I have been thinking about a word to choose as a North Star for 2022. What came to mind was the phrase: “Walk with purpose.” I say these words over and over again this year, guiding our students down hallways, across the campus, and out to the playground. I noticed that some students walk quickly to their destination, almost like they are in a race. Others meander and wander from point A to point B. They take their time; they are not in a hurry. And then there are ones who almost drag their feet – the procrastinators. They are happy where they are and don’t want to move on to another destination. I realize this is much like how I walk through my life. Sometimes I run head down into the unknown. Sometimes, I wander here and there, stopping to take in beauty or a sudden surprise. And other times, I slow down, happy where I am and not eager to move on. Approaching sixty-six, I feel the need even more sharply to walk with purpose. I slow myself down, take a breath, and make sure that where I am going is where I really want to be.
The more I thought about choosing my OLW, the more I felt like it would be cheating to choose a phrase. I sat myself down and told myself that this was not a time to color outside the lines. This was a time to be thoughtful and deliberate. This was a time to choose just one word.
The older I get, the more I try to hold moments in my memory and try to remember moments in my past. The remembering for me is a time to take a breath and savor the pieces of my life. Some of those pieces are traumatic, but many are sweet and healing. I know many aging family members whose abilities to remember are waning. It is a sad thing, a great sorrow. I think one reason I started this blog was to help me remember my teaching days and the way approached life in my sixties. It is a kind of testament to my life in education, art, and poetry. It is a touchstone where I can look back and remember. That is important to me. To remember is to be mindful, to walk with purpose in this life, and to be happy at my destination’s end.
This week, I came across two picture books that reminded me about how important grandmothers are in the lives of children. Grandmothers are wise leaders and mentors. They have gentle and guiding hands. They offer solace for scraped knees, dented feelings, and broken hearts. They can set the world right again.
In my own life, I never knew my maternal grandmother. She died six years before I was born. I know her only from the stories told to me by other family members. I was told that I look a lot like she did. My name resembles hers. Her name was Josephine; mine is Joanne, but my parents always called me Josie. They told me I had Josephine’s eyes and smile. It was hard, at first, for me to see myself in the old photographs of her. It took me years to find my smile in hers and her eyes in mine. But yes, she is within me even though I never had the good fortune to meet her.
My paternal grandmother divorced my grandmother when my father was twelve years old. At ninety-five, my father continues to be bitter about this and his relationship with his mother was distant and fraught with anger. Olga lived in Florida, so we did not see her often. We went a few times to visit her in the sunshine state, and she came north to visit us in New Jersey a few times. Every Christmas, she would send straw-filled crates of oranges, grapefruits, key limes, and chocolate covered coconut patties. For this, Olga held a special place in my heart, but we did not have the close, supportive relationship that I craved. That empty spot was filled by my incredible grandfathers, Charlie and Tony. They were my confidants and my champions. With them I was able to be myself, and just be held.
When I happened upon Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker and April Harrison in our school library, I knew I held a special gem in my hands. And I was eager to think about how to share its gifts with our Kindergarten and 1st grade students. The book recounts the relationship between Zura and her grandmother, Nana Akua, whose names means “born on Wednesday” in Twi, the language of Ghana. The children in Zura’s class are celebrating Grandparents’ Day and are asked to invite their relatives to come to school and share their stories. Zura is a bit worried about her grandmother coming to school because Nana Akua has scars on her cheeks from an old West African tradition where parents put marks on her face to show which tribal family she belonged to. These marked represented beauty and confidence. Zura fears that her classmates will be scared of Nana. Of course, Nana is a wise woman and when she visits, she brings with her calm understanding and shows the beauty of her culture. She explains the Adinkra symbols to the children, having them choose one that represents themselves, and paints the symbol on each child’s check. The book’s endpapers show each Adinkra symbol, and I contemplated how best to share this story with our students. I practiced making the symbols and creating some of my own. When I read this book the students, I will encourage them to explore and create these symbols also.
