How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

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

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

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

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

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

ZEN TOOLBOX

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

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

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

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.

Listen to Their Songs

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer.

It sings because it has a song.

– Maya Angelou

Last week, I attended yet again another professional development webinar.  This summer they have run the gamut from strategies for reopening given the new pandemic reality, to antiracism, from identifying and reducing anxiety to techniques for project- based learning.  All were informative, helpful, necessary, but as we drift into August, I am beginning to get weary of learning.  I desperately need a respite before the tsunami of teaching in a pandemic begins to swell again.  This latest webinar feature A.J. Juliani as the keynote.  I have heard this dynamic speaker before, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.  What I didn’t expect was his final words of encouragement to teachers in the form of a video from Clint Pulver, a motivational speaker.  Clint is an author, musician, and employment retention expert. He helps companies and organizations retain, engage, and inspire their workers. Clint believes that a single moment is transformative, and he demonstrates this in a video about his school experience about his interactions with his teacher Mr. Jensen – here.

I was blown away by Clint’s story and was lucky to have champions like Mr. Jensen throughout my school career.   Clint’s story reminded me of the story of Gillian Lynne described by Ken Robinson in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. Robinson explains that as a young girl growing up in the 1930’s, Gillian was thought to have a serious learning disorder, and school officials recommended that her mother take her to a psychologist.  Gillian’s mother complied, answering the psychologist’s questions as Gillian sat on a chair listening.  When Gillian’s mother and the psychologist left her alone in the room, the psychologist deliberately turned on his radio.  As the music played, Gillian got up and began to dance.  As Gillian’s mother and the psychologist watched from the doorway, the psychologist asserted that Gillian did not need to attend a school for the learning disabled.  Instead, he proclaimed that Gillian was a dancer, and he recommended that she attend dance school.  She went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  Gillian Lynne is best known for her choreography of the Broadway hits, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. (Robinson, 2009).  It is this shift in perspective that is necessary for connecting children with possibilities.

This was best illustrated to me a number of years ago, when I was teaching 2nd grade.  One of my students, Michael, was a talented violinist.  Although, I gave my young learners many creative arts experiences, true music integration was more difficult for me, since I had no background in music.  However, Michael was eager to weave music into his day. It was an integral part of who he already was at the tender age of seven.  During whatever we were learning, Michael was humming.  He created songs throughout his day, even during quiet working times.  This caused consternation among his classmates.  Michael’s humming disrupted their thinking, no matter how quietly he hummed. One afternoon after dismissal, Michael stayed behind to speak to me about this problem.  He wanted me to know that he wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. The songs, he explained, just came into his head. I reassured Michael that I knew he wasn’t humming to annoy his classmates.  That afternoon, we came up a solution that involved rearranging desks, which would allow Michael to continue to softly hum, while also enabling his classmates to work in quiet. 

That year, I began to develop my own intrepid spirit when creating musical experiences for my students.  As Carolyn Hildebrandt, a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote, “… teachers do not need special training to foster creativity in music.  The only thing we really need is an interest in children’s music and a willingness to listen to their songs.” In the coming months, I deliberately found space in the day to add music: playing music that reflected what the children were learning, collaborating as a class to write a song about taking care of the earth, showcasing various students’ instrumental abilities by asking them to demonstrate their talent at musical show and tell sessions.  The children also made a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments.  While constructing various musical instruments over many months, my students experimented with sound and progressed from producing various noises to creating music.  In its simplest form, the children made string instruments with rubber bands and milk cartons or created tambourines with paper plates to aluminum pie pans and dried beans.  While working on their musical instruments, students began to collaborate, making several iterations, and finally coming together to perform in duets, trios, and full bands. These open investigations were the foundation of whole class instruction: we created rain sticks while studying the rainforest, constructed panpipes while learning about Andean culture, and built water xylophones while experimenting with sound and pitch.  Step-by-step, the children began to see themselves as composers of their own lives.

Although, I was not musically inclined, I did realize the need to hold all children’s talents in high esteem.  I remember vividly times as a child when a poem would pop into my head as if by magic. I’d repeat the words over and over again, as not to forget until I got home to a paper and pencil.  As a teacher, I knew I had to nurture students’ passions and allow them to create.  Instead of silencing Michael’s nascent musical abilities, I thought of ways to honor them and connect them to the classroom culture. And what did Michael grow up to be?  A concert violinist, of course, who has performed at Carnegie Hall.

