Word Play

Laughing Elbows

Last week, I was reminded of all the ways kids play with language.  They are not bound by grammar or convention.  They use their imaginations to express what they see and feel.  I read a recent post by fellow SOS blogger, Ramona. She wrote about her recent trip to the Oregon Coast with her grandsons.  At the end of the trip, she told her grandson Jack, “You make my heart happy!” Jack replied, “Grandma, you make my elbows laugh!”  This memory made me smile, and I was reminded of how wonderfully bright children see the world.  I guess that is why I have been a teacher for so many years.  I love to witness the wonder that little children experience every day.  I don’t want to let go of that. I am holding on tightly.

A Little Orange

At the beginning of my teaching journey, I worked at a nursery school.  I taught a mixed class in the afternoon of three to five-year-old children. It was a play-based cooperative school, which meant parents served as assistant teachers in some classes.  My afternoon class was wonderful because of the students’ mixed ages.  The younger children learned from the older ones, and sometimes the older ones learned from the younger ones.  One day, one of the girls, Anna, was sad and missed her mother. I put my arm around her and consoled her.  Fat teardrops ran down her face.  Just then, an older boy, Henry, came up and asked me why Anna was crying. I said, “She’s okay, Henry, she’s just feeling a little blue right now.” Immediately, Henry went over to Anna and patted her shoulder. He said, “Don’t worry Anna, I’m feeling a little orange myself.” I laughed.  “What does it mean to be a little orange?” I asked Henry. “It’s a little angry and a little sad mixed together he said matter-of-factly. I pulled Henry close and hugged him too.  I just loved how, without thinking, without knowing the conventional idioms, Henry was able to communicate and create his color code of feelings. He didn’t need permission, he just created on the spot.

Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown

When I taught 2nd grade, we would study a new artist every month.  We would read about each artist and then try out an art project in that same style or with the same materials. During one of these classroom studio sessions, I set out a still life with colorful flowers and a deer skull since we were exploring the art of Georgia O’Keefe.  I set out pots of paint and paper, encouraging students to create what they saw.  One of my students, Matthew, who had limited experience with mixing paint, became engrossed in the activity. He dipped and blotted moving from one pot to the next, eventually announcing that he had discovered a new color. “Look everybody!” he shouted excitedly, “I made Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown!  He was so excited by his discovery that he gave each of his classmates a sample of his new color, and they in turn added his color to their palettes. That day, Matthew began to see himself in a new light, as someone who could create art out of simple materials.  He was the inventor of Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown!  That free exploration and the process of reading, writing, and making art, allowed the children to think of themselves as creators of both art and language.

Looks Like Mashed Potatoes

This past Monday, I got to spend recess time with our Junior PreK.  Every time I walk out into the playground, three-year-old (now four-year-old) faces run up to greet me with shouts of: “Look at me! Let’s play catch! Tag! You’re it. Come on, RUN!”  One of the boys, Ian, ran up to me and said, “It’s sunny.”  Ian is an English language learner.  His vocabulary has grown tremendously this year.  He is now ready to take more risks, reaching out to teachers and peers to express what he is thinking.  I wanted to extend our conversation, so I said, “Yes, it’s warm today and look at those big white clouds.”  Ian looked up and said, “Clouds.”  I replied, “That one looks like a turtle.  And that one looks like a pirate ship.”  I exclaimed.  Ian kept looking quietly.  Emma heard our conversation and looked up at the sky intently. “I see a big doggy and a fish over there,” she said, pointing.  Emma and I kept looking and listing all we saw in the clouds: a castle, a banana, a tree, a giraffe, even an elephant!  Ian looked up watching the clouds.  Then Brittany came over and looked at Emma and me.  She looked up at the sky, “Don’t be silly,” she said, “They all look like mashed potatoes,” and walked away.  I laughed.  There has to be one practical one among the dreamers, I suppose.  The children played for the rest of recess, running, skipping, digging, and sliding. As we were about to go back inside, Ian tugged at me and pointed at the sky, “Dragon,” he said with a smile. I smiled and looked up into the sky, “Yes, a dragon,” I said. There stood another dreamer, who skipped happily inside.

As the school year wraps up, I have been thinking about how important imagination is for learning.  I think about how we don’t so much need to carve out time for play, but just need to step aside and trust the children.  They know what they are doing.  They can take simple items – a stick, a rock, a box – and create a whole kingdom. They can take simple words and create a language that is expressive, creative, and unique.  They can build messages that surprise and inspire.