Thinking about grandmothers, I came across another picture book, Grandmother School by Rina Sigh and Ellen Rooney. It takes place in India and is based on a true story about a grandmother, Aaji, who is finally allowed to go to school with a bunch of other grandmothers. The thatched roof and mud floors of the school is much different from the shiny schools that American children are accustomed to. The grandmothers had not be allowed to go to school when they were young. Now they were able to return to school so they could learn to read and write. Some people thought, “Learning at this age was a waste of time.” But of course, it was not a waste of time at all. By the end of the year, the grandmothers have learned so much: to count, to sign their names, and to read beautiful words like mango, river, bird, and rain.
The real grandmother school, Aajibaichi Shala, is located in Phangane, a small village in India 77 miles from Mumbai. The school was started in 2016 by Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, who wanted everyone is his village to be able to read and write. Twenty-nine grandmothers attended the school. They were over the age of sixty, and the oldest grandmother is ninety. This was their first opportunity to learn. I love the message of this story: Learning is timeless. No one is too old to learn. There is hope and opportunity to achieve no matter what age you are. What a wonderful gift to young readers far and wide!
This summer, I am setting my intentions on listening: listening to my body, to my friends, and to the awesome nature around me. I am being mindful of my surroundings. I am paying close attention to what is important. All around me over this past year was noise: people talking, talking, talking and me worrying, worrying, worrying. So I decided to turn everything off – no television, no radio, no endless chatter. I am becoming more discerning of what I listen to. I want beautiful noise: great books, beautiful music, uplifting messages. To do this, first I had to get very, very quiet.
I had to pay attention to life with little sound. I had to cue into my other senses and learn to become present to vibrant colors, fragrant smells, and soft textures on my skin. I found myself being grateful for these simple wonders. I began to slow down, listen to my body, become kinder to myself. I paused and learned to nourish myself with, not only good food and exercise, but with positive media. So much of the media is intended to distract and cause anxiety. I turned away from the constant barrage of news and information. I decided I should be the curator of what I wanted to listen to and take in.
In the last six weeks of using this approach, I have found calm and contentment. I don’t need the noise to keep me company. I can just look up or out or down and be present to my surroundings. I can better tune into what my husband and friends are saying. The more I listen with attentiveness, the more calm I have become. It feels good be present to others. I don’t need to talk. I don’t need to do anything. I just need to listen. Listening is enough.
As I think about returning to teaching in the fall, I think about how I will talk to children about the importance of listening. I’ve been thinking about ways to teach them to center themselves, ignore distractions, and concentrate on the thing or person right in front of them. I continue to reflect on the best ways to do this, and so this will be my summer project for school this year: tuning out the unimportant and tuning in to what is essential, to what nourishes, to what gives us positive outcomes and peace.
Recently, I went to a nearby organic market and found a colorful mural on their cafe wall. It is a perfect example of placing importance of what’s necessary for meaningful communication. I am reflecting on how I will share this with my students as a way to help them develop more thoughtful speaking and deeper listening.
Books about Listening For Adults
Emotional Intelligence: Mindful Listening by The Harvard Business School
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen
Just Listen by Mark Goulston
Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred by Mark Nepo
The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James E. Miller
The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh
The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus
The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir
You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters by Kate Murphy
Picture Books about Listening for Children
Listen, Listen by Phillis Gershator
“I Have a Problem,” said the Bear by Heinz Janisch and Silke Leffler
The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall
I have been teaching for over four decades. That’s amazing to me because as a young girl my interests flittered from one thing to another. I never thought I would do one thing for so long, but this one thing has brought me so much joy. I really can’t imagine a time when I won’t be doing it, but I know that day will come. And it is approaching more quickly than I want it to. I push that thought away, and I focus on the children. This year, I am teaching study skills to three groups of 4th grade girls. They’ve learned about time management, planning, organization – all those essential executive function skills. Now it’s May. They are tired and distracted, and so am I. I call it PES – Plexiglass Exhaustion Syndrome. This year has challenged us to stay focused and on task even with masks on that distort our speech and breathing and plexiglass that distorts our view and interactions. A couple of weeks ago, I bent down and peered through a plexiglass-lined desk and said, “Girls, I am so proud of you. I know this year has been hard learning like this. So, for the last few weeks of school we will be doing a project on play. You all will get to create something that shows why play is important. It can be a game, some artwork, a persuasive essay, a brochure, a model of a playground, a video, anything you can imagine. The girls were intrigued by the idea and asked many questions. It took some a while to believe that I was serious. That we were, indeed, going to study PLAY.