A Song in my Head

Sometimes I need my own space

I lie on the floor in my room

Surrounded by pillows

Listen for my own voice

Wait for the poetry 

To play like

A song in my head

That dances

That makes my curls ring

The swaying of trees 

on a spring day

The sun skipping across

 Sparkling deep water

A restless stranger

On a lonesome beach

Watching waves come in

And go out far

Far to sea

Reaching blue beyond

Poetry to me

Experience of Place

For the past thirty-six summers, my husband and I have been fortunate to be able to wander and travel around the country – our beautiful diverse country: mountains, plains, deserts, and coastlines. Most summers are now spent in the Green Mountains of Vermont or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the rocky coastline of Maine.  This year is different.  Very different.  This year is a summer of home and schoolwork. As I look towards the fall, I yearn for those wondrous summer places.  I look back at photographs and remember.

Place is so important to an individual’s identity.  It shapes so much of who we are and who we choose to become. Right after college, I worked in a small publishing firm in New York City.  It was there that I became familiar with Roger Hart’s work on psychological geography and his book Children’ s Experience of Place, a study of eighty-six children in a small town in Vermont and their playtime experiences. (You can listen to Roger Hart’s interview with Ira Glass on This American Life – Act Three: “The Geography of Childhood”). Almost every child had a secret outside hiding place where he could discover new things and imagine. Hart explains how important it is for children to explore freely to develop a sense of self and strong identity.

When I became a classroom teacher, I brought that sense of wonder to the children I taught.  I carefully and deliberately brought their attention to the world around them whether I was teaching reading, writing, social studies, or mathematics. No matter where I taught, the children and I would go out exploring our environment.  In the suburban school, we fished in the river near our school and set up a fish tank with the creatures we captured: tadpoles, minnows, and an eel. In the city school, we adopted trees in Central Park measured their circumference to determine their height and sketched them throughout the seasons. We wrote a letter to the Parks Commissioner with a plan to help the trees on our school’s street to grow.  The children began to see themselves as integral to their environment. And I began to notice the social and emotional affects the outdoors made on children.  They became less stressed, more curious, and definitely more confident.  One parent wrote me at the end of the school year thanking me for all I had done. This was not the first thank you letter I had received, but it was the first letter I received that thanked me for teaching her child how to climb a tree.  This parent understood how important a child’s connection to his surroundings could be.  And that shy, hesitant boy left his third-grade year feeling brave and able to meet any challenge. 

The most profound experience I have had with how the environment fosters a child’s sense of place was when I was a 2nd grade teacher.  One of my students, Brianna, was exceptionally shy and displayed signs of selective mutism.  She spoke in barely audible whispers and continually hunched her shoulders and ducked her head.  I spent the year trying my best to bolster her self-esteem and encourage her to take small risks.  She remained mostly silent.  That is until one spring day when we went on a field trip to a local farm.  We were taking a tour and visiting all the farm animals.  Our guide gathered the children in a circle and asked for a volunteer to gather eggs from the chickens.  To my surprise and delight, Brianna raised her hand.  I caught the guide’s eye and motioned for him to pick Brianna.  He did and handed her a basket.  Brianna bravely skipped to the chicken coop and went in.  Immediately, she came running back without any eggs and her head bowed. 

I walked over to her and said, “You were so brave to volunteer.  Do you want me to go with you and we will gather the eggs together?” 

She nodded her head and we turned around quickly towards the coop.  It was dark and musty and smelled like chickens. I was going to model for Brianna how to reach under the chicken and grab an egg, but all of a sudden I had an amazing realization.  I was absolutely terrified to put my hand under a pecking chicken! 

I expressed this aloud:  “Oh my goodness.  This is scary.  I hope she doesn’t peck me.  I don’t want to do this, but I want the egg.  Okay…  I’m going to do it…  Don’t peck me… Here I go…  Oh, it’s so warm…  I have it!” 

All the while, Brianna began to giggle and then laugh loudly.  I looked at her and smiled.

“Do you want to gather the next one with me?” I asked. Brianna giggled and nodded.  I put my hand over her hand, and together we picked another warm, brown-speckled egg. We put them in the basket and walked out of the coop into the spring sunshine.

Brianna ran ahead shouting, “We gathered two eggs.  Mrs. Emery was so scared.  She was so funny!”

From that day on, Brianna chattered easily with me and her classmates.  Taking that one risked changed everything for her, and it taught me the power of place, how interactions with nature can truly heal.

That was many years ago. I’ve heard from colleagues that Brianna grew up to become an actress.  And when I think of her, I smile and remember that spring day when we gathered eggs together.