Five Books to Uplift Your Imagination

  • Chimpanzees for Tea by Jo Empson
  • It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw
  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
  • Max’s Castle (and Max’s Words) by Kate Banks
  • Mirror, Mirror by Marilyn Singer
  • The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak

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

Playing with Language

I have long believed that play is the heart of learning.  In play, we create, take risks, fail, recreate, and grow.  In my teaching, I offer children experiences in play with numbers, scientific principles, philosophical concepts, art, and language.  These forays into learning always result in new and deeper understanding, and surprising discoveries.  This week, I continued to think about poetry as play and encouraged 4th grade students to play with using Spanish words to enhance their poetry.

The students recently completed reading the mystery, Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes.  The story centers around the theft of artist Frida Kahlo’s priceless peacock ring. The author added some Spanish words throughout the story to give her readers a connection to Spanish language and Mexican culture. Frida Kahlo often added words to her paintings such as “Viva la Vida.” Frida was a master at creating vivid images with paint to express her feelings.

After looking at many of Kahlo’s paintings, I asked the students to create vivid images with words by writing a poem using both English and Spanish words. I supplied them with a list of Spanish words and phrases used in the book and encouraged them to also add their own Spanish words to their poems. The students could write poems about something from the book or from Frida’s paintings that they had seen. I told them not to be afraid to play with words and ideas. I suggested that they should write a few poems and decide which ones they liked best.

Here is the way I explained how to build a poem with Spanish words:

Here are examples of poems I created to use as mentor texts:

Frida Azul

Blue sky
Azul
Green leaves
Verde
Sad Face
¡No llores!
¡Lo siento!
True Friend
Una Buena Amiga 
Viva la Vida
Para Siempre
Forever
Blue sky
Azul




Free Bird, Pájaro Libre

Dark eyebrows
Knitted together
Take flight like the wings
of a wild bird
Pájaro
Paloma
Colibrí
Pequeño
Pero con una gran imaginación
Perfecto
She flies free
High over Casa Azul
High over Ciudad de México
Sailing through the air calling,
“Estoy aquí!
Estoy aquí!
Estoy aquí!
I’m am here!”

Here are two student examples of playing with this concept:

I want to explore this concept of using multi-languages to express feelings and ideas.  I realize that many students who are English Language Learners could excel at this activity and be class leaders in integrating two or more languages.  How wonderful it would be to weave a student’s first language into their English poems and stories. I plan to play with this idea, build upon it, and see where it leads.

After walking in the park recently and witnessing a loving moment, I wrote this poem. I wanted to combine my experience with the words of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.  I use my own poetry practice to help me formulate how to present these same ideas to children.

Picture Books about Frida Kahlo

Frida by Jonah Winter

Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos by Yamilet Maldonado

Frida Kahlo: The Artist Who Painted Herself by Margaret Frith

I am Frida Kahlo by Brad Meltzer

Me, Frida by Amy Novesky

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

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

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.

February Face

February is a hard month for me.  It is the middle of winter: the snow is no longer a novelty, and the cold and gray gets to be too much for my spirit at times.  I try to lighten up the days literally with candles and sunny yellow tulips from the local supermarket.  I’ve grown fond of eating tart lemon curd pudding.  I’ve grown too fond in fact!

This past Thursday, February 25th would have been my mother’s 99th birthday.  She died almost eight years ago at the age of 91.  She had a nice long life, but not long enough for me.  I miss her every day.  I miss her smile, her shining eyes, her chats about books and kids and recipes.  She was my first teacher, and she was also many children’s teacher for over twenty years. She loved her 2nd graders and would regale our family with story upon story of their triumphs and tribulations. Later, I would regale her with stories of my own students.

It was one February day when my dad called to say that my mom had had a heart attack.  She was seventy-one at the time.  I remember rushing to the hospital where she had to undergo a quadruple bypass operation.  I was terrified but tried to hide it.  She looked at me, grabbed my hands, and looked me in the eye, “Don’t worry.  I am no ready to go.  I am going to make it through.  I’m not going anywhere.”  And I believed her. And she was right.  She had an incredibly long and difficult recovery, but in May that year on Mother’s Day, she was finally released from the hospital and began a slow and steady healing process.

February brings with it a bunch of conflicting emotions for me. Time to celebrate my mom’s birth, time to remember and honor her, but also time to miss her and long for her soothing voice and calm reassurance.  She would tell me everything was going to be okay, and I would believe her.  This February, her 99th year, I wanted to find a way to celebrate her life.

