Summer to me is a wide open space. I am a teacher and that means I have eleven weeks to play, wonder, and wander. I am grateful for this. I need this – especially this year. I need time to rejuvenate, regenerate, and grow in spirit. I am completely drained, but I know summer will help me heal.
Every summer, my husband and plan lots of trips. We used to go out West, then we explored all of New England, and then we traveled all along the Southern Coast. Then COVID came and our travels ceased. We are planning one small trip to Maine this summer, and I am looking forward to it. I cannot wait to get there. I travel there every night in my sleep. Maine is my happy place, my place of possibility.
When I was in grade school, summer meant weeks of reading on the beach. I would walk to our local library and stock up on novel after novel – historical, realistic, fantastical. I loved traveling to other worlds while I sat in my beach chair and listening to the crashing waves, smelling salty breeze, and letting my mind wander into blissful imagination and then peaceful sleep. That was summer to me, and it was endless. It seems to last forever.
Now for me, summer is short. It comes and goes. I vow to not waste it. I vow to savor it. I plan to enjoy it. I am ever grateful for the summer and its sunny disposition.
When thinking about the summer and the big possibilities it offers, I thought of a poem I wrote several years ago while my husband and I were on vacation in Colorado. We were driving to Aspen in the middle of the night, and there is it was – the golden moon – the biggest moon I had ever seen – an August moon – rich and ripe with possibility and promise.
Hide and Seek with the Moon
The road winds
up the Rockies
and I awake
to the twisting
and turning curves.
We’ve been playing
Hide and seek
with the moon.
First she’s on the left of us,
then on the right.
She dances and
skips across the sky.
Then is cradled
in the clouds.
As we climb higher and higher,
We are amazed
by her size.
She is a world aglow.
It seems that if
we could drive
just a bit further,
We could reach her,
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.
As the end of the school year approached and I looked out at the plexiglass-framed faces before me, I knew I had to do something to energize the last month of school. I teach a Study Skills class to 4th graders, and I have tried this year to make organization, time management, and planning fun. Sometimes, I admit, it is hard to make executive function skills fun and engaging. I try hard, though. I used videos, art, photography, poetry, movement to keep the girls actively participating. However, as March turned to April, the girls’ exuberance was fading, and I knew I had to come up with a plan. My plan was PLAY!
The students had been cooped up all year: learning behind plexiglass, wearing masks, keeping socially distant from friends. This year has been difficult, and incredibly difficult for children. I’m not sure of what the ramifications will be in the future, but I do know that children have more fear and anxiety now. The only remedy I know for fear and anxiety is collaboration and play. So, in mid-April I gathered my students and told them that for the rest of the school year they would be researching PLAY. Many of them looked at me skeptically. “You mean we are putting on a play?” they asked. I chuckled. “Well you could put on a play, but I mean you are all going think about and tell about why playing is important.” All of a sudden, the room became electric. They buzzed with ideas. I smiled. That’s just what I hoped would happen.
The first thing I did to prepare my students was to create a slideshow about the importance of play. I added videos of children giving their opinions on play as well accounts from experts about how play helps people learn and thrive. I found some great videos of animals playing, which I knew would be of interested to my nine and ten-year-old students. I loved watching their faces as I played the slideshow. I had them hooked. When the slideshow ended, they ran to me with ideas. I told them to think about what they wanted to research about play. It could be making a game, conducting an interview with a play expert, designing fidgets, or anything else they could imagine.
For the last three weeks, the girls have been thoroughly engaged in the process of creating. They set goals, planned, organized materials, worked collaboratively, monitored their own progress and adjusted their plans to complete their projects. I saw their independence and self-confidence blossom. They were play engineers. They were in charge of their learning.
At times, they asked me for assistance, but these requests were mainly in the realm of getting specific materials. Their work was their own. They did not seek me out to generate ideas or resolve problems. I stood in the wings ready to help but found myself having free time to just observe and document their progress.
