Small Wonder

September is more than half-way over.  I am beginning to settle in to my school routine: getting up early, working long days organizing student support, and coming home exhausted only to organize some more.  It sounds tedious and parts of my job are very routinized, but then there is the wonder that sneaks in every day.  The wonder from young children engaging with their world.  That I would not trade to witness for all the money the in world – honestly.  Wonder is what sustains me, what pushes me through, what is on the other side of the routines and everyday drudgery. 

I realized that I have been either going to school or teaching in a school for sixty-two years, more than half a century, most of my life!  That is indeed a long time, and I know when the time comes for me to stop doing school, it will be a hard transition.  I absolutely love school.  I love getting up in the morning, picking out a school outfit, getting to school and seeing friends,  going through my way and learning, going home to think about all that has happened in the day, and then doing it all over again until summertime greets me at the end of the school year.

Every day there is a new surprise. Every day, something I didn’t expect happens.  This is sometimes positive and sometimes negative, and whichever it is – it is always a learning experience.  My days are electric, and that’s how I like them.  This is not to say my day are frenetic and haphazard.  No, the electricity comes from learning alongside children.  I get to see the world again through that childlike lens of wonder and discovery.  It fills me with joy, and I am reminded how exciting learning something can be.

One of the best ways I know to spend my time is visiting the JPK classroom, which is home to our three-year-old students.  I started my career teaching three-year-old children, so when I enter their classroom, it is like going back in time, and I feel young again. Three-year-olds are the friendliest people I know.  They engage you from the minute they meet you and want to be your friend.  They like to share information and will tell you without any hesitation what they are doing and how it is going in their world. Even if sometimes they are shy, they are still willing to come up and quietly share what they are thinking.  They thrive on connection.

I came to help out on the first day of school.  As parents were separating from their children, I noticed one little dark-haired girl, Avery, was having trouble letting her mom go.  I sat next to her at the playdough table and engaged her in a conversation long enough for her mom to say good-bye and leave.  We continued to play with our pink playdough balls, and I asked Avery if she’d like me to make a snowman. Her face lit up with an exuberant nod.  She requested that I make snowman after snowman in various sizes. She giggled and clapped all the way through.  I encouraged her to make a snowman, but she just shook her head and said, “You do it.” We played and chatted at the table until it was time for the children to clean-up and for me to get on with the rest of my day.

The following week, I came into the JPK room to find Avery once again sitting with pink playdough.  I sat alongside her and said hello.  She gave me a big smile and commanded me to make a snowman.  I started to make one ball and stopped and said, “You know you can do this.” She shook her head.  “Yes, you can,” and I said, “I can show you.”  Avery looked up at me, and I showed her how to move her hands to make a ball. She took some playdough and tried to form a ball.  She moved her hands back and forth.  When she opened her palms, she looked down and frowned.  “It’s a snake,” she said.  I smiled and explained, “When you move your hand back and forth it turns into a snake.  When you move your hands around in a circle like this it becomes a ball.”  I made a snake and then a ball. Then I helped Avery to move her hands in a circle. I told her to put the playdough on the table and move one hand on top in a circle.  She followed my instructions and slowly removed her hand uncovering a perfect little pink ball. Her face lit up like she had just witnessed magic.  Her face was a glow of delight that spread to me and to all the other children at the table.  I wished I had taken a photo of her.  Her expression was pure joy and happiness.  I tucked that image away with me and will keep it with me to use at times when I need a boost.

A few days later, I returned to Avery’s classroom.  When I walked in the door, she looked over her shoulder and beckoned me to come see what she was doing. When I saw, my heart over-filled with complete joy.  Avery’s playdough mat had a long line of pink balls lined up one after another and stacked one on top of another like a great pink snowball wall.  I laughed and said, “Oh, you have been busy!  You know how to make snowballs now!  You don’t need me.”  Avery smiled at me, patted the chair next to her. “Sit down,” she said, “Come play.”  Who could argue with that?

I know this seems like such a small thing: a child playing with playdough, learning to make shapes.  Some people might say, “This is the way you spend your day?  You get paid for this?” And I will proudly declare, “Yes – I spend my day in joy and wonder.  I spend my day cultivating play and creativity because it is through these little joy-filled interactions that people learn and grow and invent new ways for our world to be a better place. And so to all of you I say, “Sit down. Come play.”

Avery playing practicing her new skill: PlayDough balls!

