A Candle in the Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibility of The Blank Canvas

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

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

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

Black Dots on Red
Black Dots on White

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

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

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

Process of Making Garden Trellis

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

Picture Books That Stimulate the Imagination

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

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

Transformation: The Things We Carry

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

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

Sock Draw KonMari Style

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

Art Drawer Transformed

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

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

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

Junk Drawer

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

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

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

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

The Sure Thing: Be a Chef

This past month, I have learned that inspiration for teaching and life can come from many places: a photograph of a curled up Dachshund, a simple quote from Shakespeare, a 2nd grader’s writing assessment, or an educational email with the subject line: Are we preparing students to be chefs or cooks?

This email came from A.J. Juliani, who has written many books about student empowerment, technology, and innovation. He is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Centennial School District in Pennsylvania and also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.  Juliani believes that teachers and students should approach their work life chefs.   He explains it this way:

When my brother passed away a few years ago, my thoughts turned to my own children. How could I help raise them to be chefs? How could I raise them to not follow the recipes of life, but instead make their own recipes for their life? But, it is not just my kids, it is all of our kids.

Juliani’s full article about his brother’s fight with cancer and his resilient approach to life is chronicled here: “Focusing on the Time you Have, Not How Much You Have.”

This is one thing I know for sure:  every single one of us is not getting off this planet alive. And since this is the case, I believe we should be kind to ourselves and each other, and always put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Most importantly, we should follow our dreams and play.  This is why I’m so glad that my work and my play are the same thing.  Maybe I have always approached life like a chef: creating, improvising, putting things together that aren’t normally supposed to go together. To me, it makes life fun and interesting.  And it’s worth it, even when I encounter mistakes.  Or maybe especially when I encounter my mistakes.  The mistakes make me grow and learn and try on new adventures.

This week, I was tasked with reading our students’ writing assessments.  Wednesday night after dinner, tired with a cup of tea in my hand, I read this little gem from one of our 2nd graders:

I smiled when I read this passage. This student didn’t want to be pigeon-holed at the tender age of seven about what she would like to be when she grew up, so she created her own role.  Nobody told her she couldn’t do that.  She invented her own path.  I was so pleased to see this, so happy that we were encouraging kids to think outside the box, to go beyond what lies behind them.

Reading about chef-scientists made think about all the times I’ve spent in the kitchen with children creating holiday foods, foods inspired by children’s books, and foods for the fun of it like the time I made hand-cranked watermelon ice with a rambunctious group of four-year-olds that required six cups of sugar.  That recipe was the definition of SWEET!

My favorite times in the kitchen with kids were the times we created cakes using no recipes.  The students had to create the recipe as we went along.  I called this activity Monster Cake. I would put out a bunch of different ingredients and the children would decide which ingredients to use and how much to put in.  A number of years ago, one little boy was adamant about putting a ¼ cup of salt into the cake batter.  I allowed him to do that because we were making two batches and this way the children could all learn what happens to a cake with ¼ cup of salt in it.  It actually was a beautiful cake, but it didn’t taste good.  We crumbled it up and put it out for the birds, but even the birds and squirrels didn’t eat it!  The other cake had 2 cups of chocolate chips in it and the chips sank to the bottom making a fudge layer.  That cake we all ate with gusto!

While searching the web, I found that actually creating food without a recipe is now a cool and trendy thing. Some call it free-style baking. I love this idea. We should make our one trip on this beautiful planet sweet, spicy, comforting, and sometimes a bit surprising! I’m about to enter my kitchen now to make some Blustery Day Oatmeal cookies, a recipe I invented. Try them, if you dare!

Note: I use gluten-free four and these still turn out wonderfully! I encourage you to invent your own versions!

Books by AJ Juliani

  • Launch
  • Empower
  • The PBL Playbook

Some Inspiration for Creating Like A Chef

No Flour, Eggs, or Butter? No Problem!