Often my poems express that connection between the natural world and human identity. Now that I’m stationary this summer, I use my backyard and our surrounding parks for solace.  I know these days of August are precious, and I intend to keep wandering close to home.

Camouflage

The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.

Dandelion

Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.

Memory is Hunger

Memory is hunger. When I read this recently, I paused, I underlined it, I wrote notes beside it in pencil. I’ve been concentrating on Hemingway this summer, and this quote came from his memoir, A Moveable Feast, about his time in Paris in the 1920s with his first wife, Hadley.   It is Hadley who says these words as they reminisce about shared experiences: “There are so many sorts of hunger.  In the spring there are more. But that’s gone now.  Memory is hunger.”

This summer, during this COVID crisis, my sister, cousin, and aunt often have running text dialogues that start in the morning and span into the afternoon, since we have not seen each other in months. These conversations always begin with a memory.  Often about our childhoods.  Often about my grandfather, Charlie.  The memory starts simply with one of us stating, “I remember thus and so.” Then each of us takes turns filling in details.  Most of the time, I read their descriptions one after the other, after the other, responding last.  Being the youngest, I find that their memories trigger my own, and I’m able to paint a more sumptuous picture of those times with him. 

Charlie had a large yard with a huge cherry tree, a grape arbor, a small garden, and several fig trees.  As with everything, he took meticulous care of these treasures.  Often when I’d visit in the summer, Charlie would be sitting in the shade.  A low table would be set before him with a fat watermelon, a platter, and a knife.  He would cut thick wedges and offer them to us as we sat to join him and talk.  Cherries, concord grapes, fresh figs, melons – all these remind me of Charlie and influence the way I cook and eat. All of these bring me comfort.  Summer would not be summer without these.

Indeed, both of my grandfathers kept gardens.  My Grandpa Tony had an amazing green thumb.  He had an apple tree on which he grafted a pear branch so that he could have two fruits on one tree.  I always thought he was magic. On his postage stamp-sized garden, he grew corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, spinach, lettuce, and all manner of herbs: rosemary, mint, oregano, and basil.  It is the basil that triggers the most memories for me.  Every time I smell basil, Tony’s face comes into my mind.  The smell of basil makes me smile, and I am home again. Ah…Tony! There he is bending to pick the ripest tomatoes, snapping off some long beans, taking a basil leaf and rubbing it gently, holding his hand up to my nose. “Smell,” he commands, and it all comes flooding back.

This summer, my 94-year-old father (Tony’s son) and I have weekly phone conversations.  We talk about his health, bad news, good books, but it is food that dominates our conversations.  My father does not keep a garden, but he still lives by himself and cooks his own meals.  In fact, he cooks for his housekeeper, his guitar teacher, and his young neighbors.  As much as he loves to read and write, I think he loves cooking more.  He is always inventing new recipes. Some of my most joyous memories of my father are our conversations about food. I want to write a cookbook with him where we start with basic ingredients like chickpeas and black olives. Then each of us would make recipes from these simple ingredients and see how diverse and inventive our meals could be. 

Usually, my summers consist of traveling north to New England and Canada. Always, they consist of finding and trying new foods.  Last summer in Montreal, I found so many wonderful places: gluten free bakeries, cafes, and tea shops (The Art of Cookies and Ming Tao Xuan). I miss traveling and making new food discoveries. So besides concentrating on Hemingway, I have been concentrating on many memorable meals for myself and my husband – always starting with simple, fresh ingredients. Here are three recipes inspired by three simple summer fruits: figs, watermelon, and apricots.

Fresh Fig, Ricotta, & Honey Toast

 Ingredients:

4 slices of your favorite bread

½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese

2 fresh figs sliced lengthwise

2 teaspoons honey

Directions:

  1. Toast bread.
  2. Spread ricotta cheese on toasted bread.
  3. Top with sliced figs.
  4. Drizzle with honey.

Note: The figs I use in this recipe and which are the most popular where I shop are Brown Turkey figs.  They are brownish-purple in color. Choose soft, plump fig with bent stems.

Watermelon Summer Salad

Ingredients:

¼ cup fresh Basil

4 cups Watermelon, scooped into 1-inch balls

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons lime juice

1 cup Ricotta Salata, crumbled

1 ½ tsp salt

Directions:

  1. With a melon baller scoop watermelon into 1-inch balls.
  2. Place basil leaves on top of each other and roll tightly into a log. Slice lengthwise into thin ribbons.
  3. Combine basil slices and watermelon in a large bowl.
  4. Mix lime juice, olive oil and salt together in a small bowl
  5. Pour over watermelon and basil. Toss to combine.
  6. Chill salad before serving, at least 30 minutes.