Sometimes, when my colleagues witness my students at work, they think it is too chaotic. The children are moving and talking constantly. They are building and dismantling, and building again. This is the process of creation. It is messy and noisy and marvelous. It is the true nature of play.
Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.
It renews our natural sense of optimism
and opens us up to new possibilities.
– Stuart Brown, MD
SOME RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT PLAY:
It was February turning to March and the bright and motivated 5th grader, Hadley, whom I have been teaching privately for the last three years suddenly became dull and bored. Nothing could spark her interest. Her normal bookworm self was now not interested in any book in any genre. Her penchant for writing was also gone. All her academic energy and engagement was zapped. Week after week this winter, I stared a cross my screen into the face of a girl who did not want to do a single thing except quietly stare at me and say, “No.” So, I got out my secret weapon, poetry, and that worked for a while. She created a wonderful assortment of poems and made a digital book. Then one day, I introduced another poem and that dull stare came back onto her face. She was listless, passively sitting, responding to me with one-word answers. I knew I had to figure out another idea but what? We normally read a short nonfiction current event passage each week to gain insights into the world around us and to get ideas about what we might want to read, writer, or research next. I timidly suggested we read a nonfiction article I found about Japanese Fruit Sandos (sandwiches). Food! I often resort to poetry and food to engage students and usually it works! It did this time too!
I went to my trusted nonfiction resource, Newsela, and found an article in the Arts section titled, “Sweeten Your Springtime with Japanese Fruit Sandos.” I had never heard of fruit sandwiches before. They were so surprising and beautiful that I thought they might be just the idea to stir Hadley out of her doldrum. At our next session, we took turns reading the article aloud. I watched Hadley’s face intently. She was as intrigued as I was when I first read the passage. The article briefly explained the origins of the fruit sando and then gave a recipe. “Oh, we should make these!” Hadley shouted to me from across her zoom screen. And then a wisp of sadness came across her face because she knew we couldn’t get together to cook. I asked her in a cheery voice, “Do you want to see a video of them being made?” and she readily answered, “YES!” I shared my screen and showed her a YouTube channel I found called Emmymade. Emmy had a 17-minute video called “FRUIT SANDO – Japanese Fruit Sandwich Recipe Test.” Emmy’s presentation was upbeat and funny, a perfect video to engage an eleven- year-old girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdZxLetJSZg
At our following session, Hadley wrote her own fruit sando recipe. And as luck would have it, COVID restrictions were being eased, I had gotten the vaccine, and I would be able to see Hadley again in person in a couple of weeks. Hadley’s curiosity had returned, she started a new fantasy series, she began writing and illustrating a story to enter into a contest, and most importantly she started smiling, laughing, and asking questions AGAIN. The Hadley I knew had returned!
Last week, I gathered together all the ingredients for Hadley’s fruit sando and went to her house for our first face-to-face session since the fall. We constructed sandwiches on her back porch, which conveniently connects to her kitchen. Though Emmy used Texas Toast for her bread, I found a French Toast loaf that was cut in thick slices. You might also use brioche bread cut thickly or throw caution to the wind and use pound cake! We used canned whipped cream because of time constraints, but the sandwiches will hold together better with fresh whipped cream. Hadley and I also brainstormed about other fillings: Nutella, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff. The varieties are endless so that these sandwiches can appeal to any palette, even the finickiest of eaters!
Here are ten books to spark a budding cook’s interest:
Cooking Class Glob Feast!: 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook
Cook Anime: Eat Like Your Favorite Character – From Bento to Yakisoba by Diana Ault
Easy Peasy Japanese Dishes for Kids!: Easy but Yummy Japanese Meals Kids Can Help to Make by Heston Brown
Japanese Cooking for Kids by Kimberly Ono
Japanese Cooking Made Simple by Salina Press
Japanese Kids Cookbook: A Dedicated Selection of Japanese Recipes for Kids by Sarah Miller
Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan
Super Simple Cooking for Kids: Learn to Cook with 50 Fun and Easy Recipes for Breakfast, Snacks, Dinner, and More? By Jodi Danen
The Complete DIY Cookbook for Young Chefs: 100+ Simple Recipes for Making Absolutely Everything from Scratch by America’s Test Kitchen Kids
The Manga Cookbook: Japanese Bento Boxes, Main Dishes and More! by Chihiro Hattori
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.
