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.

Signs of Fall – Listen, Look

This has been a stressful week to put it mildly: a heated election cycle, COVID rising in New Jersey and across many parts of the U.S., pending lock-downs, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.  I try to put things in perspective.  I concentrate on my work, my art, my friends, my family, and my faith. I try, in small places, to cultivate hope.  

I relish my time teaching immersing myself in reading and writing with young children.  I marvel at students who seek me out for help.  I do not have to convince them; they come eagerly with fresh ideas.  We develop stories together, we organize desks and homework, we think about spelling like it is an art instead of a chore, and we read together. Indeed, one of the most rewarding times in my day is reading A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond with a gifted first grader.  The naughty bear appeals to her and the British vocabulary intrigues her.  We talk about queues, lifts, lorries, mackintoshes, and marmalade.  She is all ears listening for new words that she does not yet know.  She gasps as Paddington stumbles into one predicament after another, and she enthusiastically anticipates outcomes. This time with her is pure joy.  I cannot clearly say whether I’m teaching her or she’s teaching me.  Our conversation, this exchange of ideas, is reading in its purest form, and I am grateful.

I turn to nature for solace, observing the season’s steady change: her flamboyant turn from green to scarlet to amber to tangerine, and the final turn to gray and rusted brown. I seek beauty in the decay.  I watch for patterns: geese and wild turkeys combing the fields for seeds, squirrels and chipmunks storing seeds and acorns, the deer’s coats turning from golden to tawny brown. The earth is preparing herself for after the harvest; she is ready for a long meditative sleep. This past week, I took some photographs and wrote a poem as I contemplated this change.  I tried to listen and look carefully to all that was around me.  I took notice, reflected, and attempted to capture the feel of this season.

 Early November
  
 The early November wind arrives
 Sounding a symphony of
 Rushes, whooshes, and shushes,
 Rustling leaves, rattle seed pods,
 Whispering softly in the grass.
  
 Black wings tattooed against blue sky,
 A cadre of crows circle
 Above the old golden oak,
 Caw-calling, caw-calling,
 Lamenting winter’s return.
  
 Damp earth and leaves – 
 Mottled brown, orange, yellow,
 Cover the bare garden ground,
 A protective patchwork
 Waiting for next year’s harvest.
  
 A lone crow lands on an old post,
 Surveys the garden no longer green.
 The wind rustles his black feathers,
 He cries of fall’s ending
 And then takes flight. 

Relentless Hope: The Power Of an Avocado

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reminded of the fragility of the human spirit and the power of hope. But it is more than hope.  Hope seems more passive to me now.  I hope I will be healthy and happy, but how do I going about putting that hope into action.  What craft moves can I make to have a positive, affirming life?  I used to think that if I worked hard everything would fall into place.  I would just work harder and hard and harder.  Sure, I received some positive results but at what cost?  I was working so hard until I was soon completely exhausted.  I not only was exhausting my body; I was exhausting my mind and spirit.  I was depleting all my reserves.  Then I realized that my dogged tenacity could be used in a different way.  I could relax into the difficult parts.  I could begin to trust myself.

This week, I read Ruth Ayres’ article in the Choice Literacy Newsletter called “Slightly Alive.”  In the article Ruth talks about her tenacious belief that a houseplant would heal and revive.  With consistent watering and care the plant did begin to grow again. Ruth declares, “It wasn’t complicated to restore, but it did take relentless hope and a belief that the things I knew it needed would be enough in the end.” I love the idea of relentless hope – that belief in eventual positive outcomes. It is what has always pulled me through.

My friend and fellow blogger, Molly James, also wrote about restoration this week in her post, “Nourishing Me and My Creativity.”  Molly described a recent journey into her garden: “The chard was hidden beneath zucchini plants that grew to an enormous size. When we finally removed the behemoths, the chard was there, a bit worse for wear, but still there. I’ve been watering it, admiring it, and encouraging it to grow. Amazingly, it’s producing beautiful new leaves.” I embraced the idea of worse for wear but still there. I think of myself that way. I am have some visible and invisible battle scars but I’m still here. I’m still growing and can produce beautiful leaves.