Note: Ricotta Salata differs from ricotta in that it is a hard cheese from Sicily.  It has the consistency of feta cheese, but with a milder, creamy texture and a nutty taste.

Apricot Crisp

Ingredients:

4 cups apricots, coarsely chopped 

2 Tbsp granulated sugar

¾ cup light brown sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ cup old fashioned oats

¾ cup almond flour

½ cup sliced almonds

½ cup cold unsalted butter, diced into small cubes

pinch of salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter square baking dish.
  2. In a mixing bowl, add chopped apricots and granulated sugar. Stir to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
  3. In a separate mixing bowl, add topping ingredients (brown sugar, cinnamon, oats, almond flour, sliced almonds, salt, and diced cold butter).  Use a pastry cutter to cut the butter into the oat mixture.
  4. Spread topping over apricots in baking dish, and gently pat to even it out.  
  5. Bake 40-50 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.
  6. Serve warm, top with ice cream if desired, and enjoy!

Note: One summer in Rome, while staying with friends, I took total advantage of their apricot tree, which happily supplied me with a surfeit of this golden fruit.

Most Likely to Create

Humans are social animals and as such we seek community.  We yearn for communication and understanding.  We want to be seen and most definitely heard. There are all kinds of communities to which I have belonged.  I have been part of a community of quilters, dancers, painters, teachers, cooks, readers, martial artists, and writers. As part of those communities, I was able to build strong bonds with others who shared similar interests and passions.  These alliances deepened my understanding and helped me express my ideas and support my fellow members.  I experienced valuable interactions and connections.  I learned and thrived by being part of all these communities.

As a teacher, I’m a natural collaborator. I enjoy standing back and observing students working in small affinity groups on various projects.  Engagement is the key to empowerment, and I’ve witnessed formerly detached children flourish. In these types of circumstances, children begin to recognize what interests them and learn how to make important contributions to their groups and to their common projects.

Recently I watched the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed created by Ted Dintersmith, a professor of engineering and the author of Most Likely to Succeed and What Schools Could Be. The movie chronicles students from High Tech High in San Diego California, which is a project-based high school. Project-based learning is a method of teaching where students work on a project over a period of time that entails solving real-word problems or answers a complex question.  Students work collaboratively, building skills and knowledge, and ultimately showcasing their project or presentation to a target audience. The movie follows the students through their freshman year.  We watch as students gain more and more confidence and knowledge.  They support each other and develop leadership skills. The year culminates with a school exhibit where students showcase their work be it art, theater, or engineering.  We revel in their successes, but we also get a glimpse of failure.  One student fails to finish his engineering project on time.  However, instead of wallowing in despair, his peers, teachers and family rally around him. He is able to reflect on the reasons he was unable to make the deadline. Clearly this student had a keen innovative mind.  His teachers knew that proper reflection and determination would lead to eventual success.  And they were right.  The student worked through the summer and was ultimately successful. His project was very intricate and displayed a high level of thought and expertise.  By failing, he was able to fail forward and create a complex piece that reflected his vision.

            After watching this film, I saw that there was another documentary with the same title – Most Likely to Succeed directed by Pamela Littky.  This documentary followed four high school seniors who have been voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”  The film follows these young adults over a ten-year period following their dreams of college and desires for career success and happiness.  The teenagers come from very different backgrounds and the film accurately portrays the trials and tribulations that arise given gender, race, and socio-economic status.  It is an incredibly powerful film, and I find myself wondering what has happened to those adults.  Viewers cannot help but create a strong connection with the characters, and one has to keep reminding oneself that these are real teenagers, with real problems, and real dreams. It is with community and connection that they are able to successfully navigate their lives and set a stable course.

            I have the honor of supervising my school’s make space called the Wonder Lab.  It is a multi-age community of elementary school girls.  They come voluntarily and work on projects of their choosing.  So often they tell me how important the lab is to them.  So often they beg to stay the whole afternoon.  It is so rewarding to see them take risks and work together; share ideas and challenge each other.  As we return to school this fall, I wonder how I can offer this space to them.  How can we still be a community of movers and makers?  I’m sketching out all types of plans because I know how essential this work is to their development.  I know it’s not just kids playing with duct tape and cardboard.  I know I have inventors, engineers, astronauts, entrepreneurs, artist, actors, musicians in front of me.  I know it is imperative to provide them space and foster community.