Try Guys: Cookies Without a Recipe Video

Free-Style Cookies

Oh, How I Love Thee: Let’s Shout it Out!

February holds a special place in my heart.  Not because it’s my birthday month, that will come soon enough, but because it is the month of my anniversary, my Grandpa Charlie’s and my mother’s birthday.  She would have been 99 this month!  When February rolls along, I bring out my red:  little heart dishes, candles, flowers, and little things to brighten and cheer this long winter space.

In the classroom, I turn to poetry and talk to the children about loving kindness, first to themselves and then to others. We make lots of lists of the things we love. These lists mostly revolve around family and food. We practice writing odes and shout outs to all the things we love and are grateful for. Odes were originally songs performed to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, and sometimes a brave soul will write a song and perform it.  I love these small moments of celebration: no cake, no presents, just the simple pleasure of the written and spoken word.

To begin introducing odes to the children I choose Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes.” I think the sparseness and brilliant imagery will capture their attention and imagination.  This is how Neruda begins:

 Ode to Tomatoes

 The street
 filled with tomatoes,
 midday,
 summer,
 light is
 halved
 like
 a
 tomato,
 its juice
 runs
 through the streets.
 In December,
 unabated,
 the tomato
 invades
 the kitchen,
 it enters at lunchtime,
 takes
 its ease
 on countertops,
 among glasses,
 butter dishes,
 blue saltcellars.
 It sheds
 its own light,
 benign majesty. 



 Neruda perfectly places each word and gives each the importance it deserves.  After the students choose an object of their affection, I ask them to write a list of all the words to describe that object.  We share the lists and our classmates offer more suggestions.  Then it is time to write. Here are a few the students created. 

 Ode to Horses
 by Maggie 
  
 Horses galloping
 in the middle of the night
 when nobody is watching,
 their manes flying in the wind
 as they go by.
 They talk to each other
 with a simple “Neigh.”
 When the sun comes up,
 they are all tired from a long night.
 Their eyes still glow with delight.
 They have a long day,
 but they keep on trotting on
 because they know
 what the night brings.
  
  
  
 Ode to Candles
 by Evelyn 
  
 Candles
 Out in the living room
 Aspiring to burn the brightest
  
 Standing tall and proud
 Wax running down the side
 Beautiful
  
 When the flame has died
 It goes to sleep
 Dreaming about a great flame
  
 The people huddle round
 Outside the snow falls
 And falls
  
  
  
 Ode to Puppies
  
 Hadley
  
 Oh puppies!
 Your fluffy feet
 And velvety ears
 Make me want to cuddle you all day long!
  
 You make me smile
 When you run around on your fluffy feet
 And when you curl up into a ball to sleep
 You make me want to hug you
  
 Your tiny teeth may nip,
 And your miniature claws may scratch
 But I love you just the same.
  
 Oh Puppies!
 I love your little tail
 As it wags, wags, wags
 And your round tummy
 As you chow on yummy food
  
 You make me laugh
 When you chew on a bone
 And chase your tail
 And lie down on your bed
  
 Oh Puppies!
 I love you
  
  
 Ode to My Goggles
 by Indiya 
  
 During the day my goggles 
 Open their eyes and see
 All the swimmers swimming.
  
 They swim with me
 In the pool
 And protects my eyes.
  
 At night they dream
 Of swimming in the ocean,
 Seeing all the fish and coral.
  
 They wake up,
 Ready to swim.
 Thank you, goggles!
  

Another poem type I came across recently are Shout Outs.  Shout out poems are poems that thank people, animals or things that are personally important. Sekou Sundiata created this type of poetry.  His poem has a lot of music in it. Here is a small part of his poem. You can listen to the entire poem here: SHOUT OUT!