A fellow blogger, Julie Cox, wrote a post last week about a Shakespeare book, Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri.  She started the post with the quote from Much Ado About Nothing:

Good morrow, Benedick. Why, what’s the matter

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness

When I read those words and suddenly a sad, icy facial image came to mind.  I smiled to myself. I immediately knew what I was going to do to honor my mom and her love of books and children. I would have my 4th grade students draw and write about February Faces.  During class, I explained that I was reading Julie’s blog and came across Shakespeare’s quote.  I wanted students to understand that inspiration for writing can come in many different ways and to always be on the lookout for writing ideas.  I read the quote and asked the children what they thought a February face might look like. A multitude of adjectives came flying towards me: sad, grumpy, depressed, icicle hair, hard beady eyes, pale blue skin, happy, wrapped in wool, loving February 14th.  I loved that I received both positive and negative images of February.  After I read the quote, the students said that they wanted to read it aloud.  It wasn’t something I planned for but something they all added to the lesson.  It was an important way for them to connect to Shakespeare’s words.  Many students volunteered, some donning English accents and projecting their dramatic best.  This naturally added to their engagement.  Before I set them out to write their own poems, I modeled what I thought a February face looked like, drawing a simple sketch on the board.  Then I asked the children to help build a poem together. These are two examples of the group poems we created.

After we created the group poems, the girls set to work drawing their February faces and composing their poems.  They worked diligently and I cannot wait to see what they finally create.  One student called me over to her desk and asked if the February face had to human and gave me a mischievous smile.  When I looked at her paper, she was in the process of drawing an Ice Dragon. “Brilliant idea,” I whispered.  “Keep working.  I want to see what you create!”

More than concentrating purely on the product, I think it is essential for kids to experience the process of generating and idea, brainstorming possibilities, and thinking outside the box to create one’s own images, whether they are visual or written.  At first, when I said my writing idea this week was from Shakespeare, they all squirmed in their seats a bit.  They thought Shakespeare was going to be too hard for them.  But in the end, they realized that they could understand Shakespeare and respond to his words with unique and well-thought out ideas.

This week, I will give them plenty of time to share and respond to each other’s work. I hope Shakespeare will be a source of inspiration for them for years to come.

Shakespeare for Children

  • A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories by Angela McAllister
  • Hamlet for Kids by Lois Burdett (Shakespeare Can be Fun! Series)
  • Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare by Shakespeare
  • Shakespeare 16 Books Children’s Story Collection Set by Tony Ross
  • Shakespeare for Kids: 5 Classic Works Adapted for Kids: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Tempest by Familius
  • Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams
  • The Shakespeare Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained by DK Media Company

Write Now: Building a Community of Writers

I cannot remember a time that I did not like to write. Putting a pencil in my hand was giving me my turn to speak.  I loved creating imagined worlds, pouring my heart out, and writing about what could have been and what might yet be.  Writing expanded my horizons.  I get to live more life by writing.  Sometimes it baffles me when the small children in front of me have trouble finding an idea or organizing a thought.  I study them intently, hoping to find a magic strategy that will get them to see themselves as people who enjoy writing.  Magic does come, but not in the way I think it should or would.  Magic comes by writing every day. Allowing space in your day to put the pencil to the page or the fingers to the keys. It comes from allowing yourself to tell your story to others through your hands.

It had been more than forty years since I was part of a community of writers.  In college, I took part in writing groups, collectives, workshops.  After college that stopped, and I wrote for myself, not sharing with anyone until I forced myself to put the piece in an envelope and send it to strangers, who would return it most often with a kind rejection. That did not feel right. I started to think of those stories and poems as rejected, not good enough and that made me avoid writing every day.  But I have an intrepid heart and a yearning to be heard so I eventually picked up the pencil and started writing for myself and my invisible audience.  Over the years, I have written with and for my students.  I encourage them to have intrepid hearts and tell their stories. We build communities and we cultivate gardens of ideas to write about. 

The simplest magic strategy is to LISTEN.  When we listen to kids, whether they struggle to write or easily skip along the page, we can help them move along as writers.  We can connect to them and start the conversation.  Sometimes we go off topic. Okay, many times we go off topic, but that’s just the point.  Our magical winding conversations always lead to wild writing that excites us and beckons us to write more.

