Fall Flow: Haiku for Autumn

This week, I entered a 4th grade classroom to see students at their desks silently moving their lips and quietly tapping their fingers.  I heard a hum, “5-7-5… 5,7,5…” and then tapping, clapping, and snapping.  I knew immediately what they were busy creating.  They were constructing haiku.

In the last two weeks, the teacher introduced haiku as an accessible way for students to get to know each other.  She asked them to write haiku which described who were without giving a physical description. First, she had laid the groundwork reminding them of the haiku form and reviewing background information, sharing examples of haiku from the Japanese poets, Basho, Shiki, and Issa. As I listened, I learned something I had not know before.  In Matsuyama, Japan and its surrounding prefecture,  they have built special mailboxes expressly for the purpose of sharing haiku.  They are beautiful works of art in and of themselves, and as I saw the pictures of the mailboxes placed all around the city, I had an idea. I asked the teacher if I could construct a haiku mailbox for the 4th grade.  She thought it was a wonderful idea and reported that her students have been happily depositing their work into the mailbox.  I am looking forward to the time when we share our poems.

The school year began in a rush and is continuing at a frenetic pace.  I have been trying to pause throughout my day and catch a breath. I’m finding that this is not enough.  I am making it my intention to pull away on the weekends and devote time to poetry, photography and art.  Photography helps me get into the flow of the moment.  When I am walking in the woods, gardens, or parks, I direct my attention to what I see. It is like going on a treasure hunt, and my camera records my beautiful or surprising sights. When I am looking through my camera lens, I am not thinking of anything else.  I am only concentrating on the object.  I let it tell me how it wants to be captured and remembered. I experiment with angles and exposures until I feel I have expressed the object’s mood and essence. Immediately,  a sense of calm permeates my spirit.  I have entered a fall flow.  After I have collected several photographs, I sit quietly and let the words come to me.  They come tapping into my mind – “5-7-5,… 5,7,5…”  The rhythm relaxes me.  I can continue to flow.

Orange pumpkins now
sit heavy in beds of leaves
expectant with seeds.
Leaves float down the stream:
yellow, orange, red, rust, brown –
reflections of fall.
Here, hidden toadstools
peeking through the fallen leaves,
silent guardians.
Spring-summer green wanes –
In its places brilliant yellow,
Autumn returns now.
Baskets abundant –
October’s golden harvest,
Gathering plenty.

HAIKU BOOKS FOR CHILDREN


A Pocketful of Poems by Nikki Grimes.

Cool Melons – Turn To Frogs!: The Life And Poems Of Issa Story and translations by Matthew Gollub, illustrated by Kazuko G. Stone.

Dogku by Andrew Clements, illustrated by Tim Bowers.

GUYKU: A Year of Haiku for Boys by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. 

Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth.


If It Rains Pancakes: Haiku and Lantern Poems by Brian P. Cleary, illustrated by Andy Rowland.

If Not for the Cat by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Ted Rand.

I Haiku You  by Betsy Snyder.

My First Book of Haiku Poems by Esperanza Ramirez-Christensen, illustrated by Tracy Gallup.

One Leaf Rides the Wind by Celeste Mannis, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung.

The Cuckoo’s Haiku: and Other Birding Poems by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by

Stan Fellows.  

The Horse’s Haiku by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Stan Fellows.

The Maine Coon’s Haiku: And Other Poems for Cat Lovers by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Lee Anthony White.

Today And Today by Kobayashi Issa, illustrated by G. Brian Karas.


Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young.

Wing Nuts: Screwy Haiku by Paul B. Janeczko and J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Tricia Tusa

Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku by Lee Wardlaw, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. 

Won Ton and Chopstick: A Cat and Dog Tale Told in Haiku

Haiku Mailbox: Wrapping paper, Washi tape, and image from My First Book of Haiku

The Gift of Grandmothers

This week, I came across two picture books that reminded me about how important grandmothers are in the lives of children.  Grandmothers are wise leaders and mentors.  They have gentle and guiding hands.  They offer solace for scraped knees, dented feelings, and broken hearts.  They can set the world right again.

In my own life, I never knew my maternal grandmother.  She died six years before I was born.  I know her only from the stories told to me by other family members.  I was told that I look a lot like she did.  My name resembles hers.  Her name was Josephine; mine is Joanne, but my parents always called me Josie.  They told me I had Josephine’s eyes and smile.  It was hard, at first,  for me to see myself in the old photographs of her.  It took me years to find my smile in hers and her eyes in mine.  But yes, she is within me even though I never had the good fortune to meet her. 

My paternal grandmother divorced my grandmother when my father was twelve years old.  At ninety-five, my father continues to be bitter about this and his relationship with his mother was distant and fraught with anger.  Olga lived in Florida, so we did not see her often.  We went a few times to visit her in the sunshine state, and she came north to visit us in New Jersey a few times.  Every Christmas, she would send straw-filled crates of  oranges, grapefruits, key limes, and chocolate covered coconut patties.  For this, Olga  held a special place in my heart, but we did not have the close, supportive relationship that I craved.  That empty spot was filled by my incredible grandfathers, Charlie and Tony.  They were my confidants and my champions. With them I was able to be myself, and just be held.