A Wall of Wonder

Reading in Wildness

I took this photo while on vacation in Maine.  I was walking by a favorite lily pond and happened upon this mother-daughter reading team lounging in a nearby meadow. The mother was reading with much gusto, taking on the voices of each character.  I don’t know what book it was that she was reading, but her young daughter was totally entranced by the story.  “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this child will grow up to be a fearless, wild reader.”  They brought a smile to my face and joy to my old teacher heart.

As a child, reading was difficult for me. I painstakingly sounded out each letter and then tried my hardest to blend the sounds into a word. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, and the whole process left me exhausted. However, I loved stories.  I listened to epic poems that my father would recite and fantasy classics that my mother would read to me.  I found stories to be mesmerizing.  It took me a long time to say that I loved reading. Reading was slow work, and I was a fast kid. I did not like to sit still.  I wanted the words to come fast and furious, but my mind kept me at a slow and steady pace.  I was labeled a “slow reader.”  I wasn’t dyslexic, just slow.  One of the reasons for this, I think as I look back, is that I was in love with words, so I would dawdle over passages and wonder how the author constructed such a scene.  If the author left some things to the readers’ imagination, then I would float off creating whole other scenarios in my head.  Slowly, I would land back to the book and continue where I had left off.  This certainly was not efficient, purposeful reading, but it did afford me the ability to read like a writer.  I was not a spectator as I read, I was a participant.  I took in all the words to use them again in a different way in a story of my own. Eventually, I learned to savor the slow and to know that the kind of reading I was doing was helping me become a better writer.

Recently, I found Hudson Talbott’s A Walk in Words.  Talbott was also a slow reader and in this book he explains his reading journey.  It is through drawing that Talbott came to love reading and writing.  He found that his love of drawing lead him into stories, and he began to think of reading as “word painting.” As he grew, Talbott’s curiosity won, and he was able to read at his own pace. At the end of the book, he created a Slow Reader Hall of Fame including: William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Babe Ruth, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Graham Bell, to name a few. Thankfully, Talbott became a picture book writer. He said that he mined books for words to use in his stories and that the ability to lose himself in books helped to spark his imagination.

When I think of it, many of the book I adored as a child were based in the wild. The book that taught me that I loved reading was the classic, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and after that was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece, My Side of the Mountain.  Those books helped me see past myself and to envision the kind of reader who takes chances and doesn’t give up. I slowly picked my way through the words and in the process found lifelong friends and exciting adventures.

Reading in Wildness Suggestions:

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

Picture Books:

A Walk in Forest by Maria Dek

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature by Rachel Williams

The Hike by Alison Farrell

Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark

Wild by Emily Hughes

Chapter Books:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha lai

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Power in our Words

Summer has come, and this is the time I normally take to reflect on my past year’s teaching experience.  I have filled two roles for the past two and a half years: first, as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator and then as a Learning Support Coordinator. I didn’t realize how much doing both roles would require of me. I love the creativity of curricular development and also enjoy working one-on-one with struggling students.  I like the challenge of finding the right strategies to support each learner.  Next school year, I will be solely engaged in learning support, and I have found myself feeling ebullient at the prospect. Though I will miss providing reading and writing curricular support, the whole reason I went into teaching forty-three years ago was to help kids who found school difficult.  I love working with kids to find pathways to learning, to make reading and writing playful, to make school meaningful and fun again.

As I shift my attention solely to learning support, I keep thinking about how teacher language supports student engagement and growth.  There have been many studies about this idea. Also, I know this to be true from my own experiences as a student.  There were teachers who shut me down and who believed more in my limitations than in my possibilities.  They could be dismissive, sarcastic, and sometimes downright mean.  I vowed never to be like those teachers.  When I was unfortunate enough to have that type of teacher, I learned to keep my head down, be quiet, and not to bring any attention to myself.  In those years, I did not learn as much as I could have, and my self-esteem suffered.  I am grateful that I only had two such years in my long career as a student.  Most years, I had teachers who saw my potential, who encouraged me, and who showed they cared about my ideas.  In the presence of those teachers, I flourished.  I felt good about myself.  I took more and more risks, my voice became stronger, and I had the motivation to learn.  Their support fed my curiosity and creativity.  I began to read widely and teach myself.  I was empowered by my teachers’ positive attitude towards me.

