Ice Inspiration

It is time to sit down and write. Concentrate. Get your thoughts together. They scattered like leaves in a wind storm. Sit down. Think. It is time to write. You can do it, and you will. Now, sit down. I sit and stare. I play with the keys of my laptop. I pretend to write. I try to think of something. I make lists of all the things I need to do – I must do. Nothing is coming. Nothing makes sense. I seek some of my photographs. Maybe they will help me find the words. Finally, I take a breath. I surrender my mind to the images, and images form in my mind.

Power to Pause

This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases.  They begged to be placed into poetry.  January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry.  Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.

One Little Word: Remember

I have been thinking about a word to choose as a North Star for 2022.  What came to mind was the phrase: “Walk with purpose.”  I say these words over and over again this year, guiding our students down hallways, across the campus, and out to the playground.  I noticed that some students walk quickly to their destination, almost like they are in a race. Others meander and wander from point A to point B.  They take their time; they are not in a hurry.  And then there are ones who almost drag their feet – the procrastinators.  They are happy where they are and don’t want to move on to another destination.  I realize this is much like how I walk through my life. Sometimes I run head down into the unknown.  Sometimes, I wander here and there, stopping to take in beauty or a sudden surprise.  And other times,  I slow down, happy where I am and not eager to move on.  Approaching sixty-six, I feel the need even more sharply to walk with purpose.  I slow myself down, take a breath, and make sure that where I am going is where I really want to be. 

The more I thought about choosing my OLW, the more I felt like  it would be cheating to choose a phrase. I sat myself down and told myself that this was not a time to color outside the lines.  This was a time to be thoughtful and deliberate.  This was a time to choose just one word. 

The older I get, the more I try to hold moments in my memory and try to remember moments in my past.  The remembering for me is a time to take a breath and savor the pieces of my life.  Some of those pieces are traumatic, but many are sweet and healing.  I know many aging family members whose abilities to remember are waning.  It is a sad thing, a great sorrow.  I think one reason I started this blog was to help me remember my teaching days and the way approached life in my sixties.  It is a kind of testament to my life in education, art, and poetry.  It is a touchstone where I can look back and remember.  That is important to me.  To remember is to be mindful, to walk with purpose in this life, and to be happy at my destination’s end.

Something to Believe In

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

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

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

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

Books Celebrating Santa

A Cooke for Santa by Stephanie Shaw

Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera

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

Dear Santa by Rod Campbell

Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs

Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood

How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan

How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky

Hurry Santa! by Julie Sykes

Little Red Sleigh by Erin Guendelsberger

Little Santa by Jon Agee

Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough

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

Santa Calls by William Joyce

Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno

Santa Duck by David Milgrim

Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson

Santa Mouse by Michael Brown

Santa’s Stuck by Rhonda Golwer Greene

Santa’s Underwear by Marty Fingley

The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett

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

The Real Santa by Nancy Redd

The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold by Maureen Fergus

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

When Santa was a Baby by Linda Bailey

Writing to Surprise

This week, I was able to once again attend a professional development workshop in-person!  No Zoom, just educators getting together in a large space – listening and thinking; talking and laughing – the essence of true learning.  We were all thrilled to be out in public once again, even if we still had to don masks and socially distance. We were together  and that’s what mattered.  The workshop was offered by the Rutgers Center for Literacy Development, directed by Dr. Lesley M. Morrow.  I have been attending workshops presented by the center for the last twenty years, and I am on the board, helping make choices on presenter offerings and other logistical matters.  The presenter for this particular workshop was Kelly Gallagher, and the title of his presentation was Building Readers and Writers: Moving from Compliance to Engagement.  I have seen Kelly several times before.   His expertise is teaching high school writing, which has no direct connection to me in my present role.  I figured I would relax and listen and not worry about learning something.  But of course, I was totally surprised. 

