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.

A Time to Celebrate Women

It’s March and among other things it means that it is time to reflect on the accomplishments of women.  For me, this means creating another Women’s History Challenge for my school’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students.  I started this event almost ten years ago as a way for our school, a private girls school – the oldest in New Jersey, to honor women.  It is an enrichment opportunity and is optional, though every year at least twenty to twenty-five students eagerly participate.  The Challenge consists of researching ten women plus another of their choice. The girls have six weeks to complete their research.  In mid-February, I present the list of women for that year.  Then the students who decide to participate work independently completing their research by the end of March.  While the students are busy researching and writing, I create a Women’s History Challenge quiz show in the form of a slideshow.  There are ten questions focusing on the lives of each women.  Also, I gather pictures of the women who the students have chosen for their independent projects.  In early April, we all gather to share information and celebrate the girls’ hard work researching.  The celebration is in the form of an elegant tea party. I got this idea from feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation – The Dinner Party, which honors the lives of 39 women.

We prepare a large classroom in the style of high tea: lace table cloths, colorful tea pots, vases of flowers, and table settings in springtime colors.  There is the traditional tea menu: tea sandwiches, tea breads, shortbread, sugar cookies, fruit salad, and an assortment of flavored teas. As the participants enter the room, you can feel the energy and see the excitement on their faces.  The girls are ready to share what they’ve learned and also eager to taste the treats and plop one or two sugar cubes in their teacups.  I learned that sugar cubes are a much favored treat with eight to eleven year old girls!

During the tea we have the quiz show and girls take turns answering questions about the featured women.  The emphasis is on the knowledge they uncovered.  There are no losers here.  They are all winners because they have learned how to conduct research and found out about women they had not previously known.  After the quiz show, each girl presents information the women they individually research.  We ask questions and marvel about the lives of the women we had honored that year. It is one of my favorite school celebrations.

Last year, we had to create a virtual tea part due to COVID-19.  I was worried that it would not be as special because I could not set up the high tea finery or prepare the luscious treats.  But I was wrong.  Even virtually, the girls happily celebrated and their individual presentations were even more spectacular.  This year, I’m in the midst of planning our second virtual tea.  Since we are lucky to have a hybrid/in-person schedule, the girls will be taking home a treat bag and then zooming into our virtual tea when then return home in the afternoon.

When preparing for the Women’s History Challenge, I have learned so much about all different women in all different walks of life.  I try to gather a diverse list every year.  Some years, I focus on women in the arts or women in science.  This year, I chose women, most of whom I had not heard of before but who had picture books written about them.  Every year I learn something new, and the students learn to be curious and are inspired by so many women role models.  I wouldn’t be surprised that one day they may have a book written about them that other children will read and be inspired by.

Recent Picture Books About Ten Remarkable Women

  1. Celia Cruz – My Name is Celia by Monica Brown & Rafael Lopez
  2. Eleanor Foraker – The Spacesuit: How a Seamstress Helped Put Man on the Moon by Alison Donald
  3. Ruth Bader GinsbergI Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy
  4. Amalia HernandezDanza! by Duncan Tonatiuh
  5. Edith Houghton  – The Kid from Diamond Street by Audrey Vernick
  6. Edna Lewis Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley
  7. Sarla Thakral – Sarla in the Sky by Anjali Joshi
  8. Gabriela Mistral – My Name is Gabriela by Monica Brown
  9. Ethel PayneThe Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome         
  10. Anna May Wong – Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo                                                         

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

February Face

February is a hard month for me.  It is the middle of winter: the snow is no longer a novelty, and the cold and gray gets to be too much for my spirit at times.  I try to lighten up the days literally with candles and sunny yellow tulips from the local supermarket.  I’ve grown fond of eating tart lemon curd pudding.  I’ve grown too fond in fact!

This past Thursday, February 25th would have been my mother’s 99th birthday.  She died almost eight years ago at the age of 91.  She had a nice long life, but not long enough for me.  I miss her every day.  I miss her smile, her shining eyes, her chats about books and kids and recipes.  She was my first teacher, and she was also many children’s teacher for over twenty years. She loved her 2nd graders and would regale our family with story upon story of their triumphs and tribulations. Later, I would regale her with stories of my own students.

It was one February day when my dad called to say that my mom had had a heart attack.  She was seventy-one at the time.  I remember rushing to the hospital where she had to undergo a quadruple bypass operation.  I was terrified but tried to hide it.  She looked at me, grabbed my hands, and looked me in the eye, “Don’t worry.  I am no ready to go.  I am going to make it through.  I’m not going anywhere.”  And I believed her. And she was right.  She had an incredibly long and difficult recovery, but in May that year on Mother’s Day, she was finally released from the hospital and began a slow and steady healing process.

February brings with it a bunch of conflicting emotions for me. Time to celebrate my mom’s birth, time to remember and honor her, but also time to miss her and long for her soothing voice and calm reassurance.  She would tell me everything was going to be okay, and I would believe her.  This February, her 99th year, I wanted to find a way to celebrate her life.

A fellow blogger, Julie Cox, wrote a post last week about a Shakespeare book, Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year by Allie Esiri.  She started the post with the quote from Much Ado About Nothing:

Good morrow, Benedick. Why, what’s the matter

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness

When I read those words and suddenly a sad, icy facial image came to mind.  I smiled to myself. I immediately knew what I was going to do to honor my mom and her love of books and children. I would have my 4th grade students draw and write about February Faces.  During class, I explained that I was reading Julie’s blog and came across Shakespeare’s quote.  I wanted students to understand that inspiration for writing can come in many different ways and to always be on the lookout for writing ideas.  I read the quote and asked the children what they thought a February face might look like. A multitude of adjectives came flying towards me: sad, grumpy, depressed, icicle hair, hard beady eyes, pale blue skin, happy, wrapped in wool, loving February 14th.  I loved that I received both positive and negative images of February.  After I read the quote, the students said that they wanted to read it aloud.  It wasn’t something I planned for but something they all added to the lesson.  It was an important way for them to connect to Shakespeare’s words.  Many students volunteered, some donning English accents and projecting their dramatic best.  This naturally added to their engagement.  Before I set them out to write their own poems, I modeled what I thought a February face looked like, drawing a simple sketch on the board.  Then I asked the children to help build a poem together. These are two examples of the group poems we created.