When I happened upon Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker and April Harrison in our school library, I knew I held a special gem in my hands.  And I was eager to think about how to share its gifts with our Kindergarten and 1st grade students. The book recounts the relationship between Zura and her grandmother, Nana Akua, whose names means “born on Wednesday” in Twi, the language of Ghana. The children in Zura’s class are celebrating Grandparents’ Day and are asked to invite their relatives to come to school and share their stories.  Zura is a bit worried about her grandmother coming to school because Nana Akua has scars on her cheeks from an old West African tradition where parents put marks on her face to show which tribal family she belonged to.  These marked represented beauty and confidence.  Zura fears that her classmates will be scared of Nana.  Of course, Nana is a wise woman and when she visits, she brings with her calm understanding and shows the beauty of her culture.  She explains the Adinkra symbols to the children, having them choose one that represents themselves, and paints the symbol on each child’s check.  The book’s endpapers show each Adinkra symbol, and I contemplated how best to share this story with our students. I practiced making the symbols and creating some of my own.  When I read this book the students, I will encourage them to explore and create these symbols also.

Thinking about grandmothers, I came across another picture book,  Grandmother School by Rina Sigh and Ellen Rooney. It takes place in India and is based on a true story about a grandmother, Aaji, who is finally allowed to go to school with a bunch of other grandmothers. The thatched roof and mud floors of the school is much different from the shiny schools that American children are accustomed to.  The grandmothers had not be allowed to go to school when they were young.  Now they were able to return to school so they could learn to read and write.  Some people thought, “Learning at this age was a waste of time.”  But of course, it was not a waste of time at all. By the end of the year, the grandmothers have learned so much: to count, to sign their names, and to read beautiful words like mango, river, bird, and rain.

The real grandmother school, Aajibaichi Shala, is located in Phangane, a small village in India 77 miles from Mumbai.  The school was started in 2016 by Yogendra Bangar, a local schoolteacher, who wanted everyone is his village to be able to read and write. Twenty-nine grandmothers attended the school.  They were over the age of sixty, and the oldest grandmother is ninety.  This was their first opportunity to learn.  I love the message of this story: Learning is timeless.  No one is too old to learn.  There is hope and opportunity to achieve no matter what age you are. What a wonderful gift to young readers far and wide!

Learning Alongside Children: Math, Craft, & Curious Cats!

Math Cats

It is a typical Monday.  I sip on a cup of French vanilla coffee, inhale the rich soothing aroma, then head off to my first class of the week.  Every morning for about two and a half hours, I observe and support young children from three to ten years old.   Many people might find this job daunting, but the more I do it, the more I realize I was born to do this. I love solving problems.  I love connecting with kids.  I guess that’s why I have been able to teach for over forty years without feeling burned out and uninspired.  The kids always find a way to kindle  my curiosity.

This morning, I settle into the back of a 5th grade math class.  The teacher is eliciting ideas from her students about number patterns on a thousands chart. “What do you notice?” she asks, and several hands shoot up.  Soon, students are taking turns discussing all kinds of patterns, some easily apparent and some more enigmatic.  I am sitting between two students who engage me in conversation.  My role has changed since last year when I was the ELA Curriculum Coordinator so the student on my right is surprised to see me in math class and asks ,“Mrs. E, what is your job?  I just don’t get it!” I laugh and she apologies, but I reassure her that she doesn’t need to apologize.  I tell her that many adults don’t know exactly what I do, and sometimes I myself have a hard time explaining what I do.  Simply put, I help students learn. 

            “If you need help understanding something, I’m here to show you the way,” I say smiling broadly. 

            Then the student to my left begins to explain an intricate pattern she sees in the thousands chart.  I am amazed.  I tell the girls that math is not my strong suit, but I am curious about it. 

            I explain, “Numbers are like cats to me, they want to do their own thing and they are a bit mysterious.” 

            “Me too!” shouts the girl to my right. 

            “On the other hand,” I continue, “ Words are like puppies, they are friendly, and you can play with them.” 

            The girl on my right shouts again, “SAME!” 

            The math teacher is now looking at me, and I know it’s time to get back to business.  I circulate around the room to see how students are tackling fraction problems.  I am able to guide some on the right track and that makes me feel proud.  I want the girls to see me as an adult who doesn’t always know the answers, but who will keep trying to understand and find the answer.

