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. 

Sketchnoting II: Big Words

I have been playing with teaching sketchnoting for the past month.  I naturally doodle while reading and listening.  It helps me focus, remember, and make connections from familiar concepts to new ones.  I thought that by teaching our 4th graders this strategy they might be able to focus, remember and understand better and more deeply.  I hope it will become an integral part of their reading toolbox.  My first lesson encompassed introducing how to sketchnote and providing time to practice the basic drawing techniques.

We practiced sketchnoting about something very familiar – ourselves.  Each student made a sketchnote introducing many aspects of themselves: their likes and dislikes, their family members, and what they enjoy doing.  In the next lesson, I read the picture book, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. I chose this book due to its strong visual nature and use figurative language. I thought these elements would help the students create sketches and write down vivid images.

This week, I continued to give students sketchnote practice time.  First, I made sure to review the sketchnoting basics.  Next, I had the students warm up for sketchnoting by sky writing, which is writing in the air with their index fingers. Then, I asked them to make simple abstract doodles on paper while listening to music for a few minutes.

Now, the students were ready to sketchnote.  I explained that I was going to slowly read the book, Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport.  I asked students to share what they already knew about Dr. King’s life and work.  Some students proudly shared their knowledge, while other continued to ask questions. Soon they were ready to focus on the story.  I chose this book because it focuses on the nonviolent concepts Dr. King taught and believed.  I wanted these concepts to be the focal point of the students’ sketchnotes.  In this way, I believed the students would continue to remember King’s big words and the peaceful way in which he led others to protest against inequality. King’s words were so important then and are incredibly crucial now: freedom, love, God, faith, goodness, kindness, courage, trust, compassion, together, equity, justice, bravery, equality, care, determination, respect, unity, resilience, hope, and dream.

The girls listened carefully as I read and showed the pictures.  Some students asked me to repeat some pages with text they wanted to remember.  During this thirty minute reading session, I had the students’ complete attention.  They all diligently sketchnoted   for the entire time.  From observing their work, I could gauge each student’s level of understanding.  It is such a quick and graphic way to assess student understanding.  Next week, I plan to have them add to their sketchnotes after some discussion and reflection about their process. Most of the students enjoy this strategy and find it helpful. I know that listening and selecting important details is a skills they will continue to use throughout their lives, so I encourage them to keep practicing and take risks.  There are no right answers, no absolutes in sketchnoting. It is another free and creative form of expression at their fingertips.

MORE TO READ:

  1. A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson
  2. As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson
  3. Be a King by Carole Boston Weatherford
  4. Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
  5. I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  6. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
  7. Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney
  8. My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris
  9. My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King III
  10. My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold
  11. My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angel Farris Watkins
  12. That is My Dream!  By Langston Hughes

These are examples of my playing with sketchnoting. I did not show my work to the students until after they had created their sketchnotes. I stressed the process and the elements of sketchnoting, not the artistic quality. I wanted to give them a sample of how to build a presentation.

My Quick Sketch Practice
My final copy.

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

Books as Breadcrumbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sesame Season

I wrote about the wonders of baking gingerbread with children in my post last week.  I started the post reminiscing about my father’s forays in the kitchen making Italian cookies from his childhood.  One of my readers commented that the list of Italian cookies sounded like poetry.  Since I spent the better part of my week writing list poems with 2nd graders, I thought I’d pause here to create a cookie list poem.

Holiday Cookies – Italian Style

Biscotti, twice baked, crunchy –

Chocolate, hazelnut, almond.

Torcetti, buttery twisted teardrops,

Pignoli, chewy almond goodness

Crowned with pine nuts,

Cuccidati soft dough stuffed with dark figs.

Brandy, raisin, nutmeg, and cinnamon,

Glazed with sugar icing and bright sprinkles.

Struffoli, deep fried golden balls dipped in honey,

Piled into festive wreath and tree shapes

Sticky sweetness; try to eat just one!

Giuggiulena, rolled into logs, cut into rectangles.

Sprinkled with sesames, baked until crisp,

My morning breakfast cookie.

Although I loved all these cookies and sneaked my fair share before dinner, or while I was reading before bedtime, the giuggiulena cookie was a staple in our house, no matter the holiday.  After he perfected the recipe, my father started to experiment by adding different flavors – orange, almond, vanilla, lemon. The traditional cookie is flavored with anise, a slight licorice flavoring.  Sometimes he did outrageous things like combined orange and almond.  Once, he put in some cocoa in the dough.  Though I do love all things chocolate, the giuggiulena began to take on an entirely different personality, and I begged my father to go back to the traditional cookie.