Most Likely to Create

Little girls gather

Forfeiting their recess

To spend time in the Wonder Lab,

A spacious room

Filled with light and

All manner of treasures:

Cartons, boxes, tubes,

String, nails, hammers,

Paints, tape, paper,

Wires, beads, gears…

What do you wonder?

What can you create?

Away they go –

The younger ones bound off

And start right away,

The older ones hang back a bit,

Talk together, write down plans.

The young ones have already

Started building with tubes

Taller than themselves.

And decide to begin

The older ones look on

Very carefully,

Very deliberately,

Soon there is a busy hum,

A flow of energy,

We forget the time.

Now older ones praise younger ones,

And younger ones help older ones,

And the quiet girl in the corner

Who builds by herself

Astounds everyone,

And is soon imitated.

They borrow, bend, cut, and paste,

They sketch, paint, and measure,

They lend a hand; they exchange ideas,

They construct a community of makers.

Every child needs a champion.

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. This is mine: Every child needs a champion.  As the world seems to be spinning off its axis, this statement is especially true.  Children need champions – people who help them feel safe, cultivate their curiosity, and instill hope.  I became a teacher because I wanted to be a champion for young people.  I have been blessed that I have been able to do this important work for the last forty-two years. So blessed.

But I am by far not the only one. Rita Pierson was an energetic, dynamic, educator, who spoke passionately about being a teacher champion.  Her TED Talk – Every Kid Needs a Champion – is so inspiriting.  She exclaimed, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists they become the best they can possible be.” As I listened to her speak, I nodded my head in agreement.  Yes, yes, yes, that is such a powerful statement!  I believe that connection is the strongest foundation we can provide to students and their parents.  When building that connection during my years of teaching, I was never disappointed; it always paid off – parents trusted and students blossomed.  Rita quoted Dr. James P. Comer, Associate Dean of the Yale School of Medicine. Comer stated that, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  Comer developed the School Development Program (SDP) model that helps teachers understand the link between development, academic learning and the preparation of students for adult life.  Rita explained, and I can attest to the fact that, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.  I purposefully created positive connections with my students, making them and their own learning my central focus for the year, and sometimes that focus would last many, many years.  I am still in contact with some students I’ve taught over thirty years ago.  It is so rewarding to see them grow into happy and creative adults. 

This approach is what I call an “I SEE YOU” mindset, a term taken from Leon Logothetis, who created the Netflix series, The Kindness Diaries.  I had the opportunity to hear Leon speak in person this winter, pre-COVID.  He was so inspiring.  What struck me was his one true sentiment: “As a kid I felt very disconnected.  I felt very depressed.  I felt no sense of purpose and to be quite honest, I didn’t feel seen at all.” Despite that, Leon grew up to become a successful London broker. Although he had financial success, he continued to feel unmotivated and depressed. Leon decided to turn in a new direction. He quit his job and began to travel all over the world connecting with people through the sheer simple act of kindness. His life work is now to talk about the importance of connection. He attests that human interactions have an amazing healing power.  Throughout his presentation, I cried – because he would look out into the crowd, and I swear he was looking right at me, and he could “see” who I was.  I know it seems preposterous, but I instantly felt connected and inspired.  Kindness was a tenet I knew well, and it was affirming to be reminded of its importance.

Early in my life, I was lucky to have a champion.  He was my maternal grandfather, Charlie. He was the model of quiet, caring and unconditional love.  Charlie looked after me full-time when my mother made the decision to go back to school to become a teacher.  I spent wonderful long days at my grandfather’s house.  He never once got impatient.  He was a tall man with a soft deep voice, and he always, always expressed how much he loved me.  He told me all the things I was good at doing, and he helped me to learn things I did not yet know.  I didn’t have to be anything or anyone else.  I was me, and Charlie let me know that that was enough.  It is those experiences with Charlie that shaped me as a teacher.  He was an incredibly strong and positive role model. I was fortunate to have him in my life, even if it was for just a short time.  That short time made its mark indelibly on my heart and my path in this world.

Breakfast of Champions

According to Grandpa Charlie,

The breakfast of champions

Consisted of black coffee,

Rye toast and butter,

And a soft-boiled egg

In a mint green egg cup –

Tap, tap, tap..

He sliced off the top of the egg,

Dipped his spoon into the golden goo

And smiled.

Looking over at me

Above his dark rimmed glasses,

Grandpa handed me a tall glass of Tang,

The astronaut’s orange juice,

Two soft-boiled eggs –

Chop, chop, chop…

He crumbled buttered saltine in a small white bow,

The delicate rim decorate

With petite blue flowers and a tiny chip.

