2nd Grade Poets: Stirring the Senses

My colleague and friend asked me to cover one of her 2nd grade writing classes this coming week. I eagerly accepted. I was given two choices:  monitor the winter writing assessment or teach a lesson on winter sensory poems.  The decision was an easy one for me.  Given the choice, I would pick poetry every single time.  And poetry with 2nd graders? Nothing could bring more joy!

I have been introducing young children to poetry for many decades, so I jumped at the chance to teach again and this time try a new approach.  I spent the weekend thinking about ways to introduce sensory poems, which would engage these small, curious minds.  I know that the best plan of action is to speak briefly, make it visual, and step out of the way.  Though, I often want to explain and read example after example,  I have found that children have poetry squirming inside of them ready to jump out, and all teachers have to do is invite them to think, wonder, play, and create.

To prepare for the lesson, I sat down and thought about how to construct a winter sensory poem.  I summoned my beginner’s mind. I thought about the taste of winter.  Images swelled up inside me, and I quickly wrote the last stanza first. Since there were four lines in the stanza and five senses, I then knew the format of this poem would be five stanza with a total of twenty lines.  I don’t normally write poems thinking of the structure, but this is the way “First Snow” presented itself to me. 

First Snow

At the edge of the woods
Tall trees stand
Ina a swaying silhouette
Bracing winter winds.

Their boughs creak and thrum
Creating a winter rasping rhythm
Birds stay silent on branches
Muffled by their puffed feathers.

The clouds are as gray and thick
As chimney smoke.
The air is frozen-still 
And smells like snow.

Soon snowflakes whirl,
Dancing on noses and fingertips
Before drifting to the ground.
Flake, upon flake, upon flake.

A faint taste of salt
Is on my cold, cracked lips.
I wrap my arms around myself
And dream of the sweetness of spring.

Of course,  I wouldn’t expect children to work in this way.  However, going through the process again like it was my first time, helped me to better understand how to present sensory poetry to the children. And it reminded me that the process of both teaching and writing poetry should not be rigid with formulas and rules. When poetry is presented as play, then children have a much easier time adopting it and making it their own.

My plan was simple.  I will set the mood with a slideshow of winter scenes. Then, we will generate a list of words that express the sights of sounds of winter, which I will write on a chart so the children can reference it during poetry construction. And then, I will invite the children to start writing.  Mid-workshop, I plan to invite students to read their poems in progress.  I think this helps young writers keep the revision process in focus and playful.

As they finish their poems, they will read them to each other, further revise, and finally set their poems down on fresh paper.  Since they are 2nd graders, they will want to illustrate their poems.  Indeed, I anticipate one or two reluctant poets will need to draw first and then create a poem from their image.  As with the first snow of the season, I wait eagerly in anticipation for Tuesday afternoon with our 2nd grade poets.

OLW: Purpose

My One Little Word for 2023 is PURPOSE.  The older I get, the more I don’t want to miss and flit away.  I want to savor every moment.  Whether good or bad, I want to stay in the moment, take in the experience, and discover what it can teach me. My OLW for 2022 was Remember, but when I looked back at last year’s post – it was all about purpose.  I smiled to myself. At least I am consistent.  I realize that purpose is truly important to me, always at the forefront of my mind.

On Purpose

When you do something on purpose, you do it deliberately, with intent.  It can be a positive or negative thing:  He hit his sister on purpose.  She sent her aunt flowers on purpose.  Much of my young adulthood was not spent on purpose.  I was impulsive, reactive, impetuous.  Maybe that’s just the way young adults behave but looking back I realize how much my impulsiveness negatively affected my development.  I was all about DOING and did not plan or think things through very much.  Life happened to me; I didn’t try to create it.  I didn’t think I could.  I was timid, unconfident, with little self-esteem. Thank goodness, I kept growing.  Reflection came and with that much more self-understanding.  I began to slow down, think things through, and act deliberately.  I made less mistakes.  I enjoyed more moments.  I began creating a purposeful path.

With Purpose

When you do something with purpose, you have a goal and determination to reach it.  If you live your life with purpose, you are thoughtful, you execute plans, you reflect on your options. I was fortunate to have a passion which connected directly to my career.  I think I was born a teacher, and I was able to put my passion into action.  Even after more than forty years, I still am  excited by and enthusiastic about teaching and learning.  I have spent some of my best days in the presence of children. Sure, I have had my down days, but for the most part I enjoy teaching and learning.  It is a creative process for me. It nourished me.  It allows me to pursue my other passions: writing and art.  Now that I’m heading towards the end of my career, I am looking towards writing and art to take the helm – to create with purpose, to express myself with words and painting.

Purposeful Path

The way through
The winter woods
Is bleak, gray, lonely
I break through the bracken.
Ice, sticks, stones
Crackle under my feet.
I walk on.

