Listening Summer

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

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerfeld

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers

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

Summer Zen

In two previous blog posts, I wrote about celebrating a zen, self-care mindset: How Does Your Zen Garden Grow? and Zen Toolbox Redux. My busy life, like the lives of all modern women, scream out to me from time to time to pause, to ponder, to notice and wonder, to take a deep breath and focus on myself. What is good for me and me alone? What do I need. How can I nourish myself?

This COVID school year posed many stressors: masks, plexiglass barriers, six feet distancing, virtual, hybrid and in-person learning, weekly COVID tests (we lovingly called “Spit Tests”) and finally the vaccine. The would also posed many stressors – political upheaval and social unrest with no signs of resolution any time soon. All these things have made my students anxious, angry, and worried. So all year, I focused on helping them find calm and purpose . Right around May, I realized I had forgotten to focus on myself. I forgot to pace myself, to keep focus on creativity and nature – two areas that restore my sense of well-being. But I did hold on to faith.

We are now hurdling towards the end of June. I am trying to put the reigns on summer: “Hold up, Summer! Don’t go running wild. Slow and steady, now!” I cajole as if speaking to a spooked horse. I am just beginning to unwind, just beginning to take a long slow breath, look up into the impossibly blue June sky and be grateful for this season, for this time away from work, for this time to spend with friends, family and myself.

I’ve been telling my friends that I’m naming this summer – Project Jojo. I’m planning to do things that restore and replenish my body and spirit. When I reached the end of the school year, I found myself completely exhausted. I usually make lists of all the professional development courses I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the school projects I need to get done by August. “No!” I breathe out. No frenetic pace this summer. This time I will return to the lazy summer days of my childhood: sleep late, make beautiful salads with treasures from nearby farm stands, brew peach tea and let it steep in the sun, read nothing that has anything to do with education – a romantic novel, a mystery, a memoir, a cookbook perhaps.

I’ve been frequenting our local botanical garden and nature preserve. I am grateful that I live in a place with these natural resources. I miss walking among the trees and flowers, watching the birds flit from branches to branch and bees sip summer nectar. Immediately my shoulders drop, my heart rate slows, I find myself smiling. Slowly, ever so slowly I am re-learning the zen of summertime. And I know it is necessary. And I know it is sweet and brief.

Zen Summer

Today, I came to the garden
And walked the gravel paths,
Among the white rhododendron
And soft pink hydrangea.
I follow the path to the burbling creek,
Which flows into the pond laden with water lilies.
This morning I face my lone and tired shadow,
Let it sink into the grass to be restored.

I continue along the path in the noon sun,
Swollen bumble bees sip nectar from the peonies.
I try to capture them with my camera;
They are too fast, dipping from flower to flower.
White clouds drift slowly in the blue, 					
Reflecting on the surface of the pond.
The weight of my body lifts,
Free from earthly troubles,                                                                                                     
What cares can vex my mind?

Clear water sparkles like crystal over the rocks
You can see through easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free now from every thought,
Nothing can ever move it.
I am here in the present forever.
The sweet summer outside has come in,								
I have regained calm, I welcome peace.
I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

The Silver Lining

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.

This is the project the girls will be working on for the next few weeks. I’ll keep you posted!

Your Own Best Mother

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.

Dream Mother


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.
Happy Mother’s Day: Be Good to Yourself

Spring Offering

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.

Spring Prayer

Sunday morning,
Walking up the steep,
Winding path
Through the cathedral
Of flowers,
I breathe in 
Their fragrance,
Take in 
their vivid color
And let out a slow
Deep breath.
I am present
To God’s glorious
Abundance,
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
Rabbits rustles 
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.

Here I Am!: Conferring with Student Writers

There are many things I love and enjoy about teaching – presenting concepts, sharing ideas, being witness to creativity and discovery, but the one thing that is most important to me is connection.  I know that connection is key to student understanding.  Without connection there are just untethered ideas.  And that is why I absolutely love the time I get to sit down with student writers and talk about their work. Many teachers are not comfortable with this part of writing workshop. They are tentative.  They are not sure what to say.  They focus on errors in grammar or spelling to guide them, instead of homing in on the content and meaning.  In Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Ralph Fletcher and Jo Ann Portalupi note that, “We should expect plenty of failure: false starts, blank pages, misspellings, and so on.  Failure is an integral part of how people learn.  But we also need to build on their strengths – take notice of and celebrate a great work, sudden twist, surprising image…” Teachers might, indeed, start by asking students to create an “I can be” list.  In this way, the children can explore and ponder all the possibilities that lay ahead of them.