Craft Cats

Later on Monday, a small group of 5th graders join me at recess to craft in the Wonder Studio, which is the lobby outside my office that I converted into a makerspace after the original makerspace (The Wonder Lab), was dismantled to create  a new classroom space for computer science and engineering.  The space can no longer accommodate a whole class of students, but small groups can participate.  This makes for an intimate and cozy makerspace.  I let the girls dabble and get acquainted with the available materials.  I start crafting too.  At the end of our time, Erin tells me to hold out my hands.  I obey and a bright litter of pipe cleaner kittens tumble into my hands.  I want you to have them,” Erin says cheerily.  I thank her and she run back to her classroom.  An hour later, I see Erin in the hallway. She tells me to go to her desk in her classroom.  She has make more kittens for me.  I enter her empty classroom and pick up the kittens.  Erin’s teacher greets me as I turn to leave. “Cute, aren’t they?” I say. She smiles weakly, “She make them all through my social studies lesson.” “Oh,” I say suddenly deflated, “ We will need to talk to her about that.” I quickly exit quickly, walking down the hallway softly petting my new kittens cupping them in my hands protectively.

Curious Cats

Now it is Tuesday at lunchtime.  I am eating in a tight corner in the faculty room.  The same  teacher finds me to say that one of her students cannot come up with a topic for her writing assignment.  The child is stuck, and the teacher is out of ideas.  She asks me to work with the student at recess time, which is in five minutes.  I agree and start packing up my half-eaten lunch.  I walk to Emma’s classroom and find her just about to play a board game with a group of friends.            “Emma?” I say sweetly, “ You are going to work with me.  Please get your pencil.” 

            She looks at me.  She is a smart cookie.  She knows why I have come.  Emma is an avid reader and a talented writer, but sometimes she gets stuck initiating ideas for writing and completely shuts down.  All the. way to my office, I keep the mood light.  I want to set a positive and carefree tone.

When we get to my office, Emma sits in a sunny seat by a window.  I tell her that I am here to help her come up with an idea for her writing assignment.  Half of her writing paper is folded up like an accordion.  I smooth it down and begin to pepper her with ideas that I think she’d be interested in  lacrosse, Vermont, and crafting.

            She shakes her head and then says, ”Well, I am making a sweatshirt.” 

            “Yeah, tell me about that,” I say hopefully. 

            Emma begins to tell me about the sweatshirt she is making, which is dark blue with light blue sleeves.  I stand at my whiteboard easel and make a web as she speaks.  I write down all that she describes.  I ask some questions to guide her.  Soon, the web is complete. 

            I push her paper closer and say, “Okay now write what you just old me.” 

            Emma does not pick up her pencil.  She is biting her bottom lip. 

            “Shall we come up with a first sentence together?” 

            She nods in agreement and we do.  Then I walk away and tell her that I am going to give her some quiet time to write.  When I return a couple of minutes later, Emma is back to folding her paper.  Her feet are tapping the rungs of her chair.  Her eyes are wide and glossy as she stares at me.  I take one look at her and gently take the paper away. 

            “You are not in trouble, “ I say.  “My job is to help kids through problems. Can you tell me what is making you stuck?” 

            Emma remains silent.            

            “You are a great writer.  We just have to find the right story,” I say, silently praying for a miracle.  “What if we pretend it’s after school and we are having milk and cookies. 

            I continue, “Hey Emma, tell me about something you love.  Can you tell be about your dogs?” 

            Emma’s shoulders relax. Her blue eyes begin to dance as she tells me all about her Maltese and Yorkie.

            When she is through, I smile and say, ”Okay do you think you can write about your dogs now.” My heart is beating wildly.  I am holding my breath. 

            “No,” she says quietly.

            My heart skips a beat.

            “But…” she adds, “I can tell you about my cats.” 

            I exhale loudly and grin, “Great, tell me about your cats, and I take up my pencil and begin to make a web from the information that Emma shares.  We have completed a second web, and now it is time to return to class. 

            “Do you think you can write a story using this web?” I ask Emma.  She nods positively. We walk back to her classroom both satisfied.

On Thursday afternoon, I am walking past the play area to my office.  Emma’s teacher points to a patch of grass where her students are busy writing.  I spy a small girl hidden in a blanket hunched over her laptop.  Emma’s teacher whispers, “She’s in the zone.  She has three paragraphs so far.”  I am pleased and relieved.  The writer has conquered her writer’s block.  Curious cats to the rescue!

The Art of Assessment

In schools across the country and probably across the world, September means assessments.  We give all kinds of assessments to get to know our students, or should I say to get to know their academic strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t think assessments have anything to do with getting to know our students.  We determine who is high, medium, and low; who succumbed to “The Summer Slide,” and who excelled without our teaching.  We do this in the grand name of progress.  We pore over every score.  Who is proficient and fluent?  Who is struggling and not retaining the concepts and skills we’ve taught? But what do those numbers and labels that we diligently collect really tell us?  What do we truly understand about the information we gathered?  And how does that data affect our instruction?

As an elementary school learning specialist, I am keenly aware of these questions because I am not sure that copious amounts of data are changing or improving our teaching.  I think the majority of teachers – whether in public, charter, or private schools – revert to the mean.  By which I mean, they revert to what they know: they teach to the middle, often leaving behind the students with weaker skills and also boring to tears the students who have surpassed their grade-level standards.