 Shout Out
  
 Here’s to the best words
 In the right place at the perfect time
 Here’s to three hour dinners
 And long conversations, 
 and a beautiful day.
 To the increase, to the decrease
 To the do, to the do
 To the did to the did
 To the done done
 To the lonely.
 To the brokenhearted.
 To the new, blue haiku.
 Here’s to all or nothing at all.
 Here’s to the sick, and the shut-in.
 Here’s to the was you been to the is you in
 To what’s deep and deep 
 To what’s down and down
 To the lost, and the blind, 
 and the almost found.

Here is my attempt at a Shout Out poem.  When teaching poetry to children, I think it is essential to write and create and revise right alongside them so that the class become a community of writers fully engaged in the process.

 Earth Shout Out
  
 Here’s to the seasons turning 
 To the bright spring flowers
 To the cardinals and jays singing in the trees
 Shout out to the clear blue sky
 To the fluffy whipped cream clouds
 To the children running and playing
 To their laughter and wild freedom.
 Shout out to the peaceful world
 To the beautiful earth
 To the golden sun and silver moon
 And to the twinkly diamond stars!
   

I encourage students to describe the things they love in unusual ways.  I don’t make them stick to one form and have fifteen cookiecutter poems.  I want them to explore the form and push the boundaries of their thinking. One great book to share with children is Shout!: Little Poems that Roar by Brod Bagert.

 Winter SHOUT OUT!!!
 by Emily
  
 Here’s to the snowy blizzards
 To the skiing vacations
 To the warm winter coats
 Shout out to the Christmas fun
 To the cozy Vermont cabins
 To the tight ice skates
 To the creamy hot chocolate
 Shout out to the warm, doughy cookies
 To the steep sledding hills
 To the family movies, snuggled under blankets
 And to the winter wonderland outside my warm, cozy house
  
  
 Shout out to Pizza
 by Cam
  
 Pizza is cheesy goodness
 Pizza is a great wheel of sauce
 Pizza I love your hot and cheesy flavor
 I love you with veggies on top
 I adore pepperoni too
 I shout to the sky
 Pizza you are the BEST!
  
  
 Shout Out to Ice Cream
 by Andrew
  
 Ice cream you are the dairy king
 You taste better than anything
 You come in a lot of flavors
 All which I savor
 Even though you’re very cold
 That makes you even more bold.
 You can be eaten in bowls,
 And you can be eaten in cones
 And with your toppings that are so delish
 You are my number one wish! 

Odes and Shout Outs are a great way to liven up these dreary winter days. They serve as a little light in the darkness.  They remind us about what we love and why.  They help us to reflect and have gratitude for the big and small things in our lives.

Here are some great books to celebrate loving kindness and Valentine’s Day.

Valentine Books

  • Arthur’s Valentine by Marc Brown
  • Guess How Much I Love You? By Sam McBratney
  • Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
  • Here Comes Valentine Cat by Deborah Underwood
  • Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
  • Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes
  • Llama, Llama, I Love You by Anna Dewdney
  • Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Love from the Crayons by Drew Dayward
  • Love Letters by Arnold Adoff
  • Love Monster by Rachel Bright
  • Love, Splat by Rob Scotton
  • Louanne Pig in the Mysterious Valentine by Nancy Carlson
  • Ollie’s Valentine by Olivier Dunrea
  • One Zillion Valentines by FrankModell
  • Pete the Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool by James Dean
  • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatcher by Eileen Spinelli
  • Snowy Valentine by David Peterson
  • The Best Valentine in the World by Marjorie Weisman Sharmat
  • The Biggest Valentine Ever by Steven Kroll
  • The Day it Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond
  • The Ballad of Valentine by Alison Jackson
  • The Valentine Bears by Eve Bunting
  • This is NOT a Valentine by Carter Higgins
  • Valensteins by Ethan Long
  • Valentine’s Day by Gail Gibbons

Mindful Mending

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

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

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

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

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

The Sewing Corner in The Wonder Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books About Mending