Another simple strategy that works for me all the time is to READ.  When I was a very young writer, I would read and imitate.  When I was a young adult writer, I considered that way of writing to be cheating, so I stopped reading.  Do you know what happened then?  My words became stiff and wooden; my ideas were flat and dull.  When I picked up books again, it kickstarted my imagination, and I was off and writing again.

I am so grateful to be part of a blogging community this year.  As much as I love to write every week, I love to read the posts of my fellow bloggers.  I have a connection to them even though we have never met. I have shared their joys and their sorrows, their book recommendations, their recipes for apple cake and jerk chicken taco, their photos of gardens and pets, and oceans and grandchildren. I am fortunate to have this treasure of ideas waiting for me each week. 

Last week, Fran Haley posted a photo of her dog, Dennis, and a poem called “Little Dog Dreams.” This small piece of writing got me to thinking how I could help my 4th grade students out of their winter doldrums.  They have been sitting listless behind their shields of plexiglass for weeks now, and I needed something to perk up their imaginations.  Fran’s little poem was just the thing!  I knew my nine and ten year old girls would fall in love with Dennis and that would spur them to write “Little Dog Dream” poems. 

First, I showed them the photo of Dennis circle up in a comforter, head bowed, ears inside out, a picture of perfect sleep.  Then I read Fran’s small 8-line poem.  We talked about how Fran constructed her poem: two stanzas with four lines each.  We talked about the rhyme scheme and noticed Fran’s word choice – vivid adjectives and strong verbs. Next, we brainstormed words that might go into a “Little Dog Dream” poem.  Our list looked something like this:

Now the girls were ready to write.  They quickly got out their pencils and started to compose.No one had trouble getting started.  They began talking to each other – telling funny dog stories.I had forgotten to leave some time for talking and sharing, but they did so naturally, and I let it be.  Soon the room was quiet and poems began to appear on their papers just like magic.

Emily and Hadley wrote acrostic poems:

Lovable

Incredible

Totally Adorable

Tiny

Loves a belly rub

Energetic

Delightful

Outstanding

Graceful

Lauren and Maddie tried their hand at rhyming:

 LITTLE DOGS DREAM
 by Lauren
  
 Little dogs dream about an owner who cares
 Little dogs don’t dream about teddy bears,
 They are not selfish. They’re happy and proud.
 They are happy to be alive and they don’t ask for much
 Now it’s your turn. Put yourself in the dog’s shoes.
 You would love treats and teddy bears, but
 No! I bet that you would be happy with an owner
 Now imagine you on the streets with no owner.
 I bet you would not ask for much.
 You are happy to be alive.
 Now come back!
 Come alive!
 And imagine that dog life! 

 
 
 LITTLE DOG DREAMS
 by Maddie
  
 Snuggled up on their own little bed
 Thinking about warm thoughts in their head.
 Running through the cold snow
 Sinking and getting low
 When they reach their owners arms
 Safe but alarmed
 When they hear a weird sound
 They cover it up with howling and jumping around.
 When they get back to their cozy home
 Happy thoughts are what they dream. 

My dreamers, Laila and Caroline, added some imagery:

Little Dog Firefly
 by Laila
  
 Flying in the air,
 A firefly lands on my dog’s nose
 My dog just sits there
 Staring into the starry sky,
 Loving and kind.
  
 Little Dogs Dream
 by Caroline
  
 Little dogs dream of jumping
 Into a pool of treats,
 Little dogs dream of owners
 Petting and loving them.
 Little dogs dream of going outside,
 Chasing squirrels, hugging trees,
 And scaring all the birds.
 Little dogs dream
 What little dogs dream! 

And always practical, Ashley, easily took on the voice of her beloved dog, Gerty. 