I am sure teachers mean no harm.  They just lack the awareness and knowledge of how to reach all students no matter their skill level.  Many think you need specialized training and yes, that might be very beneficial, but what teachers really need to reach students is simple: the ability to be present and listen – the ability to tune out the educational jargon and tune into the little scholars in front of them.  All they have do is ask…

  • What does this child need?
  • What is she telling me?
  • What can I do to build her knowledge, her confidence, her motivation, and her curiosity?
  • How can I create a classroom experience that will connect my students to each other and to big ideas too?

This past week, I came across a common assessment dilemma.  A new teacher came to me with a problem.  One of her young students did poorly on a sight-word spelling assessment, scoring 2 out of 27.  I asked to see the assessment. 

            The teacher responded, “You want to see the hard copy?”  And I wondered about her hesitancy until she handed me the student’s paper.  Then my suspicions were confirmed.  The student had left almost all of the test blank.

             I asked the teacher, “What happened here?  Why did she leave all these answers blank?” 

            The teacher replied,  “I don’t know. It looked like she was writing?” 

            “Didn’t you walk around the room and check to see if everyone was following along?”  I thought to myself, knowing full-well the answer. 

            The teacher responded, “I don’t think it’s my job to constantly watch over them.  I can’t stand over all of them all the time!” 

            I took a deep breath and calmly said, “That’s not what I am suggesting.  When I had my own classroom, I would walk around the classroom, so I could assess in the moment what each student was doing and what they may need assistance with.”

            She was silent.  Then I quietly asked to reassess the student the following day. 

            The teacher asked me if that was fair. 

            I asked her, “What is the point of the assessment?” 

            She answered, “To find out if they know how to spell grade-level sight words.” 

            I nodded, “Right, so do we understand what this student knows?” 

            The teacher shook her head. 

            Then I smiled and said, “Then I will need to reassess her.”

            The next morning, I sat in our sun-filled school library in the presence of a little girl with dark braids and big brown eyes.  She was eager and happy to sit with me.  I explained that I would be giving her the spelling assessment again.  Her bright eyes grew even larger.  I told her that she should sound out the words even if she was unsure how to spell them.  I told her to think carefully, go slowly, and try her best to show me what she knows about all the words I was going to read.   She took up her pencil and began.  I started to see what she knew.  Not all the words were correct, but she spelled out each word carefully.  Then I asked her why she had left so many blanks on the original assessment.

            She said wisely, “I don’t like competitions.” I tried hard not to laugh.

“I don’t like to spell in front of people.” she added.

            I asked her, “Were you nervous about getting the words wrong?” 

            “Yes,” she nodded vigorously.

When she was done, I showed her all the words she knew, and we looked at the ones she did not yet know how to spell.  Many of the ones she missed, she was able to correct on her own. I gave her a lot of praise and commended her for trying and really thinking about how each word was spelled.  This first grader, who originally scored 2/27, had now scored 21/27, given a second chance.

Now, why is that?  Did she suddenly remember the sight words?  Or is it more about confidence and performance?  Does this student need more sight word drills, or does she need more encouragement?  I guess it is obvious where I am going with this line of questioning.  I know that assessments are useful, but if teachers are not present to their students, then the assessments can become meaningless.  I humbly suggest five meaningful and mindful ways teachers can approach assessing their students:

  • Remain present and open to possibility.
  • Listen with intensity.
  • Give specific and positive feedback.
  • Find time throughout the day to encourage and motivate.
  • Keep yourself and your students curious.

A Fresh Look at Lists

We are entering the second half of September.  School has started.  My busy life has begun.  I reluctantly shift away from summer – the beach, the mountains, my independent reading time, the sun.  And slowly I enter September already weary from thoughts of all I have to do, all I must do, all the little things that await me.

School to Do

Get the Dresses
Out of the closet.
Buy the notebooks,
New pens, paperclips,
Transparent tape.
Get the class lists,
Start putting names
With eager faces,
Put dates on calendar:
Division Meetings,
Department Meetings,
Student Support Meetings,
Parent Meetings.
Set the kettle on the stove,
Brew a steaming
Cup of vanilla chai.
Breathe in the spice,
Exhale the stress.
In this moment
School can wait.

August to September

I leave…
Sleeping late,
Summer sun
Streaming through
The windows.

I leave…
Book adventures
Of my own choosing:
Romantic,
Mysterious,
Inspiring,
Hilarious.

I leave…
Big road trips,
New sights,
The sea and
The mountains.

I welcome…
Cooler days,
Morning commutes,
Little faces
Ready to learn.

I welcome…
Camaraderie,
Lessons learned,
Moments of
Laughter.

I welcome…
New books,
Crisp pages,
Fresh paint
On old walls,
A new school year.