Grandpa turned the smooth side toward me,

Pushed it gently across the table,

Then he returned to his newspaper,

As I took an inventory of the kitchen:

Trying to remember every warm inch,

Then I’d take account of the textures and flavors

On my spoon: salty, sweet, crunch, smooth –

We’d sit together reading, thinking, eating,

Just an old man and his granddaughter

Starting the day off right.

Red Plaid Hunting Cap

The cold’s set in,

My grandfather shrugs on

His heavy red plaid hunting jacket,

Pulls on the matching cap,

And take my small mittened hand.

We head out the door

And walk towards town.

Grandpa points periodically

To the broken sidewalk,

So I won’t trip.

This is our morning walk

To buy the paper or milk,

Or a crusty loaf of bread,

Down tree-lined streets

We go hand in hand.

Watermelon Summer

On a hot summer night,

Fireflies float through the yard

Like stars you can hold in your hand.

A large, wooden table

Is set under the willow tree

And the big, green-striped

Melons lie ready, waiting.

As Grandpa Charlie slices

Thick, red wedges.

Eager hands grab two at a time,

Soon the table is covered

With sticky, pink juice.

Seven cousins sip and slurp,

Tossing rinds into a pile,

Spitting the shiny, black seeds

At each other and laughing,

The sweetness of summer

Dripping from our chins.

Too Soon Taken

When I was seven

Charlie died.

I still don’t understand

How and why he died.

Too soon take from us –

He was my superhero,

He was my champion,

I was his curly-head Josephine,

His beloved granddaughter.

All these long years

I’ve missed him,

Glimpses of memory

Float by like wispy dreams,

I try to hold one –

Thick, shining silver hair,

Large, rough gentle hands,

Quiet love,

My eternal protector.

When All Else Fails – Finger Paint!

Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, whenever I feel like I’m not sure what to write about, I look on my bookshelf, choose a title, and start reading.  Then in the quiet, after a little while, a miraculous thing happens – I begin to get ideas.  I begin writing in my head.  Sometimes there are so many ideas that I don’t know which one to focus on first. 

This happened to me last week, while I was reading Jordan Shapiro’s book, A New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He is such a fast thinker – going from one idea to the next, making connections at lightning speed – Greek philosophy, gaming, systems theory, divorce – they all go together in one wonderful coherent whole.  How does he do that?  He uses metaphors and makes images in readers’ minds so they remember concepts.  He brilliantly persuades us that there is nothing to fear about our children’s obsession with technology. In fact, it is a crucial tool that will continue to evolve. Throughout the book, he makes a case for viewing digital devices as beneficial rather than toxic.  He quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus who asserted that “Life is flux,” or the only thing humans can count on is that everything changes. And so for those of us who are confounded by the new technology our children are pursuing, think about that during Socrates’ time, he considered the written word as cutting-edge technology.  Socrates believed that words on the page were going to ruin peoples’ memories. We all have nostalgia for our childhoods, we all want to return home, and pursue simple pleasures.  The thing is that our children are creating their own simple pleasures and much of it revolves around technology. And that is okay – that is what makes the world go round – that is change – that is life.

In his chapter, “The New Language Arts,” Shapiro connects prehistoric cave painting, the invention of finger paint, Aristotle’s concept of the soul, and Steve Job’s realization that everything will be within reach of our fingertips. I loved this section of the book, because as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator, it made me think about teacher reading and writing in a new way.  What exactly can technology add to learning to read and write?  How is the process of writing enhanced?  What can students do with technology that engages their imagination and creativity.   I especially enjoyed reading about Ruth Faison Shaw, who invented finger paint.  Yes, a woman invented finger paint! When I did a bit more research about Shaw, I found out that we had something in common! We both worked at the Dalton School in New York City.  Ruth was there in the 1930’s, and I worked there in the 1990’s and early 2000’s – about sixty years apart.  I wish I had known about her work then, I would have scoured the archives and found out more about her.  From my small amount of recent research, I found out that before she taught at Dalton, Ruth set up a school in Rome in the 1920’s, and that’s when she got the idea for her finger paint by watching a child smear iodine on a wall.  Ruth believed that “Creative work must come from the imagination and personal experience. Your imagination, which directs your hands, will lead you to produce something individual and representative of you.” She came back to the states, taught at Dalton, and wrote a book in 1934 called Finger Painting: A Perfect Medium for Self-Expression.  (I immediately scooped up a copy and was lucky that I found one in good condition.  I am eagerly waiting for its arrival!) Shaw’s ideas on the creative process inform education for the future.  As Shapiro states, parents and teachers should view educating children with a Both/And Mindset. In the 20th century children smeared paint as a means of self-expression, and now in the 21st century – children, with a swipe of a fingertip against a screen, can also express themselves in productive and meaningful ways.