Fletcher and Portalupi suggest that these questions might help you “read” the student you’re working with: 

  • What can I learn from her body language?  Does she seem “up” and engaged, or listless and bored?
  • What kind of writing is she attempting? Is it a poem?  Fiction story?  Personal narrative?  Information piece?  Notebook entry?
  • Where is she in the process?  Has she just begun, or is she almost finished?
  • Is this a genre she has never before tried?
  • What are her strengths as a writer?
  • What is she ready to learn?
  • What surprises me about the student?

In order to promote reflection and make conference time more productive, teachers might ask a student to re-read her writing before the conference.  Ask the student to put an asterisk next to the place in her writing where the writing worked well. Then ask her to put a circle in the margin next to the place where the writing needs more work.  This will help to shorten and focus conference time, and build the scaffolding needed for the student to become an independent and confident writer.

The most important job of the teacher during writing conferences is to listen intently to the student-writer.  Try to put everything out of your mind and be present as a listener. Think about how the student’s writing is affecting you, and then let her know how her words have moved you.  Do not focus on errors and weaknesses.  Rather, give specific, concrete praise: colorful details, a funny moment, a surprise ending.  As Lucy Calkins says: “Teach the writer, not the writing.”  Give the student one strategy to add to her repertoire of writing skills.  In this way, she’s not just fixing this one piece; she now has an extra tool to use on all her writing!

A number of years ago, I read Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.  Bomer urges teachers to search for hidden gems in student writing by focusing on author style, purpose, and language, rather than concentrating on mistakes. She encourages teachers to make conferences celebrations of student writing: “My hope is that as teachers we can respond to all students’ writing with astonished, appreciative, awe-struck eyes.”

As a Curriculum Coordinator, I no longer have my own band of fearless writers, as I did when I was a classroom teacher. Now, I have to invite myself into classrooms and talk to students about their work.  Teachers are happy to share their conferring time and I get to see students in all stages of writing development: from the Kindergartener who diligently labels her drawing, to a 2nd grader who is learning to add dialogue within a complicated fairy tale variant, to a 3rd grader who is constructing a speech using biographical information, to a 5th grader experimenting with forms of poetry.  I wonder at the complexity that writing entails, and I am now beginning to fully understand why writing takes time and patience and presence.

This week I was once again reminded of the importance of being present – of stopping what I was doing – and listen.  I was reading through the students’ submissions to our literary magazine, Spark.  I nodded, I smiled, and I laughed out loud.  The children boldly put their thoughts and feelings on paper in the form of poems, letters, stories and articles.  They chose pieces that were important to them.  They chose pieces that whirled them away into fantasy and pieces that sunk them back down into COVID reality. As I was reading, I gasped as I came across this gem from a 5th grade writer.  This skinny little, brave poem stood up and demanded to be recognized.   I read it again to myself.  Then, I read it aloud and said, “Wow! Now there’s a poet!”

This poem stands up straight and speaks for itself.  I couldn’t wait to talk to the student-poet.  I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I connected with the poem – how important it was.  The next day, I came into school early, hoping to catch Chelsea before classes started.  I found her in her classroom organizing her desk, and I motioned for her to meet me in the hall.  She looked a little surprised and I added, “You are not in trouble.  I have something wonderful to share with you.”  She came out into the hall, and I told her how much her poem meant to me and how powerful it was.  I told her that I was putting it at the very end of the magazine because it was so very powerful that I wanted to end the magazine on a strong note.  I could see her smiling behind her mask, and I was so glad I took a few minutes to connect with her face to face.  Then we went on with our separate days until I got home later that night and found this waiting in my email inbox.

There is no doubt that Chelsea is a writer – no doubt that her strong opinions and emotions will enlighten the world.   And there is no doubt that connecting with student writers is of the utmost importance. Writing is so much more that spelling, grammar, and punctuation – those skills will come in time.  But the students’ lives and how they express their experiences help them better understand and cope with this swirling world around us.  Take a moment.  Sit down. Listen.