This past week, I have been thinking of ways to energize myself for my school year. I have been going to school for sixty-two years.  I have been teaching school for forty-three years.  This year will be the twentieth anniversary of working at my present school.  All of these years could feel like a very heavy weight, if I let them.  School could finally become monotonous instead of fresh.  School could become just another long and tedious “TO DO” list.  Maybe instead of looking at all I have to do; I reframe my thoughts as all the wonderful thing I get to do.  One day I won’t be able to do these things; one day soon I will be retired; one day soon I will not be on this marvelous blue planet. So, in this moment, why not appreciate all the things I get to do at school, at home, in my daily life. 

Sunny-side

I Get to... 
Wake up this morning 
To green out my window 
And blue, blue sky.
Canada Geese on the field,
The verdant woods beyond.

I Get to... 
Crack open a brown 
egg for breakfast, sunny-side -
Multigrain toast, fig jam,
Strong Irish tea.

I Get to…
Set this day before me
With intention,
With a devotion to the real,
With a disposition, sunny-side.

I Get to…
Create space and opportunity:
Laughing with loved ones,
Painting the sunset
With words and brushes.

I Get to…
Choose the day I make,
The one that was
Gratefully given to me,
The one I am blessed with.


Some Websites on the Power of “I Get to…”

From “Have to” to “Get to”

How a Small Shift in Your Vocabulary Can Instantly Change Your Attitude

I Have To vs. I Get To: How to Change Your Mindset from Obligation to Opportunity

Improve Your Mood by Replacing “I Have to” with “I Get To”

Life is Good Founder: John Jacobs – Keynote

Wildflower Power

We are coming upon the last days of summer.  For me, there is something bittersweet about that.  I find myself holding on to the warm golden promise of summer.  I don’t want it to end.  No matter, how much I enjoy the fall, summer is a time that signals renewal and hope.  There is so much I wanted to accomplish, so much joy I wanted to breathe in and make last. I don’t want that feeling to end.  I need to find a way to sustain summer’s promise.  I find it in the fields of wildflowers that I’ve encountered.  I remember a poem I wrote many years ago.   I keep reflecting on the power of that wild beauty.  Something colorful and unexpected, something to surprise and comfort the faithful.

Wildflowers

I come upon a field of wildflowers -
Poppies, cornflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace -
I walk across the field
Almost on tiptoe so as not to 
Disturb a single petal.
I capture with my camera
Oranges and yellows,
The surprise of blue, the blush of pink.
As I travel the meadow.
I find a bunch of wild daisies -
“He loves me, he loves me not,”
I say to myself and shrug.
I wonder where that game began.
Each daisy petal holds a fortune,
Which way will it end?
I take hold of its bright face,
Count each white petal,
Lucky 13 – I take a chance.
He loves me, he loves me not -
He loves me, he loves me not -
Until the last petal is plucked:
He loves me!
I look down at the sad yellow center,
The white petals, like torn paper
Fall from my hand.


I came across a wonderful graphic book for young readers by Ricardo Liniers Siri called Wildflowers.  It is an imaginative journey through island jungle by three heroic sisters.  Liniers based the story on his three daughters’ creative play.  It is a pure celebration of how creativity and sisterhood can save the day!  Liniers notes that Tom Petty’s song, “Wildflowers,” served as an inspiration.  I had not heard of Petty’s song before, so I took a listen and began to weep.  What simple beauty!

You belong among the wildflowers

You belong somewhere close to me

Far away from your trouble and worries

You belong somewhere you feel free

You belong somewhere you feel free

What a powerful message for young readers!  Historically, I have not been a huge fan of graphic books/novels, but that it not to say that I have not found pure genius in some of them.  Graphic books for young readers seem to be a perfect way to motivate and engage children.  The combination of picture and text support fluency and comprehension.  I know our young K-3 readers gravitate to graphic books, as do our older elementary readers.  The vivid descriptions that I enjoy as I read are encoded in a different way in graphic books.  Here, the pictures serve as description and the readers must use their growing inferring skills.  The rich visuals beckon children to question, wonder, and explore. Thank you, Liniers and Toon Books, for making me a fan!

More by Liniers

Macanudo

Good Night, Planet

The Big Wet Balloons

Written and Drawn by Henrietta

Classic Graphic Books for Young Readers

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

Baby Mouse by Jennifer L. Holm

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

Lunch Lady by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

My Weird School by Dan Gutman

Owly by Andy Runyon

Learn Something

This summer, I have been concentrating on healing my body and spirit, which has entailed a lot of physical therapy and many walks in gardens and parks. Usually, I read a lot during the summer but this summer I have only read a couple of books so far.  I decided to jump-start my reading by turning to a classic,  The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  I knew of the legend of King Arthur mainly from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone.  I loved that story because it was filled with hope, faith, and possibility.  It helped me to become braver and more courageous. It gave me hope that even a small person could grow into someone who could right wrongs and defeat evil.  As an anxious, insecure child, this legend especially appealed to me.