When my mother and aunt were young women, sesame seed were very hard to come by. Supermarkets did not carry sesame seeds in the large quantities needed to make the cookies. My mom, Vivian, and my Aunt Jo told us the story of how they went together to the local Italian bakery to get the sesames.  The owner of the bakery would sell them to the neighborhood women at whole sale prices.  I could just picture my mom and aunt as young women dressed in thick wool coats and sturdy boots trudging through the snowy streets to the baker’s.  Once there, they had to go around to the back of the old, brick bakery where they would knock cautiously on the heavy wooden door.  They would stamp their feet shaking off the cold, waiting for the door to open.  Finally, they’d hear the bolt slide across.  The door would open a crack.  Vivian and Jo would whisper in unison, “Sesame!” The baker would shuffle into the deep recesses of the kitchen and bring back two small brown paper bags filled with sesame seeds and hand them to the two young women, who would pay him promptly.  Then they would trudge back through the snowy streets to my grandfather’s kitchen to start making dozens and dozens of giuggiulenas. This story brought us such delight.  My sister, cousin, and I would marvel the lengths our mothers would go to make these delicious treats. 

I’m sure that it is my Italian heritage that instilled in me a love of food.  It is the first thing I think of in the morning when I awake, and it’s the last thing I think of at night when I’m falling asleep.  What will I eat?  What have I eaten that was so delicious? Indeed, I spend quite a lot of my leisure time pouring over a good cookbook or two.  It is my genre of choice when I want to relax and forget about the world.  A few days ago, I returned to one of my old cookbooks, The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen.  The photographs and drawings are as exquisite as the recipes, and Mollie created all of them!  I love flipping through the pages to find something unique I might try the next time I’m in the kitchen.  This time, I was reminded of how wonderfully Katzen crafts her words.  This is not just a step-by-step cookbook; it really is a work of art.  Katzen carefully sifts and mixes her words so that they pop out at you from the page and make you pay attention.  She describes her Cucumber-Melon-Peach Gazpacho this way: “Dappled like a summer fruit version of a Seurat painting, this refreshing hot-weather special might come out slightly different each time, depending on the colors and flavors of your melon and peach.” One can truly see the affect art has had on Katzen’s cooking.  And I love her description of Forbidden Rice with Beluga Lentils and Mushrooms: “In this “fade into black” dish, tiny black lentils and minced mushrooms disappear into the shadows of the mysterious, nightlike grain.  Depending on the ambient light and the angle, there may also be undertones of purple, dreamily nocturnal. The subtle, deep flavor of the finished dish echoes the soothing, dark theme, like a reveries of umami.”  Wow, when I read that, I thought, “Mollie Katzen is a poet.” Who would have thought that cookbooks could hold such poetry?  I laughed to myself, I guess that’s why I’m also attracted to cookbooks because they contain such bold description that stir one’s senses.  I can’t wait to to discover the poetry waiting for me in the rest of my cookbook collection. And as luck would have it, Mollie made her own foray into the land of sesame. I was thrilled to see a recipe for Sesame Stars in her book, Vegetable Heaven.  It is quite different from the giuggiulenas, but these crisp butter cookies flavored with tahini (ground sesame) will be a great accompaniment to my holiday giuggiulenas this year. I can’t wait to make them!

Mollie Katzen Cookbooks for Adults

  1. Enchanted Broccoli Forest
  2. Get Cooking
  3. Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café
  4. Moosewood Cookbook
  5. Still Life with Menu Cookbook
  6. The Heart of the Plate
  7. Vegetable Heaven
  8. Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without

Mollie Katzen Cookbooks for Children

  1. Honest Pretzels
  2. Pretend Soup
  3. Salad People

Giuggiulena Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose Flour
  • 1 1/2 cups pastry flour
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 Tbsp of orange zest
  • 2 tsp anise extract (you can also use almond, vanilla, or lemon)
  • 1/2 cup milk (2% or whole)
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water for egg wash
  • 2 cups sesame seeds (some people toast their sesames first, try it both ways)

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease 2 cookie sheets.