Behind the scenes, I was as excited as my students. I quickly put together all the important information I wanted the girls to know about play. I found video clips of animals playing, psychologists talking about play as a human right, and children giving TED talks on the importance that imagination and recess has on learning. I created a wonderful slideshow to start off our project-based study of play. I couldn’t wait for my first class.
Tuesday came quickly, it was a beautiful warm sunny day. I was so excited to start my presentation, but when I got into the room, the girls clamored around me begging to go outside for a five-minute recess. I couldn’t in good conscience say no to them when the whole essence of my lesson was how important play is to learning, so they went out and rolled on the grass, hung from monkey bars, and pretended to be dragons. Our five minutes turned to fifteen by the time we got back to the classroom. That was okay. I still had time to show most of the slideshow. That is, I had time as long as the technology cooperated. And of course, as these things go, the technology didn’t cooperate. I couldn’t get the sharing screen to work to begin the presentation. I pressed all types of buttons. Nothing worked. The girls began to lose focus, and the room became loud. Several of them rushed up to me asking all kinds of questions. I put my hands up and said quietly without thinking, more to myself than to them, “I am overwhelmed.” This is something they understood – this overwhelmed feeling – this year. They returned to their seats. The got a little quieter. I asked them to go to the link that I had posted so they could watch the video individually. This is not what I had planned. My lesson was falling apart. I wanted it to be a group experience, but it might be able to be salvaged a little. I sat down and continued to fiddle with the share controls. Then one of the girls came up to me and handed me a bottle of spring water and a little packet of iced tea mix. “Open the water. Put in the packet of tea. Shake it up. I do this all the time for my mother when she feels overwhelmed. It works.” I looked up at her in wonder. “Go ahead,” she said, “You will feel better.” So, I did. I followed her directions and took a deep breath. I fiddled with the controls once more, and of course as luck would have it, they finally worked. But alas, it was too late to view as a class. The girls were all watching on their own gasping in surprise and laughing. I had a chance to sit back, observe, and sip my mango-flavored tea. My students were engaged in the content, commenting as they went along. Some students told me that they often get overwhelmed and that it was okay. Everything had worked out. I thanked the student who provided the magic tea, and told her that it did, indeed, work. “I know,” she said confidently with a smile.
Play is important, but so is compassion, understanding, and empathy. That day, the girls understood this deeply. And I began to understand also. I could have focused on all the things that went wrong with this lesson, all the content I did not get to share, all the things I should have done. Instead, I reframed those thirty minutes as the room I made to show loving kindness and compassion. Something that is in increasing short supply in our world. I told the girls that I am very lucky because my work – teaching them – is my play. If you love the thing you do and are passionate about it, then it is play and you can do it forever. When you play passionately, others feel your joy too – and it spreads – that is the silver lining.
Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.
I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.
When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.
I take another glance
at my alarm clock,
It's four in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.
Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.
I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.
We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice there are
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."
Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.
This post is dedicated to my cousin, Jeanne, who is like a sister to me. This past year, she had taken care of her husband who lost his battle with cancer last week. It has been a long painful journey and though I tried to provide comfort, I knew there was little I could do to truly help her, so I did the only thing left to do – I listened. My mother would always tell me how kind and considerate Jeanne was. She appreciated Jeanne’s cards and visits. My mother made me promise to watch over her. I would have done so anyway. Jeanne has the most compassionate heart. She is one of those people who are earthly angels. Jeanne encourages me with my writing, lifts me up when I am feeling almost hopeless, and tells me stories to make me laugh. She is the best friend-cousin-sister anyone could ever have! The best offering, I can give her now are my words and my pictures. I hope this small offering brings her peace and makes her know that she is greatly loved.