In early June, I was asked to find a quote about learning as part of a farewell gift for a retiring colleague.  I did what many people do these days, I Googled it. And that’s when I came across T.H. White’s insightful observation about learning via Merlin’s advice to young Arthur, who was upset that his foster brother, Kay, was becoming a knight and he would only be allowed to be Kay’s squire. Merlin offers this sage advice:

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things where are to learn.”

T.H. White,  The Once and Future King, Chapter 21.

Throughout my life, I have found this advice to ring true.  Whenever I faced challenges or needed to overcome obstacles, learning something, was the thing that pulled me through and made me feel confident.  I gained knowledge, and I felt like I had changed for the better somehow.  The Once and Future King is a very long story, six hundred thirty-nine pages, to be exact.  It is not exactly easy reading, so I decided to listen to an audio version.  Over and over again, I was amazed by White’s writing skill and keen insights.  I find myself asking, “ How did he do that?  How does he know all that in-depth information about falconry and trees; badgers and hedgehogs; snakes and giants? He makes writing seem so effortless, and he has so much to say that could guide adolescents and adults.  He, indeed, is Merlyn, and we can learn so much from his words.

In the Book of Merlyn, White explains, “Nobody can be saved from anything, unless they save themselves. It is hopeless doing things for people – it is often very dangerous to do things at all – and the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas. Then, if you make available a larger stock, people are at liberty to help themselves from out of it. By this process the means of improvement is offered, to be accepted or rejected freely, and there is a faint hope of progress in the course of millennia. Such is the business of the philosopher, to open new ideas. It is not his business to impose them on people” I connect strongly with this view: ideas are what make us human and seeking new ideas make us stronger and make our journey in this world interesting and worthwhile.

Throughout my many years of teaching, I made sure that I found new things to learn so that I would never forget the feelings my novice students experienced.  Adopting the mindset of a beginner helped me truly understand the struggles my students encountered.  I believe that made me better able to connect with them and teach them effectively.  When I was teaching 2nd grade, I decided to take a drawing class at the Parson’s School of Design in New York City.  It was a big leap for me, but I wanted to learn how to draw realistically, and I wanted to face a challenge.  The classes were three hours long.  Three hours of sitting, observing, and drawing. It entailed a tremendous amount of concentration.  After my first forty-five minutes of sitting, I began to look around the room,  I stared out the window, I fidgeted in my seat, I got up to go to the ladies room.  I took my time.  I wandered.  I smiled to myself.  “This is what my students’ feel. What can I do to make them be able to concentrate longer and learn more deeply?”

When I taught 3rd grade, I learned Krav Maga,  an Israeli Martial Arts. I am not naturally athletic, and this class called for great physical exertion.  I did not back down.  I studied for three years and was preparing for my brown belt test before a back injury put me on the sidelines. Throughout my martial arts training, ,y students loved to see me demonstrate self-defense techniques and cheered me on. I think they felt more empowered my seeing their teacher take greater and greater risks. I hope I demonstrated to them that learning is hard and that is good – it makes you strong it helps to persevere.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

Poetry Found!

I have regularly used found poetry to introduce children to the wonders of verse.  Using printed text from which to construct a poem gives the young poet a firm foundation on which to build.  It eliminates the fearful and daunting blank page.  Found poetry is created by selecting and arranging words in order from previously constructed text.  The texts can be taken from a variety of sources: ones’ own writing; favorite poems; literacy passages; non-fiction essays; environmental texts.  This variety allows for a wide-range of experimentation.

Found poem from Stuart Little by E.B. White, page 41

Sometimes, found poems can be created by taking words and phrases from two different poems.  Working in pairs, students read and critique two poems written about the same subject.  Then they play with the lines of the two poems to create a new poem.   I encourage the students to play with both poems.  Eventually, they  cut and paste lines from each poem to make their own poem.  They do not need to use all the lines of poetry in their new poems and they may add their own words to enhance meaning. Their new poems, if presented in any form, must acknowledge the fact that it is a creation made from the work of the original poets.

Poems arranged on a staircase is another adaptation of found poetry, which I believe to be very effective in having students play and experiment with words.  In this activity, students find a phrase of group of words that are personally important to them.  They can also write their own phrase to express their feelings.  These  phrases are then written on sentence strips  and gathered together.  The whole group decides how to construct the phrases to make a meaningful poem.  Then the found poem is either posted on the hall for all to see or each line is mounted to the back of each step on a hallway staircase.  I love this presentation because as students walk into school, they are greeted by their class found poem. What an inspiring way to start the day!

Poetry Assemblages, using found words and objects, are also an effective way to  stimulate creativity.  I ask students  to bring in ten small objects or pictures of objects and ten words that are personally important to them.  These objects need to be things that can be used in a collage or assemblage so they cannot be of great monetary value.  I introduce the students to the work of artist, Robert Rauschenberg, and then ask them to use their objects and words to create a work of art. 

Rauschenberg Poetry Assemblages, Grade 4

For older elementary and middle school students, blackout poems extend the experience of constructing found poems.  Blackout poems are created when the poet uses a black marker to ink out words of selected text, which then form a new message in verse.  Many blackout poems create actual images on the printed page of text blending the notion of art and poetry. The poems can be linked to literature or poetry that the student are currently studying, which give them a deeper understanding of how authors construct meaning.