After we created the group poems, the girls set to work drawing their February faces and composing their poems.  They worked diligently and I cannot wait to see what they finally create.  One student called me over to her desk and asked if the February face had to human and gave me a mischievous smile.  When I looked at her paper, she was in the process of drawing an Ice Dragon. “Brilliant idea,” I whispered.  “Keep working.  I want to see what you create!”

More than concentrating purely on the product, I think it is essential for kids to experience the process of generating and idea, brainstorming possibilities, and thinking outside the box to create one’s own images, whether they are visual or written.  At first, when I said my writing idea this week was from Shakespeare, they all squirmed in their seats a bit.  They thought Shakespeare was going to be too hard for them.  But in the end, they realized that they could understand Shakespeare and respond to his words with unique and well-thought out ideas.

This week, I will give them plenty of time to share and respond to each other’s work. I hope Shakespeare will be a source of inspiration for them for years to come.

Shakespeare for Children

  • A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories by Angela McAllister
  • Hamlet for Kids by Lois Burdett (Shakespeare Can be Fun! Series)
  • Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare by Shakespeare
  • Shakespeare 16 Books Children’s Story Collection Set by Tony Ross
  • Shakespeare for Kids: 5 Classic Works Adapted for Kids: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Tempest by Familius
  • Tales from Shakespeare by Marcia Williams
  • The Shakespeare Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained by DK Media Company

Write Now: Building a Community of Writers

I cannot remember a time that I did not like to write. Putting a pencil in my hand was giving me my turn to speak.  I loved creating imagined worlds, pouring my heart out, and writing about what could have been and what might yet be.  Writing expanded my horizons.  I get to live more life by writing.  Sometimes it baffles me when the small children in front of me have trouble finding an idea or organizing a thought.  I study them intently, hoping to find a magic strategy that will get them to see themselves as people who enjoy writing.  Magic does come, but not in the way I think it should or would.  Magic comes by writing every day. Allowing space in your day to put the pencil to the page or the fingers to the keys. It comes from allowing yourself to tell your story to others through your hands.

It had been more than forty years since I was part of a community of writers.  In college, I took part in writing groups, collectives, workshops.  After college that stopped, and I wrote for myself, not sharing with anyone until I forced myself to put the piece in an envelope and send it to strangers, who would return it most often with a kind rejection. That did not feel right. I started to think of those stories and poems as rejected, not good enough and that made me avoid writing every day.  But I have an intrepid heart and a yearning to be heard so I eventually picked up the pencil and started writing for myself and my invisible audience.  Over the years, I have written with and for my students.  I encourage them to have intrepid hearts and tell their stories. We build communities and we cultivate gardens of ideas to write about. 

The simplest magic strategy is to LISTEN.  When we listen to kids, whether they struggle to write or easily skip along the page, we can help them move along as writers.  We can connect to them and start the conversation.  Sometimes we go off topic. Okay, many times we go off topic, but that’s just the point.  Our magical winding conversations always lead to wild writing that excites us and beckons us to write more.

Another simple strategy that works for me all the time is to READ.  When I was a very young writer, I would read and imitate.  When I was a young adult writer, I considered that way of writing to be cheating, so I stopped reading.  Do you know what happened then?  My words became stiff and wooden; my ideas were flat and dull.  When I picked up books again, it kickstarted my imagination, and I was off and writing again.

I am so grateful to be part of a blogging community this year.  As much as I love to write every week, I love to read the posts of my fellow bloggers.  I have a connection to them even though we have never met. I have shared their joys and their sorrows, their book recommendations, their recipes for apple cake and jerk chicken taco, their photos of gardens and pets, and oceans and grandchildren. I am fortunate to have this treasure of ideas waiting for me each week. 

Last week, Fran Haley posted a photo of her dog, Dennis, and a poem called “Little Dog Dreams.” This small piece of writing got me to thinking how I could help my 4th grade students out of their winter doldrums.  They have been sitting listless behind their shields of plexiglass for weeks now, and I needed something to perk up their imaginations.  Fran’s little poem was just the thing!  I knew my nine and ten year old girls would fall in love with Dennis and that would spur them to write “Little Dog Dream” poems. 

First, I showed them the photo of Dennis circle up in a comforter, head bowed, ears inside out, a picture of perfect sleep.  Then I read Fran’s small 8-line poem.  We talked about how Fran constructed her poem: two stanzas with four lines each.  We talked about the rhyme scheme and noticed Fran’s word choice – vivid adjectives and strong verbs. Next, we brainstormed words that might go into a “Little Dog Dream” poem.  Our list looked something like this:

Now the girls were ready to write.  They quickly got out their pencils and started to compose.No one had trouble getting started.  They began talking to each other – telling funny dog stories.I had forgotten to leave some time for talking and sharing, but they did so naturally, and I let it be.  Soon the room was quiet and poems began to appear on their papers just like magic.