Especially in these COVID days, months, years – I see an increasing need for mothering all around me. I am very attuned to people who are in need of mothering. I always have been. And I try to fill that gap. Isn’t that what we are here for? To spread some loving-kindness: to be a shoulder, an ear, a cup of tea – some sympathy. I had a world-class mother, and she taught me the first rule of mothering: “Be good to yourself.” She’d repeat it over and over again. It was the last words she’d say to me before we’d depart. Now seven years after her death, I repeat her mantra to myself, my friends, and my nieces. If you ever are going to be able to offer true loving-kindness to anyone else, you first have to give it to yourself. Listen to yourself, reassure yourself that “everything will be okay,” give yourself a hug (and maybe a piece of chocolate), and then go ahead with your day confident in the knowledge that you have your own back. You are your own best mother.
I am still in the process of perfecting this attitude. There are days that I so deeply miss my mother. I long to see her smile again. I need her skillful ear to indeed just listened – no advice, just that quiet, calmness, that deep closeness, that love. Some days I feel untethered. I don’t know how I’m going to continue this uphill journey. I push away the anxiety with small firm shoves, but it comes back. It always comes back. The only remedy I find is my mother’s whispering voice: “Be good to yourself, Jo. Be good to yourself. Remember.” So I think about all the ways I can be good to myself, and I follow them. I am learning to be gentle with myself, to be in the moment, to enjoy the small things, and to be open to tiny miracles. They are indeed all around me, and I’m beginning to follow contentment.
When I was a child, I’d fret about what I could give my mother to show her that I loved and appreciated her. I spent entire Aprils trying to figure out what I could say, do, or buy that would show her my love. In the end, I think all she wanted was quiet, calm – somebody to listen. I should have given that to her more often. I should have been a better mother to her. So now, I sit with myself quietly, and I find moments in the day to mother other people – to listen, to offer support, to remind them to be good to themselves. It is the best way I can honor my mother’s memory.
I take another glance
at my alarm clock,
It's four in the morning.
Panic sets in -
I take a breath,
Remember it will be okay,
I am not in danger,
I will not die yet,
I breathe in
And out deeply,
Slowly curl on my side.
I miss my mother, my Vivian.
Ninety-one years was too short a time:
I want her back,
I want her with me,
These thoughts will not
Put me back to sleep -
I count memories.
Happy memories of my mother:
Her beautiful smile,
Her laugh, her twinkling eyes,
Vivian playing solitaire on the couch,
Vivian reading Louis L'Amour,
Vivian cutting dress patterns,
Vivian taking her daughters out to lunch
Munching on little tea sandwiches...
All is suddenly dark and calm.
I'm in a familiar restaurant,
Eating chicken salad with my mother.
She is in her mid-forties,
Always when I dream of her,
She's in her forties and happy
And beautiful and alive.
We are talking and laughing,
Walking together down a hallway
With glass on both sides.
We can see green trees
And pink blossoms.
I am so happy
Walking beside her.
She pulls out a small bag
Of green jelly candies
And offers me some.
I can taste fresh lime,
We walk and talk and laugh.
We come to a dark hallway, which opens
To a bright conference room,
I'm to give a presentation
In front of a lot of people.
I can feel the butterflies
Rise in my stomach.
I look around to get my bearings:
Giant chaffing dishes of food are set
On long tables covered with white tablecloths,
The school's director walks in
Shaking her head solemnly,
Suddenly I notice there are
no spoons for the food,
I start to panic -
I was in charge of the spoons!
My mother pats my hand
"It's alright," she says,
"We will figure out something."
Suddenly, I wake up -
I know Vivian is there
Watching over me,
I know she won't leave my side,
I see her beautiful face,
I taste fresh lime,
Take a deep breath,
Roll over and return to sleep.