This week, I came across a beautiful little book of found poems called This Poem is a Nest by Irene Latham.  These found poems, which Latham calls “nestlings,” all come from her original prose poems.  Latham introduces her method of found poetry sayings: “One day when I was watching robins build a nest, it occurred to me that poems are nests – and we poets spend much of our time nest-building.  We gather words, ideas, and dreams, and then we set about weaving, arranging, and structuring.” 

I have regularly used found poetry to introduce children to the wonders of verse.  Using printed text from which to construct a poem gives the young poet a firm foundation on which to build.  It eliminates the fearful and daunting blank page.

I love this description of her poetic process.  To me, it is the perfect definition of what poets do.  I too am partial to bird watching.  I love to linger by my window and watch as cardinals and blue jays gather seeds, and sparrows and chickadees bob up and down selecting reeds, stick, and grasses for their nests.  I am heartened by the metaphor of a poem as a nest – a soft, warm, safe place to rest my words.

Listening Summer

This summer, I am setting my intentions on listening: listening to my body, to my friends, and to the awesome nature around me.  I am being mindful of my surroundings.  I am paying close attention to what is important. All around me over this past year was noise: people talking, talking, talking and me worrying, worrying, worrying.  So I decided to turn everything off – no television, no radio, no endless chatter.  I am becoming more discerning of what I listen to.  I want beautiful noise: great books, beautiful music, uplifting messages.  To do this, first I had to get very, very quiet.

I had to pay attention to life with little sound.  I had to cue into my other senses and learn to become present to vibrant colors, fragrant smells, and soft textures on my skin.  I found myself being grateful for these simple wonders.  I began to slow down, listen to my body, become kinder to myself.  I paused and learned to nourish myself with, not only good food and exercise, but with positive media.  So much of the media is intended to distract and cause anxiety.  I turned away from the constant barrage of news and information.  I decided I should be the curator of what I wanted to listen to and take in.

In the last six weeks of using this approach, I have found calm and contentment.  I don’t need the noise to keep me company.  I can just look up or out or down and be present to my surroundings.  I can better tune into what my husband and friends are saying.  The more I listen with attentiveness, the more calm I have become.  It feels good be present to others.  I don’t need to talk. I don’t need to do anything.  I just need to listen.  Listening is enough.

As I think about returning to teaching in the fall, I think about how I will talk to children about the importance of listening.  I’ve been thinking about ways to teach them to center themselves, ignore distractions, and concentrate on the thing or person right in front of them. I continue to reflect on the best ways to do this, and so this will be my summer project for school this year: tuning out the unimportant and tuning in to what is essential, to what nourishes, to what gives us positive outcomes and peace. 

Recently, I went to a nearby organic market and found a colorful mural on their cafe wall.  It is a perfect example of placing importance of what’s necessary for meaningful communication. I am reflecting on how I will share this with my students as a way to help them develop more thoughtful speaking and deeper listening.

Books about Listening For Adults

Emotional Intelligence: Mindful Listening by The Harvard Business School

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

I Hear You: The Surprisingly Simple Skill Behind Extraordinary Relationships by Michael S. Sorensen

Just Listen by Mark Goulston

Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What is Sacred by Mark Nepo

The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James E. Miller

The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh

The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus

The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir

You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why it Matters by Kate Murphy

Picture Books about Listening for Children

Listen, Listen by Phillis Gershator

“I Have a Problem,” said the Bear by Heinz Janisch and Silke Leffler

The Other Way to Listen by Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerfeld

The Listening Walk by Paul Showers

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

The Work Around

I embrace mistakes. I do.  Really.  I don’t mind making mistakes.  I always think of creative ways to fix them.  I’m not sure how I developed this mindset.  Maybe it has something to do with being the youngest in my family.  I was always making mistakes and being reprimanded for them, so early on I decided to make them into a game – How can I change that problem into something positive? How can I make that ink blot an artistic design? How can I take that hole in my jeans and make it into an embroidered masterpiece?  How can I take what you think is wrong and make it right?  I will prove to you that indeed it is not a mistake, a problem, or an obstacle. I will prove to you that It is an opportunity.  It will be a success not a defeat.

Come to think about it, maybe my tenacious mindset could just be called stubbornness, but it has kept me in good stead.  On the last day of school, I received a text from a former colleague and dear friend who wrote, I admire your perseverance and steadfastness.  Maybe that’s what it is. But whatever it is, I think of it and call it “The Work Around.”  And I teach this to children.  No matter what problem you face, what obstacle you encounter, there is ALWAYS a work around. There is always some way you can solve a problem and improve your situation. You just have to keep curious and be willing to play with your stumbling block.  Toss it around a bit, roll it down the hill, bounce it into the bushes.  Don’t be afraid.  Create something new.