Walking up the steep,
Through the cathedral
I breathe in
their vivid color
And let out a slow
I am present
To God’s glorious
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
In the undergrowth,
Birds on the branches sing,
My soul takes flight.
The following poems are in a form I hadn’t known about until last week. Fellow blogger, Ramona, had written a recent post containing a lovely golden shovel poem, which spurred me to try this form. It is a very comforting form because the writer takes a short quote that is meaningful to her and then use it as the base of her poem. It is a seed from which the poem grows. It also takes brain power to puzzle out how to combine one’s ideas with that of the original writer’s words. The last word in each line of the poem reveals the original quote from top to bottom. I think this is a form that I will continue to play with and have my students play with.
Three Golden Shovel Poems
The Earth Laughs in Flowers. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Daffodils, hyacinths, and the
Tulips brightly bloom upon the Earth
All the green garden laughs
Exuberantly, right out loud in
A brilliance of flowers.Where Flower Bloom so Does Hope. – Lady Bird Johnson
April turns to May where
raindrops become flowers
pink, yellow, orange, purple bloom
up through the green so
quietly, so spontaneously does
this garden restore my hope.With the Coming of Spring, I am Calm Again. - Gustav Mahler
Dark clouds fill the sky with
An abundance of rain, the
Drops fall to the ground, coming
Faster and faster, all of
A sudden it’s spring -
Green and glimmering, I
Turn my face to the rain, I am
Suddenly peaceful and calm
Spring is within me again.
This week I am celebrating. I am celebrating 52 and 65. I have blogged for 52 weeks straight – one whole year of weekly writing! As of this week, I will have been living on this small blue planet for 65 years. My personal philosophy is that there are people on this planet who are candles – placed on Earth to light the way for others. All my life, it is teachers and writers who have lit my way to new and better understanding; opened my mind to possibilities and promise.
Writer and educator, Ruth Ayres, is one of these people. I have read all of Ruth’s books and have followed her blog for years. I was attracted to the honest way she talked about teaching and raising her family. She is an advocate for children who come from dark places. And as a former child who survived a dark place and thrived, Ruth’s children’s lives were of great interest to me. I worried about their troubles and cheered when they overcame obstacles. Healing from trauma is no easy matter. It is a lifelong process. Ruth’s stories helped me to heal.
A year ago, she invited me to come write with her community of bloggers at SOS: Sharing Our Stories – Magic in a Blog. I was hoping that Ruth’s kind invitation would help me write more successfully, come out of the shadows, and share the poems and stories I had been storing up for years. And indeed, it did work. I have been writing consistently this year, and I have met a group of insightful, affirming, and inspiring writers and teachers. They have lifted me up and given me ideas to ponder, books to read, and their stories have brought me equal parts of tears and laughter.
When I was ten-years-old, I was deeply affected by the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. The story of the young deaf and blind girl who, with the careful guidance of her teacher, learned to speak and write, becoming an international lecturer and advocate for the deaf and blind. If Helen could learn to speak and light world up with her ideas, then who could I become? What could I accomplish? It was Helen’s young teacher who served as a candle lighting her way, giving her language. Helen describes the moment she began to understand that Anne’s finger signings were words:
I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! (The Story of My Life)
Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:
My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed!
William Gibson made Helen’s autobiography into a play, The Miracle Worker. In the first act, Anne explains to Mrs. Keller that “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” The 1962 film of The Miracle Worker was one of my favorites and made me want to become a teacher like Anne Sullivan when I grew up. I wanted to teach children, connect with them, and show them what words can do to free them to learning.
I have been teaching for over four decades. I am proud of my work and immensely proud of all the children I was so fortunate to get to know. Over these years, I have met children who have faced immense obstacles: abuse, poverty, abandonment, death of a beloved one, illness, and difficulty learning. I hope that the books I read and the stories I told were of comfort to them. I hope I provided them with a candle in the darkness. Some days, I think back and wonder how they all are doing and hope they are having happy lives. Some students I have been fortunate enough to still have contact with and who still reach out to me to tell of their triumphs and tribulations as young adults – grown up people. I am very grateful.