The past two and a half years has been difficult for teachers.  They have spent less time teaching and more time on administrative minutia.  The stress of masks, social distancing, hybrid learning, and virtual technology has taken its toll.  Workshops on mindfulness and self-care can only do so much.  Since my job is to support learning, I spend most of my days inside classrooms observing teaching and learning.  I have witnessed some wonderful, creative, and engaging lessons.  However, I have also witnessed some disengagement, frustration, and negative, unproductive talk from teachers.  As I reflect on how I can become a positive voice in my school community,  I have been reading Paula Denton’s book, The Power of Our Words.  The book is part of the Responsive Classroom series and gives concrete advice to teachers on how to reflect on how they speak to their students and how to shift negative talk into talk that is uplifting and supportive – talk that will make students feel valued and talk that will encourage them to become involved in their own learning.  I plan to think of ways to speak to my faculty about the importance of teacher talk and to make teacher talk integral to the learning profiles I create for each struggling student.

I hope in this way, not only our students with learning differences, but also all students will benefit.  Paul Denton’s words ring true: “…teachers can use language to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways that go beyond but connect to their current reality.  Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this.”

Now, more than ever it is important for teachers to become mindful of their talk and to think about the words we use to provide optimal engagement and lead children to see learning as a way to attain their goals.  Teachers have that power, and it is important for them to think deeply before they speak.

Books that Promote Positive Talk:

How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and In School by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King

How to Talk so Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Positive Teacher Talk for Better Classroom Management by Deborah Diffly

Say What You See for Parents and Teachers by Sandra R. BlackardThe Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton

Embracing the Process

During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students.  The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices.  I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations.  I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them.  Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be.  Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.

This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio.  They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly,  however they didn’t quite clean everything up.  Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps.  I get it.  I was twelve once.  I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.

Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them.  She looked up at me grinning.

“I know,” she said, “I love the process.” 

I laughed and agreed.  Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission.  As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials.  She often finds things I didn’t know I had.  Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project.  I looked at her skeptically. 

“They won’t mind.  It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.”  And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project. 

The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls.  Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing.  I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance.  I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me.  It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.

Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl.  She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials.  She frowned and began hunting for a replacement.  She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart.  As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure.  In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work.  At one point, I asked her what she was making.

With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”

I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”

“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant.  I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.

Today, Laila finished her project.  She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over.  Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down.  She came over and handed it to me.

“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

I laughed, “Of course, a lamp.  It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”

And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads.  She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string.  “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.

Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way.  I know that I have to be quiet and listen.  My students always show me the way.  They know what they need.  They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.

Growth Power

I have been watching children grow for forty-two years.  The funny thing, like plants, children don’t always grow in a straight line reaching directly up to sun, luscious and fragrant.  Sometimes growth takes a hard, circuitous route and more time than expected.  With plants, you might need to adjust the proper amount of sunlight, temperature, moisture, air, and nutrients.  You also might want to provide beautiful music to encourage growth.  With children, it helps to be patient, provide encouragement and a positive attitude. Follow their circuitous route and give them the creative space to discover their interests and passions.

Lately, I have been bombarded by teachers with fixed mindsets about student progress.  The words: can’t, doesn’t, won’t, below grade level abound.  They repeat the mantra, “She’ll never catch up.,” over and over again until it becomes their truth. This fixed mindset about student growth has been debilitating to me, and I can’t imagine what it does to the students.  Children, even if they are having trouble learning, have no trouble understanding how their teachers regard them. They know what teachers think of them, and if the teacher’s truth is that the child can’t learn or there’s something wrong with the child, then undoubtedly the child begins to believe it too.

I believe that humans are miraculous creatures. They can surmount overwhelming odds. They can achieve their goals with hard work, encouragement, and burning desire. They can crush any limits with strong will and motivation. I know this to be true. I have seen it. The third grader who struggles to pay attention becomes a poet and a therapist. The second grader who struggles to read, grows up to get a doctorate in education. The first grader who applies an awkward pencil grip and avoids writing, grows up to be a world-class adventurer who sails across the Atlantic. Without some kind of struggle, it is difficult to truly learn. There should be no shame in struggle. We shouldn’t give children the message that if you are struggling to learn something, then you are not quite up to par and that this is the way you will always be.

This idea of children needing to be given space to question experiment and explore reminds 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.  Gillian went on to become a famous British ballerina and choreographer.  She 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. By encouraging risk-taking and experimentation, teachers guide students to explore their personal strengths and passions, allowing children to become authors of creative narratives of their own design. Children begin to see themselves as actors in the true sense of the word.  They are part of a creative growth process, responsible for their own learning. 