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

Quilt Books for Children

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

Room for Writing: Entering A Poem

Though I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was four years old, I sometimes find it hard to actually sit down and write.  Often I walk and write in my head or just upon waking, write in my mind the wonderful idea I had while I was dream-waking.  Sometimes, I make the time to write them down, but most times they slip away, and my day gets filled with daily minutia.  As I’ve grown older, I try to be more consistent with my writing, because I am keenly aware of time and life slipping away.  Writing is important to me, and I need to be mindful of giving it the room it deserves in my life.  Without writing I know I would not fully be me.  Without writing, I would not be able to think through my problems or create new things.  Writing needs a conscious, breathing space.  Writing needs time.

Many of my writing ideas come from books I’ve discovered.  In the pre-COVID years, I loved to browse my favorite indie bookstores, wandering and reading hoping to come upon an interesting find.  I miss those days.  Buying books on Amazon is not the same experience.  I hope those bookstores find a way to survive because they were an important part of my inspiration.  It was in one of these now defunct bookstores where I found the little yellow treasure, FEG: Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch.  In this book, Hirsch includes the poem, “Entering a Poem,” which is a brilliant and humorous way of introducing poetry to children.  It begins:

You enter a poem
 Just like you enter a room.
 You open the door
 And what do you see?
 A sink, for example,
 A bathtub, a toilet
 (Does a toilet belong in a poem?)
 And you say to yourself, “Aha
 It’s a bathroom.” 

Needless to say, I bought the book immediately and shared it with everyone I know.  I wanted to see what I could do with this subject.  I began to think of the old row house my husband and I lived in decades ago in Princeton.  It dated back to the early 1800’s and had a quirky charm.  It is this place that I thought of as I wrote my poem.

 When You Enter A Poem
  
 You enter a poem
 through the basement.
 Walking down several steep steps,
 you inhale a musty odor –
 the damp darkness.
 You reach above for the string
 that will turn on the light,
 you can’t find it.
  
 You shuffle and stumble,
 trying to adjust to the light.
 You begin to see outlines –
 shadows of things
 Could that be your old wagon?
 Is that a box of your books?
 You bump into an old rocking chair,
 you always loved that rocker.
 You’d sit on your mother’s lap
 as she told you stories,
 a cobweb gently touches your face.
 You swat it away.
 Where’s the light?
 You find the string and pull,
 but it does not go on.
  
 You know the poem is in here, somewhere,
 you reach out your hands
 and feel your way around -
 the cool, rough cinderblock walls,
 the smooth, curved oak chest
 the ragged, chipped-painted pipes.
 Your eyes are getting accustomed to the dark.
 You can now make out the wooden ceiling beams,
 the various pieces of furniture stacked with boxes
 the small, odd door on the far side of the room.
 There is a sudden scent of lavender 
 from some abandoned blooms
 forgotten in an old vase.
  
 You walk on feeling your way
 in the murky darkness.
 You come to the small, odd door.
 It is really just some rough-hewn planks
 crudely hammered together.
 A brass key protrudes from the lock.
 You try to turn it, you try to pull it out,
 but it doesn’t budge.
 You wonder what is inside
 and why it’s locked away.
 You try the key again.
 It won’t turn.
 You knock on the door -
 There is no one on the other side.
 You boldly bang and kick it,
 Throw your shoulder against it,
 it remains steadfast.
  
 You walk back towards the steps,
 You can make your way
 more easily through the darkness.
 A poem is like that –
 Some things become clearer,
 some remain secret,
 you turn and ascend the stairs.
 
 
Whenever I think of a lesson for children, I must try it out first and make mistakes.  Mistakes guide me in how to make the lesson better.  I welcome mistakes.  If my idea comes out too perfect, I don’t trust it.  There must be something I’m not seeing, not realizing.  This poem came out all at once, and I wondered if children would be able to create a visual space for how they enter a poem.  I tried it out with some 5th graders, and they easily delved into their poetry place. I think the humor imbedded throughout Hirsch’s poem helped them understand that poetry is accessible.  It can be about toilets and musty basements.  It can ask questions and not provide all the answers.  Indeed, it should raise more questions and make us wonder.