In the course of Kelly laying out the importance of writing with students, he said something that sparked my interest.  He talked about the notion of writing without a plan – writing to discover what you think and know.  I do this all the time when I compose my blogs.  I think of a topic, roll it around in my head for several days, and then start to write.  I don’t make an outline, a web, or a Venn diagram.  I just write.  And then I revise.  And revise.  And revise. Many, many times. Eventually, I edit, and then I hit the publish button.  The week before, I was discussing this very idea with Hadley, one of my private students who is a gifted 6th grade writer.  She expressed her displeasure of having to always write a plan before she writes at school.  She insightfully stated: “Sometimes I have an idea, but I don’t exactly know how the story is going to go until I start writing and meet the characters.”  She is perfectly right, and I empathized with her, explained why the teacher was asking her to make a plan, but also encouraged her to write without a plan at home and with me.  Hadley and I often write together, stopping when stuck, reading our pieces out loud, talking about where we might go next, asking ourselves, “What does this story need now?,” and then continuing to write quietly.  I treasure these times when we are in the flow of writing.

Kelly explained that the “Writing process includes daily practice with finding and shaping words to express ideas, creating confidence, flexibility, and joy. He spoke eloquently about the importance of volume in student writing.  Writing needs space and time to grow.  It isn’t perfected overnight. A writer has to create, explore, discover, take risks, fail, and start all over again.  It is the teacher’s job to help design that time and space, that love of story, that sense of adventure.

At one point during the workshop, Kelly had the attendees read the poem, “Learning the Bicycle” by Wyatt Prunty. Then he asked us each to select a line that stood out to us, write that line on a sheet of paper, and then start writing off of the idea we had selected. We got to work. I selected the line: “And her certainty she will always fall.”  It jumped out at me as I read. “Yes, that’s me, always ready to fall, waiting for the moment, tense and certain.”  I began to write, crafting a poem that pleased me.

The next day, I was working with Hadley.  We were finishing up reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.  We had about 20 minutes left in our session.  Poetry would fit in perfectly, so I read Wyatt Prunty’s poem to her, and I asked her to select a line and then start writing.  Hadley took up her pencil and leaned her head toward the paper.

After several minutes, Hadley lifted her head.  “I’m stuck. I don’t know how to end it,” she declared.  I listened as she read her poem aloud. I didn’t have to give a word of advice.  Hadley picked up her pencil and put her head down again and started to write. Quickly, she finished and said, “ I’m done, but it doesn’t make any sense.”  She read the entire poem to me, and I was stunned by its deep beauty.  I was surprised that a twelve-year-old girl could express her self-doubt so clearly and maturely. I told her how incredible her poem was, and she looked at me with her dark brown Hadley eyes and said, “But what does it mean?” 

I turned to her and smiled, “What do you think it means?  What were you trying to say?” 

She implored, “I don’t know.  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  Do you know?” 

I took a breath and a chance.  “I think it means that you are growing up, and the girl on the inside doesn’t always match the girl on the outside.  You are trying to find your identity.” 

Hadley pressed her lips together in thought and nodded her head.  “How can you write when you don’t know what you are thinking?” 

I smiled again.  “Well, that’s what we’ve been talking about: writing without a plan, writing to discover what you are thinking.  It takes time. And sometimes it surprises you!”

My words seemed to satisfy Hadley. She picked up her pencils and put them back in her case. Our writing time together was done for now.

Working in the Wonder Studio

A number a years ago, I created a makerspace for our elementary students based in an old unused art room.  I blogged about creating and re-imagining with children in the Wonder Lab here. However, last spring, I was told that the Wonder Lab needed to be dismantled to make room for the Innovation Lab, which would be used to teach students computer science (coding) and engineering.  I complied with undoing the Wonder Lab with a heavy heart.  It had taken many years of planning and collaboration to finally get approval. Then in three short years it was suddenly discarded.  I didn’t want to let it go, but I had no choice.  I thought long and hard about a way to re-establish it.  We had no open space except a small lobby between the newly named Innovation Lab and my office.  I worked two full days by myself and cleared out the Wonder Lab and the lobby.  I put everything in storage, which happened to be on the third floor, and there are no elevators in the Victorian house in which the Wonder Lab is housed.  I trotted up and down the stairs working out my anger and disappointment.  On my final trip down the stairs, I surveyed the lobby.  The words, “Wonder Studio” popped into my mind.  Yes, the Wonder Lab could be reincarnated into the Wonder Studio.  I just had to think small.

