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

Word Play

Laughing Elbows

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

A Little Orange

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

Dark Muddy Chocolate Brown

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

Looks Like Mashed Potatoes

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

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

Five Books to Uplift Your Imagination

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

Playing with Language

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

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

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

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

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

Frida Azul

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




Free Bird, Pájaro Libre

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

Here are two student examples of playing with this concept:

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

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

Picture Books about Frida Kahlo

Frida by Jonah Winter

Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos by Yamilet Maldonado

Frida Kahlo: The Artist Who Painted Herself by Margaret Frith

I am Frida Kahlo by Brad Meltzer

Me, Frida by Amy Novesky

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

A Candle in the Darkness

This week I am celebrating.  I am celebrating 52 and 65. I have blogged for 52 weeks straight – one whole year of weekly writing!  As of this week, I will have been living on this small blue planet for 65 years.  My personal philosophy is that there are people on this planet who are candles – placed on Earth to light the way for others. All my life, it is teachers and writers who have lit my way to new and better understanding; opened my mind to possibilities and promise.

Writer and educator, Ruth Ayres, is one of these people.  I have read all of Ruth’s books and have followed her blog for years.  I was attracted to the honest way she talked about teaching and raising her family.  She is an advocate for children who come from dark places. And as a former child who survived a dark place and thrived, Ruth’s children’s lives were of great interest to me.  I worried about their troubles and cheered when they overcame obstacles. Healing from trauma is no easy matter. It is a lifelong process.  Ruth’s stories helped me to heal.

A year ago, she invited me to come write with her community of bloggers at SOS: Sharing Our Stories – Magic in a Blog.  I was hoping that Ruth’s kind invitation would help me write more successfully, come out of the shadows, and share the poems and stories I had been storing up for years. And indeed, it did work.  I have been writing consistently this year, and I have met a group of insightful, affirming, and inspiring writers and teachers.  They have lifted me up and given me ideas to ponder, books to read, and their stories have brought me equal parts of tears and laughter.

When I was ten-years-old, I was deeply affected by the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy. The story of the young deaf and blind girl who, with the careful guidance of her teacher, learned to speak and write, becoming an international lecturer and advocate for the deaf and blind. If Helen could learn to speak and light world up with her ideas, then who could I become?  What could I accomplish?  It was Helen’s young teacher who served as a candle lighting her way, giving her language.  Helen describes the moment she began to understand that Anne’s finger signings were words:

I stood still; my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free! (The Story of My Life)

Anne Sullivan regarded that same moment this way:

My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened!  The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold all things are changed!  

William Gibson made Helen’s autobiography into a play, The Miracle Worker.  In the first act, Anne explains to Mrs. Keller that “Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” The 1962 film of The Miracle Worker was one of my favorites and made me want to become a teacher like Anne Sullivan when I grew up.  I wanted to teach children, connect with them, and show them what words can do to free them to learning.

I have been teaching for over four decades.  I am proud of my work and immensely proud of all the children I was so fortunate to get to know.  Over these years, I have met children who have faced immense obstacles: abuse, poverty, abandonment, death of a beloved one, illness, and difficulty learning.  I hope that the books I read and the stories I told were of comfort to them.  I hope I provided them with a candle in the darkness.  Some days, I think back and wonder how they all are doing and hope they are having happy lives.  Some students I have been fortunate enough to still have contact with and who still reach out to me to tell of their triumphs and tribulations as young adults – grown up people.  I am very grateful.

This week, I happened to see an article on the Internet about a former student and his important research.  He now has a doctorate in some very complicated and technical field of statistics that I cannot even try to fathom.  I marveled at the list of his publications.  But the simple line that made me smile was this one: “I love to paint.”  When I read that, I knew that Marco was safe and sound. Over twenty-five years ago, when Marco was in my 3rd grade class, we studied a new artist every month, and we would take trips to the Metropolitan Museum of art (it was only nine blocks away). The children would sit, wonder, and sketch in front of some of the world’s greatest paintings.  Back in the classroom, they would experiment with paint, torn paper, and glue.  All things were possible.  In that school, with those children, I was able to teach freely.  It was a wonderful time.  And then, as life would have it, something terrible happened in Marco’s life that made our world tilt upside down.  His grown brother, the brother he loved and wanted to emulate, was killed. We mourned.  We gathered around Marco and his family. We did and said all the things one is supposed to do and say.  It did not take away the pain.  We knew that. One day, I noticed that some Lego pieces were missing.  More and more – more and more rapidly.  And it wasn’t the blocks that were missing, it was the people.  Soon we had no more Lego people.  I brought this problem up to the class.  I waited for someone to confess and give back the people. No one did for weeks. My co-teacher and I searched the classroom and school looking for Lego people. No luck.