When sharing this idea with students, I first read aloud both Hirsch and mine own “entering a poem” poems.  We talked about how each poem was constructed and the form, language, and images the poets created.  Then I asked my students to think about a poem as a room in a home or space somewhere.  How do you get inside?  How do you begin to understand it?  I asked them to write an “Entering a Poem” poem. I told them that their “room” can be any type and anywhere.  It could be a bedroom, kitchen, secret room, tunnel, spaceship, a place outdoors, – whatever they imagined it to be.

 When You Enter A Poem
  
 by Lauren
  
 When you enter a poem...
 It’s like entering a kitchen
 First you stick out your hand, 
 Reach for the cabinet with the bowls.
 Take one large bowl and one small bowl.
 Then comes the eggs, flour, sugar, 
 chocolate icing, and honey 
 out of the refrigerator. 
 Next, beat two eggs 
 and some honey in the small bowl.
 Then mix the sugar and the flour 
 in the large bowl. 
 Time for wet ingredients!
 Put them in the large bowl 
 and mixed them together.
 Pour the batter in the pan,
 And put it in the oven.
 A half an hour later, 
 Take the cake 
 out of the oven
 and ice it
  
 Making a poem is like
 Making a cake
 Keep adding ingredients
  
  
  
 Come into the Poem
  
 by Maxine
  
 Come into the poem,
 It is a cool pool,
 Blue and deep.
 Dive down
 Make bubbles
 All the way.
 The fish swim
 Between your feet.
 The slick seaweed
 Wraps around your shoulders.
 Something sparkles on the
 Rocky ocean floor
 But you cannot reach it.
 The current takes you
 In another direction
 The water is murky
 It's hard to see clearly
 Then something beautiful
 Comes into view,
 Into the Poem,
 Cool and blue and deep,
 Delicate and full of wonder,
 A starfish on the sand
 Dancing gracefully
 Into the Poem. 

I look forward to playing with this idea with more groups of children.  What rooms will they create?  What fresh language will they invent?  How will they show me a new way of thinking?  What will they teach me next?

Zen Toolbox Redux

January is almost over.  We have elected a new president.  We have for the first time in history a woman vice president.  The COVID virus has several new vaccines, and they are slowly being distributed.  My family members and friends continue to be safe and healthy. I should feel hopeful.  I do not.  I feel drained. I have taken on two positions at school this year – learning specialist and curriculum coordinator – two giant jobs, and back in August I was certain I could handle both if I kept myself in balance. 

Now, I am not so sure.  It seems that there is premium on students who need support.  I am not the only one feeling stressed, anxious, and in desperate need of a shoulder, outstretched hand, or warm smile. This week, a student cried giant tears, which rolled down her cheeks soaking her mask. “I always get in trouble at school,” she declared. 

When I asked her to explain what happened to me.  She said that she couldn’t but that she could draw it.  So I gave her a piece of paper and some markers thinking she was going to draw the problem she was facing. Instead, her markers created brilliant springtime flowers, deep green grass growing wildly around a happy, fat house, with bright jaunty windows, a crooked chimney and a red door with the number 32 above it.  When I asked, “How is this the problem you are telling me about?” 

She looked at me like I had two heads and replied, “It’s not.  You see it’s 32, not 42 like the school.  I live at 32 Jockey Hollow Road and that’s where I want to be.”

I smiled under my mask.  She was a clear as clear could be. She did something wrong, and she wanted to escape back to safety. And safety to her was to be at home with her parents.  I was so glad she had a safe place.  I needed to help her feel that way at school more often, instead of feeling like the kid who’s two steps behind and doesn’t know where she put her pencil again, and the teacher is waiting, and her classmates are saying her name impatiently. Again. So I listen and I problem solve, and I offer her some kindness. When we get back to the classroom, they are doing art.  She returned to her seat and picked up her scissors and glue.  Her shoulders relaxed.  She had regained a bit of her balance.

