Celebration in the Wonder Studio: Lunar New Year

A dozen girls gather at recess time to work in the Wonder Studio.  They are in the midst of painting, decorating, and constructing projects of their choice.  This week, I added a box in the shape of a dragon’s head to celebrate Lunar New year.  I quickly cut the box to look like a dragon with a wide pointed-tooth grin.  The girls collected some found objects to make the dragon’s eyes, nostrils, and teeth.  Then we all took turns collaging bright colored tissue paper all over the head in layers upon layers.  Once completed, the dragon would be hung right outside their classrooms to celebrate Lunar New Year.

I have done this dragon project with countless students over several decades.  I love this tradition because it always sparks children’s imaginations and makes the classroom atmosphere festive.  I think the best way for young children to learn about other cultures is through celebrations (food, storytelling, and art). These are powerful ways in which to hold memories.  When I was a classroom teacher, this art project would be the anchor for deep research into the holiday and the Asian culture.  We read widely and began to understand these cultures and traditions more organically.

These days, I’ve noticed that with more and more emphasis on curricular initiatives there seems to be less and less time to celebrate, less and less time for conversations, and less time for connection. The classrooms are a rush of activity, one lesson after the next – go, go, go.  Don’t stop. Don’t think.  Don’t feel the struggle and joy in learning.

I’m glad I can eke out some time for kids to converse and create; some time to experiment and play; some time to celebrate the small things.  They need to know the joy of taking a risk – of taking a cardboard box and transforming into something whimsical.  There is magic held within that simple box, and I want children to experience that creative power.

As they worked, they began asking questions about Lunar New Year.  They began talking to each other naturally.  Some of them knew quite a bit about the holiday and supplied lots of information with facts and personal experiences. Questions grew and so did the students’ understanding.  They wanted to know more.  They wanted to become part of the celebration.

Books About Lunar New Year

Stirring the Senses – Part 2

Last week, I planned a winter sensory poetry lesson for out 2nd graders.  I decided to start with a slideshow of winter photographs and then brainstorm words that they might use in their poems. My goal was to quickly set them off to write so they’d have plenty of time to compose their poems and share them.

This week, I executed my plan.  As I presented the slideshow, the girls looked intently at the photographs, which were a mix of nature scenes and people and animals in the snow. After watching silently, they shared their ideas as I wrote them down.  We were collecting sensory words from what we had seen in the photos.  The words would act as a jumping off point to create images for their poems.

Before they began to write, they asked some questions.  One girl asked if she could use rhymes and I nodded my head.  She sparked an idea in my head because I don’t normally compose rhyming poems.  Since I always write when the children write, I decided to challenge myself and write a rhyming sensory poem. I think it is an important part of the writing process for children to see adults writing alongside children.  I made sure the girls were all actively thinking and writing, and then I sat down with my own ideas. One student came over to see what I was writing, but I quickly redirected her to her own writing and told her that I would share at the end of class.

As the children wrote, I circled the room looking at their poetry and making observations that I thought would nudge their writing further.

  • That’s an interesting idea! You’re making an acrostic.
  • Wow! You are using such strong verbs.
  • Oh, you are including lots of sound words.
  • Like each child, like each snowflake, each poem was different, exquisite in its creation.  They took their experiences of snow and thought about how it looked, smelled, sounded, tasted, and felt. They thought hard, they experimented with words, and they formed meaning to share with others.  This time to play is necessary and important for writers. It connected what they have been reading, to what they have experienced, to what they have learned about composing a poem.

The Conversation Connection

Teaching  is a long conversation.  It is an interplay of ideas and experiences.  I was attracted to teaching because I love connecting with people, learning about their interests, and understanding how they think. I know from my own experiences as a student that the teachers who stopped and took time to talk to me were critical in building my sense of self and developing my reasoning  skills. Without those conversations, I would not, on my own, have made the connections needed to grow my thinking. 

When I was a classroom teacher, I made it my practice to check-in regularly with each student, not only during reading and writing conferences, but also to check-in on their social-emotional development: how they were feeling about friends and family, how they were able to handle stress. I knew that the way my students felt about themselves greatly affected their ability to persevere and learn.  These teacher-student conversations were so rewarding; they built self-awareness, agency, and community.  Most of the academic content might not be remembered, but I knew the social connections would be.  Students would remember that someone listened to them and valued their opinions.

This week, as I worked with a small group of 4th graders, I was reminded about how important connection truly is. We were working in the Wonder Studio, and I opened up my adjoining office to make more room for their crafting projects. In my office, I had hung a large display of my class photos over the span of my teaching career.  Several students noticed the photos and started asking me questions.  I was intrigued by how their questions were so closely connected to their personalities.  The first one to comment was my logical reasoner and problem-solver, Jasara. She got close up to the photo and saw the date – 1979. “You have been teaching for 43 years!” she declared.  I chuckled. Another student chimed in, “43!  My father is 43!”  Jasara kept analyzing the photos, but what she focused on were the numbers: in 1985, I was teaching for 6 years; in 1993, I was teaching for 14 years.  I was relieved when she couldn’t find any more dates.  I was beginning to feel very old indeed.

