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

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