Then one day, as I was walking a back staircase, I saw a little glimmer of yellow high up on a ledge – a Lego person!  What was it doing there?  Who put it all the way up there?  I took the Lego person and went back to my class with the evidence.  I asked them what they thought happened.  No one said a word.  Then later in the day, Marco came to me and quietly said, “I put him there.  He is resting forever, but he is still with me.” I tried to stop my sudden tears.  Now I understood. The Lego people were Marco’s brother, and he was hiding them all around the school so he would never be alone.  I went with Marco back to the stairway ledge and put the Lego person back in place.  I told him that he could keep the Lego people where he had placed them, and I would just get some new ones.  Months went by, Marco and his family slowly healed.  One spring day, we were writing fractured fairy tales.  Marco asked if he could write a play and have his friends be the actors.  I encouraged him to write.  As he wrote, he shared his work with his friends, who erupted into gales of laughter.  I wondered what he was writing, but he told me it was a surprise.  Finally, the day had come, and he unveiled his play, The Three Little Wolfies and the Big Bad Pig.  Marco and his friends acted out the silly scenes and the rest of the class clapped. It was so wonderful that I decided to invite all the parents to hear their children’s work. When it was time to present the play, Marco’s parents sat in the front row.  They laughed, they held each other’s hands, they hugged Marco when he took his final bow.  There was a little light in the darkness.  A small glimmer of hope.

And now this week, to know that Marco is an accomplished scholar who loves to paint, this is the best 65th birthday gift I could have ever wish for.  Marco is happy and healthy and safe.

Thank you, Ruth, for holding out a candle to light our way as we tell our stories.

Possibility of The Blank Canvas

In his latest post, “A Crowd of Me,” Mario Perron writes about the process of beginning a new painting:

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.

Black Dots on Red
Black Dots on White

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.

Start with a dot and then freely explore.
Composing with Dots

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.

Process of Making Garden Trellis

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:

  1. A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
  2. Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
  3. Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
  4. Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
  5. David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
  6. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  7. How to by Julie Morstad
  8. Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
  9. Journey by Aaron Becker
  10. Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
  11. Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
  12. Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
  13. Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
  14. Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
  15. Perfect Square by Michael Hall
  16. Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
  17. The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse by Eric Carle
  18. The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken
  19. What if? by Samantha Berger
  20. Windblown by Edouard Mancea

Mindful Mending

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 read Tar 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!

The Sewing Corner in The Wonder Lab

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.

One of my paper quilts, Five Buttons
 Mindful Mending
 
 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.
 
 
Mending Still Life

Books About Mending

  1. Fibershed: Growing a Movement of Farmers, Fashion Activists, and Makers for a New Textile Economy by Rebecca Burgess
  2. Fix Your Clothes: The Sustainable Magic of Mending, Patching, and Darning
  3. by Raleigh Briggs
  4. Joyful Mending: Visible Repairs for the Perfectly Imperfect Things We Love by Noriko Misumi
  5. Mend! A Refashioning Manual and Manifesto by Kate Sekules
  6. Mending Life: A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nin and Sonya Montenegro
  7. Mending Matters: Stitch, Patch, and Repair Your Favorite Denim & More by Katrina Rodabaugh
  8. Modern Mending by Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald
  9. Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art by Claire Wellesley-Smith
  10. The Geometry of Hand-Sewing by Natalie Chanin
  11. The Hand-stitched Surface by Lynn Krawczyk
  12. Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop
  13. Wild Dyer by Abigail Booth
  14. What Will These Hands Make? by Nikki McClure

Quilt Books for Children

  1. Cassie’s Word Quilt by Faith Ringgold
  2. Early American Patchwork Quilt Designs by Susan Johnston       
  3. Eight Hands Round: A Patchwork Alphabet by Ann Whitford Paul
  4. Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt by Lisa Campbell Ernst
  5. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
  6. Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
  7. Texas Star by Barbara Hancock Cole
  8. The Bedspread by Sylvia Fair
  9. The Josefina Story Quilt by Bruce Degen
  10. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
  11. The Patchwork Farmer by Craig Brown
  12. The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud
  13. The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy  
  14. The Quilt by Ann Jonas
  15. The Quilt Story by Tony Johnston
  16. The Seasons Sewn by Ann Whitford Paul   

Sketchnoting: Making Thinking Visible

I love to doodle.  Whenever I am sitting and people are talking, I am drawing.  I never got in trouble for this.  In fact, teachers encouraged me to sketch while I was listening. It was the only way I could still myself and really listen to what was being said.  Instead of tuning out, I tuned in. Making pictures helped me to remember.  If I couldn’t understand a word problem, I drew out the little story in front of me, and all of a sudden the solution jumped out at me.  I drew graphs, T-charts, and clocks to better understand mathematical concepts.  Drawing helped in science too.  Making pictures of cells and plants and chemical reactions helped me to ask questions and learn more. When reading on my own, I often draw in the margins, not just underline or highlight. If something is really important to me, I draw it so I can deepen my understanding.  No one taught me to do this.  I just experimented and found my own way to represent my thinking.

