A More Beautiful Question Revisited

Almost a decade after reading  Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas, I decided to re-read it, since it is such a thought-provoking book. I’m reading it in little pieces now, savoring each idea!  One nugget I read this week was about the amount of questions children ask.  Young children begin asking “WHY?” and they don’t stop!  Why is the sky blue?  Why can you see the moon during the day? Why do rabbits’ teeth keep growing?  The world is a large place, and little children want to know all about it.  That’s why I became an early childhood teacher 42 years ago.  That’s what I love about visiting the early childhood and elementary classrooms: children keep asking questions, more and more questions.! Of course, that can be exhausting, and you may run out of patience, but that process of asking questions is what separates us from all other species on Earth!  And you know what happens as children get older?  Yes – you are right – they stop asking questions!  

Berger noted that questioning “falls off a cliff” as kids become older.  A Gallup Poll revealed that as students’ progress through the grades, their questioning plummets (76% in elementary school to 44% in high school).  Instead of wondering, older students are busy gathering information and spitting it back in a rote manner.  This leads to massive disengagement from learning.  I was not very surprised by this information, but it did lead me to think and question the classroom practices  I observe each week:  

  • How do we use student questions to spark interest in a topic?  
  • Can the “parking lot” technique be used to display student questions and be a springboard for discussion?  
  • Can we have students generate questions from our essential questions?  
  • Do adults feel like they need to know the answers to all student questions?  
  • What do teachers do when they don’t know the answer?
  • How comfortable are we as adults to ask questions?  

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  

By honoring students’ questions, teachers facilitate learning, which  is relevant and motivates students to question further and seek out possibilities pertaining to any subject.  To be curious and to question is intrinsic to learning. Berger quotes research scientist, John Seely Brown who explains that “…if you’re comfortable questioning, experimenting, connecting things – then change is something that becomes an adventure.  And if you can see it as an adventure, then you’re off and running.”

This adventurous spirit reminds me of a time when one of my young three-year-old students was outside playing. He suddenly looked up at the sky and was enthralled by the presence of the moon.  He could not take his eyes off the moon and wondered why it was out in the daytime.  In his experience, the moon only came out at night, and now all that he had come to know was in question.  That was an important moment for him as a learner, and it was an important moment for me as a young teacher.  I could have patted his head, given him a cursory answer, and brought his attention back to something tangible like the sandbox.  Instead, I listened and encouraged his questions and helped him to better understand the workings of the universe.  Indeed, this young boy’s curiosity sparked weeks of learning about the nature of the sky for all his classmates. We read countless books about the moon, created a moon surface, made a mural of the phases of the moon, and even built our own lunar explorer.

Teaching is at its most effective when it promotes risk-taking and relentless experimentation, which is the true heart of constructivist teaching. When teachers and students start asking open-ended questions such as: What do we want to learn?  Why do we want to learn it? How will we go about learning it?  How will we show what we’ve learned? – They are constructing curiosity, which will become a lifelong process.  This approach affords multiple avenues for learning, giving teachers and students freedom to learn in a personal, creative, and active way.

Did I piqued your curiosity? Do you ave more questions?  You might want to read and investigate a little further.

Books by Warren Berger

A More Beautiful Question

Beautiful Questions in the Classroom

The Book of Beautiful Questions

Visit Warren’s Blog:

Want to inspire more curiosity and inquiry in kids?

Inspiration and Handiwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josephine Knots in Copper Wire

Small Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avery playing practicing her new skill: PlayDough balls!

A Wall of Wonder

Reading in Wildness

I took this photo while on vacation in Maine.  I was walking by a favorite lily pond and happened upon this mother-daughter reading team lounging in a nearby meadow. The mother was reading with much gusto, taking on the voices of each character.  I don’t know what book it was that she was reading, but her young daughter was totally entranced by the story.  “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this child will grow up to be a fearless, wild reader.”  They brought a smile to my face and joy to my old teacher heart.

As a child, reading was difficult for me. I painstakingly sounded out each letter and then tried my hardest to blend the sounds into a word. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, and the whole process left me exhausted. However, I loved stories.  I listened to epic poems that my father would recite and fantasy classics that my mother would read to me.  I found stories to be mesmerizing.  It took me a long time to say that I loved reading. Reading was slow work, and I was a fast kid. I did not like to sit still.  I wanted the words to come fast and furious, but my mind kept me at a slow and steady pace.  I was labeled a “slow reader.”  I wasn’t dyslexic, just slow.  One of the reasons for this, I think as I look back, is that I was in love with words, so I would dawdle over passages and wonder how the author constructed such a scene.  If the author left some things to the readers’ imagination, then I would float off creating whole other scenarios in my head.  Slowly, I would land back to the book and continue where I had left off.  This certainly was not efficient, purposeful reading, but it did afford me the ability to read like a writer.  I was not a spectator as I read, I was a participant.  I took in all the words to use them again in a different way in a story of my own. Eventually, I learned to savor the slow and to know that the kind of reading I was doing was helping me become a better writer.