Books About Teaching Writing

  1. A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves
  2. After the End: Teaching Learning Creative Revision by Barry Lane
  3. A Time for Wonder: Reading and Writing in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard
  4. Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
  5. Craft Lessons by Fletcher and Portalupi
  6. Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
  7. For the Good of the Earth and the Sun by Georgia Heard
  8. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing by Katherine Bomer
  9. How’s it Going?  A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  10. In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study by Katie Wood Ray
  11. Inside Writing:  How to Teach the Details of Craft by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle
  12. Revision Toolbox by Georgia Heard
  13. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray
  14. Teaching the Qualities of Writing by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
  15. The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
  16. The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer
  17. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
  18. Writing Workshop:  The Essential Guide by Fletcher and Portalupi

A Candle in the Darkness

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.

Thank you, Ruth, for holding out a candle to light our way as we tell our stories.

Spring Mosaic

We have traveled the long dark cold tunnel of winter and made it into the light! This year that journey is especially sweet.  My confirmation of spring came this week at school where first and second graders have been busy writing poetry. After reading Kenard Pak’s book, Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring, the first graders tried their hand at writing poems.   The neat and concise form is comforting to beginning writers. All students, no matter their level, felt successful creating images of winter and spring.  Here are two examples.

One of my private students, who is in 5th grade, tried here had at this poem format and created this:

The second graders focused on sound mixed with imagery.  They explored including onomatopoeia in their poems.  First, they brainstormed as a group what they see as winter turns to spring. Then they made a list of the sounds that could be heard in the springtime.  Second graders, in particular, love to play with sound. They like to get silly.  They take risks and there is a wonderful spontaneity to their poems.

The students’ poems inspired me to take a good look at the world transforming from winter to spring.  I decided to take a long deep breath. I made myself pause, look around, and notice.  I wanted to collect images that I could arrange into a collage of sorts or more aptly, a spring mosaic.  Here is what I played with this week.

Spring Mosaic

The moon appears 
Like a pearl in the morning sky,
In the woods, beneath the brown
Undergrowth, skunk cabbage
Pokes its green ears
Out of the soggy ground.
Spring peepers croak out
A morning song,
Yellow buds pop from
Tender tangles of forsythia,
White and lavender crocuses
Quietly bloom 
In their small way.

Bare branches are laced
With pink, white, yellow-green,
Cherry, pear, and dogwoods bloom.
Birds gather and scatter
Swooping here and there
Looping through the blue sky
Up toward the pastel clouds
Then landing lightly,
Visiting feeders and garden gates.
As turtles lounge on logs
Sitting end to end in the pond
Following the sun.

On the fertile surface,
Another spring is reborn.
The Earth is renewed.
A soft rain lightly falls
Slowly forming puddles,
In their reflection,
My spirit is restored.

Five Spring Picture Book Choices

  1. and then it’s spring by Julie Foliano
  2. Spring is Hear: A Bear and Mole Story by Will Hillenbrand
  3. We are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines
  4. When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes
  5. Worm Weather by Jean Taft

Possibility of The Blank Canvas

In his latest post, “A Crowd of Me,” Mario Perron writes about the process of beginning a new painting:

Staring at the big (30″ x 30″), white canvas is often the most stressful part of my process. How do I start? Where do I start? That very first mark is so important to me that I find myself in a battle against my fears and insecurities. A multitude of voices clamour for dominance in my head… It’s the same every time! I hear the light-speed and intensely elaborate debate between overthought and instinct, then my hand rises to the canvas and the first mark is there. When I let my mind go, the entire image starts to come into view in my imaginations and muscle-memory does the rest for guiding my hands.