This fall, Wonder Studio is operating full steam.  Small is certainly beautiful. I have invited small groups of children each week to work on small projects.  I keep small and tidy supplies on hand. Tidy has been a challenge, but I keep working at it.  And my favorite phrase to the students now is, “If you do not clean up after yourself, you will not be invited back to the Wonder Studio.” That seems to have done the trick.  The girls are learning increasingly to be accountable for their materials.

This week, I was working with a group of 3rd graders.  They were wrapping yarn around small wreath forms on which they were ultimately going to attach jingle bells with ribbons.  Two girls were painting with water colors.  One was making a ferret out of a toilet paper roll, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and a plastic Easter egg.  Another made an octagonal loom out of popsicles sticks and created a web with yarn.  Yet another, was sitting on the steps gleefully finger knitting.  I paused and looked around everyone was busy and happy.  They were all creating in their own way.  Then the loom maker said, “Wonder Studio is better than Art because we get to do our own thing.”  The other girls agreed loudly.  I sensed a rebellion in the making.  So, I quickly explained that you needed both Art class and Wonder Studio.  Art class teaches you skills and Wonder Studio allows you to practice those skills and stretch your creative muscles.”  I look around at a lot of little nodding heads. Crisis averted. Phew!

            I know that this brief time with the girls – 30 minutes at recess time – is so important.  Wonder Studio supports creativity, imagination, agency, and self-confidence.

            “Look what I made!” 

            “I made that! 

Do you have rubber bands?” 

            “I want to make a slingshot.” 

            “Do you have balloons?”

            “I want to make a stress ball.” 

I love these statements and requests from our young learners.  They keep me on my toes.  I am endlessly searching for junk that they miraculously turn into their treasure.

Last week, I was walking through the cafeteria with my tray of food, when Mallory, a 5th grader, patted the spot next to her and called out, “Sit with us!”  I was planning to go back to my office, but from the look on Mallory’s face, I knew she had something important on her mind.  She put her tray down and hurried to grab a chair from another table for me.  Wow – she was determined. 

Quickly she said, “I have been thinking about you!”  I looked up at her surprised.  “Were you sad when they took Wonder Lab away?”  

            “Ut…Oh,”  I thought, “I better answer this very carefully, but honestly.”

            So, I smiled and said to Mallory, “ Yes, I was sad because I knew how important Wonder Lab was for you girls. I knew I had to keep a place for you to play.”

            She smiled back at me.

            “I think Wonder Studio is working out well, even through it’s small.”

            Mallory looked at me intently, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about.  I think we should build you your own Wonder House.”

            I started to laugh, “That would be wonderful,” I said (pun intended).

            Mallory continued enthusiastically, “We could build it right outside the Wonder Studio.  We could go out onto the porch, make a pathway, and then build the Wonder House right on the empty space on the lawn.  We wouldn’t have to cut down any trees.”

I marveled at how much planning and daydreaming Mallory had been doing.  She is usually a shy and quiet girl.  But her Wonder House idea had given her a strong voice.  I was so humbled and honored by her thoughtfulness.

            “Well, that is such a great idea to have our own house to work in, but it cost money to build a house,” I replied.

            “I was thinking about that too!,” Mallory said eagerly. We could make things in the Wonder Studio and sell them.  We could save up and then build the house. I’m going to talk to the Head of School about it.  We need a BIG Wonder Space.”

And this is why I love working with children.  They are ever optimistic and determined.  I am so glad I didn’t give up and made a space in which the girls can dream and create.  Every day, they give me more and more evidence for why creativity matters.  Every day, they fill me with hope.