Several years ago, I wrote an article about fostering curiosity and imagination. I described how I went through the process of integrating visual arts, music, movement, and drama into curriculum for early childhood and elementary students. I truly believe that creative expression, in all forms, nurtures growing minds and helps children develop a sense of self that allows them to become independent learners and critical thinkers.  Today, I would include all the ways technology has become another tool children can access from their creative toolbox.  Instead of having a fixed mindset about the limitations of technology as a means of self-expression, let’s open it up. Let’s ask ourselves: How can coding lead to poetry? How can Scratch help tell a story?  How can Procreate make our learning visible?

This summer, I decided to give myself sometime in the Painting Playground.  I have created space in my week where I can experiment with paper, pencils and paint. The emphasis is on play not product. This week, I painted with my fingers to return to the process of creating on the page. Then I added some designs with black markers.  They are not perfect works of art, rather they are representations of playing on the page.  I was so focused while doing this work, I dove in and was in the flow for a good hour and half: I made “mistakes,” ripped up paper, spilled water, got my fingertips dirty. It was the most self-fulfilling activity I did all week.  I cannot wait to return!

If you are interested in finding out more about finger painting, try this book by Iris Scott – Finger Painting Weekend Workshop: A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Brush-Free.

Someday Soon

My good friend, Molly, never fails to send me wondrous things via email.  Sometimes it is a photo of her hennaed hand, sometimes it’s a poem she wrote, sometimes it’s an image of the woods she is walking through, and many times it is an educational idea, activity, or concept.  Today, it was a link to Kids for Peace: Uplifting our World Through Love and Action. As I scrolled through the website, something struck my eye:  The Someday Soon Jar activity. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was going to blog about. 

Yesterday, I was complaining to Molly that I had writer’s block.  I didn’t know what to write about – too many ideas were swirling in my head, and none seemed inspirational.  I’ve been pulled down by torrential rain and a flood of increasingly bad news.  I haven’t had nightmares in a very long time, but last night I had a terribly helpless one that recurred all night long!  I was walking on my school’s campus. It was winter and snow was piled high. I was looking at the mounds and mounds of snow.  I realized that the mounds were actually cars covered with snow and a thick layer of ice.  On one car the ice was beginning to melt and slip from the back window.  When I looked through the back window, I saw a child’s face submerged in icy water.  I screamed, but there was no sound.  I took a shovel and started hacking through the ice and snow, but I could not get to the little boy.  Then I realized there was a whole line of cars with people trapped in them submerged in icy water covered in mounds of snow: a female college student, a family with young children, a young man with a beard – all looking at me with frozen screams.  I run from one to the next, helpless.  There was no one else around to help me.  It was too late.  That’s when I wake up. My heart is racing. I calm down and tell myself that it’s just a dream.  I go back to sleep and dream the same exact dream again.  This happens three more times until it is morning, and I’m too exhausted to go back to sleep.

I get out of bed.  Make a cup of tea.  Check my email. And there it is:  the email from Molly waiting for me like a gift – The Someday Soon Jar.  It’s exactly what I need right now – HOPE in bright glowing rainbow colors. Hope that the ones I love will stay healthy and strong.  Hope that America will be a place of inclusion and peace.  Hope that I can make a difference with my words, images, and stories.  Hope that we are not all frozen in anger, fear, and anxiety. Just plain, old-fashion, childlike hope.

The idea behind the Someday Soon Jar is that children write out all things that they wish or hope to do someday soon. It could be taking a trip, visiting friends and family, collecting rocks or sea shells. It could be baking a treat, eating ice cream, watching the sunset.  It could be playing a game or laying in the shade of a beautiful oak tree, reading a good book.  I love this idea of happy anticipation.  I definitely need more happy anticipation in my life right now, so I created my own Someday Soon Jar and will start to write my ideas down.  Of course, my jar is an empty tissue box instead of a beautiful glass jar, but I don’t think that matters.  What matters is hope and the joy of happy expectation.

Someday Soon

Someday Soon

I will sit at my window

Looking out into the pouring rain,

Fat drops against the panes,

Thunder grumbling, a crack of lightening,

Then sheets drenching the trees –

Green-leafed umbrellas,

Shelters for the squirrels

And a pair of soft gray doves.

A cup of steaming tea, a good book

I am warm and dry.