Emily and Hadley wrote acrostic poems:

Lovable

Incredible

Totally Adorable

Tiny

Loves a belly rub

Energetic

Delightful

Outstanding

Graceful

Lauren and Maddie tried their hand at rhyming:

 LITTLE DOGS DREAM
 by Lauren
  
 Little dogs dream about an owner who cares
 Little dogs don’t dream about teddy bears,
 They are not selfish. They’re happy and proud.
 They are happy to be alive and they don’t ask for much
 Now it’s your turn. Put yourself in the dog’s shoes.
 You would love treats and teddy bears, but
 No! I bet that you would be happy with an owner
 Now imagine you on the streets with no owner.
 I bet you would not ask for much.
 You are happy to be alive.
 Now come back!
 Come alive!
 And imagine that dog life! 

 
 
 LITTLE DOG DREAMS
 by Maddie
  
 Snuggled up on their own little bed
 Thinking about warm thoughts in their head.
 Running through the cold snow
 Sinking and getting low
 When they reach their owners arms
 Safe but alarmed
 When they hear a weird sound
 They cover it up with howling and jumping around.
 When they get back to their cozy home
 Happy thoughts are what they dream. 

My dreamers, Laila and Caroline, added some imagery:

Little Dog Firefly
 by Laila
  
 Flying in the air,
 A firefly lands on my dog’s nose
 My dog just sits there
 Staring into the starry sky,
 Loving and kind.
  
 Little Dogs Dream
 by Caroline
  
 Little dogs dream of jumping
 Into a pool of treats,
 Little dogs dream of owners
 Petting and loving them.
 Little dogs dream of going outside,
 Chasing squirrels, hugging trees,
 And scaring all the birds.
 Little dogs dream
 What little dogs dream! 

And always practical, Ashley, easily took on the voice of her beloved dog, Gerty. 

 Gerty’s Dog Dreams 
 by Ashley
                          
 Some yummy food better come soon! 
 Otherwise I go to the bathroom on the floor! 
 Ahhhh … YAY…  I see food!!!  
 Wait…  Mom is LEAVING ME 
 Oh no. I have to FOLLOW HER. 
 Even though I know she hates it 
 when I follow her. Whatever. 
 Oh man, Cameron is taking me to her zoom call. 
 Ahhh... why is everyone saying AWWWW?
 What is so cute? Wait is it me? 
 Heh, probably I am so… cute!  
 Is this my purpose? Haha! Yay.                                              
 The next day ...                                                                                
 Wait... what? Why is Ashley screaming my name? 
 Let me go to… Taylor's room!  
 Ahhh… I am trapped! 
 Man, I should have gone to Ashley. 
 Let me out Taylor!! 
 Please!!!!!!! Help someone!!! 
 Yay Dad let me go!! 
 Wait, Taylor has me. 
 She is taking me… AHHHH. 
 Ok let's follow Mom again! 
 Mom is moving the furniture again 
 She said it’s the last time!                                      
 That night, 
 Ok let me go to Dad and make him pet me! 
 Ok… just been 10 minutes. 20 minutes.. 
 Dadddddd pay attention to meeeeeee, pleaseeeee!! 
The next day when Emily comes….
 Hmmm… What should I do? 
 I am bored of following mom.. 
 So… Wait, Emily is here!  
 Yay! She is wearing her black leggings 
 now I can shed on her again!!! 
 Mommy gets mad 
 when I shed on her. Whatever. 

And Olivia, who is a devoted cat lover, quietly flipped the theme and wrote this:

 Little Kitten Dreams
 by Olivia
  
 Small kitten sleeping
 Snow covering its white pelt
 Dreaming about prey
  
 Catching sixteen mice
 Running free in the wild
 Freedom is so sweet
  
 Waking up at dawn
 Went to fulfill its wishes
 And fulfill its dreams 

I am so grateful for Fran’s inspiration this week and ever so grateful to be able to spend my weeks writing with children.  They never cease to provide me with magic and promise.  Indeed, I learn from them every single day.

Oh, How I Love Thee: Let’s Shout it Out!

February holds a special place in my heart.  Not because it’s my birthday month, that will come soon enough, but because it is the month of my anniversary, my Grandpa Charlie’s and my mother’s birthday.  She would have been 99 this month!  When February rolls along, I bring out my red:  little heart dishes, candles, flowers, and little things to brighten and cheer this long winter space.

In the classroom, I turn to poetry and talk to the children about loving kindness, first to themselves and then to others. We make lots of lists of the things we love. These lists mostly revolve around family and food. We practice writing odes and shout outs to all the things we love and are grateful for. Odes were originally songs performed to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, and sometimes a brave soul will write a song and perform it.  I love these small moments of celebration: no cake, no presents, just the simple pleasure of the written and spoken word.

To begin introducing odes to the children I choose Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes.” I think the sparseness and brilliant imagery will capture their attention and imagination.  This is how Neruda begins:

 Ode to Tomatoes

 The street
 filled with tomatoes,
 midday,
 summer,
 light is
 halved
 like
 a
 tomato,
 its juice
 runs
 through the streets.
 In December,
 unabated,
 the tomato
 invades
 the kitchen,
 it enters at lunchtime,
 takes
 its ease
 on countertops,
 among glasses,
 butter dishes,
 blue saltcellars.
 It sheds
 its own light,
 benign majesty. 



 Neruda perfectly places each word and gives each the importance it deserves.  After the students choose an object of their affection, I ask them to write a list of all the words to describe that object.  We share the lists and our classmates offer more suggestions.  Then it is time to write. Here are a few the students created. 

 Ode to Horses
 by Maggie 
  
 Horses galloping
 in the middle of the night
 when nobody is watching,
 their manes flying in the wind
 as they go by.
 They talk to each other
 with a simple “Neigh.”
 When the sun comes up,
 they are all tired from a long night.
 Their eyes still glow with delight.
 They have a long day,
 but they keep on trotting on
 because they know
 what the night brings.
  