This week, I happened to see an article on the Internet about a former student and his important research. He now has a doctorate in some very complicated and technical field of statistics that I cannot even try to fathom. I marveled at the list of his publications. But the simple line that made me smile was this one: “I love to paint.” When I read that, I knew that Marco was safe and sound. Over twenty-five years ago, when Marco was in my 3rd grade class, we studied a new artist every month, and we would take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of art (it was only nine blocks away). The children would sit, wonder, and sketch in front of some of the world’s greatest paintings. Back in the classroom, they would experiment with paint, torn paper, and glue. All things were possible. In that school, with those children, I was able to teach freely. It was a wonderful time. And then, as life would have it, something terrible happened in Marco’s life that made our world tilt upside down. His grown brother, the brother he loved and wanted to emulate, was killed. We mourned. We gathered around Marco and his family. We did and said all the things one is supposed to do and say. It did not take away the pain. We knew that. One day, I noticed that some Lego pieces were missing. More and more – more and more rapidly. And it wasn’t the blocks that were missing, it was the people. Soon we had no more Lego people. I brought this problem up to the class. I waited for someone to confess and give back the people. No one did for weeks. My co-teacher and I searched the classroom and school looking for Lego people. No luck.
Then one day, as I was walking a back staircase, I saw a little glimmer of yellow high up on a ledge – a Lego person! What was it doing there? Who put it all the way up there? I took the Lego person and went back to my class with the evidence. I asked them what they thought happened. No one said a word. Then later in the day, Marco came to me and quietly said, “I put him there. He is resting forever, but he is still with me.” I tried to stop my sudden tears. Now I understood. The Lego people were Marco’s brother, and he was hiding them all around the school so he would never be alone. I went with Marco back to the stairway ledge and put the Lego person back in place. I told him that he could keep the Lego people where he had placed them, and I would just get some new ones. Months went by, Marco and his family slowly healed. One spring day, we were writing fractured fairy tales. Marco asked if he could write a play and have his friends be the actors. I encouraged him to write. As he wrote, he shared his work with his friends, who erupted into gales of laughter. I wondered what he was writing, but he told me it was a surprise. Finally, the day had come, and he unveiled his play, The Three Little Wolfies and the Big Bad Pig. Marco and his friends acted out the silly scenes and the rest of the class clapped. It was so wonderful that I decided to invite all the parents to hear their children’s work. When it was time to present the play, Marco’s parents sat in the front row. They laughed, they held each other’s hands, they hugged Marco when he took his final bow. There was a little light in the darkness. A small glimmer of hope.
And now this week, to know that Marco is an accomplished scholar who loves to paint, this is the best 65th birthday gift I could have ever wish for. Marco is happy and healthy and safe.
This past month, I have learned that inspiration for teaching and life can come from many places: a photograph of a curled up Dachshund, a simple quote from Shakespeare, a 2nd grader’s writing assessment, or an educational email with the subject line: Are we preparing students to be chefs or cooks?
This email came from A.J. Juliani, who has written many books about student empowerment, technology, and innovation. He is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Centennial School District in Pennsylvania and also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Juliani believes that teachers and students should approach their work life chefs. He explains it this way:
When my brother passed away a few years ago, my thoughts turned to my own children. How could I help raise them to be chefs? How could I raise them to not follow the recipes of life, but instead make their own recipes for their life? But, it is not just my kids, it is all of our kids.
This is one thing I know for sure: every single one of us is not getting off this planet alive. And since this is the case, I believe we should be kind to ourselves and each other, and always put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Most importantly, we should follow our dreams and play. This is why I’m so glad that my work and my play are the same thing. Maybe I have always approached life like a chef: creating, improvising, putting things together that aren’t normally supposed to go together. To me, it makes life fun and interesting. And it’s worth it, even when I encounter mistakes. Or maybe especially when I encounter my mistakes. The mistakes make me grow and learn and try on new adventures.
