Working in the Wonder Studio

A number a years ago, I created a makerspace for our elementary students based in an old unused art room.  I blogged about creating and re-imagining with children in the Wonder Lab here. However, last spring, I was told that the Wonder Lab needed to be dismantled to make room for the Innovation Lab, which would be used to teach students computer science (coding) and engineering.  I complied with undoing the Wonder Lab with a heavy heart.  It had taken many years of planning and collaboration to finally get approval. Then in three short years it was suddenly discarded.  I didn’t want to let it go, but I had no choice.  I thought long and hard about a way to re-establish it.  We had no open space except a small lobby between the newly named Innovation Lab and my office.  I worked two full days by myself and cleared out the Wonder Lab and the lobby.  I put everything in storage, which happened to be on the third floor, and there are no elevators in the Victorian house in which the Wonder Lab is housed.  I trotted up and down the stairs working out my anger and disappointment.  On my final trip down the stairs, I surveyed the lobby.  The words, “Wonder Studio” popped into my mind.  Yes, the Wonder Lab could be reincarnated into the Wonder Studio.  I just had to think small.

This fall, Wonder Studio is operating full steam.  Small is certainly beautiful. I have invited small groups of children each week to work on small projects.  I keep small and tidy supplies on hand. Tidy has been a challenge, but I keep working at it.  And my favorite phrase to the students now is, “If you do not clean up after yourself, you will not be invited back to the Wonder Studio.” That seems to have done the trick.  The girls are learning increasingly to be accountable for their materials.

This week, I was working with a group of 3rd graders.  They were wrapping yarn around small wreath forms on which they were ultimately going to attach jingle bells with ribbons.  Two girls were painting with water colors.  One was making a ferret out of a toilet paper roll, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and a plastic Easter egg.  Another made an octagonal loom out of popsicles sticks and created a web with yarn.  Yet another, was sitting on the steps gleefully finger knitting.  I paused and looked around everyone was busy and happy.  They were all creating in their own way.  Then the loom maker said, “Wonder Studio is better than Art because we get to do our own thing.”  The other girls agreed loudly.  I sensed a rebellion in the making.  So, I quickly explained that you needed both Art class and Wonder Studio.  Art class teaches you skills and Wonder Studio allows you to practice those skills and stretch your creative muscles.”  I look around at a lot of little nodding heads. Crisis averted. Phew!

            I know that this brief time with the girls – 30 minutes at recess time – is so important.  Wonder Studio supports creativity, imagination, agency, and self-confidence.

            “Look what I made!” 

            “I made that! 

Do you have rubber bands?” 

            “I want to make a slingshot.” 

            “Do you have balloons?”

            “I want to make a stress ball.” 

I love these statements and requests from our young learners.  They keep me on my toes.  I am endlessly searching for junk that they miraculously turn into their treasure.

Last week, I was walking through the cafeteria with my tray of food, when Mallory, a 5th grader, patted the spot next to her and called out, “Sit with us!”  I was planning to go back to my office, but from the look on Mallory’s face, I knew she had something important on her mind.  She put her tray down and hurried to grab a chair from another table for me.  Wow – she was determined. 

Quickly she said, “I have been thinking about you!”  I looked up at her surprised.  “Were you sad when they took Wonder Lab away?”  

            “Ut…Oh,”  I thought, “I better answer this very carefully, but honestly.”

            So, I smiled and said to Mallory, “ Yes, I was sad because I knew how important Wonder Lab was for you girls. I knew I had to keep a place for you to play.”

            She smiled back at me.

            “I think Wonder Studio is working out well, even through it’s small.”

            Mallory looked at me intently, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about.  I think we should build you your own Wonder House.”

            I started to laugh, “That would be wonderful,” I said (pun intended).

            Mallory continued enthusiastically, “We could build it right outside the Wonder Studio.  We could go out onto the porch, make a pathway, and then build the Wonder House right on the empty space on the lawn.  We wouldn’t have to cut down any trees.”

I marveled at how much planning and daydreaming Mallory had been doing.  She is usually a shy and quiet girl.  But her Wonder House idea had given her a strong voice.  I was so humbled and honored by her thoughtfulness.

            “Well, that is such a great idea to have our own house to work in, but it cost money to build a house,” I replied.

            “I was thinking about that too!,” Mallory said eagerly. We could make things in the Wonder Studio and sell them.  We could save up and then build the house. I’m going to talk to the Head of School about it.  We need a BIG Wonder Space.”

And this is why I love working with children.  They are ever optimistic and determined.  I am so glad I didn’t give up and made a space in which the girls can dream and create.  Every day, they give me more and more evidence for why creativity matters.  Every day, they fill me with hope.

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

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

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.

