Embracing the Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.

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

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

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

May Posies

Early spring showers have turned the landscape green with dots of pinks, yellows, and lavenders.  My corner of the world is alive with flowers, and I am immersing myself in their glory and hopefulness.  This year more than any other I need flowers and the promise of spring.  I need something to celebrate.  I am in search for beauty.

I am ever grateful to the flowers of Moggy Bottom.  It is my secret garden in close proximity to where I live.  I saunter down its gravel paths and savor the colorful sights and fragrant smells.  Walking there reassures me that spring is surely here, and summer is on the horizon.  It will be soon time for my yearly respite from school.  And though I love teaching and learning, I am in much need for a hiatus from busy. 

When I was a child, I loved preparing impromptu spring bouquets for my mother.  I’d gather them from the wildflowers that grew on the hill at the side of our home: black-eyed Susan, sweat pea, daisies, cornflowers, and buttercups.  I’d gather them in simple arrangements in jam jars or wrapped in damp paper towels tied with string.  I can still see their colors, smell their perfume, feel the calm their beauty brought to me.

Lately, I have been reading about Emily Dickinson’s life of poetry and gardening.  I hadn’t realized that the Belle of Amherst was an ardent and accomplished gardener.  Re-reading her poems, I recognize how integral a role flowers played in Dickinson’s experience of the world around her.  The garden was a metaphor for life and its complexities. She delved in deeply as a gardener would: tending plants, encouraging growth, and intimately noticing the shift of seasons. 

I wanted to delve deeply this week, focus on the flowers of Moggy Hollow, listen to what they were saying, and find a way to express what I was feeling.  I created a posy of flowers to share: trillium, lily of the valley, magnolia – delicate and fleeting like this time in spring when the first flowers bloom and then give way to summer’s abundance.

Happy Haiku to You!

It’s spring.  The first graders are trying their hand at poetry.  They scribble and draw and make images – some silly, some that will take your breath away.  That is the beauty of first graders – the child-mind at work not afraid of making mistakes.  They are intrepid and curious.  I was so excited when their teacher invited me to “teach” haiku to them.  I put teach in quotation marks because the first graders really taught me more about how they construct language than I really taught them.  Their exuberance led the way.  It energized me and made me see things anew.  Isn’t that what poetry and haiku are all about?

At first, I asked the first graders what they knew about haiku. Lots of hands went up: it’s a little poem; it has three lines; it has a pattern with 5-7- syllables.  They had been working all week learning and writing haiku. Next, we talked about how haiku is a Japanese form of poetry usually about nature.  Then, I told them about Basho, a famous Japanese poet and shared some of his poems.

Then,  I read Basho and the River Stones by Tim Myers. The story is about how the fox tricked Basho by giving him three pieces of gold for a cherry tree, but the gold turns into three stones.  Basho out-foxes the fox, because he cares most about nature and poetry.  It’s a great read aloud.  It is a good story to use to introduce haiku. 

After reading the story,  we wrote some group haikus.  First, we listed some natural things we could write a haiku about: seashells, stones, bunnies, flowers, sunshine, rain, etc. Then we made a list of how these things makes us feel: happy, sad, lonely, friendly, curious, excited. I read some of my haiku to them and we counted syllables to make sure I was keeping the haiku form.

Finally, the students got busy writing their own haikus.  They were ready to go.  No one hesitated. They took up their pencils and began to create. It is so gratifying to see how these are able to stretch words out, count syllables and think about meaning and emotion. The haiku form helps them keep focused and since it is short, it is easy for them to write two or three poems in one workshop session.

The best part for me is that I get to witness our students grow as readers and writers. By the time students get to 5th grade, they are putting it all together and coming up with a haiku in three stanzas. This writer lacked confidence when she was a young writer, and now you can see in her composition how far she has come.  Haiku is a celebration not only of nature but of growth and possibility.

April Poem #29: This Poem is Not…

My inspiration for “This Poem is Not…” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt comes from Glenda Funk, who is a retired English teacher and published poet. Glenda challenged us to think about all the things poetry can do and does. In these possibilities there is always hope.

I took an old poem that was sitting there in a pile minding its own business, doing nothing.  I grabbed it, shook it up, and turned it into something new.  My advice is never throw out anything you’ve written.  You never know what it could turn into.  It could be in its chrysalis stage waiting to fly free.  This past month of writing a poem every day has taught me to take risks, to play with possibility, and to be unafraid with the outcome.  Playing with poetry was just what I needed.  It was necessary.

#StandWithUkraine. ©Joanne L. Emery, 2022

April Poem #28: When I’m by Myself

My inspiration for “When I’m by Myself” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt comes from Jessica Wiley, is an Alternative Learning Environment Teacher/Special Education Teacher in Morrilton, Arkansas at Southern Christian Children’s Home. Jessica asked us to think about what we do to transform ourselves.  She took inspiration from Eloise Greenfield’s poem – here.

I enjoy the childlike qualities of poetry.  Playing with rhythm and rhyme often spark the imagination.  With this poem, I did have to ponder deep questions, I could just play with the language and imagery.  It was fun to do, and poetry most definitely should be fun.  Once I wrote the first stanza, I felt it wasn’t quite complete, so I decided to reverse it and make a second stanza.  When I’m by myself, I write poetry and make myself happy.

April Poem #27: Forgiveness

My inspiration for “Forgiveness” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA. Shaun Ingalls, a high school English teacher pursuing a Ph.D. in Instructional Design, suggested a prompt inspired by the poem, “Drift,” by Alicia Mountain.  Shaun asked us to relook at something from a new perspective, try to re-encounter something we had experienced.