Then Maren came to inspect the photo.  She is confident and competitive. Maren looked intently at all the children’s face. “Which one was your favorite,” she demanded. 

“I liked them all,” I declared. 

She narrowed her eyes at me, “You had to have had a favorite.”

I started to feel defensive but kept calm. “They were all great kids: Charlie was a great sailor, Ben made me laugh, Stephanie was quiet and thoughtful, Antonio wrote plays…”.

Maren cut me off, “My mother says she doesn’t have a favorite, but I know she does.” And with that she trounced off to get some fabric.

I breathed a sigh of relief.  If I were to be completely truthful, I enjoyed the company of all the children.  But there are a few who still keep in touch with me, who now as grown-ups take time to reach out to me. So yes, Maren is probably right, but I’m not going to tell her unless she calls me up ten years from now to see how I’m doing!

Darlene was listening to these conversations the whole time.  She sat by my side working and listening.  Finally, she got up and took a closer look  at the photos.  She looked at all the little faces of strange children now adults.  She also went over to some other photos I had on another shelf.  The photos were of some former students, who are now adults, with careers and children of their own. 

Then she came back to my side. “I’m going to be in one of those photo frames,” she said pointing.  Then quickly added, “But they won’t be here in your office.  They will be at your home because you’ll be retired by then.” 

I smiled and gave her side-hug, “And we can meet for tea, and you can tell about all the wonderful things you are doing.” 

Darlene’s face glowed, “Yes, yes! I’ll tell you about my newest cookbook.” This was an inside joke.  I have been encouraging Darlene’s writing through reading and making recipes for the past three years.  I have no doubt that her grown-up face will one day grace my bookshelf, as well as several of her award-winning cookbooks!                        

Forest Bathing: Autumn Plunge

The last time I was in Vermont, it was summer – July to be exact. Everything was green in the green mountains, and I was in need of some physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. I had read about the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. I immediately loved the image that came to mind – walking down woodland paths or up steep mountain paths and soaking in all that nature has to offer. My summer Forest Bathing post can be viewed here.

As is our tradition, my husband and I travel up to Vermont in October to witness the leaves changing color in all variations of radiant yellow, orange, russet, red, crimson, and purple. This year was a spectacular display. Whenever we went there was vibrant color – a real-life watercolor – colors blended into each other and the sky was a clear, cloudless blue. I could not wait to get into the woods, to surround myself with color, with the natural signs of the changing seasons. As I walked, I took photos and wrote poetry in my head. This is what my Autumn plunge created.

Ingenuity

Webster dictionary defines ingenuity as “skill or cleverness in devising or combining,”  while Oxford describes it as “the ability to invent things or solve problems in clever new ways.”  When speaking with children about the word ingenuity, one adventurous student replied, “Maybe it means a new engine.”  And in a way, she is correct.  Ingenuity is like a new engine: it is revved up and ready to go.

This week, I’ve been forced to relax and reflect at home due to a classic head cold. I have not sneezed this much in a long time!  Wandering my small space, I began to think up interesting brews that might make me feel better.  I am a tea drinker, so I like to experiment: mint tea with lemon and honey, black tea with orange and cardamom, green tea with ginger, lemon, and honey, chai tea with extra cinnamon and cider, the list goes on and on.  I sip cup after cup and feel warm and comforted. 

As dinnertime rolled around, I realized I needed more sustenance than tea, so I started thinking about soup.  I didn’t look in my many cookbooks – No!  That would be too ordinary, too mundane, too reliable.  I decided to invent some soup recipes.  I needed strong flavors that would clear up my sinuses.  First, I made a hardy chicken tortilla soup, full of tomatoes and a bit of jalapeños.  The next day, I made a miso broth filled with onions, garlic , ginger, lemon, and snow peas.  It smelled so good, that I kept sticking my face over the pot to breathe in the aromatic steam. Then, I thought back to my Italian roots and made a vegetable-based soup filled with pureed basil and garlic, potatoes, and chickpeas.  The smell of basil always reminds me of my Grandpa Tony.  He was a consummate gardener and grower of basil.  The soups were all wonderful.  I loved creating them from scratch without any compass.  I just let my mind flow and combine the tastes I love.

Feeling a bit better from my soup consumption, one afternoon I took a short stroll around my neighborhood. It was a warm September day – blue skies with a bit of a breeze to let us know fall is surely on its way.  Suddenly, I became aware of wild movement.  I look across the street and a girl, about eleven or twelve-years-old with long dark hair, is sitting at the top of her driveway on a red stool with wheels.  The stool resembles an office chair without a back.  In her hand is a large push broom.  The girl propels herself down the inclined driveway, using the broom as a kind of oar or rudder.  She is whirling and twirling down the drive.  She leans back on the stool and is giggling with delight.  She uses the broom to steer herself back uphill and does the whole swirling motion again and again. I move quickly on. I don’t want her to see me because I don’t want to interrupt her joy. 