This week, I was tasked with reading our students’ writing assessments. Wednesday night after dinner, tired with a cup of tea in my hand, I read this little gem from one of our 2nd graders:
I smiled when I read this passage. This student didn’t want to be pigeon-holed at the tender age of seven about what she would like to be when she grew up, so she created her own role. Nobody told her she couldn’t do that. She invented her own path. I was so pleased to see this, so happy that we were encouraging kids to think outside the box, to go beyond what lies behind them.
Reading about chef-scientists made think about all the times I’ve spent in the kitchen with children creating holiday foods, foods inspired by children’s books, and foods for the fun of it like the time I made hand-cranked watermelon ice with a rambunctious group of four-year-olds that required six cups of sugar. That recipe was the definition of SWEET!
My favorite times in the kitchen with kids were the times we created cakes using no recipes. The students had to create the recipe as we went along. I called this activity Monster Cake. I would put out a bunch of different ingredients and the children would decide which ingredients to use and how much to put in. A number of years ago, one little boy was adamant about putting a ¼ cup of salt into the cake batter. I allowed him to do that because we were making two batches and this way the children could all learn what happens to a cake with ¼ cup of salt in it. It actually was a beautiful cake, but it didn’t taste good. We crumbled it up and put it out for the birds, but even the birds and squirrels didn’t eat it! The other cake had 2 cups of chocolate chips in it and the chips sank to the bottom making a fudge layer. That cake we all ate with gusto!
While searching the web, I found that actually creating food without a recipe is now a cool and trendy thing. Some call it free-style baking. I love this idea. We should make our one trip on this beautiful planet sweet, spicy, comforting, and sometimes a bit surprising! I’m about to enter my kitchen now to make some Blustery Day Oatmeal cookies, a recipe I invented. Try them, if you dare!
February holds a special place in my heart. Not because it’s my birthday month, that will come soon enough, but because it is the month of my anniversary, my Grandpa Charlie’s and my mother’s birthday. She would have been 99 this month! When February rolls along, I bring out my red: little heart dishes, candles, flowers, and little things to brighten and cheer this long winter space.
In the classroom, I turn to poetry and talk to the children about loving kindness, first to themselves and then to others. We make lots of lists of the things we love. These lists mostly revolve around family and food. We practice writing odes and shout outs to all the things we love and are grateful for. Odes were originally songs performed to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, and sometimes a brave soul will write a song and perform it. I love these small moments of celebration: no cake, no presents, just the simple pleasure of the written and spoken word.
To begin introducing odes to the children I choose Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes.” I think the sparseness and brilliant imagery will capture their attention and imagination. This is how Neruda begins:
Ode to TomatoesThe streetfilled with tomatoes,midday,summer,light ishalvedlikeatomato,its juicerunsthrough the streets.In December,unabated,the tomatoinvadesthe kitchen,it enters at lunchtime,takesits easeon countertops,among glasses,butter dishes,blue saltcellars.It shedsits own light,benign majesty.
Neruda perfectly places each word and gives each the importance it deserves. After the students choose an object of their affection, I ask them to write a list of all the words to describe that object. We share the lists and our classmates offer more suggestions. Then it is time to write. Here are a few the students created.
Ode to Horses
in the middle of the night
when nobody is watching,
their manes flying in the wind
as they go by.
They talk to each other
with a simple “Neigh.”
When the sun comes up,
they are all tired from a long night.
Their eyes still glow with delight.
They have a long day,
but they keep on trotting on
because they know
what the night brings.
Ode to Candles
Out in the living room
Aspiring to burn the brightest
Standing tall and proud
Wax running down the side
When the flame has died
It goes to sleep
Dreaming about a great flame
The people huddle round
Outside the snow falls
Ode to Puppies
Your fluffy feet
And velvety ears
Make me want to cuddle you all day long!
You make me smile
When you run around on your fluffy feet
And when you curl up into a ball to sleep
You make me want to hug you
Your tiny teeth may nip,
And your miniature claws may scratch
But I love you just the same.
I love your little tail
As it wags, wags, wags
And your round tummy
As you chow on yummy food
You make me laugh
When you chew on a bone
And chase your tail
And lie down on your bed
I love you
Ode to My Goggles
During the day my goggles
Open their eyes and see
All the swimmers swimming.
