Reading in Wildness

I took this photo while on vacation in Maine.  I was walking by a favorite lily pond and happened upon this mother-daughter reading team lounging in a nearby meadow. The mother was reading with much gusto, taking on the voices of each character.  I don’t know what book it was that she was reading, but her young daughter was totally entranced by the story.  “Surely,” I thought to myself, “this child will grow up to be a fearless, wild reader.”  They brought a smile to my face and joy to my old teacher heart.

As a child, reading was difficult for me. I painstakingly sounded out each letter and then tried my hardest to blend the sounds into a word. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t, and the whole process left me exhausted. However, I loved stories.  I listened to epic poems that my father would recite and fantasy classics that my mother would read to me.  I found stories to be mesmerizing.  It took me a long time to say that I loved reading. Reading was slow work, and I was a fast kid. I did not like to sit still.  I wanted the words to come fast and furious, but my mind kept me at a slow and steady pace.  I was labeled a “slow reader.”  I wasn’t dyslexic, just slow.  One of the reasons for this, I think as I look back, is that I was in love with words, so I would dawdle over passages and wonder how the author constructed such a scene.  If the author left some things to the readers’ imagination, then I would float off creating whole other scenarios in my head.  Slowly, I would land back to the book and continue where I had left off.  This certainly was not efficient, purposeful reading, but it did afford me the ability to read like a writer.  I was not a spectator as I read, I was a participant.  I took in all the words to use them again in a different way in a story of my own. Eventually, I learned to savor the slow and to know that the kind of reading I was doing was helping me become a better writer.

Recently, I found Hudson Talbott’s A Walk in Words.  Talbott was also a slow reader and in this book he explains his reading journey.  It is through drawing that Talbott came to love reading and writing.  He found that his love of drawing lead him into stories, and he began to think of reading as “word painting.” As he grew, Talbott’s curiosity won, and he was able to read at his own pace. At the end of the book, he created a Slow Reader Hall of Fame including: William Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, Babe Ruth, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Graham Bell, to name a few. Thankfully, Talbott became a picture book writer. He said that he mined books for words to use in his stories and that the ability to lose himself in books helped to spark his imagination.

When I think of it, many of the book I adored as a child were based in the wild. The book that taught me that I loved reading was the classic, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry and after that was Jean Craighead George’s masterpiece, My Side of the Mountain.  Those books helped me see past myself and to envision the kind of reader who takes chances and doesn’t give up. I slowly picked my way through the words and in the process found lifelong friends and exciting adventures.

Reading in Wildness Suggestions:

Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits by Donalyn Miller

Picture Books:

A Walk in Forest by Maria Dek

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Slow Down: 50 Mindful Moments in Nature by Rachel Williams

The Hike by Alison Farrell

Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark

Wild by Emily Hughes

Chapter Books:

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha lai

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Wanderer by Sharon Creech

Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Forest Bathing

I have taken some time off to be in Vermont.  It is a place my husband and I  have gone for the last thirty years. I need this time to relax, heal, and ease my pain.  I am so grateful for this place.  As soon as I see the Green Mountains in the distance, I breathe deeply and feel something release inside of me.  This may be due to the wide expanse of greenery, the clouds sitting gently on the mountain tops, or the roadside laced with an assortment of wildflowers.  There are acres and acres of distance between neighbors and people still put their wash up on clotheslines.  This is a slow and peaceful place.  My eyes tell my body that I am safe; I can rest now.

I have been reading about a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, or Forest Bathing. The idea is the connect with nature by walking in the woods.  By bringing all your senses to that place and being mindful, your body begins to heal itself and you feel restored.  I am practicing forest bathing every day while in Vermont.  My body is beginning to ache a little less and my mind is certainly in a better place.  I so needed this respite, and I am grateful that there is such a beautiful place nestled in the mountains.

Power in our Words

Summer has come, and this is the time I normally take to reflect on my past year’s teaching experience.  I have filled two roles for the past two and a half years: first, as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator and then as a Learning Support Coordinator. I didn’t realize how much doing both roles would require of me. I love the creativity of curricular development and also enjoy working one-on-one with struggling students.  I like the challenge of finding the right strategies to support each learner.  Next school year, I will be solely engaged in learning support, and I have found myself feeling ebullient at the prospect. Though I will miss providing reading and writing curricular support, the whole reason I went into teaching forty-three years ago was to help kids who found school difficult.  I love working with kids to find pathways to learning, to make reading and writing playful, to make school meaningful and fun again.