  
  
 Ode to Candles
 by Evelyn 
  
 Candles
 Out in the living room
 Aspiring to burn the brightest
  
 Standing tall and proud
 Wax running down the side
 Beautiful
  
 When the flame has died
 It goes to sleep
 Dreaming about a great flame
  
 The people huddle round
 Outside the snow falls
 And falls
  
  
  
 Ode to Puppies
  
 Hadley
  
 Oh puppies!
 Your fluffy feet
 And velvety ears
 Make me want to cuddle you all day long!
  
 You make me smile
 When you run around on your fluffy feet
 And when you curl up into a ball to sleep
 You make me want to hug you
  
 Your tiny teeth may nip,
 And your miniature claws may scratch
 But I love you just the same.
  
 Oh Puppies!
 I love your little tail
 As it wags, wags, wags
 And your round tummy
 As you chow on yummy food
  
 You make me laugh
 When you chew on a bone
 And chase your tail
 And lie down on your bed
  
 Oh Puppies!
 I love you
  
  
 Ode to My Goggles
 by Indiya 
  
 During the day my goggles 
 Open their eyes and see
 All the swimmers swimming.
  
 They swim with me
 In the pool
 And protects my eyes.
  
 At night they dream
 Of swimming in the ocean,
 Seeing all the fish and coral.
  
 They wake up,
 Ready to swim.
 Thank you, goggles!
  

Another poem type I came across recently are Shout Outs.  Shout out poems are poems that thank people, animals or things that are personally important. Sekou Sundiata created this type of poetry.  His poem has a lot of music in it. Here is a small part of his poem. You can listen to the entire poem here: SHOUT OUT!

 Shout Out
  
 Here’s to the best words
 In the right place at the perfect time
 Here’s to three hour dinners
 And long conversations, 
 and a beautiful day.
 To the increase, to the decrease
 To the do, to the do
 To the did to the did
 To the done done
 To the lonely.
 To the brokenhearted.
 To the new, blue haiku.
 Here’s to all or nothing at all.
 Here’s to the sick, and the shut-in.
 Here’s to the was you been to the is you in
 To what’s deep and deep 
 To what’s down and down
 To the lost, and the blind, 
 and the almost found.

Here is my attempt at a Shout Out poem.  When teaching poetry to children, I think it is essential to write and create and revise right alongside them so that the class become a community of writers fully engaged in the process.

 Earth Shout Out
  
 Here’s to the seasons turning 
 To the bright spring flowers
 To the cardinals and jays singing in the trees
 Shout out to the clear blue sky
 To the fluffy whipped cream clouds
 To the children running and playing
 To their laughter and wild freedom.
 Shout out to the peaceful world
 To the beautiful earth
 To the golden sun and silver moon
 And to the twinkly diamond stars!
   

I encourage students to describe the things they love in unusual ways.  I don’t make them stick to one form and have fifteen cookiecutter poems.  I want them to explore the form and push the boundaries of their thinking. One great book to share with children is Shout!: Little Poems that Roar by Brod Bagert.

 Winter SHOUT OUT!!!
 by Emily
  
 Here’s to the snowy blizzards
 To the skiing vacations
 To the warm winter coats
 Shout out to the Christmas fun
 To the cozy Vermont cabins
 To the tight ice skates
 To the creamy hot chocolate
 Shout out to the warm, doughy cookies
 To the steep sledding hills
 To the family movies, snuggled under blankets
 And to the winter wonderland outside my warm, cozy house
  
  
 Shout out to Pizza
 by Cam
  
 Pizza is cheesy goodness
 Pizza is a great wheel of sauce
 Pizza I love your hot and cheesy flavor
 I love you with veggies on top
 I adore pepperoni too
 I shout to the sky
 Pizza you are the BEST!
  
  
 Shout Out to Ice Cream
 by Andrew
  
 Ice cream you are the dairy king
 You taste better than anything
 You come in a lot of flavors
 All which I savor
 Even though you’re very cold
 That makes you even more bold.
 You can be eaten in bowls,
 And you can be eaten in cones
 And with your toppings that are so delish
 You are my number one wish! 

Odes and Shout Outs are a great way to liven up these dreary winter days. They serve as a little light in the darkness.  They remind us about what we love and why.  They help us to reflect and have gratitude for the big and small things in our lives.

Here are some great books to celebrate loving kindness and Valentine’s Day.

Valentine Books

  • Arthur’s Valentine by Marc Brown
  • Guess How Much I Love You? By Sam McBratney
  • Happy Valentine’s Day, Mouse by Laura Numeroff
  • Here Comes Valentine Cat by Deborah Underwood
  • Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
  • Lilly’s Chocolate Heart by Kevin Henkes
  • Llama, Llama, I Love You by Anna Dewdney
  • Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • Love from the Crayons by Drew Dayward
  • Love Letters by Arnold Adoff
  • Love Monster by Rachel Bright
  • Love, Splat by Rob Scotton
  • Louanne Pig in the Mysterious Valentine by Nancy Carlson
  • Ollie’s Valentine by Olivier Dunrea
  • One Zillion Valentines by FrankModell
  • Pete the Cat: Valentine’s Day is Cool by James Dean
  • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatcher by Eileen Spinelli
  • Snowy Valentine by David Peterson
  • The Best Valentine in the World by Marjorie Weisman Sharmat
  • The Biggest Valentine Ever by Steven Kroll
  • The Day it Rained Hearts by Felicia Bond
  • The Ballad of Valentine by Alison Jackson
  • The Valentine Bears by Eve Bunting
  • This is NOT a Valentine by Carter Higgins
  • Valensteins by Ethan Long
  • Valentine’s Day by Gail Gibbons

Mindful Mending

I have been thinking about sewing lately – mending specifically.  A couple of weeks ago, I came across a book that caught my eye, Mending Life A Handbook for Repairing Clothes and Hearts by Nina and Sonya Montenegro.  It’s cover is patterned and embossed.  I have always been attracted to that type of patchwork – collage style.  Something about the tactile diversity calls to me. The book is as much poetry and personal narrative as it is about actually sewing.  It is so inventive – weaving equal parts of story, poetry, drawings, and sewing together.  I had never seen a book quite like it.  I was enticed and started reading.  The authors’ words calmed and centered me.  I began recalling my history with thread and needle.  Funny how some things you loved to do in the past fade from memory, and then are quickly rekindled with a smell, an object, or a phrase. 

