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.
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
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
and then it’s spring by Julie Foliano
Spring is Hear: A Bear and Mole Story by Will Hillenbrand
It’s March and among other things it means that it is time to reflect on the accomplishments of women. For me, this means creating another Women’s History Challenge for my school’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. I started this event almost ten years ago as a way for our school, a private girls school – the oldest in New Jersey, to honor women. It is an enrichment opportunity and is optional, though every year at least twenty to twenty-five students eagerly participate. The Challenge consists of researching ten women plus another of their choice. The girls have six weeks to complete their research. In mid-February, I present the list of women for that year. Then the students who decide to participate work independently completing their research by the end of March. While the students are busy researching and writing, I create a Women’s History Challenge quiz show in the form of a slideshow. There are ten questions focusing on the lives of each women. Also, I gather pictures of the women who the students have chosen for their independent projects. In early April, we all gather to share information and celebrate the girls’ hard work researching. The celebration is in the form of an elegant tea party. I got this idea from feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation – The Dinner Party, which honors the lives of 39 women.
We prepare a large classroom in the style of high tea: lace table cloths, colorful tea pots, vases of flowers, and table settings in springtime colors. There is the traditional tea menu: tea sandwiches, tea breads, shortbread, sugar cookies, fruit salad, and an assortment of flavored teas. As the participants enter the room, you can feel the energy and see the excitement on their faces. The girls are ready to share what they’ve learned and also eager to taste the treats and plop one or two sugar cubes in their teacups. I learned that sugar cubes are a much favored treat with eight to eleven year old girls!
During the tea we have the quiz show and girls take turns answering questions about the featured women. The emphasis is on the knowledge they uncovered. There are no losers here. They are all winners because they have learned how to conduct research and found out about women they had not previously known. After the quiz show, each girl presents information the women they individually research. We ask questions and marvel about the lives of the women we had honored that year. It is one of my favorite school celebrations.
Last year, we had to create a virtual tea part due to COVID-19. I was worried that it would not be as special because I could not set up the high tea finery or prepare the luscious treats. But I was wrong. Even virtually, the girls happily celebrated and their individual presentations were even more spectacular. This year, I’m in the midst of planning our second virtual tea. Since we are lucky to have a hybrid/in-person schedule, the girls will be taking home a treat bag and then zooming into our virtual tea when then return home in the afternoon.
When preparing for the Women’s History Challenge, I have learned so much about all different women in all different walks of life. I try to gather a diverse list every year. Some years, I focus on women in the arts or women in science. This year, I chose women, most of whom I had not heard of before but who had picture books written about them. Every year I learn something new, and the students learn to be curious and are inspired by so many women role models. I wouldn’t be surprised that one day they may have a book written about them that other children will read and be inspired by.
Staring at the big (30″ x 30″), white canvas is often the most stressful part of my process. How do I start? Where do I start? That very first mark is so important to me that I find myself in a battle against my fears and insecurities. A multitude of voices clamour for dominance in my head… It’s the same every time! I hear the light-speed and intensely elaborate debate between overthought and instinct, then my hand rises to the canvas and the first mark is there. When I let my mind go, the entire image starts to come into view in my imaginations and muscle-memory does the rest for guiding my hands.
This got me thinking of my own process of creating. I think a blank anything whether it is a canvas, paper, or piece of cloth – gives the artist a moment to ponder and stress. Something about the purity of the whiteness maybe. We don’t want to put something down that is wrong, ugly, or unintended. We want the marks, whether words, a painted image, or a quilted line, to be beautiful and meaningful and what we envisioned in our minds in the first place. With writing, the blank page is not so daunting to me. I create ideas in my head for a good long time, I let them percolate, and then I start placing them on the page. I’ve been doing this for about sixty years, so with practice comes familiarity and a kind of easy flow. With canvas or cloth, I am more hesitant. These I’ve done sporadically over the years; these hold more anxiety for me. It’s harder to undo a stitch or a painted line. Typing can be easily deleted, no one will ever know those awkward, ugly, simplistic words were ever there. But the painted or stitched line is harder to remove. There is evidence of my lack of ability permanently cast. So I wonder how to get beyond that. Abstraction and collage help. Making abstract images helps free my mind and in doing so it frees my hand. I don’t worry as much about perfection. I can just flow with the rhythm of what I’m feeling in that moment.