I smiled when I read Ruth’s and Molly’s words. I have had a similar mindset and experiences.  When I was in college I grew an avocado tree from a pit.  It grew lush in a corner of my dorm room.  Mr. Avocado became my great green friend.  It felt so good to grow something from a seed. The plant grew and grew and grew he became over three feet tall in a very short time.  When it was time for winter vacation, I shared a ride home with a friend of mine and her boyfriend. I took my beloved avocado with me wrapped in blankets.  On the way home we stopped at my friend’s house for a few hours.  I wanted to bring Mr. Avocado in the house with me.  My friend’s boyfriend laughed at me.  He thought I was silly and said the plant would be fine in his car.  In knew he was wrong, but I didn’t argue, and I left Mr. Avocado out in cold.  Of course, the plant got frostbite.  When I got Mr. Avocado to my house, his leaves drooped dried and turned brown.  After mourning the loss of Mr. Avocado for a few days, I cut his stem back and hoped he would revive.  I stayed hopeful for months, I watered and fertilized him well into the summer.  Mr. Avocado was not slightly alive, he was totally dead; he was not coming back. But I never forgot him.

Many years later, I gathered the courage to grow another avocado plant.  This time, I started the project at school to show the children how plants grow.  To my delight the pit began to sprout and soon there were leaves.  A second Mr. Avocado was born and began to flourish.  I was so happy.  Year after year, I brought the avocado plant home for winter and summer vacation.  I was determined that this one would not suffer the first one’s fate.  Then one January weekend the furnace at school broke, and it was ice cold when we returned on Monday morning.  I ran to my plants.  The small ones looked a bit wilted but seemed like they would recover.  Mr. Avocado’s leavers had fallen to the floor.  I was in despair.  This could not be happening again.  This time, I had a partner to help me.  Benita, the woman who cleaned my office every night was an avid gardener. Benita and I often talked about our grandfathers: hers from Colombia, mine from Italy.  Both men had amazing green thumbs. Benita had helped me care for my plants over the years.  When I showed her the avocado, she clicked her tongue and shook her head.  Together, we cut down the stem and watered the soil.  Then Benita suggested to put the plant in the window of another office with a southern exposure.  I agreed and tried to hope.  Every couple of days I would check Mr. Avocado.  I found the same thing: a stem sticking out of the dirt.  I was disheartened.  I didn’t visit him as much.  Then one afternoon, Benita came to my office with the large pot in her arms. “Mira… look,” she said.  I jumped up, “It’s growing?”  I asked.  Indeed it was! A bright green shoot was poking out of the dirt! Soon it was growing strong.  Today, it is six feet tall, and I’m trying to figure out what to do when it hits the ceiling.  It’s funny how such a simple living thing can give such hope.  I firmly believe in restoration.  So many times when we face obstacles we think it’s all over, there is no hope, all is lost.  However, if we are patient and stop to reflect, we can find a way for hope to overcome and bring little joys.

This reminds me of all my work with students over the years.  I have always been drawn to the kids who were facing obstacles either academically or emotionally.  Maybe it’s because I see myself in them.  Maybe it’s because I have not abandoned hope and believe everyone can recover and thrive.  On the surface, they may be Dyslexic, Dysgraphic, have ADD or ADHD, anxiety disorders, or any number of learning differences, but way down underneath there are strong roots taking hold that will keep them upright and allow them to grow.  As a teacher, I feel that it is my responsibility to take a breath, keep an open mind, and look beyond the surface.  What tools can I use to nurture these tender beings? I know that if I am relentless and keep my sense of humor, these children will grow and flourish.

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

How Does Your Zen Garden Grow?

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

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

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

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

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

ZEN TOOLBOX

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

Zen Garden

Sitting low on a wooden bench

Looking out on the Zen garden,

My thoughts circle and release,

Circle and release,

Circle and drift

Around the islands in my mind.

A young girl runs to the edge of garden,

“What’s a Zen garden, Dad,” she asks.

Her father looks out,

Shrugs his shoulders and says,

“A Bunch of rocks…

A bunch of rocks.

His teenage son smirks,

Glancing at the garden and declares,

“They did a nice job making the rocks.”

And slouches away.

My mind settles on the center stone,

I take in its contours,

I memorize its lines and creases,

Its cracks and crevices,

Its shape, color, texture –

Every wrinkle.