I can empathize.  I often feel like that student did:  I’m going to be in trouble.   I can’t keep up.  I’m tossing all the plates, but I cannot catch them.  I try in vain to create pockets of peace and pleasure, but they are fleeting.  I remember my mother’s words: “Be good to yourself.”  I try. I do try. I remember the list I made in August, a Zen Toolbox to keep me content and on track and not to slip into the girl with her shoulders hunched up to her ears, running from task to task, holding her breath.  I look back at the toolbox and see the list of books, art, and music.  They are useful tools, and I have returned to their pages often to gain some inspiration. But now, at this time of year, I need another plan.  A more active direct plan, one in which I can push out the walls of my stress and create an artistic positive and more hopeful space.

I know it is imperative for me to do this.  I’ve read the literature on teacher burn out. According to some recent research, 66% of teachers want to leave education and 41.3% of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years on the job.  Given those numbers, I feel quite successful because I have been teaching for forty-two years.  I must have a secret, some ancient wisdom I can bestow on my fellow teachers. 

This week, I came up with these ideas.  They are not so much RULES, as they are affirmations about who I really am and the important work I do each day with children.  If I am to connect with my students and lift them up, I definitely need to make sure that I am being good to myself.

 1.    Create tissue craft paper collage studies.  Do a couple a week.  Remember to play.
 
2.   Treat myself to flowers at work often.  Do not make excuses.  Buy them on Monday.
 
3.   Whenever I feel stressed at work, pull back, go inside myself, take a walk, write or draw for 15 minutes.  No one needs me for 15 minutes.  Take the time.
 
4.   Remember to stay professional. Be about teaching and not personalities.
 
5.    Continue walking, exercising, stretching every day.  Try to exercise before school – at lunch and after school whenever possible.
 
6.   Make a list of writing projects and finish them.
 
7.    Remember creativity.  If I don’t do writing and art, my spirit dies and I become bitter.  The best part of me is my childlike enthusiasm.  Celebrate that!
 
8.   Make a list of art dates – schedule a day each month to do some extended art dates: sketch, collage, print making, water color, finger paint.
 
9.   Try something new every week: a new vegetable, a new shampoo, a new song, a new way of looking at the same things.
 
10.  Be an observer.  Go out into nature, breathe in calm, write what you   see, write what you feel.
 This is what I played with this week. Some reflections on nature and the healing power of trees, trying to find the quiet places. 
 Forest Senses
  
 The trail is laden
 with rain soaked stones -
 brown, gray, pale green
 and rust colored pine needles
 and last fall’s leaves
 now brown and brittle
 returning to the earth.
 The forest canopy -
 a colossal verdant umbrella
 letting the rays of the sun
 only in certain sacred spots.
 A huge elm has fallen,
 its two main branches
 now rest on its trunk
 like two great arms
 reaching out 
 still seeking salvation. 


 
 
 Shadow Play
  
 Clouds loom over the ridge line,
 Whipped cotton cumulus clouds
 Casting shadows on the hills,
 Dappled patterns,
 Bright patches 
 On the forest floor,
 Moss-covered stones,
 Glints of reflected light
 On the river’s surface.
 Dark green cool spots,
 Rocky crags and uprooted trees
 Hidden in silent repose. 