In a bowl, mix the flours, baking powder, and salt together, then add the light brown sugar and mix.

Add the butter and work it into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse corn meal.

Add the eggs, lemon zest and flavoring of your choice, then add the milk a little at a time and work the mixture until a ball of dough is formed.

Divide the dough into 4 pieces.

Roll each piece on a floured surface into a rope about 12 to 18 inches long and the thickness of your middle finger.

Cut the ropes into 2-inch pieces.

Roll in the sesame seeds, pressing them to adhere, and place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until you have used up all of the dough.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until nicely browned. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

Kitchen Literacy: Comfort & Joy & Gingerbread

Ahh… breathe in the sugar and spices, smell the vanilla. My memories of the winter holidays always take me back to the warm sunny kitchen of my childhood with my mom standing in front of the sink reaching for soapy dishes. My parents were both very good home cooks, and I loved watching them prepare meals.  In fact, when I got to college and made meals for myself, my roommates would marvel, “How do you do that?”  I was a bit surprised that they thought cooking was some type of magic trick; I shrugged my shoulders and responded, “I watched my parents cook.”  Cooking was like brushing my teeth.  I didn’t think about it as some kind of complicated skill that I couldn’t attain.

December always meant cookie baking time in my house and my father would experiment with making different shapes and flavors of Italian cookies:  biscotti, torcetti, pignoli, cuccidati, strufoli, and the sesame studded giuggiulena.  Just saying their names make me happy and hungry. Crowned with nuts or filled with figs, these cookies are the hallmark of my childhood Christmases.

When it came to holiday baking, my mom, sister, and I would lean toward more traditional American cookies: sugar, shortbread, and gingerbread.  I loved those times spent in the kitchen mixing, pouring, cutting, and creating. My sister and I would stand opposite each other cutting out trays and trays of dough, invariably ending up with throwing some scraps of dough at each other and giggling, signaling to my mother that it was indeed time to clean up.

When I became a teacher and integrated cooking activities into my curriculum, I eagerly awaited the winter when I could make gingerbread everything with my students.  It’s amazing to me that my former students often contact me to say that it was the cooking activities that they liked and remembered best.  These activities, they tell me, made them feel connected to their classmates and made them feel successful.  “I made that!” are three very important words.  I think “I made that!” is the essence of being a fully creative and content human.

For the last several years, I created a gingerbread curriculum for our 1st grade students. We have made soft gingerbread cakes in gingerbread-shaped pans, both small and large.  The soft cakes are an easier approach to making gingerbread if you are working very young children and you don’t have a lot of time..  They are able to scoop, pour and mix, but they do not have to do all that cutting.  They can, however, still decorate their individual cake.  We have also made the traditional gingerbread dough, and the children able to choose the type of cookie shapes to make – boys, girls, rabbits, stars, snowmen, etc.  We would cut, bake, and decorate with each child able to taste a cookie and take home a little bag for her family. One year, the grade had students with many allergies so we made a batch of gingerbread-scented salt dough to cut and decorate.  The children still had the experience of making and baking with the added pleasure that their gingerbread creation would last for years!  Gingerbread baking always accompanies playing gingerbread board games, making gingerbread puppets, and decorating giant cardboard gingerbread houses.  The children also read many great gingerbread stories. Every year, I find more and more creative versions, which keeps the ideas fresh.  After reading lots of gingerbread stories, the children write their own version, which they read aloud to each other as we enjoy our gingerbread cookies.

With the holidays approaching, I encourage you to slow down and be mindful of the traditions you are creating whether at home or in the classroom. Relish the preparation and process.  Taste the success.  Know that kitchen memories are sweet and last a lifetime.

Gingerbread Recipes:

Gingerbread People

Ingredients:

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour 
  • ½ lb. butter or margarine, softened 
  • 1 Tablespoon ground ginger 
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 Tablespoon cardamom 
  • 1 Tablespoon cloves             
  • 1 ½ cups sugar 
  • 1/2 Tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 Tablespoon molasses
  • 3/4 cups water

Directions:

  1. Measure the flour into a mixing bowl and set aside. 
  2. Combine butter and sugar in another large bowl and set aside. 
  3. In a saucepan, combine the water with the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and pour over the butter and sugar. Stir until the sugar dissolves. 
  4. Add the flour one cup at a time, blending well with each addition. Store, well-covered, for several hours in the refrigerator. 
  5. Dough will be quite soft but will stiffen in the refrigerator. 
  6. Let come to room temperature.  Then roll out on a lightly floured surface to 1/4” thickness. 
  7. Place in gingerbread shaped pan.
  8. Bake at 375º for 15-17 minutes or until browned. 
  9. Let cool and decorate with icing and candy of your choice.