This got me thinking of my own process of creating. I think a blank anything whether it is a canvas, paper, or piece of cloth – gives the artist a moment to ponder and stress.  Something about the purity of the whiteness maybe. We don’t want to put something down that is wrong, ugly, or unintended.  We want the marks, whether words, a painted image, or a quilted line, to be beautiful and meaningful and what we envisioned in our minds in the first place. With writing, the blank page is not so daunting to me.  I create ideas in my head for a good long time, I let them percolate, and then I start placing them on the page.  I’ve been doing this for about sixty years, so with practice comes familiarity and a kind of easy flow.  With canvas or cloth, I am more hesitant.  These I’ve done sporadically over the years; these hold more anxiety for me.  It’s harder to undo a stitch or a painted line.  Typing can be easily deleted, no one will ever know those awkward, ugly, simplistic words were ever there.  But the painted or stitched line is harder to remove.  There is evidence of my lack of ability permanently cast.  So I wonder how to get beyond that.  Abstraction and collage help.  Making abstract images helps free my mind and in doing so it frees my hand.  I don’t worry as much about perfection. I can just flow with the rhythm of what I’m feeling in that moment.

Black Dots on Red
Black Dots on White

Abstraction helps me get in touch with the child inside.  The young child, who hasn’t yet been touched by judgement.  Peter Reynold’s picture book, The Dot, addresses this idea of self-judgement.  In the story a young girl faces desire, hesitation, and ultimate success in making her artistic mark on the world. It’s a wonderful book about creativity and being brave making your mark.  When I do creativity exercises with children, I change the blank paper into a paper with a dot or mark or hole in it.  The paper already has an “imperfection.” Now they don’t have to worry about the first mark, it is already there.  I challenge them to take that mark and use their imagination to create a design, image, or story.  Young children don’t hesitate – they take up the challenge and just draw.  Another activity I’ve done with students after reading Reynold’s book is to have them work together to create a mural using colorful self-sticking dots and.  It is wonderful to see that there was a time we didn’t self-edit.

Start with a dot and then freely explore.
Composing with Dots

I often take an art mistake and incorporate it into a collage.  A couple of months ago, I began dabbling again with watercolors.  What was in my mind did not translate to the page.  I was disappointed.  I looked at the work again and decided I loved the colors, but not the image, so I cut the image into strips and woven them together into two squares.  I liked how the watercolor was transformed and put it a way to use in a collage.  This week, I took a twelve-inch square canvas, painted an undercoat of lemon yellow, yellow ochre, and vermillion.  After that layer dried, I added a coat of green (a mixture of white, sap green and viridian).  While that coat was still wet, I drew on top of that layer with rubber shaping tools creating a design of swirls and dots. I let my hand move freely and added bits of flourish as I saw fit. I let that layer dry and then placed my collage objects: the two woven watercolor squares and six wooden hand-painted buttons.  I spent some time assembling and dissembling until I like the composition. Then I will permanently attach the pieces by sewing the into place of the canvas.

Process of Making Garden Trellis

Instead of focusing on purity, I focus on possibility.  It’s not important to me if the strips are the same width or that the weaving is not perfectly straight.  To me, these imperfections make the work more interesting. What is beyond the canvas, page, cloth that I can imagine into being?  How can I express what I’m thinking and feeling?  How can I connect?

Picture Books That Stimulate the Imagination

Twenty Books and More that Join Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon Creative Tradition:

  1. A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
  2. Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
  3. Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
  4. Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
  5. David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
  6. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  7. How to by Julie Morstad
  8. Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
  9. Journey by Aaron Becker
  10. Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
  11. Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
  12. Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
  13. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  14. Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
  15. Perfect Square by Michael Hall
  16. Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
  17. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
  18. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
  19. What if? by Samantha Berger
  20. Windblown by Edouard Mancea

Transformation: The Things We Carry

Spring approaches.  It seems to be coming from underground this year.  I look out on to the field behind my home, and I can see the warmth spreading: the green tenderly returning…  slowly, ever so slowly as to be almost imperceptible.  But it is there.  It is no doubt there.  This week, I have some respite from work, a spring break of sorts: a little time to reflect, relax, do some spring cleaning.  It started with my heavy woolen winter clothes, but then I read fellow blogger Stuart M. Perkins’ post, “One Man’s Trash,” and I turned my attention to my junk drawers.  Stuart recalled his mother keeping a junk drawer in the kitchen full of things, which she left intact for years. He vowed not to have one himself but to no avail.  After reading his post, I went into my kitchen and realized I had not one, but two junk drawers full of things I have not used in months and in some cases years. Why do I keep these bits of things.  Apparently, I have a thing for collecting plastic bottle tops. I think I’m going to use them with the kids on some school project, but that never happens, or hasn’t to date.  Then there are the pens, the pens that are out of ink, or whose springs are lost.  Why am I keeping those?  And at some point my husband bought a gross (144 packs!) of rubber bands.  Some of those are shoved at the back of the drawer threatening to make it stick shut forever. 