They swim with me
In the pool
And protects my eyes.
At night they dream
Of swimming in the ocean,
Seeing all the fish and coral.
They wake up,
Ready to swim.
Thank you, goggles!
Another poem type I came across recently are Shout Outs. Shout out poems are poems that thank people, animals or things that are personally important. Sekou Sundiata created this type of poetry. His poem has a lot of music in it. Here is a small part of his poem. You can listen to the entire poem here: SHOUT OUT!
Shout OutHere’s to the best wordsIn the right place at the perfect timeHere’s to three hour dinnersAnd long conversations, and a beautiful day.To the increase, to the decreaseTo the do, to the doTo the did to the didTo the done doneTo the lonely.To the brokenhearted.To the new, blue haiku.Here’s to all or nothing at all.Here’s to the sick, and the shut-in.Here’s to the was you been to the is you inTo what’s deep and deep To what’s down and downTo the lost, and the blind, and the almost found.
Here is my attempt at a Shout Out poem. When teaching poetry to children, I think it is essential to write and create and revise right alongside them so that the class become a community of writers fully engaged in the process.
Earth Shout Out
Here’s to the seasons turning
To the bright spring flowers
To the cardinals and jays singing in the trees
Shout out to the clear blue sky
To the fluffy whipped cream clouds
To the children running and playing
To their laughter and wild freedom.
Shout out to the peaceful world
To the beautiful earth
To the golden sun and silver moon
And to the twinkly diamond stars!
I encourage students to describe the things they love in unusual ways. I don’t make them stick to one form and have fifteen cookiecutter poems. I want them to explore the form and push the boundaries of their thinking. One great book to share with children is Shout!: Little Poems that Roar by Brod Bagert.
Winter SHOUT OUT!!!
Here’s to the snowy blizzards
To the skiing vacations
To the warm winter coats
Shout out to the Christmas fun
To the cozy Vermont cabins
To the tight ice skates
To the creamy hot chocolate
Shout out to the warm, doughy cookies
To the steep sledding hills
To the family movies, snuggled under blankets
And to the winter wonderland outside my warm, cozy house
Shout out to Pizza
Pizza is cheesy goodness
Pizza is a great wheel of sauce
Pizza I love your hot and cheesy flavor
I love you with veggies on top
I adore pepperoni too
I shout to the sky
Pizza you are the BEST!
Shout Out to Ice Cream
Ice cream you are the dairy king
You taste better than anything
You come in a lot of flavors
All which I savor
Even though you’re very cold
That makes you even more bold.
You can be eaten in bowls,
And you can be eaten in cones
And with your toppings that are so delish
You are my number one wish!
Odes and Shout Outs are a great way to liven up these dreary winter days. They serve as a little light in the darkness. They remind us about what we love and why. They help us to reflect and have gratitude for the big and small things in our lives.
Here are some great books to celebrate loving kindness and Valentine’s Day.
Arthur’s Valentine by Marc Brown
Guess How Much I Love You? By Sam McBratney
Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
Here Comes Valentine Cat by Deborah Underwood
Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes
Llama, Llama, I Love You by Anna Dewdney
Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
Love from the Crayons by Drew Dayward
Love Letters by Arnold Adoff
Love Monster by Rachel Bright
Love, Splat by Rob Scotton
Louanne Pig in the Mysterious Valentine by Nancy Carlson
Ollie’s Valentine by Olivier Dunrea
One Zillion Valentines by FrankModell
Pete the Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool by James Dean
Somebody Loves You, Mr.Hatcher by Eileen Spinelli
Snowy Valentine by David Peterson
The Best Valentine in the World by Marjorie Weisman Sharmat
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.
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
still seeking salvation.
Clouds loom over the ridge line,
Whipped cotton cumulus clouds
Casting shadows on the hills,
On the forest floor,
Glints of reflected light
On the river’s surface.
Dark green cool spots,
Rocky crags and uprooted trees
Hidden in silent repose.