The first time I heard about sketchnoting as a teaching technique was several years ago in a book called Comprehension Connection by Tanny McGregor.  It was an integral part of the reading strategy of visualization. Since then, Tanny has published other books with her sketchnotes:  Ink and Ideas, and Harvey Daniels’ The Curious Classroom.  Last month, I attended one of Tanny’s webinars offered by The Rutgers Center for Literacy Development. It came right at the right time because the following week I was planning to teach sketchnoting to our 4th grade students.  Tanny showed lots of examples of where sketchnoting can be used to help students see concepts and help teachers see what exactly their students are thinking. 

The emphasis is not of the art but rather on the ideas, and I wanted to be sure I expressed that understanding to our students.  I didn’t want the girls who do not see themselves as proficient artists to check out of the lesson.  I wanted them to feel empowered, to want to take a chance and create. To do this I focused on having students visualize an object or a scene first, and then showed them how to use shapes to convey ideas.  First, I showed them some short video clips of sketchnoting. Then, I shared a slideshow I had created introducing all the elements they would need to sketchnote: banners, arrows, call out boxes, thought bubbles, shapes, lettering, and people. As I shared each element, I asked the girls to create their own version of these elements.  It was a safe space to try things out and make mistakes.  I drew on a whiteboard to model that my drawings did not have to be perfect – they were quick sketches. Once we had all the elements in place, we were ready for our first project.

I wanted to start with something familiar and nonthreatening, something the students know very well: themselves.  As soon as I explained what I wanted them to do, they grabbed their pencils and started to sketch.  The room was completely quiet, illustrating the fact that when students are completely engaged in creating, they can concentrate and bring themselves into the flow of learning.  I was able to step back and watch: They didn’t need reassurance; they weren’t off task;  they weren’t bored; they were thinking and drawing.

After the girls finished their sketches, they added color if they wanted and then shared their work.  They not only shared the content of their drawings and ideas, but also described their design process, which was marvelous. They were doing more thinking about their thinking than I had imagined!

For the next lesson, I wanted to incorporate sketchnoting while reading.  Before my lesson, I visited the 4th grade English classes and sketchnoted in front of them, while their teacher read aloud from a class novel.  I was sure to incorporate the elements they had learned the week before. Then, I asked the girls to critique my sketchnote.  What did they notice?  What did they wonder?  What did they feel? Was there something important I missed? What else might I have included?

When it was time for our second sketchnoting lesson, I chose Jane Yolen’s book, Owl Moon to read aloud because her language is so rich and visual.  Before I read, we again went over the design elements used in sketchnoting, the girls got out their papers and pencils, and they were ready to begin.  Once I finished reading, the girls continued to draw. Some asked me to reread specific parts in the story.  The rereading helped them to add more details. It was another quiet session with total concentration.  At the end of the lesson, they each had a creation they were proud of and were eager to share. As we shared, the students began to see that even though we all listened to the same story, our sketchnotes were very different.  They also noted similarities, places in the text where the message stood out to many students.  This is such a strong way to show main idea and figurative language.  The week after this lesson, during our winter break, I received a holiday card from one student noting: “I’m practicing my sketchnoting.  I hope we do more when we return. It is so much fun!”

Well, how can I ignore that?  My next lesson will be sketchnoting using nonfiction texts both social studies and science.  I cannot wait to see their results.  I cannot wait to keep learning alongside them!

Books About Sketchnoting

Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting

Educated Design by Michael Cohen

How to Sketchnote: A Step-by-Step Manual for Teachers and Students by Sylvia Duckworth

Ink & Ideas by Tanny McGregor

My Pencil Made Me Do It: A Guide to Sketchnoting by Corrie Boughcum

Sketchnoting in the Classroom by Nichole Carter

The Sketchnote Handbook by Mike Rohde

Visual Note-Taking For Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity by Wendi Pillars

Visual Thinking by Williemien Brand

Signs of Fall – Listen, Look

This has been a stressful week to put it mildly: a heated election cycle, COVID rising in New Jersey and across many parts of the U.S., pending lock-downs, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.  I try to put things in perspective.  I concentrate on my work, my art, my friends, my family, and my faith. I try, in small places, to cultivate hope.  