Recently, I found Hudson Talbott’s A Walk in Words.  Talbott was also a slow reader and in this book he explains his reading journey.  It is through drawing that Talbott came to love reading and writing.  He found that his love of drawing lead him into stories, and he began to think of reading as “word painting.” As he grew, Talbott’s curiosity won, and he was able to read at his own pace. At the end of the book, he created a Slow Reader Hall of Fame including: William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Babe Ruth, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Graham Bell, to name a few. Thankfully, Talbott became a picture book writer. He said that he mined books for words to use in his stories and that the ability to lose himself in books helped to spark his imagination.

When I think of it, many of the book I adored as a child were based in the wild. The book that taught me that I loved reading was the classic, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and after that was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece, My Side of the Mountain.  Those books helped me see past myself and to envision the kind of reader who takes chances and doesn’t give up. I slowly picked my way through the words and in the process found lifelong friends and exciting adventures.

Reading in Wildness Suggestions:

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

Picture Books:

A Walk in Forest by Maria Dek

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature by Rachel Williams

The Hike by Alison Farrell

Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark

Wild by Emily Hughes

Chapter Books:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha lai

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Of Nature, Books, & Faith

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. – Mary Oliver, “Upstream”

I am here another week in the Green Mountains.  I came to restore my body.  I have stayed to restore my spirit.  In the valley surrounded by the mountains, I feel safe and secure.  I can explore here.  I can look up in wonder and find birds and butterflies, pink clouds at sunset, and fields of wildflowers in the morning light.

Vermont gives space for thinking and dreaming.  I am not confined here.  There is nothing needing my attention.  I can truly breathe deeply and feel my body finally relax.  And as my body relaxes, my mind sets off wandering.  My pain has lessened some, and I can concentrate on reading and writing.

In addition to mountains, rivers, streams, and stones, Vermont has a wide variety of independent bookstores.  Many of the Indy bookstores in my home state of New Jersey have gone out of business but in Vermont small bookstores thrive.  This week, I walked into Bear Pond Books and found three treasures:  The Summer of June by Jamie SumnerUpstream by Mary Oliver, and The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall FollettThe Summer of June is an uplifting middle-grade novel about a girl with an anxiety disorder.  When I learned that poetry, petite fours, and gardening were the keys to her cure, I knew that I had to get busy reading.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets.  I did not know that she wrote essays and was ecstatic when I found Upstream.  I am reading, rereading, and underlining with abandon. Every word, every idea is precious.  As I read Oliver, I wish I was younger.  I have so much to learn from her.  Her thoughts are so much akin to mine.  I read, and I am gleeful.  I have found a friend.

The House Without Windows will be my last book in this Bear Pond Books trilogy. I found it in the children’s section.  When I read the front cover blurb:  “A lost classic, a free-spirit adventure, a long song to the wilderness,” I thought it would make a perfect companion to Oliver’s essays.  I can’t wait to see if I’m correct.  It was written by a twelve-year-old girl, Barbara Newhall Follett, who was born in 1914.  She wrote another book, The Voyage of the Norman D., when she was thirteen.  In 1939, at the age of twenty-five, Barbara disappeared from her home one evening.  She was never seen or heard from again.  Her disappearance remains a mystery.  I cannot wait to read her first book, which is about a young girl who seeks adventure in the wild.  This book jumped out at me from the shelf, and I know there is a good reason.  I know I will find treasure and meaning in it.

And what better place to read about nature than in Vermont.  Looking up and seeing the solemn silhouette of dark mountains, I cannot help but think of things divine.  In these painful weeks, I have reminded myself of the power of faith.  I am grateful to be able to spend time in this beautiful place.  I have faith that I am being set on the right course.  I am certain in the middle of my sixth decade that I have more to learn.  And I am ready.