Before my mother became a teacher, she was a seamstress.  She worked to contribute to her family and put her two brothers and then her husband through college.  She was amazingly gifted.  She could look at a piece of fabric, fold it, pin it, cut it without a pattern and produce a blouse, a skirt, a dress, or a jacket.  My sister and I would watch her as if she were a magician – and she was.  She taught me to hem, put on a button, attach a zipper and sleeves.  I became interested in embroidery in my early teens.  I’d spend hours making designs on pillows, t-shirts and many of my jeans.  I wish I had kept those pieces and repurposed them.  I have one faded light green burlap pillow that made for my mom.  It is not my best work, it was one of my first, and I will always treasure it.

I continued with embroidery into college and young adulthood.  Embroidery helped me to stay centered. It calmed my mind. It helped me focus.  I entered the flow of the stitches, the lines and curves of the pattern, the feel of the needle sliding through the fabric.  One of my English professors invited us to create an artwork instead of a paper on Chekov for one assignment.  I took a big risk and embroidered a scene from The Cherry Orchard.  It wasn’t a perfect piece, but it did show that I took tremendous time to create the design and execute the stitches.  I got an A+, and the professor showcased it at our next session.  To my surprise, no one else had taken the art challenge that is why he added the plus. He wanted to reward risk-taking.  His message was loud and clear, and my classmates started to be bold and creative.  More inventive projects came pouring in that semester.

In my twenties, I went to see Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum.  I was astounded by her ceramic designs and needlework.  At the end of the exhibit, there was an announcement about Judy’s next endeavor – The Birth Project.  She was looking for quilters and embroiderers.  I quickly wrote down the information, went home and began producing embroidery samples to submit.  To my great surprise, I was accepted and I worked on a piece called “The Crowning,” for over a year and a half, meeting periodically with the other quilters and Judy when she visited New York.  That was a great experience for me.  I found a community of stitchers from all walks of life.  I also wrote a poem called “Power,” that Judy included in The Birth Project book. And I began to think that my life would turn toward the arts and crafting.

But it did not.  Like my mother, I turned toward teaching.  I continued to create with my students.  I kept containers of threads, needles, fabric, embroidery hoops, yarn for my students to experiment with.  For all the years I taught 2nd and 3rd grade, my classes would create story quilts.  We’d read Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold and a whole cavalcade of picture books about quilts and quilting. Yes, it is chaotic to stitch with twenty 7 and 8-year old children, but it is joyful too.  We’d sit in a large circle and attend to our stitching, everyone concentrating, everyone quiet.  We became a community in a way that we hadn’t been before.  We were creating something together, something that would be joined together.  When the quilts were completed, we presented them to the parents and our school community. I still have a couple of the quilts, but the majority of them were stolen from my car one year.  I always wondered what the thief did with a pile of children’s quilts.  There’s a story in that!

The Sewing Corner in The Wonder Lab

For the last twenty years, I’ve been stitching on paper using embellishments of buttons and beads and shells.  I enjoy taking a traditional art and seeing what I can do to change it, to make it my own.  I do these projects purely for myself.  I love choosing the colors and textures of paper.  I pour over the many different threads and floss I marry into the design.  The buttons and beads are a particular favorite.  One year, while vacationing I Vermont, I found a woman who made her own clay buttons.  They were rustic, asymmetrical, and perfect. 

I don’t embroider or mend as much as I would like to.  It seems there never is enough time.  I’m usually rushing and sewing is a slow activity.  I guess that is why I was attracted to Mending Life.  It was that object that sparked the memories that are in my hands.  Embroidery is an integral part of my life almost like writing is, but I didn’t realize that until this week, until I read the Montenegro sisters’ words:

Making something whole again is also a form of healing, and we humans have a deep desire to heal what is broken.  Learning to mend gives us a new lens through which to problem solve.  A garment or belonging we thought was beyond repair is now stitched back together by our own two hands and we discover we are more resilient than we thought.

That’s what kept me reading – that desire to heal myself and our country.  I wanted a blueprint on how to mend, how to put pieces back together, how to repair something, extend its life, make it last.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when the Montenegro’s talk about “A Spirit of Play.”  They recount how their father who was a carpenter and an artist, repaired everything in their home. He used bright red thread to repair watches, baskets, spoons, chairs, and his old brown leather belt.  By using the bright red thread he was celebrating rather than hiding the flaw.  I love this idea.  Don’t be bashful, bring attention to the old and broken – create it anew. 

Mr. Montenegro’s red thread was its own version of the Japanese ceramic repair process called kintsugi.  Broken pottery is repaired with gold lacquer, which highlight the mend instead of trying to make it invisible.  This makes the piece unique and beautiful in its own right. Kate Roberts also speaks of the healing power of kintsugi in her book, A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice.  She artfully and thoughtfully explains:  The metaphor is an easy one: we embrace the flaws in our lives; we make beauty of the breaks. The reality is harder. My father couldn’t do it. His cracks grew over the years and even as he saw his life breaking apart, all he could do was lament what could have been. I have tried to learn from him. I have tried to use my cracks to become more open than I was, more empathic… I have tried to fill the breaks with gold.