Favorite Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup molasses
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup hot water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9-inch square pan.

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg and mix in the molasses.

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan before serving.

Gingerbread Man Literature:

 1.     A Christmas Cookie Exchange by Sheri Wall
  
 2.    A Gingerbread Wonderland by Elise Rian Cunha
  
 3.    Can’t Catch Me! by John and Ann Hassett
  
 4.    Catch That Cookie by Hallie Dumand
  
 5.    Georgie the Gingerbread Fairy by Tim Bugbird
  
 6.    Gingerbread Christmas by Jan Brett
  
 7.     Gingerbread Cowboy by Janet Squires
  
 8.    Gingerbread Friends by Jan Brett
  
 9.    Gingerbread Mouse by Katy Bratun
  
 10. Kolobok by Natasha Bochkov 
 (in 4 languages: Russian, Chinese, Spanish, & English)
  
 11.  Maisy Makes Gingerbread by Lucy Cousins
  
 12.  Senorita Gordita by Helen Ketteman
  
 13.  Snow Dude by Daniel Kirk
  
 14.  Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour
  
 15.  Ten Tiny Gingerbread Men by Fhiona Galloway
  
 16.  The Cajun Cornbread Boy by Dianne De Las Casas
  
 17.  The Cajun Gingerbread Boy by Berthe Amoss
  
 18. The Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett
  
 19.  The Gingerbread Bear by Robert Dennis
  
 20. The Gingerbread Boy by Richard Egielski
  
 21.  The Gingerbread Boy Who Didn’t Run Away by Vickie King
  
 22. The Gingerbread Girl by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  
 23. The Gingerbread Girl Goes Animal Crackers by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  
 24. The Gingerbread Kid Goes to School by Joan Holub
  
 25. The Gingerbread Man by Paul Galdone
  
 26. The Gingerbread Man 2: What Happened Next by Stephen Dixon
  
 27. The Gingerbread Man on the Loose at Christmas by Laura Murray
  
 28. The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck by Laura Murray
  
 29. The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo by Laura Murray
  
 30. The Gingerbread Pirates by Kristin Kladstrup
  
 31.  The Gingerbread Rabbit by Randall Jarrell
  
 32. The Gurabia Man: The Armenian Version by Talent Dadia White
  
 33. The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy by Elisa Kleven
  
 34. The Jalapeno Man by Debbie Leland
  
 35. The Library Gingerbread Man by Dotti Enderle
  
 36. The Matzo Ball Boy by Lisa Schulman
  
 37. The Musubi Man: Hawai’i’s Gingerbread Man by Sandi Takayam
  
 38. The Ninjabread Man by CJ Leigh
  
 39. The Runaway Latkes by Leslie Kimmelman
  
 40. The Runaway Pancake by Mairi Mackinnon
  
 41.  The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine
  
 42. The Runaway Tortilla by Eric A. Kimmel
  
 43. The Runaway Wok by Ying Chang Compestine
  
 44. The Sourdough Man: An Alaskan Folktale by Cherie Stihler
  
 45. Three Pigs and a Gingerbread Man by Hilary Robinson
  
 46. Tough Cookie: A Christmas Story by Edward Hemingway 

Belonging

Oxford defines belonging as an affinity for a place or situation. Webster says it means a possession or a close or intimate relationship.  I’ve been reflecting on what it means to belong this week. I am getting older.  I could and have said this at any age, but now approaching sixty-five, now it is a very true statement. I feel it, especially with the holidays upon us and my family members quarantined and scattered across the country. Actually, I have yearned to belong since I was quite young.  It’s a human thing.  We all need connection.  And I have found innumerable ways to do it.  Teaching was the perfect profession for me.  I am very grateful for that. This week, I sent off a small army of 4th grade girls with shoe boxes filled with junk for them to explore.  For the last few days, I’ve been receiving emails and even a video recounting the fun they have had and the wonderful inventions they created from their personal trove of junk. This is what is important.  Creativity connects us.  Imagination is key.