 Gerty’s Dog Dreams 
 by Ashley
                          
 Some yummy food better come soon! 
 Otherwise I go to the bathroom on the floor! 
 Ahhhh … YAY…  I see food!!!  
 Wait…  Mom is LEAVING ME 
 Oh no. I have to FOLLOW HER. 
 Even though I know she hates it 
 when I follow her. Whatever. 
 Oh man, Cameron is taking me to her zoom call. 
 Ahhh... why is everyone saying AWWWW?
 What is so cute? Wait is it me? 
 Heh, probably I am so… cute!  
 Is this my purpose? Haha! Yay.                                              
 The next day ...                                                                                
 Wait... what? Why is Ashley screaming my name? 
 Let me go to… Taylor's room!  
 Ahhh… I am trapped! 
 Man, I should have gone to Ashley. 
 Let me out Taylor!! 
 Please!!!!!!! Help someone!!! 
 Yay Dad let me go!! 
 Wait, Taylor has me. 
 She is taking me… AHHHH. 
 Ok let's follow Mom again! 
 Mom is moving the furniture again 
 She said it’s the last time!                                      
 That night, 
 Ok let me go to Dad and make him pet me! 
 Ok… just been 10 minutes. 20 minutes.. 
 Dadddddd pay attention to meeeeeee, pleaseeeee!! 
The next day when Emily comes….
 Hmmm… What should I do? 
 I am bored of following mom.. 
 So… Wait, Emily is here!  
 Yay! She is wearing her black leggings 
 now I can shed on her again!!! 
 Mommy gets mad 
 when I shed on her. Whatever. 

And Olivia, who is a devoted cat lover, quietly flipped the theme and wrote this:

 Little Kitten Dreams
 by Olivia
  
 Small kitten sleeping
 Snow covering its white pelt
 Dreaming about prey
  
 Catching sixteen mice
 Running free in the wild
 Freedom is so sweet
  
 Waking up at dawn
 Went to fulfill its wishes
 And fulfill its dreams 

I am so grateful for Fran’s inspiration this week and ever so grateful to be able to spend my weeks writing with children.  They never cease to provide me with magic and promise.  Indeed, I learn from them every single day.

Oh, How I Love Thee: Let’s Shout it Out!

February holds a special place in my heart.  Not because it’s my birthday month, that will come soon enough, but because it is the month of my anniversary, my Grandpa Charlie’s and my mother’s birthday.  She would have been 99 this month!  When February rolls along, I bring out my red:  little heart dishes, candles, flowers, and little things to brighten and cheer this long winter space.

In the classroom, I turn to poetry and talk to the children about loving kindness, first to themselves and then to others. We make lots of lists of the things we love. These lists mostly revolve around family and food. We practice writing odes and shout outs to all the things we love and are grateful for. Odes were originally songs performed to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, and sometimes a brave soul will write a song and perform it.  I love these small moments of celebration: no cake, no presents, just the simple pleasure of the written and spoken word.

To begin introducing odes to the children I choose Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes.” I think the sparseness and brilliant imagery will capture their attention and imagination.  This is how Neruda begins:

 Ode to Tomatoes

 The street
 filled with tomatoes,
 midday,
 summer,
 light is
 halved
 like
 a
 tomato,
 its juice
 runs
 through the streets.
 In December,
 unabated,
 the tomato
 invades
 the kitchen,
 it enters at lunchtime,
 takes
 its ease
 on countertops,
 among glasses,
 butter dishes,
 blue saltcellars.
 It sheds
 its own light,
 benign majesty. 



 Neruda perfectly places each word and gives each the importance it deserves.  After the students choose an object of their affection, I ask them to write a list of all the words to describe that object.  We share the lists and our classmates offer more suggestions.  Then it is time to write. Here are a few the students created. 

 Ode to Horses
 by Maggie 
  
 Horses galloping
 in the middle of the night
 when nobody is watching,
 their manes flying in the wind
 as they go by.
 They talk to each other
 with a simple “Neigh.”
 When the sun comes up,
 they are all tired from a long night.
 Their eyes still glow with delight.
 They have a long day,
 but they keep on trotting on
 because they know
 what the night brings.
  
  
  
 Ode to Candles
 by Evelyn 
  
 Candles
 Out in the living room
 Aspiring to burn the brightest
  
 Standing tall and proud
 Wax running down the side
 Beautiful
  
 When the flame has died
 It goes to sleep
 Dreaming about a great flame
  
 The people huddle round
 Outside the snow falls
 And falls
  
  
  
 Ode to Puppies
  
 Hadley
  
 Oh puppies!
 Your fluffy feet
 And velvety ears
 Make me want to cuddle you all day long!
  
 You make me smile
 When you run around on your fluffy feet
 And when you curl up into a ball to sleep
 You make me want to hug you
  
 Your tiny teeth may nip,
 And your miniature claws may scratch
 But I love you just the same.
  
 Oh Puppies!
 I love your little tail
 As it wags, wags, wags
 And your round tummy
 As you chow on yummy food
  
 You make me laugh
 When you chew on a bone
 And chase your tail
 And lie down on your bed
  
 Oh Puppies!
 I love you
  
  
 Ode to My Goggles
 by Indiya 
  
 During the day my goggles 
 Open their eyes and see
 All the swimmers swimming.
  