Mountain Meditation

I believe there are places on this beautiful planet that are meant to heal, that are God-given.  They bring wonder and awe.  They summon peace and calm.  I am fortunate throughout my life to have experienced many of these places.  The natural world has always given me solace.

During COVID, it was near-impossible to travel far from home.  Last spring, I found myself driving out into the countryside near my home, taking in the rolling hills, passing herds of grazing cows, horses, goats, sheep, llamas, and the occasional donkey.  The animals had no idea of the death and stress that the human population was facing.  They just left the warm comfort of their barns and sauntered out onto the sunny fields to feast. How I longed to have their innocence. Watching them and being in the greening world helped me to focus on what is important in my life.

Finally, this summer we can travel again.  As we planned our first trip, my mood shifted, and I noticed my husband’s mood also became more hopeful.  It was evident that both of our spirits needed to roam.  Our first journey took us to Stowe, Vermont.  Something about the Green Mountains makes me all at once calm and joyful.  The rolling valleys dotted with farms and the graceful sloping mountains in the distance give me space for my soul to soar.

When we visit Vermont, we go to Stowe for much needed rest and relaxation.  This trip, I vowed not to turn on my laptop and to only check my phone twice a day.  I wanted to be completely present to the river, mountains, trails, and blue sky above me.  Even better, I wanted to take in the afternoon mountain rain without distraction.  I wanted it all to soak in and restore my body and mind.

Stowe is the perfect place for photography and poetry,  so I indulged.  I noticed and wondered, and made myself available to the nature all around me.  These happy surroundings made it easy to create.  I placed no judgement on myself.  I just looked around me and recorded what I saw and how I felt.  These excursions helped me to regroup and refuel.  I am ever grateful.

Mountain Meditation

The golden meadow
Laced with wildflowers,
The stand of pine trees
Gently sloping along
The quiet ridge,
Just beyond
The mountains rise
One after the other
A play of light and shadow,
Silver clouds drift
Swiftly north
Dusting the mountaintops,
Beckoning
Evening rain.

Moon Meditation

Dark Daubs of clouds
Paint the early evening sky
Above the green mountains,
Which rise like enormous waves.
Silent and still in the distance,
A sliver of moon appears
Through the mist,
A sideways smile
Brightening the dark
July night.
Moving Meditation

Step into the garden,
A flute plays lilting
Through the air,
My feet find the gravel path,
I begin to wind around
The plants and flowers:
Day lilies, raspberry thickets, 
Lush lavender.
Slowly stepping,
Feeling the pebbles
Under my feet,
Breathing in the flowers’
Lavish Fragrance,
Listening as the chickadees
Compete with the flute music.
My shoulders relax,
I close my eyes.
 Feel my way round and 
round the circle to its center.
I do not fall,
I am held,
Small and quiet
In the calm.

Color-Curious

I am as curious about color as one would be visiting a new country, because I have never concentrated so closely on color expression. Up to now I have waited at the gates of the temple. – Henri Matisse

This summer, I am color-curious. I look out my living room window to the meadow and woods beyond. I congratulate myself for getting through the drab, bare winter into the spring that exploded with golden forsythia, and now unfolds to summer surrounded by all shades of verdant green.  I watch the jays flit and dip from branch to branch and then to the rail fence.  How did they get so blue? Who decided this would be a good color for them?  And the cardinals – bright red males and the beautiful dusky red females – who created that hue for them?  Are the sparrows, crows, and doves jealous? Do they yearn for a splash of bold color?  After a little research I found that blue jay feathers contain melanin, the brown pigment which is also responsible for human skin tone.  The blue color we see is caused by light scattering through cells on the surface of the feather barbs like magic. For the cardinals, their color also comes from melanin, but their red hues come from the chemical compounds, porphyrins and carotenoids.  I was so mesmerized by the science of color that I wondered about humming birds – how can that miracle be explained color-wise? Well, the hummingbird have special melanosomes, structures within a cell that store and synthesize melanin.  The hummingbird’s melansomes are shaped like pancake and contain many tiny air bubbles, which create a complex and multifaceted surface.  When light reflects and bounces off those surfaces, it produces iridescence. And this, along with nature’s abundant wonders, is  what makes humming so much more colorful than other birds.

I have always been color-curious.  As a little girl, I’d marvel for hours at a new big box of 120 Crayola crayons.  I wouldn’t want to use them and dull their points.  I just wanted to ponder their lovely colors, sort them by hue, pair them with shocking opposites. I loved the special names given to the colors.  They were like poetry to me.