I love this idea of repairing, mending, stitching together with “gold,” so the broken thing becomes beautiful and whole again.  Maybe that was why I was drawn to sewing and embroidery all along.  Maybe I was trying to repair my broken parts, trying to make something new and useful and unique.

One of my paper quilts, Five Buttons
 Mindful Mending
 
 Clothes sit in a pile
 On the edge of my bed,
 Waiting for attention.
 I sit down next to them:
 The khakis with the torn hem,
 The sweater missing its button,
 The shirt that split it’s seam,
 The sock with a hole in its toe,
 The old pair of worn-out jeans
 With a huge tear in one knee.
  
 I take a deep breath,
 I rather be doing something else,
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention,
 Pick up the pants,
 Examine the hem,
 Thread the needle with
 As close a khaki colored thread
 As I can find – and start.
 I pierce the supple surface 
 Down and up, down and up again and again
 The thread slides through the fabric
 Until the hem secured.
  
  
 My hands take up the sweater
 It is my favorite: black, red, and white
 Thick and warm from Norway
 With embossed silver buttons
 One is missing now
 I find another in my button box
 It is not quite the same
 Will anyone notice?
 Does it matter? Do I care?
 I snip off the top button
 And put it in the place of the missing one
 Then I take the mismatched button
 And place it on top in full view
 Like that’s where it was meant to be
 I wrap heavy black floss around and around
 The button shank keeping it 
 Snug - sure not to fall off.
  
 My husband’s blue striped dress shirt
 With it’s tiny split seam is next
 I hold it up to my nose
 It smells like him
 I take a deep breath,
 I’m doing something for someone I love,
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention,
 I find delicate white cotton thread
 And another sharp needle
 I concentrate on make tiny
 Identical stitches one after another
 After another until it is complete.
  
 There’s my old worn sock
 I take it in hands and examine it
 Is it worth keeping?
 The hole is quite large
 But the rest of the sock is perfect
 And they are my warmest
 They make my feet happy
 I search for charcoal gray yarn.
 But find only Prussian Blue.
 I begin to knit with my darning needle
 Chains of wool connecting loops
 Upon connecting loops
 This work is different
 I am not so much as attaching
 As I am creating more material
 I am making a toe-shaped space
 Prussian blue, all its own.
  
 My mending pile is gone
 Only my worn jeans are left
 The tear is huge and threatens
 To extend mid-shin.
 The fabric is flimsy and thin
 I think a patch is possible.
 I place a pretty blue and pink print
 Underneath the tear 
 Stitching it quickly in place
 Then I take up an abundance
 Of pastel floss and create blossoms
 Around the knee and down
 Along one side of my pants leg
 I keep adding flower upon flower
 Pink, yellow, blue, pale peach,
 A vine of mint green winds in and out
 My needle pokes and pierces,
 Loops and slides until it is picture perfect.
 My mending is done for the day.
 I take a deep breath.
 I inhale again… and exhale,
 I refocus my attention.
 
 
Mending Still Life

Books About Mending

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

Quilt Books for Children

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

Room for Writing: Entering A Poem

Though I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was four years old, I sometimes find it hard to actually sit down and write.  Often I walk and write in my head or just upon waking, write in my mind the wonderful idea I had while I was dream-waking.  Sometimes, I make the time to write them down, but most times they slip away, and my day gets filled with daily minutia.  As I’ve grown older, I try to be more consistent with my writing, because I am keenly aware of time and life slipping away.  Writing is important to me, and I need to be mindful of giving it the room it deserves in my life.  Without writing I know I would not fully be me.  Without writing, I would not be able to think through my problems or create new things.  Writing needs a conscious, breathing space.  Writing needs time.

Many of my writing ideas come from books I’ve discovered.  In the pre-COVID years, I loved to browse my favorite indie bookstores, wandering and reading hoping to come upon an interesting find.  I miss those days.  Buying books on Amazon is not the same experience.  I hope those bookstores find a way to survive because they were an important part of my inspiration.  It was in one of these now defunct bookstores where I found the little yellow treasure, FEG: Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch.  In this book, Hirsch includes the poem, “Entering a Poem,” which is a brilliant and humorous way of introducing poetry to children.  It begins:

You enter a poem
 Just like you enter a room.
 You open the door
 And what do you see?
 A sink, for example,
 A bathtub, a toilet
 (Does a toilet belong in a poem?)
 And you say to yourself, “Aha
 It’s a bathroom.” 

Needless to say, I bought the book immediately and shared it with everyone I know.  I wanted to see what I could do with this subject.  I began to think of the old row house my husband and I lived in decades ago in Princeton.  It dated back to the early 1800’s and had a quirky charm.  It is this place that I thought of as I wrote my poem.

 When You Enter A Poem
  
 You enter a poem
 through the basement.
 Walking down several steep steps,
 you inhale a musty odor –
 the damp darkness.
 You reach above for the string
 that will turn on the light,
 you can’t find it.
  
 You shuffle and stumble,
 trying to adjust to the light.
 You begin to see outlines –
 shadows of things
 Could that be your old wagon?
 Is that a box of your books?
 You bump into an old rocking chair,
 you always loved that rocker.
 You’d sit on your mother’s lap
 as she told you stories,
 a cobweb gently touches your face.
 You swat it away.
 Where’s the light?
 You find the string and pull,
 but it does not go on.
  
 You know the poem is in here, somewhere,
 you reach out your hands
 and feel your way around -
 the cool, rough cinderblock walls,
 the smooth, curved oak chest
 the ragged, chipped-painted pipes.
 Your eyes are getting accustomed to the dark.
 You can now make out the wooden ceiling beams,
 the various pieces of furniture stacked with boxes
 the small, odd door on the far side of the room.
 There is a sudden scent of lavender 
 from some abandoned blooms
 forgotten in an old vase.
  