I relish my time teaching immersing myself in reading and writing with young children.  I marvel at students who seek me out for help.  I do not have to convince them; they come eagerly with fresh ideas.  We develop stories together, we organize desks and homework, we think about spelling like it is an art instead of a chore, and we read together. Indeed, one of the most rewarding times in my day is reading A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond with a gifted first grader.  The naughty bear appeals to her and the British vocabulary intrigues her.  We talk about queues, lifts, lorries, mackintoshes, and marmalade.  She is all ears listening for new words that she does not yet know.  She gasps as Paddington stumbles into one predicament after another, and she enthusiastically anticipates outcomes. This time with her is pure joy.  I cannot clearly say whether I’m teaching her or she’s teaching me.  Our conversation, this exchange of ideas, is reading in its purest form, and I am grateful.

I turn to nature for solace, observing the season’s steady change: her flamboyant turn from green to scarlet to amber to tangerine, and the final turn to gray and rusted brown. I seek beauty in the decay.  I watch for patterns: geese and wild turkeys combing the fields for seeds, squirrels and chipmunks storing seeds and acorns, the deer’s coats turning from golden to tawny brown. The earth is preparing herself for after the harvest; she is ready for a long meditative sleep. This past week, I took some photographs and wrote a poem as I contemplated this change.  I tried to listen and look carefully to all that was around me.  I took notice, reflected, and attempted to capture the feel of this season.

 Early November
  
 The early November wind arrives
 Sounding a symphony of
 Rushes, whooshes, and shushes,
 Rustling leaves, rattle seed pods,
 Whispering softly in the grass.
  
 Black wings tattooed against blue sky,
 A cadre of crows circle
 Above the old golden oak,
 Caw-calling, caw-calling,
 Lamenting winter’s return.
  
 Damp earth and leaves – 
 Mottled brown, orange, yellow,
 Cover the bare garden ground,
 A protective patchwork
 Waiting for next year’s harvest.
  
 A lone crow lands on an old post,
 Surveys the garden no longer green.
 The wind rustles his black feathers,
 He cries of fall’s ending
 And then takes flight. 

Add. Change. Remove.

Add. Change. Remove.  This is a strategy we use in our 2nd grade writing workshop to explain the revision process.  In the lesson, which I think originally was an idea from a Six Traits lesson, the students create with Play-Doh and then at various intervals are asked to add something to their creation.  Then they are asked to add another feature or two.  Eventually, the students are asked to change something, and finally, they are asked to remove something they created.  The children are allowed time to talk through their creative process.  Usually, this has been done through a gallery walk. This year, during our COVID structure (remote, hybrid, in-class), we used a document camera and asked students to explain their thinking.

Bear at the Beach
Family of Snakes
Crabs at the Beach

As I reflect on this activity, I realize that Add. Change.  Remove.  is not only a revision or creative process, it is the cycle of life.  We are born. Many people, places and events are added to make our lives rich and interesting. Then people, places, and ideas change. Over the years things are removed from our lives until ultimately we are removed.  Instead of this being a morbid anxiety producing thought, it has become a comforting thought.  We all are going through a natural process, and I need to be mindful of the powerful and wondrous journey we are on.  Sometimes, I am so intent on adding, adding, adding that I forget to sit back and enjoy all I have.  Sometimes, I am either so desperate for change or so anxious about change that I forget to think about what lessons I can learn from these changes.  I forget to ask myself:  How have I grown? And finally, I am aware of what has been removed from my life – both positive and negative.  I am learning to be grateful for what I have and what I have lost.

Add. Change. Remove.  – such a valuable skill for students to utilize in their writing; such a powerful life force to embrace.  This week, I decided to apply this strategy to my art and poetry.

My collage below is in process of play.  I am creating, adding, changing, and removing until I am satisfied with the composition.  I am not sure how the final product will turn out, but I am enjoying the process.  I think this method allows me to not get so set on the final image.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  I can play until I am pleased.

Simple Watercolor
Watercolor Cut into Strips
Woven Watercolor

If I extend this idea to my poetry, I encourage myself to think more fluidly.  The words and images can be played with. They don’t have to be set in stone so quickly.  I can create many versions, read them aloud, stand back to appreciate their impact and choose what expression I want to publish.