Didn’t They Know?

Melodramatic,
My family dubbed me.
"Stop being Sara Bernhardt,"
My mother declared.
Didn’t they know?
Didn’t they know
That I cut my teeth
On words and sounds,
On the sharp crackle of
circumference
On the soft chew of
statuesque.
I was born a poet,
Didn’t they know?

Sensitive dreamer,
My family called me.
"Get your head out of the clouds,"
My father demanded.
Didn’t they know?
Didn’t they realize
My mind was made
For curious, impossible things?
To wander and wonder
To dance with the breeze
Weave words into poems
And poems into stories
And stories into a rich, wild life.
Didn’t they know? 



Invitation to Joy

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy

in creative expression and knowledge.

– Albert Einstein

I think that my major role as an educator is to invite joy.  I have always thought this from the beginning of my career over forty years ago.  Maybe it’s because I started teaching in a nursery school.  You can’t help to be joyful when teaching two, three, and four-year-old children.  They actually exude joie de vivre and happily invite adults into their world. It’s a great place to dwell.

When I began teaching elementary school, I found that older children also respond to joy no matter their gender, socio-economic status, race, or academic progress.  Indeed, children who struggled with academics or behavior were even more in need of joy and became more motivated when their teachers found a way to invite them into joyful learning. It’s amazing what a little happiness will do.

These days, joy-filled learning is crucial.  Spreading joy is easy.  You just need to listen to children and take an interest in who they are and what they like to do.  This morning, I started my day in my favorite place, the school library.  As I chatted with our librarian, children drifted in to return books.  Riley, an artistic and creative fifth grader, wandered in. I greeted her enthusiastically and asked if she would like to create a comic strip for our school literary magazine.  For years, Riley has shared her drawings and handmade books with me.  Riley grinned from ear to ear and nodded her head enthusiastically.  I immediately knew that I had done the right thing by asking her.  She came closer and asked what kind of comic strip she should make.  I told her to use her imagination.  Maybe she’d like to include her llama or frog characters.  She smiled, dug in her pocket, and showed me a tiny notebook she created.  She promised to work on the comic strip and show it to me when she had it sketched out.  Then she skipped away, and my heart felt lighter knowing that I had added a little joy in her day.

Next, Naomi walked in.  Naomi is a tinker-master.  She loves building things with her hands.  For several years, she has signed up to create crafts with me in our Wonder Lab. And when Wonder Lab was closed because of COVID, Naomi created projects at home, taught her little sisters, and sent me videos of her work.  I marveled at her initiative and ingenuity.  I felt remorse that Wonder Lab had been closed for a year and a half.  This year, it reopened in a smaller space with a new name, Wonder Studio.  I can take only a limited number of children in the Wonder Studio at a time, so Naomi has not had as much time creating at school as she had in the past.  I called over to her and asked her if she’d like to create a crafting page for our school magazine. As soon as the words escaped my mouth, Naomi’s whole body started to vibrate.  She literal bounced up and down.  I looked over at our librarian and we smiled at each other.  “I guess that means – yes,” I said.  Naomi continue to bounce and nodded her head.  It was not even 8:30 in the morning and I had made two little girls extremely happy. And it was easy to do, and it was fun, and it made a difference. If nothing else positive happened today, that was okay with me because I had spread some joy and encouraged creativity. My work was done for the day!

Books on Joy for Kids

  1. Black Boy Joy by Kwame Mbalia
  2. Grandma’s Joy by Eloise Greenfield
  3. Olivia Dances for Joy by Natalie Shaw
  4. Sparkles of Joy: A Children’s Book That Celebrates Diversity and Inclusion by Aditi Wardhan
  5. The Joy in You by Cat Deeley
  6. The Little Book of Joy: 365 Ways to Celebrate Every Day by Joanne Ruelos Diaz
  7. This Joy! By Shelley Johannes

Books on Joy for Adults

  1. Awakening Joy for Kids: A Hands-On Guide for Grown-Ups to Nourish Themselves and Raise Mindful, Happy Children by James Baraz and Michelle Lillyana
  • Joy in Learning: Making it Happen in Early Childhood Classes by Leon Burton
  • Joyful Learning by Alice Udvari-Solner and Paula Kluth
  • Rediscover the Joy of Learning by Don A. Blackerby
  • Start with Joy by Katie Egan Cunningham
  • The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-filled Kids by Marcus Warner
  • The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu
  • The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play by Laura Bland
  • The Joy of Learning: Finding Flow Through Classical Education by Jason Matthew Barney
  • The Joy of Teaching: Making a Difference in Student Learning by Gene E. Hall, Linda F. Quinn, and Donna M. Gollnick
  • The Joyful Child: A Sourcebook of Activities and Ideas for Releasing Children’s Natural Joy by Peggy Jenkins, PhD
  • The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Students K-6 by Responsive Classroom