I’ve also had time this week to reflect on just how I belong in the world.  This place, this place I’ve known for six and a half decades is becoming increasingly complex and enigmatic. I try hard to make sense of it, but I feel the world’s tug. I feel it pulling me down.  Then I realize the political and social world is just a human construct.  It is not the true world.  Our Earth is the true world, and I’ve lost the connection to it a bit allowing myself to get too busy teaching and managing daily life.   So I reminded myself that I must go back to the woods: search for the turkeys, gaze at the ravens wheeling in the gray sky. Nature has always been a healing place for me; a place that encourages my curiosity.  And this too I will share with my students.  Maybe we will collect items for a nature box: acorns, sticks, smooth stones, dried flowers and leaves, and a wild assortment of other bracken.  I have already spent the better part of an hour this week standing in a parking lot in the dark under some honey locust trees collecting their long, gently curving, velvety, deep purple seedpods. I’m imagining all types of things the children can make with them. 

It’s more critical than ever that we help children connect to the living world. It is integral to them becoming whole, healthy people who can manage stressors and show compassion.  I’ve been a long-time proponent of eliminating nature-deficit disorder,” a term coined by author Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Over the years, I’ve provided experiences with nature to my students, even my students who lived in New York City.  I made sure they had regular contact with trees, flowers, and animals.  I knew that these connections were important for both their intellectual and social-emotional growth. Indeed, one parent quipped one day that the best part of 3rd grade for her son was that he learned to climb a tree! The once timid boy became intrepid and had a powerful sense of himself.

More books by Richard Louv:

  • Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life
  • The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life int he Virtual Age
  • Our Wild Calling: How connecting with animals can transform our lives and save theirs

A Dozen Nature Picture Books for Children:

  1. A Stone Sat Still by Brendon Wetzel
  2. Butterfly Park by Elly Mackay
  3. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  4. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  5. Pax by Sara Penny Packer
  6. Rocks in his Head by Carol Otis Hurst
  7. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
  8. The Hike by Alison Farrell
  9. The Hugging Tree: A Story about Resilience by Jill Neimark
  10. The Keeper of Wild Words by Brooke Smith
  11. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
  12. The Tin Forest by Helen Ward

In our regular weekly phone conversations, my friend, Molly and I ponder the possible. We talk about teaching, art, and healing.  She tells of a walk she recently took with her brother at a nearby nature preserve.  She describes an old bathtub she found on the trail, and my poet mind start running.  I’m already composing as she speaks.  Then she says she has taken photos of it and would like me to use it as a prompt for writing with her Kindergarteners.  I promise to do so, and we ponder why a bathtub would be sitting serenely in the middle of a trail. When I get off the phone with Molly, I know the bathtub poem is in me and will come out in a couple of days.  It sits in my mind, constructing itself in various ways: a branch here, a new shoot there, a winding vine curving and turning until it is ready to come out onto the page.

 We Belong Here
  
 For Molly
  
 I
  
 At the nature preserve
 Right in the middle of the cleared trail -
 The red path, not the blue one,
 There is an old white rusted bathtub,
 My dear friend tells me.
 Right there in the middle of the path,
 Right there with nothing else around it
 Just woods on either side,
 Thick, thorny undergrowth,
 Mounds of fall leaves
 Now becoming muddled and colorless,
 Skeletons of themselves really.
 What is the bathtub doing there?
 Who would leave a tub in the woods?
 We ponder and wonder.
 There is a small shack nearby,
 But it stands on the bank of the river
 And the bathtub sits squat
 In the middle of the trail
 On a ridge overlooking the river.
 Most times the tub is filled
 With a puddle of rainwater
 Or an assortment of leaves, seeds, and acorns.
 It has been there a very long time.
 It has no intention of moving.
 It has planted its rusty feet 
 firmly in the ground.
 It belongs there.
  
     II
  
 I have a sudden urge
 To run full tilt down the path -
 The red trail, not the blue one,
 Breathing in the trees,
 All the musty ancient smells,
 Hear the gurgle burbling of the river.
 I rush down the path,
 Leap with all my might,
 Hurdle myself toward the tub,
 Landing gently into its abundance:
 Soft pine needles and dusty leaves,
 Landing softly in the autumnal spa,
 Covered in its natural warmth
 Almost up to my chin,
 Sinking down into the tub
 Soaking in the woods, the air, the river
 My head tilted up to the blue sky,
 Every one of my muscles relaxing.
 I have no intention of moving.
 My feet are firmly planted.
 I belong here.
   