I walk on
Choosing paths
As they split and swerve
Right or left,
Uphill or down.
I keep my pace,
Birds descend from branches.

Birds descend from branches.
Dashes of blue, yellow, brown
Dart from tree to tree.
I am not alone.
They sing to me in the chill air,
They fly above in the clear blue,
Showing me the way.






Christmas Zen: Shed Some Holiday Cheer

During the weeks before Christmas, I enjoyed frequenting local garden shops to take in the smell of pine and look at all the holiday decorations.  This year, one neighborhood garden shop had several sheds set up covering their extensive grounds. Each shed held different types of decorations: wreaths, floral arrangements, ornaments, and bells.  I walked inside each one and breathed deeply.  Every particle in my body relaxed in those small cozy spaces.  I felt safe and calm surrounded by nature and seasonal beauty.

I often have thought if I lived in a house and had a backyard, I would love to have my own shed – a she shed.  It would be constructed of unvarnished wood that would weather into a soft gray.  I would paint the interior bright white and have a large set of windows on one wall. It would have French doors to let in as much light as possible.  I would have some simple shabby chic furniture: a table with mismatched chairs and an enormous overstuffed arm chair to sink into while I write and dream.  I would have a cozy rug in blue and green and bookcases to display pottery, books and trinkets I’ve collected over the years.  It would be a shed of my own where I could create and set free my imagination.

As I stepped into each of the garden sheds, I was filled with delight.  The wreath shed smelled like pine, juniper, and cinnamon.  I inhaled the scent and felt so happy.  I didn’t want to leave, but I pressed on to a small shed with floral centerpieces in rustic tins and brass bells.  Another shed contained a display of jingle bells on leather straps along one whole wall.  I stood in the middle of the shed, closed my eyes, and stretched out my arms.  I took in all I could from this special Christmas magic.  I was desperately in need of some holiday cheer.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering from shed to shed looking at my reflection in the glass ornaments, picking up small treasures to decorate my tree, and brushing my hand against prickly pine boughs.  I came in search of the wonder of the season, and I found it here in these rustic sheds filled with joy and light.  The last shed I came to was closed.  I could not enter.  At the threshold was a concrete stature of a frog sitting in the lotus position. Above his head hung a small slate with the words: “Santa is coming.”  I smiled.  All was well with the world.  Santa is indeed coming, and small things still hold great joy.

She Shed Inspiration

She Sheds:A Room of Your Own

She Sheds Style: Make Your Space Your Own

Building a DIY She Shed on a Budget

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!                        

Good Morning, Little Writers!: Conferring in 1st Grade

Every Tuesday morning, I start my day in writing workshop with 1st graders.  This week, they have been composing narratives about fall. Almost everyone is on their final drafts. Almost everyone, but M., who hasn’t even yet begun. These are the kind of writers I have the privilege to support.  I love this challenge.  I love to figure what these small writers need and build a road map with them to set them off on their long writing journey.

The best way to illustrate my conference time with this young writer is to write down our conversation.  As the conference begins, I think of all the experts who helped me become a writing teacher: Calkins, Graves, Murray, Fletcher, Andersen.  Their advice whirls around my head.  I take a deep breath, relax, and remember most of all to be present to this little writer in front of me.

Me: So M., do you know what you want to write about?

M. : Yes! PUMPKINS!

Me: Fabulous! Have you made a plan?

M.: (shaking her head) What’s that?

Me: You know.  A web – those sheet with the circle in the center and the lines.

M.: Like a spider.

Me: Yes – spider paper.

M.: No. I don’t know how to.

Me: Here, I’ll show you.  Let’s make a simple plan – beginning, middle, end.

M. sits down with me at the table in the back of her classroom. I turn over her story template and list on the back – B – M – E.

Me: What happens in the beginning?

M.: I am at the pumpkin patch and I find a GIANT pumpkin.

I write her words down.  She watches me intently.  I go slowly modeling how to think and write and sound words out.

Me: So, then what happens next?

M.: The pumpkin is too BIG.  It’s too heavy.  I can’t pick it up! It is ENORMOUS! (M. holds her arms out in front of her making a large circle).

Me: You can’t pick it up? What do you do next?

M.: I look around and I find a smaller pumpkin. I pick that one up and bring it home to make pumpkin pie.

Me: Fantastic! Now, tell me your story again out loud.

M. tells me her pumpkin story from beginning to end.  She is giggling and dancing with excitement.  She is ready to write.  I turn over the planning paper and M. picks up her pencil to begin.  This is where the heavy lifting begins.

M.: “One day I went to the pumpkin patch. “ How do you spell pumpkin?

Me: Let’s stretch it out.

M.: p-u-m-k-i-n.

Me: p-u-m-p-k-i-n.

M. writes “pumpkin.” Then asks how to spell “patch.”

Me: Let’s stretch it out.