Writing to Entertain

It’s Wednesday, time for Kindergarten writing workshop. I have a hop in my step as I walk down the hall towards the Kindergarten classroom. I open the door, and the teacher rushes over to tell me that she desperately needs my help. The girls are sitting at small tables immersed in their speech bubble stories – all except the girls at the kidney-shaped table. At that table, three little girls are “writing:” Abbie is tossing her eraser in the air; Maddie is hopping up and down and writing at the same time, and Kelly is sitting backwards in her chair looking at her friends at the next table. Of course, the teacher sits me at the kidney-shaped table and says, “See what you can do.”

I smile at the girls. “Okay everyone, let’s keep writing,” I proclaim cheerfully. Kelly promptly get sup and sharpens her pencil. It is a long journey and I have to call her back to her story. Abbie is staring at her pictures. She has one more frame to finish. I encourage her to write an ending. “I’m thinking,” she says quietly. Abbie thinks for a long time. I periodically coax her along.

Maddie, the hopping one, has finished her story. She shows it to me. There is a happy drawing in six frames. The first one has a picture of a boy, a girl, and a house. The girl is saying, “Let’s go!” the boy is saying, “OK!” The second frame has me stumped. I turn to Maddie and say, “Can you read this to me?” Random words are scattered around the frame encircled in a speech bubble. I cannot figure out the order, but Maddie can. She promptly moves up and down, right to left and reads, “Hey Jack, it’s time for school.”

I smile and take a deep breath. Children never cease to amaze me. Maddie is hopping again. I ask her to quiet her body. She giggles at me like that is the funniest request she has ever heard.

“Maddie,” I say in my most writing workshop teacher voice, “When we write, we need to write the words in order.” Maddie giggles and bounces in her seat.

“Why?” she asks. “Because your readers need to know where to start and where to end.”

“I can read it,” she says proudly.

Yes,” I agree, “but I can’t”. If I follow the way you wrote it, it would say, ” Hey school, it’s Jack time.”

This sets Maddie into a gale of laughter, sprawling herself across the table. We erase her bubble and start again. I make light guide lines and Maddie begins to write her message. She stretches out each word. It takes a long time.

Meanwhile, Kelly has finished her story. It is in order, and she reads it aloud confidently. She begins to color her pictures. Abbie is still sitting staring at her paper. It is half done. I ask her to tell me the story. It is about a butterfly and a snake, and they are looking for their friend, a girl named Red. Abbie has imaginative ideas. Pictures are easy. Words are hard. Each character says just one word. It is easier to be quiet.

Maddie starts shouting, “How do you spell Nona?”

We stretch the word out together. I look at her picture frame.

“I thought you and Jack were going to school?”

“We are,” she declares boldly.

“Then, how come you are at Nona’s house?”

She sticks out her bottom lip and looks at me like I am the most dense person in the world.

“Because,” she says very slowly, “We go to Nona’s house after school.”

“Oh,” I say, “then you need to write that here,” I say pointing to her picture of Nona’s house. I remind her to put the words in order.

Maddie hops in place, finishes her words, and begins to color her drawings. I’m glad to report that Maddie, Jack, and Nona live happily every after. I am looking forward to my next session in Kindergarten writing workshop. I can just imagine what entertainment Maddie and her classmates have in store for me!

Finding my Way

Yesterday morning, I walked down the dim school hallway well before classes were due to begin.  I opened the library door, turned on the light, and set down my belongings.  I set up my place at a table so I would be ready to help any students who came in early in need of academic assistance or who just wanted someone to talk to.  I love this time in the morning when I can connect with students. While I waited, I perused the display of books and one caught my eye – this Way, Charlie by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso.  I don’t know whether it was the bucolic scene on the cover or that Charlie is the name of my maternal grandfather, but I picked the book up and started to read.  At that moment, our school librarian came in and saw what I had in my hand.  “Oh, that’s a sweet one, and it’s loosely based on a true story,”  she said. I love stories that are connected to real life.  I feel like I get two stories for the price of one!  I sat down with my cup of coffee and started to read.