Abstraction helps me get in touch with the child inside. The young child, who hasn’t yet been touched by judgement. Peter Reynold’s picture book, The Dot, addresses this idea of self-judgement. In the story a young girl faces desire, hesitation, and ultimate success in making her artistic mark on the world. It’s a wonderful book about creativity and being brave making your mark. When I do creativity exercises with children, I change the blank paper into a paper with a dot or mark or hole in it. The paper already has an “imperfection.” Now they don’t have to worry about the first mark, it is already there. I challenge them to take that mark and use their imagination to create a design, image, or story. Young children don’t hesitate – they take up the challenge and just draw. Another activity I’ve done with students after reading Reynold’s book is to have them work together to create a mural using colorful self-sticking dots and. It is wonderful to see that there was a time we didn’t self-edit.
I often take an art mistake and incorporate it into a collage. A couple of months ago, I began dabbling again with watercolors. What was in my mind did not translate to the page. I was disappointed. I looked at the work again and decided I loved the colors, but not the image, so I cut the image into strips and woven them together into two squares. I liked how the watercolor was transformed and put it a way to use in a collage. This week, I took a twelve-inch square canvas, painted an undercoat of lemon yellow, yellow ochre, and vermillion. After that layer dried, I added a coat of green (a mixture of white, sap green and viridian). While that coat was still wet, I drew on top of that layer with rubber shaping tools creating a design of swirls and dots. I let my hand move freely and added bits of flourish as I saw fit. I let that layer dry and then placed my collage objects: the two woven watercolor squares and six wooden hand-painted buttons. I spent some time assembling and dissembling until I like the composition. Then I will permanently attach the pieces by sewing the into place of the canvas.
Instead of focusing on purity, I focus on possibility. It’s not important to me if the strips are the same width or that the weaving is not perfectly straight. To me, these imperfections make the work more interesting. What is beyond the canvas, page, cloth that I can imagine into being? How can I express what I’m thinking and feeling? How can I connect?
Picture Books That Stimulate the Imagination
Twenty Books and More that Join Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon Creative Tradition:
A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
How to by Julie Morstad
Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
Journey by Aaron Becker
Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
Perfect Square by Michael Hall
Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
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.
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.
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.
Old rusted key
To something I’ve
Forgotten how to open,
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
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
And rusted things
Useless to everyone,
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.
This past month, I have learned that inspiration for teaching and life can come from many places: a photograph of a curled up Dachshund, a simple quote from Shakespeare, a 2nd grader’s writing assessment, or an educational email with the subject line: Are we preparing students to be chefs or cooks?
This email came from A.J. Juliani, who has written many books about student empowerment, technology, and innovation. He is the Director of Learning and Innovation at Centennial School District in Pennsylvania and also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Juliani believes that teachers and students should approach their work life chefs. He explains it this way:
When my brother passed away a few years ago, my thoughts turned to my own children. How could I help raise them to be chefs? How could I raise them to not follow the recipes of life, but instead make their own recipes for their life? But, it is not just my kids, it is all of our kids.
This is one thing I know for sure: every single one of us is not getting off this planet alive. And since this is the case, I believe we should be kind to ourselves and each other, and always put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Most importantly, we should follow our dreams and play. This is why I’m so glad that my work and my play are the same thing. Maybe I have always approached life like a chef: creating, improvising, putting things together that aren’t normally supposed to go together. To me, it makes life fun and interesting. And it’s worth it, even when I encounter mistakes. Or maybe especially when I encounter my mistakes. The mistakes make me grow and learn and try on new adventures.