Sparrows Gather I
 
Dusty-feathered bodies
                      In constant motion
Heads turn, wings flutter,
                     Eyes blink, feet twitch
Hopping from one
                    Place to another
The birdbath, the bench,
                    The old stone toad
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter
                    Recalling memories of summer
Warm sun, sweet rain
                    They sing of worms and seeds
Just plain brown birds
                    So numerous, so common
 
Sparrows Gather II
 
Just plain brown birds,
So numerous, so common,
In constant motion.
Dusty-feathered bodies:
Heads turn, wings flutter,
Eyes blink, feet twitch.
Hopping from one place to another:
The birdbath, the bench, the old stone toad.
All-a-flutter, all-a-chatter,
Sparrows sing of worms and seeds.

As I begin a new school week, I think about using this poetry idea with our curious 2nd graders.  I plan to use the William Carlos Williams’ “As the Cat” and have the children recite it, visualize it, and the write their own versions. 

Some questions to help students to re-imagine the poem could be:

ADD.

What color is the cat?

Where is the jam closet?  

What does a jam closet look like?

What color, size, shape is it?

Is it empty or filled with jam jars?

What color, size, shape is the flowerpot?

Change.

Make it a different animal.

Make a different place the animal climbs.

Make a different place the animal steps into.

Show another way the animal walks.

Remove.

Reread your poem.

Remove any words you think would make the poem stronger.

I am so curious to see what the children will create.  I hope they begin to understand the awesome pleasure and power of Add. Change. Remove.

Song of the Sky: Some Thoughts on Clouds

When I was a child, I spent long summer days looking up at the sky watching the clouds shape-shift.  I loved gazing up at what I thought looked like the continent of Africa slowly drift and pull apart until it became a magnificent ocean schooner sailing across the blue, then only to turn and twist to become a white serpent with a long, forked tongue.  To me clouds represent possibility.  What can I come?  What adventures await beyond the blue?  How can I stay quick, nimble, active.

When I taught young children, I always read to them the pattern book, It Looked Like Split Milk by Charles G. Shaw. The book starts off with the refrain: It looked like spilt milk, but it wasn’t spilt milk.  Sometimes it looked like a rabbit, but it wasn’t a rabbit. It steadily progresses, changing shape from page to page.  The repetition and simple graphics silhouetted against the bright blue background were easy for the children to remember and read.  In fact, I have taught many children to read using that book.  They felt successful and loved creating their own versions with endless possibilities.  And they read, and read, and read.

Maybe my connection to clouds is poetic in nature.  Metaphor. Simile. The cloud was a gossamer cloak ready to take me in and render me invisible. The dessert was topped with whipped cream which was as light and soft as a cloud.  Indeed, clouds often resemble whipped cream.  Maybe it’s not so much a poetic connection as it is a connection to food! Heaps and heaps of heavy cream whipped into lovely fluffs of all shape and shades. One wishes she could just reach out and scoop up a healthy handful.

One day recently, I escaped to the beach to take photos of the clouds rolling in to capture that sense of wonder.  Looking out towards the horizon, the sky and sea seemed infinite. Maybe that’s what intrigued Alfred Stieglitz about clouds: their ever-changing shape above Lake George and reflected on its surface. For over a decade Stieglitz photographed clouds. He first called his cloud work, Songs of the Sky, after the music he could surely hear as they drifted.  Later, he called his work Equivalents, noting the clouds reflected his own inner emotions.

Stieglitz created the first completely abstract photographs. He was influenced by abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky’s ideas and his belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner, emotive “vibrations of the soul.”  Self-expression and development of the spirit were key to Kandinsky’s approach and greatly affected Stieglitz work. Being abstract and dynamic, these elements have a very musical quality. Although Stieglitz’s work was in black and white, I wonder if the viewers’ response would be the same for color photography.  Does the tones of blue and white alter the message?  I’m not sure.  I’m still gazing up at the clouds.

Song of the Sky

Stieglitz photographed the clouds

Looming over Lake George,

Snapping hundreds of frames for hours:

Stratus, cumulus, or nimbus,

Stark white against deep blue,

Billowing out on a summer’s day.

Georgia! Get my camera!

He’d bark at O’Keefe.

Dutifully she’d place the Graflex

In his cold hands,

And sit with him on their porch

Looking out over the lake,

Watching massive thunderheads

Loom on the horizon

Shifting and rolling

Unfolding like flowers

Open to the grace of heaven

And then the rain came

Pouring down, relentless,

Dancing on the surface of the lake,

Soaking the dry earth,

Drenching the tall trees,

Reviving her weary spirit.