This post is dedicated to my cousin, Jeanne, who is like a sister to me. This past year, she had taken care of her husband who lost his battle with cancer last week. It has been a long painful journey and though I tried to provide comfort, I knew there was little I could do to truly help her, so I did the only thing left to do – I listened. My mother would always tell me how kind and considerate Jeanne was. She appreciated Jeanne’s cards and visits. My mother made me promise to watch over her. I would have done so anyway. Jeanne has the most compassionate heart. She is one of those people who are earthly angels. Jeanne encourages me with my writing, lifts me up when I am feeling almost hopeless, and tells me stories to make me laugh. She is the best friend-cousin-sister anyone could ever have! The best offering, I can give her now are my words and my pictures. I hope this small offering brings her peace and makes her know that she is greatly loved.
Walking up the steep,
Through the cathedral
I breathe in
their vivid color
And let out a slow
I am present
To God’s glorious
Here in the garden
Spring has arisen
All is right with the world:
Squirrels feast on seeds
In the undergrowth,
Birds on the branches sing,
My soul takes flight.
The following poems are in a form I hadn’t known about until last week. Fellow blogger, Ramona, had written a recent post containing a lovely golden shovel poem, which spurred me to try this form. It is a very comforting form because the writer takes a short quote that is meaningful to her and then use it as the base of her poem. It is a seed from which the poem grows. It also takes brain power to puzzle out how to combine one’s ideas with that of the original writer’s words. The last word in each line of the poem reveals the original quote from top to bottom. I think this is a form that I will continue to play with and have my students play with.
Three Golden Shovel Poems
The Earth Laughs in Flowers. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Daffodils, hyacinths, and the
Tulips brightly bloom upon the Earth
All the green garden laughs
Exuberantly, right out loud in
A brilliance of flowers.Where Flower Bloom so Does Hope. – Lady Bird Johnson
April turns to May where
raindrops become flowers
pink, yellow, orange, purple bloom
up through the green so
quietly, so spontaneously does
this garden restore my hope.With the Coming of Spring, I am Calm Again. - Gustav Mahler
Dark clouds fill the sky with
An abundance of rain, the
Drops fall to the ground, coming
Faster and faster, all of
A sudden it’s spring -
Green and glimmering, I
Turn my face to the rain, I am
Suddenly peaceful and calm
Spring is within me again.
There are many things I love and enjoy about teaching – presenting concepts, sharing ideas, being witness to creativity and discovery, but the one thing that is most important to me is connection. I know that connection is key to student understanding. Without connection there are just untethered ideas. And that is why I absolutely love the time I get to sit down with student writers and talk about their work. Many teachers are not comfortable with this part of writing workshop. They are tentative. They are not sure what to say. They focus on errors in grammar or spelling to guide them, instead of homing in on the content and meaning. In Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Ralph Fletcher and Jo Ann Portalupi note that, “We should expect plenty of failure: false starts, blank pages, misspellings, and so on. Failure is an integral part of how people learn. But we also need to build on their strengths – take notice of and celebrate a great work, sudden twist, surprising image…” Teachers might, indeed, start by asking students to create an “I can be” list. In this way, the children can explore and ponder all the possibilities that lay ahead of them.
Fletcher and Portalupi suggest that these questions might help you “read” the student you’re working with:
What can I learn from her body language? Does she seem “up” and engaged, or listless and bored?
What kind of writing is she attempting? Is it a poem? Fiction story? Personal narrative? Information piece? Notebook entry?
Where is she in the process? Has she just begun, or is she almost finished?
Is this a genre she has never before tried?
What are her strengths as a writer?
What is she ready to learn?
What surprises me about the student?
In order to promote reflection and make conference time more productive, teachers might ask a student to re-read her writing before the conference. Ask the student to put an asterisk next to the place in her writing where the writing worked well. Then ask her to put a circle in the margin next to the place where the writing needs more work. This will help to shorten and focus conference time, and build the scaffolding needed for the student to become an independent and confident writer.