This week, I was tasked with reading our students’ writing assessments. Wednesday night after dinner, tired with a cup of tea in my hand, I read this little gem from one of our 2nd graders:
I smiled when I read this passage. This student didn’t want to be pigeon-holed at the tender age of seven about what she would like to be when she grew up, so she created her own role. Nobody told her she couldn’t do that. She invented her own path. I was so pleased to see this, so happy that we were encouraging kids to think outside the box, to go beyond what lies behind them.
Reading about chef-scientists made think about all the times I’ve spent in the kitchen with children creating holiday foods, foods inspired by children’s books, and foods for the fun of it like the time I made hand-cranked watermelon ice with a rambunctious group of four-year-olds that required six cups of sugar. That recipe was the definition of SWEET!
My favorite times in the kitchen with kids were the times we created cakes using no recipes. The students had to create the recipe as we went along. I called this activity Monster Cake. I would put out a bunch of different ingredients and the children would decide which ingredients to use and how much to put in. A number of years ago, one little boy was adamant about putting a ¼ cup of salt into the cake batter. I allowed him to do that because we were making two batches and this way the children could all learn what happens to a cake with ¼ cup of salt in it. It actually was a beautiful cake, but it didn’t taste good. We crumbled it up and put it out for the birds, but even the birds and squirrels didn’t eat it! The other cake had 2 cups of chocolate chips in it and the chips sank to the bottom making a fudge layer. That cake we all ate with gusto!
While searching the web, I found that actually creating food without a recipe is now a cool and trendy thing. Some call it free-style baking. I love this idea. We should make our one trip on this beautiful planet sweet, spicy, comforting, and sometimes a bit surprising! I’m about to enter my kitchen now to make some Blustery Day Oatmeal cookies, a recipe I invented. Try them, if you dare!
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.
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
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:
Loves a belly rub
Lauren and Maddie tried their hand at rhyming:
LITTLE DOGS DREAMby 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!
And imagine that dog life!
LITTLE DOG DREAMSby 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
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
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
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!
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
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.
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 TomatoesThe streetfilled with tomatoes,midday,summer,light ishalvedlikeatomato,its juicerunsthrough the streets.In December,unabated,the tomatoinvadesthe kitchen,it enters at lunchtime,takesits easeon countertops,among glasses,butter dishes,blue saltcellars.It shedsits 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
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
Out in the living room
Aspiring to burn the brightest
Standing tall and proud
Wax running down the side
When the flame has died
It goes to sleep
Dreaming about a great flame
The people huddle round
Outside the snow falls
Ode to 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.
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
I love you
Ode to My Goggles
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 OutHere’s to the best wordsIn the right place at the perfect timeHere’s to three hour dinnersAnd long conversations, and a beautiful day.To the increase, to the decreaseTo the do, to the doTo the did to the didTo the done doneTo 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 inTo what’s deep and deep To what’s down and downTo 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!!!
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
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
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.
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
I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro. It’s cover is patterned and embossed. I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style. Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing. It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together. I had never seen a book quite like it. I was enticed and started reading. The authors’ words calmed and centered me. I began recalling my history with thread and needle. Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase.
Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress. She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college. She was amazingly gifted. She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket. My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was. She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves. I became interested in embroidery in my early teens. I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans. I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them. I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom. It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.
I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood. Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus. I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric. One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment. I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard. It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches. I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session. To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking. His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative. More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.
In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum. I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework. At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project. She was looking for quilters and embroiderers. I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit. To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York. That was a great experience for me. I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life. I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.
But it did not. Like my mother, I turned toward teaching. I continued to create with my students. I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with. For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts. We’d readTar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too. We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet. We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before. We were creating something together, something that would be joined together. When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year. I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts. There’s a story in that!
For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells. I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own. I do these projects purely for myself. I love choosing the colors and textures of paper. I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design. The buttons and beads are a particular favorite. One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons. They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect.
I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to. It seems there never is enough time. I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity. I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life. It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands. Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:
Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken. Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve. A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.
That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country. I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.” They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt. By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw. I love this idea. Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew.
Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi. Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible. This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice. She artfully and thoughtfully explains: The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.
I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again. Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along. Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.
Clothes sit in a pile
On the edge of my bed,
Waiting for attention.
I sit down next to them:
The khakis with the torn hem,
The sweater missing its button,
The shirt that split it’s seam,
The sock with a hole in its toe,
The old pair of worn-out jeans
With a huge tear in one knee.
I take a deep breath,
I rather be doing something else,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
Pick up the pants,
Examine the hem,
Thread the needle with
As close a khaki colored thread
As I can find – and start.
I pierce the supple surface
Down and up, down and up again and again
The thread slides through the fabric
Until the hem secured.
My hands take up the sweater
It is my favorite: black, red, and white
Thick and warm from Norway
With embossed silver buttons
One is missing now
I find another in my button box
It is not quite the same
Will anyone notice?
Does it matter? Do I care?
I snip off the top button
And put it in the place of the missing one
Then I take the mismatched button
And place it on top in full view
Like that’s where it was meant to be
I wrap heavy black floss around and around
The button shank keeping it
Snug - sure not to fall off.
My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
With it’s tiny split seam is next
I hold it up to my nose
It smells like him
I take a deep breath,
I’m doing something for someone I love,
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention,
I find delicate white cotton thread
And another sharp needle
I concentrate on make tiny
Identical stitches one after another
After another until it is complete.
There’s my old worn sock
I take it in hands and examine it
Is it worth keeping?
The hole is quite large
But the rest of the sock is perfect
And they are my warmest
They make my feet happy
I search for charcoal gray yarn.
But find only Prussian Blue.
I begin to knit with my darning needle
Chains of wool connecting loops
Upon connecting loops
This work is different
I am not so much as attaching
As I am creating more material
I am making a toe-shaped space
Prussian blue, all its own.
My mending pile is gone
Only my worn jeans are left
The tear is huge and threatens
To extend mid-shin.
The fabric is flimsy and thin
I think a patch is possible.
I place a pretty blue and pink print
Underneath the tear
Stitching it quickly in place
Then I take up an abundance
Of pastel floss and create blossoms
Around the knee and down
Along one side of my pants leg
I keep adding flower upon flower
Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
A vine of mint green winds in and out
My needle pokes and pierces,
Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
My mending is done for the day.
I take a deep breath.
I inhale again… and exhale,
I refocus my attention.
Books About Mending
Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
by Raleigh Briggs
Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure
Quilt Books for Children
Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston
Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
Though I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was four years old, I sometimes find it hard to actually sit down and write. Often I walk and write in my head or just upon waking, write in my mind the wonderful idea I had while I was dream-waking. Sometimes, I make the time to write them down, but most times they slip away, and my day gets filled with daily minutia. As I’ve grown older, I try to be more consistent with my writing, because I am keenly aware of time and life slipping away. Writing is important to me, and I need to be mindful of giving it the room it deserves in my life. Without writing I know I would not fully be me. Without writing, I would not be able to think through my problems or create new things. Writing needs a conscious, breathing space. Writing needs time.
Many of my writing ideas come from books I’ve discovered. In the pre-COVID years, I loved to browse my favorite indie bookstores, wandering and reading hoping to come upon an interesting find. I miss those days. Buying books on Amazon is not the same experience. I hope those bookstores find a way to survive because they were an important part of my inspiration. It was in one of these now defunct bookstores where I found the little yellow treasure, FEG: Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch. In this book, Hirsch includes the poem, “Entering a Poem,” which is a brilliant and humorous way of introducing poetry to children. It begins:
You enter a poemJust like you enter a room.You open the doorAnd what do you see?A sink, for example,A bathtub, a toilet(Does a toilet belong in a poem?)And you say to yourself, “AhaIt’s a bathroom.”
Needless to say, I bought the book immediately and shared it with everyone I know. I wanted to see what I could do with this subject. I began to think of the old row house my husband and I lived in decades ago in Princeton. It dated back to the early 1800’s and had a quirky charm. It is this place that I thought of as I wrote my poem.