 They swim with me
 In the pool
 And protects my eyes.
  
 At night they dream
 Of swimming in the ocean,
 Seeing all the fish and coral.
  
 They wake up,
 Ready to swim.
 Thank you, goggles!
  

Another poem type I came across recently are Shout Outs.  Shout out poems are poems that thank people, animals or things that are personally important. Sekou Sundiata created this type of poetry.  His poem has a lot of music in it. Here is a small part of his poem. You can listen to the entire poem here: SHOUT OUT!

 Shout Out
  
 Here’s to the best words
 In the right place at the perfect time
 Here’s to three hour dinners
 And long conversations, 
 and a beautiful day.
 To the increase, to the decrease
 To the do, to the do
 To the did to the did
 To the done done
 To the lonely.
 To the brokenhearted.
 To the new, blue haiku.
 Here’s to all or nothing at all.
 Here’s to the sick, and the shut-in.
 Here’s to the was you been to the is you in
 To what’s deep and deep 
 To what’s down and down
 To the lost, and the blind, 
 and the almost found.

Here is my attempt at a Shout Out poem.  When teaching poetry to children, I think it is essential to write and create and revise right alongside them so that the class become a community of writers fully engaged in the process.

 Earth Shout Out
  
 Here’s to the seasons turning 
 To the bright spring flowers
 To the cardinals and jays singing in the trees
 Shout out to the clear blue sky
 To the fluffy whipped cream clouds
 To the children running and playing
 To their laughter and wild freedom.
 Shout out to the peaceful world
 To the beautiful earth
 To the golden sun and silver moon
 And to the twinkly diamond stars!
   

I encourage students to describe the things they love in unusual ways.  I don’t make them stick to one form and have fifteen cookiecutter poems.  I want them to explore the form and push the boundaries of their thinking. One great book to share with children is Shout!: Little Poems that Roar by Brod Bagert.

 Winter SHOUT OUT!!!
 by Emily
  
 Here’s to the snowy blizzards
 To the skiing vacations
 To the warm winter coats
 Shout out to the Christmas fun
 To the cozy Vermont cabins
 To the tight ice skates
 To the creamy hot chocolate
 Shout out to the warm, doughy cookies
 To the steep sledding hills
 To the family movies, snuggled under blankets
 And to the winter wonderland outside my warm, cozy house
  
  
 Shout out to Pizza
 by Cam
  
 Pizza is cheesy goodness
 Pizza is a great wheel of sauce
 Pizza I love your hot and cheesy flavor
 I love you with veggies on top
 I adore pepperoni too
 I shout to the sky
 Pizza you are the BEST!
  
  
 Shout Out to Ice Cream
 by Andrew
  
 Ice cream you are the dairy king
 You taste better than anything
 You come in a lot of flavors
 All which I savor
 Even though you’re very cold
 That makes you even more bold.
 You can be eaten in bowls,
 And you can be eaten in cones
 And with your toppings that are so delish
 You are my number one wish! 

Odes and Shout Outs are a great way to liven up these dreary winter days. They serve as a little light in the darkness.  They remind us about what we love and why.  They help us to reflect and have gratitude for the big and small things in our lives.

Here are some great books to celebrate loving kindness and Valentine’s Day.

Valentine Books

  • Arthur’s Valentine by Marc Brown
  • Guess How Much I Love You? By Sam McBratney
  • Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
  • Here Comes Valentine Cat by Deborah Underwood
  • Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
  • Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes
  • Llama, Llama, I Love You by Anna Dewdney
  • Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Love from the Crayons by Drew Dayward
  • Love Letters by Arnold Adoff
  • Love Monster by Rachel Bright
  • Love, Splat by Rob Scotton
  • Louanne Pig in the Mysterious Valentine by Nancy Carlson
  • Ollie’s Valentine by Olivier Dunrea
  • One Zillion Valentines by FrankModell
  • Pete the Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool by James Dean
  • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatcher by Eileen Spinelli
  • Snowy Valentine by David Peterson
  • The Best Valentine in the World by Marjorie Weisman Sharmat
  • The Biggest Valentine Ever by Steven Kroll
  • The Day it Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond
  • The Ballad of Valentine by Alison Jackson
  • The Valentine Bears by Eve Bunting
  • This is NOT a Valentine by Carter Higgins
  • Valensteins by Ethan Long
  • Valentine’s Day by Gail Gibbons