The most important job of the teacher during writing conferences is to listen intently to the student-writer. Try to put everything out of your mind and be present as a listener. Think about how the student’s writing is affecting you, and then let her know how her words have moved you. Do not focus on errors and weaknesses. Rather, give specific, concrete praise: colorful details, a funny moment, a surprise ending. As Lucy Calkins says: “Teach the writer, not the writing.” Give the student one strategy to add to her repertoire of writing skills. In this way, she’s not just fixing this one piece; she now has an extra tool to use on all her writing!
A number of years ago, I read Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing. Bomer urges teachers to search for hidden gems in student writing by focusing on author style, purpose, and language, rather than concentrating on mistakes. She encourages teachers to make conferences celebrations of student writing: “My hope is that as teachers we can respond to all students’ writing with astonished, appreciative, awe-struck eyes.”
As a Curriculum Coordinator, I no longer have my own band of fearless writers, as I did when I was a classroom teacher. Now, I have to invite myself into classrooms and talk to students about their work. Teachers are happy to share their conferring time and I get to see students in all stages of writing development: from the Kindergartener who diligently labels her drawing, to a 2nd grader who is learning to add dialogue within a complicated fairy tale variant, to a 3rd grader who is constructing a speech using biographical information, to a 5th grader experimenting with forms of poetry. I wonder at the complexity that writing entails, and I am now beginning to fully understand why writing takes time and patience and presence.
This week I was once again reminded of the importance of being present – of stopping what I was doing – and listen. I was reading through the students’ submissions to our literary magazine, Spark. I nodded, I smiled, and I laughed out loud. The children boldly put their thoughts and feelings on paper in the form of poems, letters, stories and articles. They chose pieces that were important to them. They chose pieces that whirled them away into fantasy and pieces that sunk them back down into COVID reality. As I was reading, I gasped as I came across this gem from a 5th grade writer. This skinny little, brave poem stood up and demanded to be recognized. I read it again to myself. Then, I read it aloud and said, “Wow! Now there’s a poet!”
This poem stands up straight and speaks for itself. I couldn’t wait to talk to the student-poet. I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I connected with the poem – how important it was. The next day, I came into school early, hoping to catch Chelsea before classes started. I found her in her classroom organizing her desk, and I motioned for her to meet me in the hall. She looked a little surprised and I added, “You are not in trouble. I have something wonderful to share with you.” She came out into the hall, and I told her how much her poem meant to me and how powerful it was. I told her that I was putting it at the very end of the magazine because it was so very powerful that I wanted to end the magazine on a strong note. I could see her smiling behind her mask, and I was so glad I took a few minutes to connect with her face to face. Then we went on with our separate days until I got home later that night and found this waiting in my email inbox.
There is no doubt that Chelsea is a writer – no doubt that her strong opinions and emotions will enlighten the world. And there is no doubt that connecting with student writers is of the utmost importance. Writing is so much more that spelling, grammar, and punctuation – those skills will come in time. But the students’ lives and how they express their experiences help them better understand and cope with this swirling world around us. Take a moment. Sit down. Listen.
Books About Teaching Writing
A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves
After the End: Teaching Learning Creative Revision by Barry Lane
A Time for Wonder: Reading and Writing in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard
Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
Craft Lessons by Fletcher and Portalupi
Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
For the Good of the Earth and the Sun by Georgia Heard
Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing by Katherine Bomer
How’s it Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study by Katie Wood Ray
Inside Writing: How to Teach the Details of Craft by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle
Revision Toolbox by Georgia Heard
Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray
Teaching the Qualities of Writing by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer
Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Fletcher and Portalupi
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 PeacockRing 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:
Una Buena Amiga
Viva la Vida
Free Bird, Pájaro Libre
Take flight like the wings
of a wild bird
Pero con una gran imaginación
She flies free
High over Casa Azul
High over Ciudad de México
Sailing through the air calling,
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
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.