The kitchen is only the half of it.  I have two more junk drawers in my art table in my bedroom.  I pulled them open tentatively to survey the damage. There, I found more pens, dried up markers, dusty finger splints, a little rubber ball, a book of prayers and affirmations among the assorted bric-a-brac. How can I transform this junk into something artful?  How can I make it something not to leave and forget, but something I want to return to?  I want to make it more than spring cleaning, more than an executive function organization project.  Seven years ago, when Marie Kondo’s first book was published, I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up cover to cover and back again. I went to my closet lifted each item and asked myself “Does it bring me joy?” I ended up giving away at least half of my clothing.  Then I attacked my sock drawer.  Truth be told, I am obsessed with socks.  Somehow I always lose one of them, and I do not have the gumption to toss it out because somewhere in my heart I hold out hope that the other sock will return.  Ever the optimist. I even bought a sock drawer organizer, so that it is the only drawer in my house that is neat and perfectly aligned.  My socks are mostly black, maybe navy, with some simple gray and as Marie Kondo teaches, folded tightly. It is beautiful.  It is a little boring.

Sock Draw KonMari Style

What if I took my junky art drawer and treated it as a piece of art?  What could I make?  How could it become a pleasing aesthetic part of my art space?  All my life, I have loved to make collages and assemblages, to build something or make sense of the pieces.  I could now do this with my art drawer.  I took some of my favorite small bowls and baskets and started to play with the arrangement. I tried many different variations.  I had fun thinking about color and shape and placement within that three-inch deep rectangle.  I chose blues and green because those are my favorite calming colors: the colors of the woods and fields around my house, the color of the sky and the sea. I mixed squares, rectangles, and circles. There was suddenly possibility instead of mess.

Art Drawer Transformed

With the superficial things in order, it was time to think about my mind.  What clutter was I carrying that I could let go?  Usually, I push away not clear out.  Push all the doubt and anxiety to the edges and make a simple clearing.  Lately, the doubt, anxiety has been creeping in more and more quickly with a ferocious tenacity.  I remembered Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a powerful testament to memory and the Vietnam War.  I’ve read it a few times over the years with high school students.  The power in the listing of items at the beginning of O’Brien’s tale is evident:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.

I can see all these items clearly.  I can imagine those young soldiers’ faces. I can smell the jungle and hear the mosquitoes whining.  I can begin to grasp their pain. Though I have not experienced the unbearable cruelty of war, I think all humans carry things deep inside of us: joyful things and things that bring untold despair.  I’m especially thinking of some of my students who are trying to wrap their minds around this pandemic.  They smile, they laugh, they play, they keep their desks in order. But I know inside they are struggling to understand all the death and restrictions.  They move less and stress more.  We all do.  I do.  And so in coming to terms with the state of our world, I think about how to reframe the things I carry into creativity and play.  How can I take those things, both good and bad, both seen and unseen, and shape them so they live together harmoniously? Is it possible to re-organize and transform an assortment of objects and words, and in the process transform yourself?  I believe so.

Junk Drawer

Old rusted key
To something I’ve
Forgotten how to open,
I’ve forgotten,
I cannot remember.
It is locked in my memory
And I know it was terrible,
I can feel it
And I want to run,
I want to
Hide my eyes,
I want to forget.
I collect things:
Keys, bottle tops, bits
Of paper, broken pens,
Little boxes of 
Assorted sizes,
Buttons, marbles,
Anything small
I can store away,
Safe and protected,
Safe and unnoticed,
Safe and forgotten
Until I open the drawer
And see those things
With new eyes.
Those old things
I carry,
Those forgotten
And rusted things
Useless to everyone,
But me.
Transformation

When I put a pen in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
I can rewrite the tragedy,
I can illuminate the dark places
With bright colors,
I can make things whole.

When I put a brush in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
Sweep cobalt into the blue harbor,
Place a line of crimson at the horizon
Of a glorious sunset,
I can create beauty.

When I move through a space
I have the power
To transform things.
Reach up confidently,
Twist and sway,
Breath in and out,
Be in this single moment -
Heart open, mind free.