Living a Life in Verse

So many times, when talking about reading, teachers put an emphasis on decoding and comprehension.  They want to make sure kids are reading accurately and fluently.  They want to make sure they teach their students how to predict,  how to find the main idea, how to infer from the breadcrumb trails the author leaves her readers.  They want to check off all the boxes. And yes, these are all important, but in the midst I think we are losing the importance of the story.  Why is this story important?  How does this story connect to you?  How has it changed you?  What differences has it made in your thinking, in your life?  Isn’t that what reading is all about?  Isn’t that what keeps us reading?  It isn’t my ability to read accurately and fluently; it isn’t my proficiency in finding the main idea or making an inference, it is my love of and connection to the characters in the story.  I want to crawl into their lives for a while and live their experiences.  That way I become more them and less me.  I am able to take on different points of view; I am able to grow in my thinking and being.

Recently, I have been reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson with a sixth-grade student.  She is a proficient and prolific reader and writer.  She loves Percy Jackson novels and all things Greek mythology.  She was in a rut.  Whenever this happens, whenever students gets stuck in their reading, I often turn to poetry novels.  I find that verse creates a space where kids can take more chances.  Verse seems to challenge their thinking, but does so in a gentle, playful way.  By reading Brown Girl Dreaming, Hadley and I are able to step into Ms. Woodson’s reality.  We get to see and feel what a brown girl growing up in the south experienced – parent conflicts, loving grandparents, sibling rivalry, the love of reading – all things we can connect with.  There are also lots of historical and geographical pieces that nudge Hadley’s knowledge and make her curious to want to know more. This is the very essence of reading; this is why we read.

We are almost at the end our journey with Ms. Woodson, so I thought we’d take a break and write using the first line of the title poem of the novel for inspiration.  When I ask students to write, I also write alongside them.  I think this is so important.  We write quietly beside each other and somehow there is such power in this simple act.  Hadley types.  I write long-hand.  She marvels at how fast I can scrawl words across a page.  I find that the act of writing by hand magically connects my mind and fingertips.  Sometimes I wonder what my fingertips are writing. How exactly am I creating? It’s like my fingers have a mind of their own.  Hadley pauses. “I’m stuck,” she says.  Well, I say, “Let’s read it out loud and see what comes to mind.”  She is twelve now.  She does not like hearing her own voice, so I read her poem aloud to her. She reaches for the laptop again, “ I got it now,” she says and continues. I love being within this process with her.  I don’t want it to end, but it does.  She is finished.  She has run out of steam.  She says that she is done.  I do not argue.  I read it one more time aloud to her.  .  I read mine aloud, and we enjoy the fact that Ms. Woodson’s one line could create two different poems. We are satisfied.

.

Fall Flow: Haiku for Autumn

This week, I entered a 4th grade classroom to see students at their desks silently moving their lips and quietly tapping their fingers.  I heard a hum, “5-7-5… 5,7,5…” and then tapping, clapping, and snapping.  I knew immediately what they were busy creating.  They were constructing haiku.

In the last two weeks, the teacher introduced haiku as an accessible way for students to get to know each other.  She asked them to write haiku which described who were without giving a physical description. First, she had laid the groundwork reminding them of the haiku form and reviewing background information, sharing examples of haiku from the Japanese poets, Basho, Shiki, and Issa. As I listened, I learned something I had not know before.  In Matsuyama, Japan and its surrounding prefecture,  they have built special mailboxes expressly for the purpose of sharing haiku.  They are beautiful works of art in and of themselves, and as I saw the pictures of the mailboxes placed all around the city, I had an idea. I asked the teacher if I could construct a haiku mailbox for the 4th grade.  She thought it was a wonderful idea and reported that her students have been happily depositing their work into the mailbox.  I am looking forward to the time when we share our poems.

The school year began in a rush and is continuing at a frenetic pace.  I have been trying to pause throughout my day and catch a breath. I’m finding that this is not enough.  I am making it my intention to pull away on the weekends and devote time to poetry, photography and art.  Photography helps me get into the flow of the moment.  When I am walking in the woods, gardens, or parks, I direct my attention to what I see. It is like going on a treasure hunt, and my camera records my beautiful or surprising sights. When I am looking through my camera lens, I am not thinking of anything else.  I am only concentrating on the object.  I let it tell me how it wants to be captured and remembered. I experiment with angles and exposures until I feel I have expressed the object’s mood and essence. Immediately,  a sense of calm permeates my spirit.  I have entered a fall flow.  After I have collected several photographs, I sit quietly and let the words come to me.  They come tapping into my mind – “5-7-5,… 5,7,5…”  The rhythm relaxes me.  I can continue to flow.