As I shift my attention solely to learning support, I keep thinking about how teacher language supports student engagement and growth.  There have been many studies about this idea. Also, I know this to be true from my own experiences as a student.  There were teachers who shut me down and who believed more in my limitations than in my possibilities.  They could be dismissive, sarcastic, and sometimes downright mean.  I vowed never to be like those teachers.  When I was unfortunate enough to have that type of teacher, I learned to keep my head down, be quiet, and not to bring any attention to myself.  In those years, I did not learn as much as I could have, and my self-esteem suffered.  I am grateful that I only had two such years in my long career as a student.  Most years, I had teachers who saw my potential, who encouraged me, and who showed they cared about my ideas.  In the presence of those teachers, I flourished.  I felt good about myself.  I took more and more risks, my voice became stronger, and I had the motivation to learn.  Their support fed my curiosity and creativity.  I began to read widely and teach myself.  I was empowered by my teachers’ positive attitude towards me.

The past two and a half years has been difficult for teachers.  They have spent less time teaching and more time on administrative minutia.  The stress of masks, social distancing, hybrid learning, and virtual technology has taken its toll.  Workshops on mindfulness and self-care can only do so much.  Since my job is to support learning, I spend most of my days inside classrooms observing teaching and learning.  I have witnessed some wonderful, creative, and engaging lessons.  However, I have also witnessed some disengagement, frustration, and negative, unproductive talk from teachers.  As I reflect on how I can become a positive voice in my school community,  I have been reading Paula Denton’s book, The Power of Our Words.  The book is part of the Responsive Classroom series and gives concrete advice to teachers on how to reflect on how they speak to their students and how to shift negative talk into talk that is uplifting and supportive – talk that will make students feel valued and talk that will encourage them to become involved in their own learning.  I plan to think of ways to speak to my faculty about the importance of teacher talk and to make teacher talk integral to the learning profiles I create for each struggling student.

I hope in this way, not only our students with learning differences, but also all students will benefit.  Paul Denton’s words ring true: “…teachers can use language to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways that go beyond but connect to their current reality.  Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this.”

Now, more than ever it is important for teachers to become mindful of their talk and to think about the words we use to provide optimal engagement and lead children to see learning as a way to attain their goals.  Teachers have that power, and it is important for them to think deeply before they speak.

Books that Promote Positive Talk:

How to Talk So Kids Can Learn: At Home and In School by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King

How to Talk so Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

Positive Teacher Talk for Better Classroom Management by Deborah Diffly

Say What You See for Parents and Teachers by Sandra R. BlackardThe Power of Our Words: Teacher Language that Helps Children Learn by Paula Denton

Alone by the Sea

It’s June.  I live in New Jersey.  It’s time to “go down the shore,” as we Garden State residents say.  It’s beach time!  The last three weeks, I have trekked to the Atlantic, which is only an hour and. Half away.  The past two weeks have been crowded: throngs of people in the water, on the beach, on the boardwalks, and lining up at restaurants.  That was not the beach escape I was craving.  I am in much need of ocean meeting sky, of a blue expanse, and a summer of possibilities.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had a career that allowed me to have my summers free.  Of course, I do not count the twenty or so summers that I taught remedial English or directed summer camp.  Instead, I count the twenty summers that I had the whole twelve weeks free to explore, gather, and breathe.  I traveled, read, wrote, and met with friends. The twenty summers seem like a bright blue blur.  I’m not sure I will get the gift of twenty more summers.  This summer, I want to remember keenly: what I am thinking, what I am reading, and what changes I made happen. I know this sixty-sixth summer is important for me.

This weekend, I came to the beach on an overcast day.  The sand was wet with recent rain. Just stalwarts were laying out on bright blankets.  But there was the sea and quiet and a space for thinking.  I just finished reading Katherine May’s memoir about walking Britain’s southeast coast path, The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Women’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home. I love her writing.  Much of what she expresses, I feel so deeply.  She wrote about the “value of being in places you love and knowing them and coming back to them.”  I have always loved the Atlantic coast (on the American side).  I have lived close by all my life. This place I know well. Some of the surroundings have changed but the sea remains the same: the salty smell, the sounds of the waves, the glint of light on the ocean. The Atlantic is where I feel most at home.  It is comforting and makes me feel connected to something larger than myself.

Alone by the Sea

It is my turn 
to walk alone
Along the boardwalk.
I am here to collect images,
To put together
My life story.
The day is quiet and clear.
After a recent rain,
The sand is dark and wet.
Some beach goers remain
On their bright blankets.
Lifeguards jog together,
Racing and playing tag 
with the waves.

I slow my steps,
Pay careful attention.
A redwing blackbird perches
above the beach roses
And sings loudly.
I bid him good-day
And continue on,
Past the reed-covered dunes,
Past the mother and young daughter
Sharing a picnic together,
Feet dangling over the boardwalk,
Holding triangles of pizza in their hands
As it drips with cheese
Into their happy mouths.

I remember moments like these.
My mother, sister, and I 
at our beach bungalow -
Sand, sun, surf.
Sinatra playing in the background
Mingled with the laughter of children.
Sailboats gliding across the bay,
Fresh laundry flapping on the line,
Lazy summer days,
Spread ahead of us 
And we took them in,
Soaked them up,
Were grateful for them,
Knew they were precious.