Resolution: Free the Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading:

For Children:

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

Art and Max by David Weisner

The Dot by Peter Reynolds

Dog Loves Drawing by Louise Yates

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

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Lines that Wiggle by Candace Whitman

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

The Squiggle by Carole Lexa Schaefer

What if… by Samantha Berger

When I Draw a Panda by Amy June Bates

For Adults:

Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials by Cathy Weisman Topal

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

Children and Painting by Cathy Weisman Topal

Children, Clay and Sculpture by Cathy Weisman Topal

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

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

Point and Line to Plane by Wassily Kandinsky

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

Thinking with a Pencil by Henning Nelms

Poems in a Small Space

Acceptance.  I think that is the gift that I give myself when there are a multitude of things that are out of my control on both a personal and global level.  My small hands, my curious mind cannot solve any of it.  I can accept and move forward.  I can accept and be content that I am whole; I am safe in my own small space.

Poetry has always given me that small space to crawl into – to journey down into a deep, welcoming hole and find myself in an open field at the other end, a field of possibility. It is a place to try out new combinations of words to express what is in my inside because my inside is the only thing I can control.  How will I approach this situation?  How will to react to that setback?  What can I do to right myself again?

Words help me know what I’m feeling.  Words record where I have been, who I was at that moment of time.  They are a snapshot of myself.  They help me reflect and grow.  They allow me to navigate the world and keep me on a steady course.

Every morning I remind myself why I am here.  Mary Oliver’s wise words whisper in my ear: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I am here to write.

 Winter’s Coming
  
 Softly lace crystals dance
 On the chill wind whispering
 Winter’s coming
 Three deer play hide and seek
 With the trees– leaping
 Winter’s coming
 Rabbit in her brown-fur burrow
 Safe and warm dreaming 
 Winter’s coming
 Alder trees arch with the weight
 Of new fallen snow creaking
 Winter’s coming
 Squirrels frolic in the snow
 Fluff their silver tails chattering
 Winter’s coming
 A flock of Canada geese glide
 Across the frigid sky honking
 Winter’s coming
 Meanwhile beneath the deep white
 The steadfast garden lies silent
 Till spring – Hush now
 Winter’s coming 

 
 
 
 Swamp Oak in Winter
  
  
 Silver-white swamp oak
 Stands alone in the clearing
 Branching up and up
  
 Gracefully curving
 While each slender stem embraces
 Curled copper leaves
  
 Like snow-capped cocoons
 Silently contemplating
 Silver-white swamp oak 


 
 
 Hibernation
  
                                      I                                  
  
 Following the path
 Through the woods
 Walking in other’s footprints
 In the shallow snow,
 I feel the tug from the earth,
 A call from the bare branches
 To come rest in the soft snow,
 Sleep till spring.
  
                                       II                                
  
 The woods are silent,
 The sun is iced-over,
 Each branch, each leaf
 Is frozen in space and time,
 A lone woodpecker lands
 Rendering a hollow sound.
  
                                  III                               
  
 The elm stands bare-boned,
 I rest my cool cheek
 Against its smooth trunk,
 Take comfort from its
 Immense strength,
 Sturdy persistence,
 Acknowledging the life within. 

If you are not yet a writer of poetry, I urge you to try.  Observe what’s around you, calm your mind, and narrow your focus. Settle down and relax. You can start small.  If I haven’t convinced you to write, then read poetry.  Fill your mind with its music. Fill your heart with its knowledge. Begin.

Poetry for Adults

  • Aimless Love by Billy Collins
  • A Thousand Morning by Mary Oliver
  • Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
  • Devotions by Mary Oliver
  • Nine Horses by Billy Collins
  • Selected Poems by E.E. Cummings
  • Twenty Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
  • The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace
  • The Undressing: Poems by Li-Young Lee
  • The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck

Poetry for Children

  • All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth
  • A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes
  • Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan
  • Bookjoy, Wordjoy by Pat Mora
  • Creature of Earth, Sea, And Sky by Georgia Heard
  • Everything Comes Next by Naomi Shihab Nye
  • I am Loved by Nikki Giovanni
  • Let it Shine by Ashley Bryan
  • One Last Word by Nikki Grimes
  • Twist: Yoga Poems by Janet Wong