Power in our Words

Summer has come, and this is the time I normally take to reflect on my past year’s teaching experience.  I have filled two roles for the past two and a half years: first, as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator and then as a Learning Support Coordinator. I didn’t realize how much doing both roles would require of me. I love the creativity of curricular development and also enjoy working one-on-one with struggling students.  I like the challenge of finding the right strategies to support each learner.  Next school year, I will be solely engaged in learning support, and I have found myself feeling ebullient at the prospect. Though I will miss providing reading and writing curricular support, the whole reason I went into teaching forty-three years ago was to help kids who found school difficult.  I love working with kids to find pathways to learning, to make reading and writing playful, to make school meaningful and fun again.

As I shift my attention solely to learning support, I keep thinking about how teacher language supports student engagement and growth.  There have been many studies about this idea. Also, I know this to be true from my own experiences as a student.  There were teachers who shut me down and who believed more in my limitations than in my possibilities.  They could be dismissive, sarcastic, and sometimes downright mean.  I vowed never to be like those teachers.  When I was unfortunate enough to have that type of teacher, I learned to keep my head down, be quiet, and not to bring any attention to myself.  In those years, I did not learn as much as I could have, and my self-esteem suffered.  I am grateful that I only had two such years in my long career as a student.  Most years, I had teachers who saw my potential, who encouraged me, and who showed they cared about my ideas.  In the presence of those teachers, I flourished.  I felt good about myself.  I took more and more risks, my voice became stronger, and I had the motivation to learn.  Their support fed my curiosity and creativity.  I began to read widely and teach myself.  I was empowered by my teachers’ positive attitude towards me.

The past two and a half years has been difficult for teachers.  They have spent less time teaching and more time on administrative minutia.  The stress of masks, social distancing, hybrid learning, and virtual technology has taken its toll.  Workshops on mindfulness and self-care can only do so much.  Since my job is to support learning, I spend most of my days inside classrooms observing teaching and learning.  I have witnessed some wonderful, creative, and engaging lessons.  However, I have also witnessed some disengagement, frustration, and negative, unproductive talk from teachers.  As I reflect on how I can become a positive voice in my school community,  I have been reading Paula Denton’s book, The Power of Our Words.  The book is part of the Responsive Classroom series and gives concrete advice to teachers on how to reflect on how they speak to their students and how to shift negative talk into talk that is uplifting and supportive – talk that will make students feel valued and talk that will encourage them to become involved in their own learning.  I plan to think of ways to speak to my faculty about the importance of teacher talk and to make teacher talk integral to the learning profiles I create for each struggling student.

I hope in this way, not only our students with learning differences, but also all students will benefit.  Paul Denton’s words ring true: “…teachers can use language to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways that go beyond but connect to their current reality.  Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this.”

Now, more than ever it is important for teachers to become mindful of their talk and to think about the words we use to provide optimal engagement and lead children to see learning as a way to attain their goals.  Teachers have that power, and it is important for them to think deeply before they speak.

Books that Promote Positive Talk:

How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and In School by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King

How to Talk so Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Positive Teacher Talk for Better Classroom Management by Deborah Diffly

Say What You See for Parents and Teachers by Sandra R. BlackardThe Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton

Friday at the Farm

This past Friday was my last day of school and my first day of vacation.  I decided to celebrate by meeting my friend, Karen, at a local gardening shop aptly named, The Farm at Green Village.  It has a pond, acres of trails and foliage, an enormous greenhouse, and even a resident peacock.  I am not a gardener, but I love going to The Farm.  It is my Zen place, my place to unwind and breathe; my place to meet a friend and laugh.

When I arrived, Karen was already picking out plants.  She is the gardener. Her home is surrounded by flowers.  I love visiting her; sitting out on her back deck surveying her flowers, watching  bees and hummingbirds pause by the blossoms, and scolding her cat, Pepe, as he tries to catch butterflies in his claws.  It’s like a wonderful summer ballet.

We walked the aisles looking for the right flowers and hanging baskets for Karen’s home.  We marveled at the colors and types of flowers.  Karen knows many more flower names than I do.  I would love to be more garden-knowledgeable. I love reading the names off the garden tags: salvia, hydrangea, echinacea, begonia, petunia, impatience, zinnia.  Lots of lovely rolling syllables. Lots of bright and cheerful colors. We filled up two carts with flowers for Karen’s garden and planters.  I felt my body relax as I roamed the aisles of flowers, taking in their fragrance. It was like spending a morning in Eden with a friend.  It made me so happy.  What better way to start the summer.