Simple Gifts: Balloons, Fox Traps, and Marvelous Medicine

At this time of Thanksgiving, I want to pause and reflect upon the simple gifts for which I am grateful.  When I think back, I realize that my grateful moments revolve around books and children.  For the last forty-two years, I have been so fortunate to build my life around serving children and celebrating stories. This year has been especially critical because my school has had in-person learning five days a week with some students learning remotely. We have been in school for about 40 days and we feel a sense of accomplishment.  This past week, both students and teachers were seeking a way to celebrate, to sit back a bit, and have some fun.  It has been an uphill task this fall to muster fun behind masks, plexiglass and gallons of hand sanitizer. But we are all so grateful to be together.  Humans are social creatures, and it is essential that we share.

I am an English Language Arts Curriculum Coordinator.  That title sounds a bit stuffy and boring.  However, my job is anything but ordinary.  Every day is a truly new adventure.  Every day is an opportunity to learn from children.  Every day is filled with problem-solving and creativity.  I love visiting our elementary classes, observing literacy lessons, and then letting my mind loose – thinking of ways to extend learning.   Here are three classroom adventures that unfolded this week.

The 2nd grade read Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet about the puppeteer, Tony Sarg, who created the first balloons for the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City.  Sweet’s illustrations are phenomenal.  They inspire children to draw and design.  Over the years, this project grew from drawing paper balloons to coding robots that would carry actual decorated balloons through a replica of the parade route.  Since it would not be possible in this time of social distancing, we went back to the idea of making paper balloons that students could easily take home.  However, I wanted to make the balloons three-dimensional.  That’s when my early childhood teacher-mind kicked in.  I took a small brown paper lunch bag, stuffed it with strips of newsprint and then inserted a twelve-inch dowel, taped the bag securely around the dowel and added a colorful ribbon.  I now had my balloon base. Then I took construction paper and quickly cut out a turkey shape.  I glued the turkey onto the paper bag balloon and voila, a Thanksgiving balloon was born!  The project was ready to be launched.

When I walked down the hallway and entered one of the 2nd grade classrooms, the children called out my name and started to clap.  All of them.  For several minutes.  Without stopping.  Let me say that 2nd graders are really good for bolstering my sense of self! If you ever find yourself in a doubting mood, find a 2nd grader and she will reassure you that all is right with you and the world. Shortly after I arrived, the children quickly got to work.  The room was soon quiet with creating.  When I looked out into that small sea of intent faces, I was reminded that children’s work is important and that, above all, creativity matters.

The following day, I worked with 3rd graders who just completed a Roald Dahl study.  One class read Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Their teacher and I prepared an engineering activity where the students needed to design a humane trap to catch Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I made a kit for each student which included cardboard, tape, string, pipe cleaners, straws, popsicle sticks, paper towel rolls, and fabric. What was fascinating about this project was that even though every student was given the same materials, each trap was different, proving that every mind is capable of unique and wondrous things!  For homework, the children created short videos of their traps explaining how they worked and what design problems they encountered on the way, and how they re-designed their trap.  Critical and creative thinking were evident.  The students took ownership and pride in their constructions.

The other 3rd grade class had read George’s Marvelous Medicine, and I decided to have students create a class concoction. As I arrived and peered through the classroom door, one child whispered, “She’s here!,” and the others started bouncing up and down, reminding me again that I am so grateful for the role I play at my school. The night before, I had gone to the supermarket to gather edible ingredients, though the children would not be tasting our concoction.  In the story, George’s medicine is made from toothpaste, hair tonic, and all sorts of gruesome ingredients from Dahl’s wicked imagination.  Our class ingredient included: pink Himalayan salt, blue Gatorade, grape juice, Karo syrup, Golden Syrup, mustard powder, beet juice, sugar cubes, chocolate syrup, and pink peppercorns. I selected items that would be edible, but interesting. Once the students were seated, I showed them all the ingredients.  Each student got a chance to select an ingredient and decide the amount to put into our concoction.  As we created our marvelous medicine, I wrote the recipe on the black board, and the children had their own recipe templates to fill in and take home.  Once we created the medicine, I poured the concoction into small plastic bottles, one for each girl. Meanwhile, the girls named their medicine, wrote directions on how to take it, and explained what the medicine would do.  Their ideas were wild and brilliant.  It was truly inspiring to see their level of engagement.