 You walk on feeling your way
 in the murky darkness.
 You come to the small, odd door.
 It is really just some rough-hewn planks
 crudely hammered together.
 A brass key protrudes from the lock.
 You try to turn it, you try to pull it out,
 but it doesn’t budge.
 You wonder what is inside
 and why it’s locked away.
 You try the key again.
 It won’t turn.
 You knock on the door -
 There is no one on the other side.
 You boldly bang and kick it,
 Throw your shoulder against it,
 it remains steadfast.
  
 You walk back towards the steps,
 You can make your way
 more easily through the darkness.
 A poem is like that –
 Some things become clearer,
 some remain secret,
 you turn and ascend the stairs.
 
 
Whenever I think of a lesson for children, I must try it out first and make mistakes.  Mistakes guide me in how to make the lesson better.  I welcome mistakes.  If my idea comes out too perfect, I don’t trust it.  There must be something I’m not seeing, not realizing.  This poem came out all at once, and I wondered if children would be able to create a visual space for how they enter a poem.  I tried it out with some 5th graders, and they easily delved into their poetry place. I think the humor imbedded throughout Hirsch’s poem helped them understand that poetry is accessible.  It can be about toilets and musty basements.  It can ask questions and not provide all the answers.  Indeed, it should raise more questions and make us wonder.

When sharing this idea with students, I first read aloud both Hirsch and mine own “entering a poem” poems.  We talked about how each poem was constructed and the form, language, and images the poets created.  Then I asked my students to think about a poem as a room in a home or space somewhere.  How do you get inside?  How do you begin to understand it?  I asked them to write an “Entering a Poem” poem. I told them that their “room” can be any type and anywhere.  It could be a bedroom, kitchen, secret room, tunnel, spaceship, a place outdoors, – whatever they imagined it to be.

 When You Enter A Poem
  
 by Lauren
  
 When you enter a poem...
 It’s like entering a kitchen
 First you stick out your hand, 
 Reach for the cabinet with the bowls.
 Take one large bowl and one small bowl.
 Then comes the eggs, flour, sugar, 
 chocolate icing, and honey 
 out of the refrigerator. 
 Next, beat two eggs 
 and some honey in the small bowl.
 Then mix the sugar and the flour 
 in the large bowl. 
 Time for wet ingredients!
 Put them in the large bowl 
 and mixed them together.
 Pour the batter in the pan,
 And put it in the oven.
 A half an hour later, 
 Take the cake 
 out of the oven
 and ice it
  
 Making a poem is like
 Making a cake
 Keep adding ingredients
  
  
  
 Come into the Poem
  
 by Maxine
  
 Come into the poem,
 It is a cool pool,
 Blue and deep.
 Dive down
 Make bubbles
 All the way.
 The fish swim
 Between your feet.
 The slick seaweed
 Wraps around your shoulders.
 Something sparkles on the
 Rocky ocean floor
 But you cannot reach it.
 The current takes you
 In another direction
 The water is murky
 It's hard to see clearly
 Then something beautiful
 Comes into view,
 Into the Poem,
 Cool and blue and deep,
 Delicate and full of wonder,
 A starfish on the sand
 Dancing gracefully
 Into the Poem. 

I look forward to playing with this idea with more groups of children.  What rooms will they create?  What fresh language will they invent?  How will they show me a new way of thinking?  What will they teach me next?

Zen Toolbox Redux

January is almost over.  We have elected a new president.  We have for the first time in history a woman vice president.  The COVID virus has several new vaccines, and they are slowly being distributed.  My family members and friends continue to be safe and healthy. I should feel hopeful.  I do not.  I feel drained. I have taken on two positions at school this year – learning specialist and curriculum coordinator – two giant jobs, and back in August I was certain I could handle both if I kept myself in balance. 

Now, I am not so sure.  It seems that there is premium on students who need support.  I am not the only one feeling stressed, anxious, and in desperate need of a shoulder, outstretched hand, or warm smile. This week, a student cried giant tears, which rolled down her cheeks soaking her mask. “I always get in trouble at school,” she declared. 

When I asked her to explain what happened to me.  She said that she couldn’t but that she could draw it.  So I gave her a piece of paper and some markers thinking she was going to draw the problem she was facing. Instead, her markers created brilliant springtime flowers, deep green grass growing wildly around a happy, fat house, with bright jaunty windows, a crooked chimney and a red door with the number 32 above it.  When I asked, “How is this the problem you are telling me about?” 

She looked at me like I had two heads and replied, “It’s not.  You see it’s 32, not 42 like the school.  I live at 32 Jockey Hollow Road and that’s where I want to be.”

I smiled under my mask.  She was a clear as clear could be. She did something wrong, and she wanted to escape back to safety. And safety to her was to be at home with her parents.  I was so glad she had a safe place.  I needed to help her feel that way at school more often, instead of feeling like the kid who’s two steps behind and doesn’t know where she put her pencil again, and the teacher is waiting, and her classmates are saying her name impatiently. Again. So I listen and I problem solve, and I offer her some kindness. When we get back to the classroom, they are doing art.  She returned to her seat and picked up her scissors and glue.  Her shoulders relaxed.  She had regained a bit of her balance.

I can empathize.  I often feel like that student did:  I’m going to be in trouble.   I can’t keep up.  I’m tossing all the plates, but I cannot catch them.  I try in vain to create pockets of peace and pleasure, but they are fleeting.  I remember my mother’s words: “Be good to yourself.”  I try. I do try. I remember the list I made in August, a Zen Toolbox to keep me content and on track and not to slip into the girl with her shoulders hunched up to her ears, running from task to task, holding her breath.  I look back at the toolbox and see the list of books, art, and music.  They are useful tools, and I have returned to their pages often to gain some inspiration. But now, at this time of year, I need another plan.  A more active direct plan, one in which I can push out the walls of my stress and create an artistic positive and more hopeful space.