I had a chance to practice what I preach during these last few weeks of school. I was told that the school’s Wonder Lab had to be dismantled so that it could become the Computer Science & Engineering classroom.  I had worked on designing and developing the Wonder Lab concept for the last five years. The Wonder Lab had been an old art room, which I was allowed to renovate.  It was a beautiful space filled with all kinds of materials with which students could freely use, explore and create. They could make dolls, cars, tree houses, restaurants, skateboards, complicated marble runs, and anything else they could imagine.  And they did. The space was loud and messy at times.  Those were the times that I looked around and smiled because I knew the kids were engineers of their own learning.  It was a true play space.  No adult was telling the kids what to do or think or design.  When I first explained the concept to the children, I thought they might be hesitant, but I was mistaken.  From the first day, the kids ran to the materials with visions already in their heads. They began constructing immediately, and only asked my advice when they needed a particular item or help with the hot glue gun.  Thanks to the Wonder Lab, I have become a master hot glue gunner!

I tried to explain the importance of cultivating creativity and free play in childhood to administrators and colleagues. Over the years, I’ve noticed that little kids are exuberant and willing to take risks, while the older students begin judging themselves and limit their possibilities.  The Wonder Lab started to remedy that.  We were just beginning.  But I couldn’t convince them, and I started to dismantle the room glue stick by glue stick, egg carton by egg carton.  However, before it was completely shut down, our 4th graders commandeered the space, creating PBL projects on the importance of play.  They made cars, games, a club house, play dough, and dozens of fidgets.  As I watched them, I realized I couldn’t just let the space slip through our hands.  This space was necessary.  It was important not just to me, but to the children. They needed to have this kind of space, and I had to think of a work around. 

For a couple of days, I sulked, ate chocolate cake, and consumed an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting. I tossed my stumbling block in the air.  It fell on my head with a thud a couple of times, and then something happened.  There is a space in between the Wonder Lab and my office.  It is a small open lobby where I had to temporarily store all the Wonder Lab materials.  I looked at it and imagined it clear of clutter.  It would make a great wonder space for a small group!  I would just need to store the materials in another part of the building.  This could become a cozy creative space, a Wonder Studio of sorts.  When I shared my idea with a colleague, she looked at me with a smile and shook her head.  I asked her, “Do you think it won’t work?”  She said, “No, I think it’s a great idea. I’m just amazed by the way you don’t give up.  You are always thinking of another way to do things.”  I told her that I had a lot of disappointments in my life, and the work around was my way of dealing with them.  I almost let this disruption defeat me, and then I thought of the kids.  I couldn’t just let the space go because the kids definitely, absolutely, unequivocally need to play!

One of my 4th grade students is extremely creative.  She is a dreamer and constant tinkerer. Last year, she attempted to make a life-sized model of a bison.  A bison?  Yes, a bison.  Her class was studying Native American culture, and Simone became intrigued by bison.  I found a huge refrigerator box and she started to shape and construct the bison.  Then COVID struck and the bison was abandoned.  We talked about making a smaller, more portable version, but the Wonder Lab had been closed most of the year due to COVID restrictions.  During the last month of school, I gave the 4th graders time to construct projects centering on play.  Simone asked for another big box.  I found one, and she immediately began making what she calls “A Fidget House.”  It is a small house with a duct tape wrapped roof and an opening strung with colorful beads you can play with.  Looking back, Simone has had a rough year.  COVID made her anxious and her attention to her school work has fluctuated.  She has trouble sleeping and of course, trouble initiating and completing assignments.  But when I watched her build that house, she had laser-focus.  She had no trouble initiating or following-through. When problems arose with the construction of the house, it didn’t stop her.  She thought of a work around.  That is when I truly knew that I would not let Wonder Lab disappear.  I had to find a way to keep it going because Simone and her schoolmates are in desperate need of a place to create, imagine, wonder, and play.

During the last week of school, I spoke with Simone privately.  We talked about the obstacles she faced this year.  We made a vision board of what she imagines in the future school year.  As she filled in the board with possibility, an idea popped into my head.  I asked Simone if she’d like to be captain of the Wonder Team. She turned to me quickly, eyes wide and smiling.  Until that moment, we didn’t have a Wonder Team. We didn’t even have a Wonder Lab anymore, but I wanted Simone to know that I valued her ingenuity. She was a leader in creativity and curiosity.  Together we would make it up and figure out the work arounds.  

Books for Kids about the Possibilities in Mistakes

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Crazy Hair Day by Barney Saltzberg

Even Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Ish by Peter Reynolds

Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess

Mistakes that Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions & How They Came to Be by Charlotte Foltz Jones

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Only One You by Linda Kranz

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

The Day Roy Riegels Ran the Wrong Way by Dan Gutman and Kerry Talbott

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubenstein

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

The Quilt Maker’s Journey by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Was That on Purpose of by Accident?  By Janelle Fenwick

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

Play is the work of children. It is very serious stuff.

– Bob Keeshan, AKA Captain Kangaroo