My new favorite flowers were the Lantana.  I have admired them but didn’t know their name.  They have delicate little flowers that grow in little bunches in a variety of complementary colors. I especially loved the Sunburst Lantana.  They just make me happy when I look at them.  They remind me of flowers you would arrange for a summer tea party for the fairies or a wedding for garden gnomes.

After a couple of hours, we sat among the flowers and chatted, soaking in the morning sun. Then we headed inside to look for houseplants and planters.  This is another happy place for me.  While Karen, selected two small houseplants, I went hunting for colorful pots with my camera.  I don’t have room to collect such things, but I collect them with my camera, and that means I can keep them forever and never worry that they may break.

I roamed among all the beautiful things, clicking away in wonder of each little object: pots, statuettes, vases, mirrors, and baskets in an array of colors.  If I had a grand mansion, I would fill one wing like this full of plants and light and love.  Instead, I choose two small ceramic objects: a bunny and a turtle.  The bunny will grace my desk, and the turtle will be a present for my husband.  He loves turtles because they remind him to slow down and concentrate on what’s truly important. 

I am glad I slowed down today. I am grateful for this time with Karen, for this day among the flowers. I cannot wait until our next trek, but for now the flowers are enough.

Happy Ending – New Beginning

This week, one of my former students gave me the happy news that he became a father for the first time on May 4th. This is indeed happy news, but especially joyous because Henry’s mom died suddenly when he was three-years-old as a result of a drunken driver.  At the time, I was Henry’s nursery school teacher, and I took care of him full-time for two years following Catherine’s death.  Henry and I were reunited about two years ago, and I blogged about his story here: A Pause for Celebration.

I cannot adequately express the joy I feel that Henry and his partner, Maria, are now proud parents of a beautiful little girl, Catherine Nima Maria.  A big name for such a little girl.  I am so glad that Henry has grown up to be a successful businessman and a loving father.  I had prayed for years that Henry would be safe and live happily ever after.  My prayers have been answered.  His story is both a happy-ending and a new beginning. I am ever-grateful.

I know no other way to express my joy, but to spend the day looking at baby clothes and writing.  I am creating a picture book for Catherine.  It will be the first of many.  This one will celebrate her name and that of her grandmother, who was a good friend, loving wife and mother, taken away too soon.

Introducing Catherine

Embracing the Process

During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students.  The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices.  I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations.  I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them.  Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be.  Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.

This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio.  They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly,  however they didn’t quite clean everything up.  Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps.  I get it.  I was twelve once.  I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.

Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them.  She looked up at me grinning.

“I know,” she said, “I love the process.” 

I laughed and agreed.  Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission.  As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials.  She often finds things I didn’t know I had.  Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project.  I looked at her skeptically. 

“They won’t mind.  It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.”  And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project. 

The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls.  Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing.  I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance.  I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me.  It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.

Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl.  She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials.  She frowned and began hunting for a replacement.  She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart.  As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure.  In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work.  At one point, I asked her what she was making.

With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”

I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”

“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant.  I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.

Today, Laila finished her project.  She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over.  Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down.  She came over and handed it to me.

“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

I laughed, “Of course, a lamp.  It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”

And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads.  She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string.  “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.

Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way.  I know that I have to be quiet and listen.  My students always show me the way.  They know what they need.  They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.

April Poem #13: Memory of Spring

Spring is for the birds! I am so grateful I live just on the edge of a large woods.  A wild assortment of fox, deer, raccoons, possum, groundhogs, even the occasional coyote, have frequented the woods and fields that are my backyard.  However, it is the birds to whom I have developed a deep and lasting bond.  The songbirds, waterfowl, and raptors all living under one glorious roof. 

Observing the small birds like the juncos, chickadees, and sparrows, I wonder at their tenacity.  Such small and fragile things, yet they weather winter snows, spring rainstorms, summer heat, and fierce fall winds.  Where do they find their strength?  Are they indeed angels with beaks and feathers? I witnessed one young sparrow, who could easily fit in the palm of my hand, sit under my azaleas waiting for a spring torrent to dissipate. She was patient and mindful.  She didn’t seem to fret and took her situation in stride.  As I watched her, I was conscious of the lesson I could learn from her: slow down, find strength from within, liberate myself from worry, and fly free.

My inspiration for “Memory of Spring” comes from NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month: 30 Poems in 30 Days, which was created by Maureen Thorson. Today,  the writing prompt was to write about good fortune and possibility. And I also received inspiration from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Stacey L. Joy, a poet and National Board-Certified Teacher, suggested we write about joy and liberation.

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