There are so many things in my life I want to re-encounter. There are so many mistakes I’ve made, so much time I’ve wasted on trivial things.  I spent years and years busy worrying, often forgetting that things are in God’s hands. I learned to be present, to find pleasure and beauty in small things, and to appreciate and recognize the people who love me. 

It was hard to choose just one thing to re-encounter. However, this memory of my Grandpa Antonio is so vivid to me.  It was about forty years ago, but it feels like yesterday. I wish I could go back and change every little thing.

Forgiveness

As I turn to leave, you stop me.
A minute, you say –
Opening the refrigerator door,
Taking coins from the butter dish,
Pressing silver dollars in my hand.
For you, you say –
Fold my fingers around the cold coins,
I kiss you on the cheek and leave.

I return an hour later,
Call out your name,
You’re not listening,
Your raspy breath comes as a warning,
I do not enter the room
Where you are lying.
I know what is happening,
But cannot face it.
I pace around and around
Minutes like hours fall away
Until my father, your son, arrives
To rescue you.

“Didn’t you notice your grandfather?
Call 911,” he says.
I stand frozen before the phone,
He pushes me out of the way.
Moments later, the ambulance comes,
Takes you away silently,
Red lights flashing – too late.

At your funeral
I tuck a poem – rough words
An apology
Into the pocket of your suit.
You’re wearing a gray suit,
Starched white shirt, a dark tie.
Had I ever seen you in a suit before?
I look down on your weatherworn face
For some sign of forgiveness.

Three days later, I’m in the den reading,
Suddenly, I look up –
Glimpse your blue bathrobe
Trailing around the corner,
I rise and follow to see you 
Standing at the stove making tea,
Your eyes meet mine and you smile,
I turn away and look again,
But you are already gone.

April Poem #26: Woven Words

My inspiration for “Woven Words” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Dr. Amy Vetter is an associate professor in English education in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro. For today’s prompt, Dr. Vetter suggested that we scour novels and other texts to construct found poetry.  This is one of my favorite ways to invent poetry.  It takes some of the pressure off and allows me to play with words.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a found poem in response to the Verse-Love annotation prompt – here. Many years ago, I came upon teaching annotation through the Annotated Charlotte’s Web. Today, I took an old, worn copy of Charlotte’s Web and found this poem lying within. Thank you, E.B. White, Wilbur, and Charlotte!

April Poem #25: Everything has a Purpose

My inspiration for “Everything has a Purpose” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Linda Mitchell, a Middle School librarian, and her cat, Ira Gershwin.  The prompt had nothing to do with music, but I do love that name for a cat.  Maybe he purrs in harmony.  Linda’s prompt involved writing a poem using the scientific method for inspiration: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis, make a prediction, test a prediction, use the results to form another hypothesis.  Easy-peasy, right?  Well, no.  This prompt took some thinking and some reading of sample poems.

I have been facing mortality lately.  It actually is slapping me in the face, but I refuse to succumb to pessimism and negativity. I spend my of my day, earnestly pondering my purpose.  I know my purpose has to do with children and writing. That might be purpose enough, but is it?  Is it really? I feel very mortal lately, and I want to organize my days with purpose and delight. Purpose may be easier for me to imitate by doing lots of things on my “To Do” list.  But is checking off boxes the way to a meaningful life?  The more I think about it, the more I know cultivating delight should be my life’s work.  So here I go playing with letting go and holding on.

Everything has a Purpose

Everything has a purpose.
What is my purpose here?
If only I work hard enough,
I will find my purpose.
If I follow all the rules,
Write the poem,
Hold the hand,
Paint the picture,
Teach the lesson,
Snap the photo,
Make the dinner,
Fold the laundry,
Read the book,
Listen and listen and listen,
I will find my purpose.
I will be so busy
That I can’t help
But find my purpose.


Consider the data.
What have I learned?
All this busy striving
Did not bring purpose.
Purpose lies deep within,
Something in the distance,
Something curious and resolute –
Between dreaming and waking.


Hold on tight
And let it slip
Through your fingers.
You will find it
Out there one day,
For sure, for certain.
This is absolutely true.

April Poem #24: My Garden of Eden

My inspiration for “My Garden of Eden” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Jessica Shernburn, a high school English teach who lives in Chicago, Illinois.  Jessica suggested that we look at text annotations for inspiration.  Could there be beauty and poetry in annotations?

I fell in love with annotation when I taught Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I poured over its book of annotations – like secrets held only for me.  I loved sharing tidbits I had learned with my students, and they began seeing annotation as a treasure hunt. Annotation is, indeed, the key to reading deeply and mindfully.

I am currently reading, French Dirt by Richard Goodman and I have been marveling at his turn of phrase, the words he chooses to describe his year as a gardener in France – how he wrangles and wrestles the earth to create something beautiful.  I have re-arranged some of his words that I had underlined, wanting to hold them in my mind and heart.

© Joanne L. Emery, 2022

April Poem #23: My Heart is an Unspoken Thunderstorm

My inspiration for “My Heart is an Unspoken Thunderstorm” came from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt was from Stefani Boutelier, who is an Associate Professor of Education at Aquinas College in Michigan. @stefboutelier 

Stefani’s prompt was to use metaphor dice to spark at poem.  I used this online metaphor dice roll and came up with this choice:

I concentrated on the rhythms of my heart and thought about the sounds of my heart and the sounds of a thunderstorm. This is where my mind took me.  I found this prompt idea very imaginative.  It got me out of the hum-drum and made me take risks.  I think I will use the metaphor dice roll more often now as a tool to constructing and deconstructing my ideas.