Crayola Rhythm

Fuchsia
Flamingo
Carnation
Strawberry
Rose
Orchid
Plum
Thistle
Mulberry
Geranium
Vermillion
Madder Lake
Chestnut
Sunset
Bittersweet
Tumbleweed
Tangerine
Mango
Melon
Apricot
Peach
Banana
Maize
Goldenrod
Dandelion
Canary
Spring Green
Inchworm
Asparagus
Fern
Forest
Shamrock
Pine
Sky
Robin’s Egg
Aquamarine
Cerulean
Pacific
Periwinkle
Cornflower
Wisteria
Violet
Lavender
Indigo
Cobalt
Midnight
Celestial
Shadow

The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color.  Our entire being is nourished by it.  This mystic quality of color should likewise find expression in a work of art. – Hans Hofman

This summer, I have found myself attracted to a local garden.  I am lucky that I can return again and again each week to witness the radiant changes.  I’ve been taking early morning walks along the gravel paths trying to spy new vegetation.  Each time, I am surprised. Abstract Expressionist artist, Hans Hofman, had once said,“ In nature, light creates the color, in the picture color creates the light.”  As a photographer, I am continually playing with how color and light fill the picture, how shadows play upon surfaces, how the color is muted or brightened, how it pleases the eye. 

Mystic Garden

Color-Curious

White, black, gray
What if...
What if the world
Was just that clear?
White, black, gray.
No diving jays,
No swaying tiger lilies,
No yellow heads
Of the dandelions
Emerging from cracks
In city sidewalks.
Only a  world 
of shadows and light 
Colorless ---
Until we see
The possibilities.
Until we pause to ponder 
The tiny hummingbird
Sipping nectar
From wild lupines and 
Purple-pink petunias.
Until we see beyond
White, black, and gray.

Summer Zen

In two previous blog posts, I wrote about celebrating a zen, self-care mindset: How Does Your Zen Garden Grow? and Zen Toolbox Redux. My busy life, like the lives of all modern women, scream out to me from time to time to pause, to ponder, to notice and wonder, to take a deep breath and focus on myself. What is good for me and me alone? What do I need. How can I nourish myself?

This COVID school year posed many stressors: masks, plexiglass barriers, six feet distancing, virtual, hybrid and in-person learning, weekly COVID tests (we lovingly called “Spit Tests”) and finally the vaccine. The would also posed many stressors – political upheaval and social unrest with no signs of resolution any time soon. All these things have made my students anxious, angry, and worried. So all year, I focused on helping them find calm and purpose . Right around May, I realized I had forgotten to focus on myself. I forgot to pace myself, to keep focus on creativity and nature – two areas that restore my sense of well-being. But I did hold on to faith.

We are now hurdling towards the end of June. I am trying to put the reigns on summer: “Hold up, Summer! Don’t go running wild. Slow and steady, now!” I cajole as if speaking to a spooked horse. I am just beginning to unwind, just beginning to take a long slow breath, look up into the impossibly blue June sky and be grateful for this season, for this time away from work, for this time to spend with friends, family and myself.

I’ve been telling my friends that I’m naming this summer – Project Jojo. I’m planning to do things that restore and replenish my body and spirit. When I reached the end of the school year, I found myself completely exhausted. I usually make lists of all the professional development courses I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the school projects I need to get done by August. “No!” I breathe out. No frenetic pace this summer. This time I will return to the lazy summer days of my childhood: sleep late, make beautiful salads with treasures from nearby farm stands, brew peach tea and let it steep in the sun, read nothing that has anything to do with education – a romantic novel, a mystery, a memoir, a cookbook perhaps.

I’ve been frequenting our local botanical garden and nature preserve. I am grateful that I live in a place with these natural resources. I miss walking among the trees and flowers, watching the birds flit from branches to branch and bees sip summer nectar. Immediately my shoulders drop, my heart rate slows, I find myself smiling. Slowly, ever so slowly I am re-learning the zen of summertime. And I know it is necessary. And I know it is sweet and brief.

Zen Summer

Today, I came to the garden
And walked the gravel paths,
Among the white rhododendron
And soft pink hydrangea.
I follow the path to the burbling creek,
Which flows into the pond laden with water lilies.
This morning I face my lone and tired shadow,
Let it sink into the grass to be restored.

I continue along the path in the noon sun,
Swollen bumble bees sip nectar from the peonies.
I try to capture them with my camera;
They are too fast, dipping from flower to flower.
White clouds drift slowly in the blue, 					
Reflecting on the surface of the pond.
The weight of my body lifts,
Free from earthly troubles,                                                                                                     
What cares can vex my mind?

Clear water sparkles like crystal over the rocks
You can see through easily, right to the bottom.
My mind is free now from every thought,
Nothing can ever move it.
I am here in the present forever.
The sweet summer outside has come in,								
I have regained calm, I welcome peace.
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

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