There I was in a springtime field with Jack, the goat and Charlie, the horse.  The farm is for animals that need to be rescued either due to ill treatment or to an injury (the real-life farm is called Wild Heart Ranch). Jack was ill-treated, which left him grumpy and mistrustful.  Charlie is losing his eyesight and stumbles to find his way. Jack reluctantly begins to help Charlie find his way throughout the farm. They have some arguments, some adventures, and some mishaps – becoming in the end very good and trusting friends.

What a wonderful book with which to start the day.  Perhaps, I was first drawn to it because I’m always trying to find my way: finding my way with my writing, finding my way with my art, and  finding just the right way to help my students.  Finding my way rings out true and clear to me. Many wonderful people in my life have shown me the way.  Often ,these people have been children.  They sometimes see things so simply, so clearly that they can tell me with absolutely no hesitation the right way to go.  Maybe that’s because they haven’t yet become mistrustful or uncertain. Maybe their creativity is still intact, and they can imagine a world of endless possibilities.  I’m trying to regain that sense of childlike wonder. Reading picture books in the early morning has shown me the way.

Nurturing Creativity: Sing-a-Song

I was sitting in the hallway of my school trying to get myself organized for the day.  I posted my first Slice of Life entry and was wondering how I was going to write every day in the month of March.  That’s when our art teacher came and sat down beside me.  “I have a story to tell you,” she said.  At first, I was thinking, “I have no time for stories.  I wish I didn’t sit in the hallway. I have so much work to do!”  But here I was, and I knew the art teacher always has such funny stories, so I took a deep breath and made myself present. I turned to the eager art teacher and listened.

Yesterday was the worst day! Everything I had planned had to be changed.  The classes I thought were cancelled, actually came without warning.  I was so disorganized and distracted that I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day.  Then the 2nd grade class came into the room at the end of the day.  They all started to paint, but then someone was singing in a very high voice “la… la… la… LA… la…” over and over again. I didn’t know who was singing, and I thought that high pitch was going to send me over the edge.  However, I didn’t want to stop the singing because it seemed to me that someone was using the tune to help them work.  Later on, I realized it was Madison.  She came up to me after class and said that she had written a song while she painted and proceeded to sing it to me. It was quite a long song and had the same cadence that she had been singing.  I am so glad that I hadn’t stop her singing process.  What started as irritation became a joyful occasion.

We laughed together for a moment, and I vowed to find Madison a have her sing her song to me.  This small moment made it again so clear to me how important it is to honor student’s imagination, to be present to these moments which nurture student growth.  Later that day, Madison sang her song high and sweet and clear.  I held back tears.  She handed me a colorful picture and on the back was part of her song. 

The simple breeze flies through my hair,

The wind is soft like a wind,

Itself the flowers are like a beautiful bloom,

The river flows carrying water.

The trees will swing through the wind.

La… La… La… La… La…

I must add that Madison is an EAL student, and it is even more important to me that we celebrate her use of English.  I wonder what this song would sound like in Mandarin.  I think I will ask her tomorrow.

A Child’s Valentine

February means red and pink hearts, lace, fabric, scissors, glue – a collage of loving kindness.  It is one of the holidays I enjoy the most because I often celebrate it with school children.  They decorate bags and boxes and envelopes in which to store all the valentines they will collect.  They cut out jagged hearts with lots of glue and mounds of glitter and sequins.  They make a joyous mess, and they are so happy and excited that their exuberance becomes contagious.

I am so very grateful that I have dedicated my life to teaching children and learning from them. I have strived over the years to be a positive presence, encouraging and hopeful.  For my efforts, the children have given back to me so much more than I could have ever dreamed. Every day is truly a blessing, even when some of them face difficulties and do not show their best selves, especially then.  It is then when I am most needed. It is then when I summon all the grace within me and find a path forward and hold out a helping hand.

This week, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I reflect on all the blessings children have bestowed upon me.  though I am the teacher, they have showed me so many small, wise things. Their innocent perspective has allowed me to see circumstances in new ways.  Their voices rise and fall with laughter.  They know how to play and invite me along.  I. have to sometimes force myself to peel off the layers of adulthood, the mantras of “I’m too busy!, Not now!, Later on!, Can’t it wait?” I have to move past all of the negative noise in my head and tune into the children.  It always, always pays off and makes me a better human.