And so balloon, fox traps, and marvelous medicine are indeed very simple things.  Things that, at first glance, are of no significant consequence.  But it is precisely these simple things and the time spent with children for which I am profoundly grateful.

Magic & Imagination in a Box

When I was a little girl, my older sister and I would spend hours sorting and playing with my mother’s large tin button box. The buttons were as different as snowflakes.  My sister and I spent hours looking for pairs or triplets. Sometimes we were successful, but mostly we intrigued by the uniqueness of each button – almost the same but just a shade different.  I can still see them in my mind: the round ivory button imbedded with light yellow daisies; the large round pale pink button embossed with small rectangles; the heavy gold ones etched with anchors and ropes; the tiny pastel buttons like delicate seashells. We would line them up, stack them, create mosaics, trade them, and then tenderly scoop them up and put them away for another day.  Tender. That’s a good word for how I feel about those times spent imagining and playing with my sister.  We played like this well into our teenage years.  When we actually used the buttons for sewing projects, I think we both did so reluctantly.  It was like saying good-bye to an old friend.  These small ordinary objects were precious to us.  They signified a magical time, a respite from the real world.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I encountered Gertrude Stein’s poem, “Tender Buttons.”  It is a long abstract, experimental poem that unwinds and wanders in and out of common objects, but there is a certain glittering magic within. Here’s a bit of it.

Tender Buttons

… A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

GLAZED GLITTER.

Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.

The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing…

And then as a young woman working in New York City, I came across a brick storefront one day on the Upper East Side called Tender Buttons.  I spent many a Saturday afternoon gazing at the boxes full of buttons.  I began my own collection of buttons, not to actually use, but merely to sit with and marvel. Diane Epstein, the owner of the shop had once described the buttons as “Each one is like a tiny evocative event.”  And that is precisely how I saw my childhood buttons.  The deep, sea green ones, the tarnished silver ones, the ones in the shape of shiny horns – all told a story – all held a secret. Unfortunately, Tender Buttons closed its doors permanently in 2019.  All the more grateful I am that I have kept a small collection of those buttons.

Thinking about my mother’s button box made me realize how important small common objects are for children: bottle caps, erasers, doodads – all manner of ephemera. They collect a myriad of these things in their desks at school.  I have confiscated thousands of tiny pencils, paper clips, and beads in my time as an elementary school teacher.  These treasure troves are important to children.  They are connectors to the imaginary.  They are a passport from the real world to an imaginary one.  They are indeed important.  In fact, they are essential. This is more and more evident in the time of COVID, as my students are going to school in-person behind masks and plexiglass, having to remain in their seats most of the day.  The urge to play is palpable.  They must sit, but they can still create with their hands. And to my delight they do! They fold paper, link paper clips, use great lengths of tape to transform their school world.  

A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues showed me the great gallery of objects her 4th grade students had created.  I decided the 4th graders each needed a box of objects with which to create.  I talked to the girls about my idea and they enthusiastically gave me ideas of what objects to include in the boxes.  One student dubbed the boxes fidgetneering boxes.  I loved that name and promptly drove to my local dollar store to buy the boxes and label them with the students’ names.  Then I filled the boxes with all kinds of childhood treasures from The Wonder Lab, our school’s maker space: straws, yarn, popsicle sticks, paper tubes, Styrofoam balls, bags of buttons, bags of beads, pipe cleaners, etc. This week, I distributed the boxes to the girls.  It was so gratifying to see them uncover the boxes and sort through the objects.  Their excitement was electric.  It was a rainy day, a great day to play and ponder.  Off they went for fifteen minutes to design and build.  Watching them reinforced my strong belief that children (both young and old) need the opportunity to wonder and imagine on a regular basis.  I told the girls that when the boxes get near empty, I would replenish their stores.  Their reaction was like I was giving them gold.  One student exclaimed, “This is marvelous junk.  Look what I made!”  Yes, just look. Marvelous common junk made magical!

THE WORLD IN A BUTTON

The world in a button,

Spherical and hard,

Sometimes shiny,

Sometimes tarnished with age,

Holes and embellishments,

Disappointments and surprises,

Ocean blue and earthy red,

Buttons in my hands

Slipping through my fingers

Making imaginary music,

Listen.