I know it is imperative for me to do this.  I’ve read the literature on teacher burn out. According to some recent research, 66% of teachers want to leave education and 41.3% of new teachers leave teaching within the first five years on the job.  Given those numbers, I feel quite successful because I have been teaching for forty-two years.  I must have a secret, some ancient wisdom I can bestow on my fellow teachers. 

This week, I came up with these ideas.  They are not so much RULES, as they are affirmations about who I really am and the important work I do each day with children.  If I am to connect with my students and lift them up, I definitely need to make sure that I am being good to myself.

 1.    Create tissue craft paper collage studies.  Do a couple a week.  Remember to play.
 
2.   Treat myself to flowers at work often.  Do not make excuses.  Buy them on Monday.
 
3.   Whenever I feel stressed at work, pull back, go inside myself, take a walk, write or draw for 15 minutes.  No one needs me for 15 minutes.  Take the time.
 
4.   Remember to stay professional. Be about teaching and not personalities.
 
5.    Continue walking, exercising, stretching every day.  Try to exercise before school – at lunch and after school whenever possible.
 
6.   Make a list of writing projects and finish them.
 
7.    Remember creativity.  If I don’t do writing and art, my spirit dies and I become bitter.  The best part of me is my childlike enthusiasm.  Celebrate that!
 
8.   Make a list of art dates – schedule a day each month to do some extended art dates: sketch, collage, print making, water color, finger paint.
 
9.   Try something new every week: a new vegetable, a new shampoo, a new song, a new way of looking at the same things.
 
10.  Be an observer.  Go out into nature, breathe in calm, write what you   see, write what you feel.
 This is what I played with this week. Some reflections on nature and the healing power of trees, trying to find the quiet places. 
 Forest Senses
  
 The trail is laden
 with rain soaked stones -
 brown, gray, pale green
 and rust colored pine needles
 and last fall’s leaves
 now brown and brittle
 returning to the earth.
 The forest canopy -
 a colossal verdant umbrella
 letting the rays of the sun
 only in certain sacred spots.
 A huge elm has fallen,
 its two main branches
 now rest on its trunk
 like two great arms
 reaching out 
 still seeking salvation. 


 
 
 Shadow Play
  
 Clouds loom over the ridge line,
 Whipped cotton cumulus clouds
 Casting shadows on the hills,
 Dappled patterns,
 Bright patches 
 On the forest floor,
 Moss-covered stones,
 Glints of reflected light
 On the river’s surface.
 Dark green cool spots,
 Rocky crags and uprooted trees
 Hidden in silent repose. 

Sketchnoting II: Big Words

I have been playing with teaching sketchnoting for the past month.  I naturally doodle while reading and listening.  It helps me focus, remember, and make connections from familiar concepts to new ones.  I thought that by teaching our 4th graders this strategy they might be able to focus, remember and understand better and more deeply.  I hope it will become an integral part of their reading toolbox.  My first lesson encompassed introducing how to sketchnote and providing time to practice the basic drawing techniques.

We practiced sketchnoting about something very familiar – ourselves.  Each student made a sketchnote introducing many aspects of themselves: their likes and dislikes, their family members, and what they enjoy doing.  In the next lesson, I read the picture book, Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. I chose this book due to its strong visual nature and use figurative language. I thought these elements would help the students create sketches and write down vivid images.

This week, I continued to give students sketchnote practice time.  First, I made sure to review the sketchnoting basics.  Next, I had the students warm up for sketchnoting by sky writing, which is writing in the air with their index fingers. Then, I asked them to make simple abstract doodles on paper while listening to music for a few minutes.

Now, the students were ready to sketchnote.  I explained that I was going to slowly read the book, Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport.  I asked students to share what they already knew about Dr. King’s life and work.  Some students proudly shared their knowledge, while other continued to ask questions. Soon they were ready to focus on the story.  I chose this book because it focuses on the nonviolent concepts Dr. King taught and believed.  I wanted these concepts to be the focal point of the students’ sketchnotes.  In this way, I believed the students would continue to remember King’s big words and the peaceful way in which he led others to protest against inequality. King’s words were so important then and are incredibly crucial now: freedom, love, God, faith, goodness, kindness, courage, trust, compassion, together, equity, justice, bravery, equality, care, determination, respect, unity, resilience, hope, and dream.

The girls listened carefully as I read and showed the pictures.  Some students asked me to repeat some pages with text they wanted to remember.  During this thirty minute reading session, I had the students’ complete attention.  They all diligently sketchnoted   for the entire time.  From observing their work, I could gauge each student’s level of understanding.  It is such a quick and graphic way to assess student understanding.  Next week, I plan to have them add to their sketchnotes after some discussion and reflection about their process. Most of the students enjoy this strategy and find it helpful. I know that listening and selecting important details is a skills they will continue to use throughout their lives, so I encourage them to keep practicing and take risks.  There are no right answers, no absolutes in sketchnoting. It is another free and creative form of expression at their fingertips.

MORE TO READ:

  1. A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson
  2. As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson
  3. Be a King by Carole Boston Weatherford
  4. Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton
  5. I Have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  6. Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
  7. Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea Davis Pinkney
  8. My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris
  9. My Daddy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King III
  10. My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold
  11. My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart by Angel Farris Watkins
  12. That is My Dream!  By Langston Hughes

These are examples of my playing with sketchnoting. I did not show my work to the students until after they had created their sketchnotes. I stressed the process and the elements of sketchnoting, not the artistic quality. I wanted to give them a sample of how to build a presentation.

My Quick Sketch Practice
My final copy.