monica Brown
  9. Ethel PayneThe Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome         
  10. Anna May Wong – Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo                                                         

Books as Breadcrumbs

Last April, I began writing this blog consistently every week upon the invitation of Ruth Ayers.  It was April 10th to be exact – my 64th birthday, and Ruth invited me to join her  SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog  group, because I had replied kindly to one of her blog posts. This is my 37th blog post since then, and I’ve been thinking about connections.  Specifically, how do people connect us to ideas and how do those ideas make us grow – give us hope and courage? On my blogging journey, I discovered many fellow-bloggers with many amazing, funny, and heart-wrenching stories. I’m indebted to all of them because their experiences help me take on new perspectives and make me see the world in ways I had not yet imagined. One such blogger is Julie K. Cox who writes about family, teaching, writing, and most of all reading. I have found that whatever books Julie recommends, I immediately seek them out. 

On Julie’s recommendation, I have read Emily P Freeman‘s A Million Little Things and am currently halfway through her book, The Next Right Thing.  I find her voice both calming and enticing. She beckons her readers to take action gently.  And though she is much younger than me with a totally different lifestyle, I find myself following and considering and feeling like I’m following the right path. Emily talks about the time when she and her husband were in the midst of trying to figure out the next right vocational step.  She talked about how instead of following answers, they began to follow arrows – signs that would lead them to the right decision.  I smiled to myself when I read that. I thought, That’s what I have been doing with my students these past forty-two years!” Only instead of arrows, I’ve laid down some breadcrumbs in the form of books, which they follow until they set down their own breadcrumb trail of books that lead them to new adventures and interests.

Much of my teacher life has been working with struggling readers and writers.  They would choose to do anything else in the world rather than sitting down to read or write.  They would even consider cleaning their rooms or doing the dishes!  But just as Lorraine Skovron, my 5th grade teacher, set me on a path as a lifelong reader with her first breadcrumb, Misty of Chincoteague, I knew I could find the right book to set my students onto their own reading paths.  I knew if I listened very closely and got to know my students as people with unique interests and desires, that I could find books that would connect them to their experiences and to new ideas. 

A number of years ago, I worked with a little girl who was Dyslexic. Reading came hard to her, but she was tenacious and resilient.  I admired her spunk and courage and kept feeding her books.  One day while she was working hard to decipher a text, she slammed the book shut and declared, “I hate reading!”  I took her hands into mine and said, “Oh no, you don’t hate reading!  Reading is hard, but the stories are worth it. You LOVE stories.”  She smiled and nodded, “Yes, I do love stories. Can you read to me?”  And that’s what I did for the rest of the session. I read to her and filled her mind with questions and wonder, helping her restore her energy for reading.  I will never forget that day.  I learned how to help struggling readers balance the focus needed to read the words with the joy those words presented in the form of story.  The story was the key, the story was the breadcrumb or arrow that would lead to a rich life of unbridled ideas.

This year, I work with both struggling and gifted readers and writers.  The arc of my work keeps me on my toes and makes me reflect on what moves I make to push my students forward.  What arrows or breadcrumbs am I laying down?  The first thing I do when working with students is to listen to them and give them space for them to tell me who they are. As Parker J. Palmer says, “Teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability.”  Sharing my struggles and successes with students help them to open up and share what is easy and difficult for them.  Then together we plan next steps to reach our goals.  This is true for students who have learning differences and students who find academics easy and are searching for more and more challenges. 

Last week, one of my gifted 5th grade students who is reading at the 8th grade level reached a plateau in writing.  She had written a twenty-seven-page mystery and was spent.  Usually, she has a wealth of ideas from which to draw, but for the past few weeks, she didn’t want to write.  She said she was empty.  I let it be because as her tutor and not teacher, I could give her that luxury for a bit.  However, I felt the time had come to nudge her, but nudge gently.  So I asked myself, how exactly I should do that. And as often happens the answer came in the form of poetry.  I asked Maren if she’d like to write a sensory poem about winter.  She eagerly agreed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. After some discussion and revision, Maren wrote this final poem.

Winter Joy

 The snow falls hard outside my window.
 The ice makes the roads slick and cold.
 Neighbors grab their sleds and laugh 
 As they tumble down the hillside.
  
 A large SUV slips down the road, 
 Its roof piled high with skis. 
 An eager little face peeks out from behind the window, 
 A baby doll clutched in her small hands
  
 A toddler, too excited to wait until spring,
 Toddle-bikes down his driveway. 
 His mittens, attached to his coat by yarn,
 Sail behind him like tiny woolen kites.
  