Orange pumpkins now
sit heavy in beds of leaves
expectant with seeds.
Leaves float down the stream:
yellow, orange, red, rust, brown –
reflections of fall.
Here, hidden toadstools
peeking through the fallen leaves,
silent guardians.
Spring-summer green wanes –
In its places brilliant yellow,
Autumn returns now.
Baskets abundant –
October’s golden harvest,
Gathering plenty.

HAIKU BOOKS FOR CHILDREN


A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes.

Cool Melons – Turn To Frogs!: The Life And Poems Of Issa Story and translations by Matthew Gollub, illustrated by Kazuko G. Stone.

Dogku by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Tim Bowers.

GUYKU: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. 

Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth.


If It Rains Pancakes: Haiku and Lantern Poems by Brian P. Cleary, illustrated by Andy Rowland.

If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Ted Rand.

I Haiku You  by Betsy Snyder.

My First Book of Haiku Poems by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, illustrated by Tracy Gallup.

One Leaf Rides the Wind by Celeste Mannis, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung.

The Cuckoo’s Haiku: and Other Birding Poems by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by

Stan Fellows.  

The Horse’s Haiku by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Stan Fellows.

The Maine Coon’s Haiku: And Other Poems for Cat Lovers by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Lee Anthony White.

Today And Today by Kobayashi Issa, illustrated by G. Brian Karas.


Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young.

Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku by Paul B. Janeczko and J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. 

Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku

Haiku Mailbox: Wrapping paper, Washi tape, and image from My First Book of Haiku

The Gift of Grandmothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Alongside Children: Math, Craft, & Curious Cats!

Math Cats

It is a typical Monday.  I sip on a cup of French vanilla coffee, inhale the rich soothing aroma, then head off to my first class of the week.  Every morning for about two and a half hours, I observe and support young children from three to ten years old.   Many people might find this job daunting, but the more I do it, the more I realize I was born to do this. I love solving problems.  I love connecting with kids.  I guess that’s why I have been able to teach for over forty years without feeling burned out and uninspired.  The kids always find a way to kindle  my curiosity.

This morning, I settle into the back of a 5th grade math class.  The teacher is eliciting ideas from her students about number patterns on a thousands chart. “What do you notice?” she asks, and several hands shoot up.  Soon, students are taking turns discussing all kinds of patterns, some easily apparent and some more enigmatic.  I am sitting between two students who engage me in conversation.  My role has changed since last year when I was the ELA Curriculum Coordinator so the student on my right is surprised to see me in math class and asks ,“Mrs. E, what is your job?  I just don’t get it!” I laugh and she apologies, but I reassure her that she doesn’t need to apologize.  I tell her that many adults don’t know exactly what I do, and sometimes I myself have a hard time explaining what I do.  Simply put, I help students learn. 

            “If you need help understanding something, I’m here to show you the way,” I say smiling broadly. 

            Then the student to my left begins to explain an intricate pattern she sees in the thousands chart.  I am amazed.  I tell the girls that math is not my strong suit, but I am curious about it. 

            I explain, “Numbers are like cats to me, they want to do their own thing and they are a bit mysterious.” 

            “Me too!” shouts the girl to my right. 

            “On the other hand,” I continue, “ Words are like puppies, they are friendly, and you can play with them.” 

            The girl on my right shouts again, “SAME!” 

            The math teacher is now looking at me, and I know it’s time to get back to business.  I circulate around the room to see how students are tackling fraction problems.  I am able to guide some on the right track and that makes me feel proud.  I want the girls to see me as an adult who doesn’t always know the answers, but who will keep trying to understand and find the answer.