Someday Soon

We will take a long drive

Out into the country

Out into the mountains

Rising to meet us,

Green and welcoming.

My husband riding shotgun,

Telling wild stories,

Laughing as we ride along.

Rows upon rows of hilltops

On the summer horizon.

Someday soon

I will walk along the shore,

Sand beneath my feet,

Salty bubbles between my toes,

The waves casting out shells

And pulling them back in –

A rhythm close to breathing.

Bending down to reach

The slippers, scallops, and clams,

Pearl-pink and shiny

In my grateful hands.

Someday soon

I’ll walk back across

The Sant Angelo bridge

Lined with ten graceful angels.

Ornate wrought-iron lamps

Curve brightly at dusk.

Lovers linger, peering down

Into the murky waters of the Tiber.

Walking between the angels

Into the park strewn with twinkling lights,

Music plays, and I begin to dance.

Summer of Hummingbirds and Frogs

It is summer, and I am vowing to play: play with my colored pencils and play with my words. It is easy for me to play with words and share them. I’ve been doing that since I was four-years-old. It is warm and comfortable. It is more difficulty for me to play with drawing because I’m still at the beginner stage. Being a beginner takes boldness. Being a beginner one must cast away the trepidation and dive deep into play with abandon. Like the hummingbird, it all starts with a flash of color, like the spring frogs – I’ve come out of hibernation and am ready to sing!

Hummingbird Dream

A vibrant flash darts across my window,

The hummingbird simply

Mesmerizes me with his colorful,

Iridescent fluctuating feathers.

I cannot even fathom

His true loveliness,

I cannot detect all the colors,

All the wonders in nature.

Trichromatic, people are

receptive only to spectral hues:

Blue, green, and red.

But birds are tetra-chromatic,

They witness a broader range of colors:

Ultra-violet, non-spectral hues.

Suddenly the humming bird swoops,

Taking a sweet sip of nectar.

A blur on a yellow blossom,

I can only imagine what he sees.

I can only dream.

Frog Hymn

Days of torrential rain —

River and woods become one,

The meadow becomes a pond,

The pond is now a lake,

Murky and muddy

Filled with strange voices,

A melody of squeaks and grunts.

The frogs have returned

To praise the rain in unison –

Bass and baritone,

Alto and tenor

Rise in harmony.

From deep within the reeds,

A soprano whistle trills,

The tempo builds, faster and faster,

Then rests… and builds again.

The verdant rhythm

Of spring singing.

Summer Mindset: Unwind to Rewind

I’ve been a teacher for forty-two years.  I’ve worked in five different schools.  I’ve worked with children from four to eighteen years old.  An no matter what circumstances, I have always yearned for summer.  I love teaching.  It is my passion.  I am lucky to have taught for forty-two years.  I have purpose and satisfaction. But summer is part of the plan.  Summer is the natural consequence of teaching and learning.  Summer is the built-in reflection spot – a time to regroup and regain perspective, imagination, and energy.

After this spring of remote learning, I’ve found that I need summer even more.  I need that time to unwind to rewind.  Usually my husband and I plan many summer trips so I can achieve this.  Last year, we went to Bar Harbor, Maine for fourteen days.  It wasn’t until day ten that I felt I had successfully divested myself of “school mindset.”  School mindset is crammed with planning, doing, re-planning.  It runs counter to writer’s mind or imagination mindset. I often have allowed school mindset take over and run things.  But I’ve learned that when I find my mind constantly running, checking emails, waiting for the next meeting, making lists of the next seven projects – it is way past time for an unwind-rewind.  Summer must be on the near horizon, and I find myself running to meet it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been driving out to meet it.  I wander the country roads of western New Jersey (Yes, there are country roads in New Jersey). I drive out past the meadows, horse farms, sheep pastures, and farm stands with rolling hills on either side.  My shoulders drop; I start to breathe; I smile to myself.  I am content: summer has finally come.

Since long summer trips will be impossible to do this summer, I find myself thinking of the beach.  The Jersey girl in me thinks about the endless summer days I spent as a child and teenager down the shore.  I long to return.  This spring, I started to organize my countless photographs.  I came upon some photos I had taken a few years ago at Asbury Park.  I love the gritty beauty of that place. Looking back has taught me to take my time, explore places closer to home, write, draw, and wonder.  Open my mind and welcome summer.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_f02.                  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_f04

ag63sRIFTn+ckDy45pEoIg_thumb_f00

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_f05          UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_f07

uhDWIo+JS6KFrBPgRjJkAw_thumb_f06