I look out to the Atlantic
Try to see to the end,
Where ocean meets the sky.
The horizon is dotted with clouds.
Below, there is a thin azure line.
I imagine heaven to be
in this precise place,
Somewhere out there,
Just beyond reach for now
And I am content,
Truly content.
All I need is sand, sky, sea
And an overcast day
In serene solitude.

Be the Flower

This has been a heartbreaking week, a gut-wrenching month: senseless violence in Buffalo and Uvalde.  Teenage gunmen destroyed lives while people shopped at a grocery store and children and teachers were busy in their classrooms teaching and learning. The rage in the minds of these individuals is unfathomable to me.  And though this blog is about literature, art, and education, I cannot let this week go by without addressing the terrible loss and helplessness I feel due to this horrific tragedy.  There must be solutions: stiffer gun control regulations, better mental health care, and stronger protection for our school and public spaces.  This saddens me deeply. What is happening to humanity?  Are we all to live locked away in our private residences with limited social contact?  What will happen to us then? As these thoughts buzzed around my mind this week, I turned to nature, as I always do, for solace – for an answer.

Connection to nature, I believe, is a source for hope, well-being and mental health.  This spring has been filled with flowers.  There are flowers blooming around our school campus,  flowering trees in my yard, and a plethora of flowers casting their spell over many local gardens.  I pass by wild irises on the roadside, their purple tongues dotted with raindrops.  I concentrate on their color and form. I wonder at such beauty, such grace, such an exquisite being, and I want to transform myself into that flower.  I want to grow where I’m planted, feel the soil beneath my feet, spread roots, shoot up tall, and blossom. 

When I began my teaching career, I worked with preschool children.  We spent much of our time outdoors in both good and inclement weather.  The children dug in the garden and were surprised when they pulled up carrots and radishes, believing there was magic in the soil.  They loved to weed, water, and harvest.  They felt control and accomplishment.  Flowers served as a respite for us, a signal to stop and take in beauty, to breathe.  The children would gather small bouquets for me of dandelions, clover, and buttercups. They would string flowers in each other’s hair and make magic potions from the bits of vegetation they collected.  Life outside was a necessary part of their growth and development.

I remember a time, when one girl brought me a lovely red tulip.  She had dissected it, separating its stem, leaves, petals and stamen.  There were tears in her eyes as she held out her hands to me, “Put it back together,” she commanded.  I looked at the flower and wondered, at first, how I could reassemble it for her.  I took the pieces from her hands and placed them on the ground making a tulip mosaic.  I knew this was not what my student had in mind.  She thought I could mend it completely and make it whole again. When I explained to her that it couldn’t be brought back to life, she cried, and I consoled her. She learned that the flower was a delicate and fragile thing, something to care for, something to admire and cherish.  And maybe flowers are part of the answer.  They have been powerfully and wonderfully made. They are a gift from God to humanity to give us strength and make us resilient.

As often happens, a book popped out a me from our school library shelf wanting to be read.  It was a new Caldecott Honor medalist, Have You Ever Seen a Flower?  by Shawn Harris.  It is brilliantly illustrated using simple tools: pencil and colored pencil. It is childlike and surprisingly powerful in its simplicity.  The girl in the story asks the reader to really think about flowers: look deeply, take in their smells, watch them with a microscopic wonder.  Watch them so closely that you can imagine what it feels like to be a flower: to grow roots, take in water, and bloom. The book reminds us to use the flower like a resource – to grow, thrive, and blossom.  Flowers help us reflect, turn inward, and respect life.

I went searching for solace this week.  I went hunting for answers.  I found them in the form of flowers and poetry. Once destroyed, lives cannot be put back together.  Some things cannot be made whole again. But I believe that the solution for violence must be in a turn towards nature, towards beauty, towards the preciousness of life.  Consider the flower.

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 #30: And I, too

My inspiration for “And I, too” comes from  Verse-Love, Ethical ELA, which was created by Sarah J. Donovan. Today’s prompt is the last prompt in celebration of National Poetry Month. Sarah invited us to think about claiming ourselves as writers and poets. Sarah used René Saldaña, Jr’s poetry anthology, I Sing: The Body  as a springboard for this prompt. The anthology contains poets’ thoughts on self-image, self-doubt, and constructing an identity.

When I read the prompt and some samples of other poets’ work, I immediately thought of Langston Hughes’ poem I, too. I used the form of Hughes’ poem to construct my own poem. I have always loved the way Hughes could lay out a strong message in a few words. I thought I would practice this, using his structure as a scaffold. I don’t normally take on other poet’s styles and forms, but through participating in Verse-Love this month, I came to realize how building on others’ work could help budding poets build a body of work and step out of their comfort zones. And isn’t that what poetry is all about – stepping out of your comfort zone and beginning to dance!




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.