Craft Cats

Later on Monday, a small group of 5th graders join me at recess to craft in the Wonder Studio, which is the lobby outside my office that I converted into a makerspace after the original makerspace (The Wonder Lab), was dismantled to create  a new classroom space for computer science and engineering.  The space can no longer accommodate a whole class of students, but small groups can participate.  This makes for an intimate and cozy makerspace.  I let the girls dabble and get acquainted with the available materials.  I start crafting too.  At the end of our time, Erin tells me to hold out my hands.  I obey and a bright litter of pipe cleaner kittens tumble into my hands.  I want you to have them,” Erin says cheerily.  I thank her and she run back to her classroom.  An hour later, I see Erin in the hallway. She tells me to go to her desk in her classroom.  She has make more kittens for me.  I enter her empty classroom and pick up the kittens.  Erin’s teacher greets me as I turn to leave. “Cute, aren’t they?” I say. She smiles weakly, “She make them all through my social studies lesson.” “Oh,” I say suddenly deflated, “ We will need to talk to her about that.” I quickly exit quickly, walking down the hallway softly petting my new kittens cupping them in my hands protectively.

Curious Cats

Now it is Tuesday at lunchtime.  I am eating in a tight corner in the faculty room.  The same  teacher finds me to say that one of her students cannot come up with a topic for her writing assignment.  The child is stuck, and the teacher is out of ideas.  She asks me to work with the student at recess time, which is in five minutes.  I agree and start packing up my half-eaten lunch.  I walk to Emma’s classroom and find her just about to play a board game with a group of friends.            “Emma?” I say sweetly, “ You are going to work with me.  Please get your pencil.” 

            She looks at me.  She is a smart cookie.  She knows why I have come.  Emma is an avid reader and a talented writer, but sometimes she gets stuck initiating ideas for writing and completely shuts down.  All the. way to my office, I keep the mood light.  I want to set a positive and carefree tone.

When we get to my office, Emma sits in a sunny seat by a window.  I tell her that I am here to help her come up with an idea for her writing assignment.  Half of her writing paper is folded up like an accordion.  I smooth it down and begin to pepper her with ideas that I think she’d be interested in  lacrosse, Vermont, and crafting.

            She shakes her head and then says, ”Well, I am making a sweatshirt.” 

            “Yeah, tell me about that,” I say hopefully. 

            Emma begins to tell me about the sweatshirt she is making, which is dark blue with light blue sleeves.  I stand at my whiteboard easel and make a web as she speaks.  I write down all that she describes.  I ask some questions to guide her.  Soon, the web is complete. 

            I push her paper closer and say, “Okay now write what you just old me.” 

            Emma does not pick up her pencil.  She is biting her bottom lip. 

            “Shall we come up with a first sentence together?” 

            She nods in agreement and we do.  Then I walk away and tell her that I am going to give her some quiet time to write.  When I return a couple of minutes later, Emma is back to folding her paper.  Her feet are tapping the rungs of her chair.  Her eyes are wide and glossy as she stares at me.  I take one look at her and gently take the paper away. 

            “You are not in trouble, “ I say.  “My job is to help kids through problems. Can you tell me what is making you stuck?” 

            Emma remains silent.            

            “You are a great writer.  We just have to find the right story,” I say, silently praying for a miracle.  “What if we pretend it’s after school and we are having milk and cookies. 

            I continue, “Hey Emma, tell me about something you love.  Can you tell be about your dogs?” 

            Emma’s shoulders relax. Her blue eyes begin to dance as she tells me all about her Maltese and Yorkie.

            When she is through, I smile and say, ”Okay do you think you can write about your dogs now.” My heart is beating wildly.  I am holding my breath. 

            “No,” she says quietly.

            My heart skips a beat.

            “But…” she adds, “I can tell you about my cats.” 

            I exhale loudly and grin, “Great, tell me about your cats, and I take up my pencil and begin to make a web from the information that Emma shares.  We have completed a second web, and now it is time to return to class. 

            “Do you think you can write a story using this web?” I ask Emma.  She nods positively. We walk back to her classroom both satisfied.

On Thursday afternoon, I am walking past the play area to my office.  Emma’s teacher points to a patch of grass where her students are busy writing.  I spy a small girl hidden in a blanket hunched over her laptop.  Emma’s teacher whispers, “She’s in the zone.  She has three paragraphs so far.”  I am pleased and relieved.  The writer has conquered her writer’s block.  Curious cats to the rescue!