As I walk away, I smile to myself.  Witnessing that type of ingenious joy reminds me of when I was eleven and twelve.  My friends and I loved creating games out of things we found in our yards and around our neighborhood.  One time, we made a hammock of old woven rope.  It was a wonderfully intricate invention.  When I hopped in, it enveloped me rolled me around and out onto the ground while still keeping hold of my left foot.  I lay on the ground writhing in laughter. My friends had to rescue me, and that was all part of the experiment.  Another time,  I found an old skateboard with chipped wheels.  I was adamant that it was still useful.  I hopped on it down a steep hill with an old hockey stick for balance.  Thank goodness for that hockey stick.  The skateboard hit a stone and abruptly stopped, and I had to use the stick to break my fall.  Even when my inventions failed, I was not deterred.  I loved the process of experimentation.  I loved thinking up new possibilities.

As I walked back to my home, I saw my young neighbor again.  She was still in the process of creating her red stool ballet.  Her body was staying back and forth in a curlicue fashion.  She was pure poetry in motion. Maybe she was inventing a new Olympic game: a cross between luge and curling or skateboarding and polo. Or maybe she was just having fun!

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

Of Nature, Books, & Faith

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple. – Mary Oliver, “Upstream”

I am here another week in the Green Mountains.  I came to restore my body.  I have stayed to restore my spirit.  In the valley surrounded by the mountains, I feel safe and secure.  I can explore here.  I can look up in wonder and find birds and butterflies, pink clouds at sunset, and fields of wildflowers in the morning light.

Vermont gives space for thinking and dreaming.  I am not confined here.  There is nothing needing my attention.  I can truly breathe deeply and feel my body finally relax.  And as my body relaxes, my mind sets off wandering.  My pain has lessened some, and I can concentrate on reading and writing.

In addition to mountains, rivers, streams, and stones, Vermont has a wide variety of independent bookstores.  Many of the Indy bookstores in my home state of New Jersey have gone out of business but in Vermont small bookstores thrive.  This week, I walked into Bear Pond Books and found three treasures:  The Summer of June by Jamie SumnerUpstream by Mary Oliver, and The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall FollettThe Summer of June is an uplifting middle-grade novel about a girl with an anxiety disorder.  When I learned that poetry, petite fours, and gardening were the keys to her cure, I knew that I had to get busy reading.

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets.  I did not know that she wrote essays and was ecstatic when I found Upstream.  I am reading, rereading, and underlining with abandon. Every word, every idea is precious.  As I read Oliver, I wish I was younger.  I have so much to learn from her.  Her thoughts are so much akin to mine.  I read, and I am gleeful.  I have found a friend.

The House Without Windows will be my last book in this Bear Pond Books trilogy. I found it in the children’s section.  When I read the front cover blurb:  “A lost classic, a free-spirit adventure, a long song to the wilderness,” I thought it would make a perfect companion to Oliver’s essays.  I can’t wait to see if I’m correct.  It was written by a twelve-year-old girl, Barbara Newhall Follett, who was born in 1914.  She wrote another book, The Voyage of the Norman D., when she was thirteen.  In 1939, at the age of twenty-five, Barbara disappeared from her home one evening.  She was never seen or heard from again.  Her disappearance remains a mystery.  I cannot wait to read her first book, which is about a young girl who seeks adventure in the wild.  This book jumped out at me from the shelf, and I know there is a good reason.  I know I will find treasure and meaning in it.

And what better place to read about nature than in Vermont.  Looking up and seeing the solemn silhouette of dark mountains, I cannot help but think of things divine.  In these painful weeks, I have reminded myself of the power of faith.  I am grateful to be able to spend time in this beautiful place.  I have faith that I am being set on the right course.  I am certain in the middle of my sixth decade that I have more to learn.  And I am ready.

Flowery Thoughts

These past three weeks, I have had to put my life on pause a bit to deal with pulled muscles in my lower back.  Needless to say, I am trying to develop a better relationship with pain.  My first reaction is panic, which only tightens the muscles more.  So, I breathe deeply, think of beautiful places, and try to compose poetry out of the pain.

I have needed to talk short, slow walks throughout the day to keep the muscles happy.  The more I walked, the better I felt.  Of course, I had to recognize my own limitations and not walk too long, otherwise I would be back in the pain place, and panic would set in once again.

Nature is always good medicine, and I seek to be among trees and flowers as much as I can. Nature makes me more mindful of the short time we have to enjoy this miraculous earth.  It makes me grateful to be among the flowers.  It makes me feel like I am part of something much bigger than myself.

I have what I call the “Emily Dickinson Syndrome.”  I have a habit of writing lines, stanzas, or whole poems on scraps of paper, napkins, old journal pages, or whatever is at hand. Then I forget about them and find them at a later date, often surprised by my own thinking.  I found a stanza today in a 2018 calendar in the June 25th space.  It was like my previous self was sending me a message she did not want me to forget.

The pale ,yellow tulips

On your bedside table

Bow their buttery heads,

Delicate and fragile,

Their blooms fleeting.

My thoughts turn to flowers.  They help me recover and create a more positive approach to pain.  Poetry allows me to recall times when flowers have given me momentary joy.  This settling of spirit is welcome and necessary.