 A woman in a thick coat 
 Passes out warm hot chocolate
 To shivering little faces
 That light up with joy. 

Then I thought, let’s take this poem of which she was so proud and turn it into a story. I asked Maren to choose one stanza that stood out for her the most.  She chose the last stanza. From this stanza, she started a new short story project. This is how she began:

A woman in a thick coat passes out warm hot chocolate to shivering little faces that light up with joy. Sitting down on sleds, they laugh and joke with one another as they drink. A teenager with dark brown hair poking out from under his patterned hat throws a snowball into the trees. The wind whips through the trees, as if calling the children. They put their cups onto the porch banister and zoom down the hill. Faster, faster, faster, until they fly through the air and land in one big pile, laughing and shaking snow out of their boots. 

A small boy in an old camouflage patterned jacket watches from the top of a tree a few meters away, his sandy hair tousled, a content little smile on his face. His own sled, duct-taped and patched in more places than the sled actually shows, lay at the bottom of the tree. Unable to resist, he ignored his mother’s constant reminders to stay away from the other kids and found himself swinging off the branch. He took the frayed rope in his hand and ran up the hill. His small voice was hardly heard among the loud children, but he was accepted into the tight-knit group without any problems. Up and down they go, flying faster every time as they developed new paths and balanced different ways on the sleds. 

I am so eager to see how this story will unfold.  What choices will Maren make?  How do the books she’s reading influence her writing style?

This week, I worked with a gifted 1st grade girl who reads at the 3rd grade level.  We have read two books in the Paddington series:  A Bear Called Paddington and Paddington Abroad.  She loves them!  It is hard to find books for a gifted 1st grade reader which will support both her intellectual and emotional growth.  A Peruvian bear dressed in a funny hat who gets into all kinds of trouble was just the ticket.  After reading the books, I asked Lily to write a sequel.  She chose to write Paddington in China because she knew a lot about living in China.  She dictated the story to me as I typed.  It has two chapters so far and is fifteen slides long.  Her choice of vocabulary was amazing and her style of writing shows just how much attention she gives to author’s craft. Lily is a deep thinker.  I asked her to write a bit on her own when we were not meeting together.  When I looked at her work I found this portion:

“I don’t know,” said Mr. Brown.  “The only way to know is to ask the pilot.”

Judy and Mrs. Bird ran up to the pilot and asked when their conversation came to a stop, “Paddington, why did you run over here to talk to the pilot?

The pilot and Paddington exchanged mysterious glance. “Nothing,” the pilot said,” We were just talking about when the plane was going to take off. It has been delayed a little because the engine broke!”

What the pilot said was true, but it was not all.  What they were really talking about was the best places to go in China because what Paddington really wanted to see was a Chinese person speaking Shanghainese.

“Fine.” Mrs. Bird answered.   In her mind though, her suspicions were raised; almost nothing at all did her eagle eyes miss, and she had seen the glance that was passed between them.  She still didn’t want to offend Paddington so she didn’t say anything.  Almost everyone was depending on her eagle eyes except Paddington so without her saying anything the matter was soon forgotten, at least for the time.  The pilot hurried over to the plane engine and checked it several times before rushing back to the Browns and declaring, “THE ENGINES ARE FULL OF MARMALADE!”

I am getting used to her incredible use of language and her agility with dialogue.  What surprised me was her use of a semi-colon. I asked Lily who taught her how to use a semi-colon.  She said, “I read a lot and I noticed authors using that mark when they had two sentences and wanted to put them together.  It can be used instead of and.”  I chuckled.  I told her that she was indeed correct.  Then she asked me what the mark was called again. I told her it was a semi-colon.  I am in awe of not only how much Lily can retain, but of how much she can figure out all by herself.  When I was in 1st grade I was still trying to decode the mysteries of the alphabet!

Yesterday, we had ten inches of snow, and we got a much hoped for Snow Day.  Bright and early, I received an email from Lily asking me for another book series recommendation. Here is a natural reader.  She is a reader for life. On her snow day, she is asking for books!  In fact, when I asked her what she thought she was going to be when she grew up, she told me that she did not have to be one thing.  She intends to be a doctor, an artist, and a writer.  I have no doubt that Lily will achieve these goals.  I also wish for her days of playing in the snow and the sun. I hope I can lay down some brilliant breadcrumbs to make her journey sweet.