I exhale one long, low breath.

Two young women walk in front of me,

Look out and pause for a moment,

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

“Nope,” says the other with a giggle

And they bounce off.

I open myself to the sea of sand,

Perfect concentric circles,

A solitary island

at peace.

Listen to Their Songs

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

It sings because it has a song.

– Maya Angelou

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

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

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

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

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

A Song in my Head

Sometimes I need my own space

I lie on the floor in my room

Surrounded by pillows

Listen for my own voice

Wait for the poetry 

To play like

A song in my head

That dances

That makes my curls ring

The swaying of trees 

on a spring day

The sun skipping across

 Sparkling deep water

A restless stranger

On a lonesome beach

Watching waves come in

And go out far

Far to sea

Reaching blue beyond

Poetry to me

Experience of Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camouflage

The dark-eyed junco

Flits under the thorny

Brambles and black mulch,

Her blue-black body

Camouflaged among

The twisted branches,

She is well hidden

Only her sharp, quick

Movements betray her.

How many years have I been

Sitting on awkward hands,

Head bowed wishing,

Wishing to be hidden?

If I could make my body

Small enough, dark enough

I could hide away and

Be forgotten.

The dark-eyed junco

Perches on tender branch,

Ruffles her slate-gray feathers,

Contemplates the summer green,

Her white tail feathers flash

As she takes off

Into the cloud-filled sky,

Daring to be fearless

Suddenly, she’s gone.

Dandelion

Your golden head rises

Out of the rusty rubble

Just another weed –

You push your way out

Between cracks in the sidewalk

Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass

You grow strong –

Impervious to your surroundings

Your leaves, jagged toothed

Spread green along the old gray ground

You are not discouraged –

You’ve never depended

Upon rain or fertilizer

You provide your own sunlight.

Every child needs a champion.

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

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

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

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

Breakfast of Champions

According to Grandpa Charlie,

The breakfast of champions

Consisted of black coffee,

Rye toast and butter,

And a soft-boiled egg

In a mint green egg cup –

Tap, tap, tap..

He sliced off the top of the egg,

Dipped his spoon into the golden goo

And smiled.

Looking over at me

Above his dark rimmed glasses,

Grandpa handed me a tall glass of Tang,

The astronaut’s orange juice,

Two soft-boiled eggs –

Chop, chop, chop…

He crumbled buttered saltine in a small white bow,

The delicate rim decorate

With petite blue flowers and a tiny chip.

Grandpa turned the smooth side toward me,

Pushed it gently across the table,

Then he returned to his newspaper,

As I took an inventory of the kitchen:

Trying to remember every warm inch,

Then I’d take account of the textures and flavors

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

We’d sit together reading, thinking, eating,

Just an old man and his granddaughter

Starting the day off right.

Red Plaid Hunting Cap

The cold’s set in,

My grandfather shrugs on

His heavy red plaid hunting jacket,

Pulls on the matching cap,

And take my small mittened hand.

We head out the door

And walk towards town.

Grandpa points periodically

To the broken sidewalk,

So I won’t trip.

This is our morning walk

To buy the paper or milk,

Or a crusty loaf of bread,

Down tree-lined streets

We go hand in hand.

Watermelon Summer

On a hot summer night,

Fireflies float through the yard

Like stars you can hold in your hand.

A large, wooden table

Is set under the willow tree

And the big, green-striped

Melons lie ready, waiting.

As Grandpa Charlie slices

Thick, red wedges.

Eager hands grab two at a time,

Soon the table is covered

With sticky, pink juice.

Seven cousins sip and slurp,

Tossing rinds into a pile,

Spitting the shiny, black seeds

At each other and laughing,

The sweetness of summer

Dripping from our chins.

Too Soon Taken

When I was seven

Charlie died.

I still don’t understand

How and why he died.

Too soon take from us –

He was my superhero,

He was my champion,

I was his curly-head Josephine,

His beloved granddaughter.

All these long years

I’ve missed him,

Glimpses of memory

Float by like wispy dreams,

I try to hold one –

Thick, shining silver hair,

Large, rough gentle hands,

Quiet love,

My eternal protector.