When You Enter A Poem
You enter a poem
through the basement.
Walking down several steep steps,
you inhale a musty odor –
the damp darkness.
You reach above for the string
that will turn on the light,
you can’t find it.
You shuffle and stumble,
trying to adjust to the light.
You begin to see outlines –
shadows of things
Could that be your old wagon?
Is that a box of your books?
You bump into an old rocking chair,
you always loved that rocker.
You’d sit on your mother’s lap
as she told you stories,
a cobweb gently touches your face.
You swat it away.
Where’s the light?
You find the string and pull,
but it does not go on.
You know the poem is in here, somewhere,
you reach out your hands
and feel your way around -
the cool, rough cinderblock walls,
the smooth, curved oak chest
the ragged, chipped-painted pipes.
Your eyes are getting accustomed to the dark.
You can now make out the wooden ceiling beams,
the various pieces of furniture stacked with boxes
the small, odd door on the far side of the room.
There is a sudden scent of lavender
from some abandoned blooms
forgotten in an old vase.
You walk on feeling your way
in the murky darkness.
You come to the small, odd door.
It is really just some rough-hewn planks
crudely hammered together.
A brass key protrudes from the lock.
You try to turn it, you try to pull it out,
but it doesn’t budge.
You wonder what is inside
and why it’s locked away.
You try the key again.
It won’t turn.
You knock on the door -
There is no one on the other side.
You boldly bang and kick it,
Throw your shoulder against it,
it remains steadfast.
You walk back towards the steps,
You can make your way
more easily through the darkness.
A poem is like that –
Some things become clearer,
some remain secret,
you turn and ascend the stairs.
Whenever I think of a lesson for children, I must try it out first and make mistakes. Mistakes guide me in how to make the lesson better. I welcome mistakes. If my idea comes out too perfect, I don’t trust it. There must be something I’m not seeing, not realizing. This poem came out all at once, and I wondered if children would be able to create a visual space for how they enter a poem. I tried it out with some 5th graders, and they easily delved into their poetry place. I think the humor imbedded throughout Hirsch’s poem helped them understand that poetry is accessible. It can be about toilets and musty basements. It can ask questions and not provide all the answers. Indeed, it should raise more questions and make us wonder.
When sharing this idea with students, I first read aloud both Hirsch and mine own “entering a poem” poems. We talked about how each poem was constructed and the form, language, and images the poets created. Then I asked my students to think about a poem as a room in a home or space somewhere. How do you get inside? How do you begin to understand it? I asked them to write an “Entering a Poem” poem. I told them that their “room” can be any type and anywhere. It could be a bedroom, kitchen, secret room, tunnel, spaceship, a place outdoors, – whatever they imagined it to be.
When You Enter A Poem
When you enter a poem...
It’s like entering a kitchen
First you stick out your hand,
Reach for the cabinet with the bowls.
Take one large bowl and one small bowl.
Then comes the eggs, flour, sugar,
chocolate icing, and honey
out of the refrigerator.
Next, beat two eggs
and some honey in the small bowl.
Then mix the sugar and the flour
in the large bowl.
Time for wet ingredients!
Put them in the large bowl
and mixed them together.
Pour the batter in the pan,
And put it in the oven.
A half an hour later,
Take the cake
out of the oven
and ice it
Making a poem is like
Making a cake
Keep adding ingredients
Come into the Poem
Come into the poem,
It is a cool pool,
Blue and deep.
All the way.
The fish swim
Between your feet.
The slick seaweed
Wraps around your shoulders.
Something sparkles on the
Rocky ocean floor
But you cannot reach it.
The current takes you
In another direction
The water is murky
It's hard to see clearly
Then something beautiful
Comes into view,
Into the Poem,
Cool and blue and deep,
Delicate and full of wonder,
A starfish on the sand
Into the Poem.
I look forward to playing with this idea with more groups of children. What rooms will they create? What fresh language will they invent? How will they show me a new way of thinking? What will they teach me next?