M.: p-a-ch

Me: p-a-t-ch

M. write out “patch.” She continues with her story – writing, pausing, stretching the words she’s unsure of, and happy in the process. At times, she starts telling me other stories as she writes, and I have to redirect her.  Six sentences are hard work for this writer, but she perseveres joyfully. All of a sudden, M. stops and turns her smiling face to me six inches from my nose.

M.: You are fun! I need to have a playdate with you!

Me: (laughing) M. keep writing.

M.: I love you! You are my favorite teacher!  You are the best! (She says with wild exuberance thrusting her hands toward my face and sticking one finger up my nose).

I lurch backwards and laugh.  This is why I teach. Children have such heart and spirit.  They are fearless to show how they feel.  This moment in time will sustain me all week.  I am grateful to M.

M.: How do you spell pumpkin?

Me: Well M., you have written it four times already in your story. Let’s look back and see how it’s spelled.

M.: Okay! (she says cheerfully).

M. continues and is finally finished.  She is so excited that she’s made a story.  She gleefully reads it aloud to me.  I clap and cheer on this young author.  What have M. and I learned this morning in writers workshop?  I think M. learned: it’s good to have a plan; a story has a beginning, middle, and end; you can stretch out words to help you spell; and it’s fun to share your stories with a friend. What I learned and was reminded to do was to trust the young writer, slow down, listen, support, repeat, repeat, repeat, and be joyful in the process.

Books from Writing Experts

  1. …And with a Light Touch: Learning About Reading, Writing, and Teaching with First Graders by Carol Avery and Donald Graves
  2. Assessing Writers by Carl Anderson
  3. A Writer Teaches Writing by Donald M. Murray
  4. How’s it Going?: A Practical Guide for Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  5. Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing by Ralph Fletcher
  6. Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
  7. The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
  8. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
  9. What a Writer Needs by Ralph Fletcher
  10. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher

Crafting Kindness

Kindness Deficit

I have been working with children for over four decades.  During that time, I have witnessed a slow erosion of kindness and amicability.  With the onset of COVID, political division, and lack of public safety, these last few years have produced an atmosphere of intolerance. Everyone is in a rush to get to the finish line, but we are not stopping to see that our friend, neighbor or peer may need our help.  An air of distrust permeates our society. As a result, children are greatly affected by what they see, hear, and feel, even if they cannot yet completely understand it. Instead of fostering a sense of calm collaboration, children are being raised in an era of tension, intolerance, and uncertainty.  As schools keep focused on academic excellence, we are losing sight of general civility.  Teachers often say that they don’t have time for the social-emotional side of learning. However, if we don’t put in the time, if we don’t slow down and focus on how we communicate and treat each other, then all learning suffers. Children need a strong, clear foundation of kindness and consideration, so they can appreciate other points of view and become fully functional, productive citizens. Slowing down, listening to students’ needs and concerns, and building in time for communication can make classrooms a model for a civil society.

Kindness Connection

In the rush to teach more and more content, to cover all the necessary skills, teachers sometimes have difficulty connecting with their students.  They forget to ask, “Who are this unique learners in front of me?” and “What does they need to grow?”  A perceptive teacher not only asks, “What content should I teach them?,” but also, “What do they need for their social-emotional development?”  When teachers show interest in students’ family lives, activities and hobbies, and their unique personalities, a bond is made which helps teachers foster their students’ growth, especially when the student faces an obstacle or setback.  Teacher-student connection is the key to a child’s social-emotional well-being, and in the end, it is this important connection that keeps the child motivated and engaged.  If a student knows her teacher cares, then she will want to do her best and try just a little harder. She is not afraid to take risks, and she sees her teacher as a partner in her success.  They have developed a transactional relationship, and she has become invested in her own learning.

Kindling Kindness

There are many ways to kindle kindness, to make students feel safe and honored.  The techniques used in the Responsive Classroom method are proven and give students the confidence they require to fully participate as active classroom citizens.  Instead of rushing into the day, Responsive Classroom teachers, begin the day with connection. They emphasize both teacher-to-student and student-to-student relationships.  From the start, this type of community building, fostered each and every day, affords students a stable base in which to exchange ideas in an open and accepting setting.  From this foundation, children can grow confidently and flourish.  They learn to build strong and trusting friendships. They develop the tools with which to be independent and compassionate community members.  This circle of friendship is recursive; it becomes stronger and stronger with each cycle.  Trust replaces skepticism, cooperation replaces competition, and altruism replaces selfishness.

Friendship Circle Poem & Craft

As often happens, my classroom reflections become an impetus for poetry.  I recently crafted this poem and art project and hope to share them with some of my young learners.

Books about Kindness and Friendship

Websites for Teachers:

Books for Teachers:

Picture Books:

Chapter Books:

Early Chapter Books (ages 6-9):

Chapter Books  (ages 9-12)

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.

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