Object Connections: Janet Wong’s Poetry

Last week, I had an opportunity to attend a poetry workshop presented by Janet Wong and sponsored by Rutgers University Center for Literacy Development, which is directed by Dr. Lesley Morrow.  Janet won the NCTE excellence in children’s Poetry Award in 2021.  It is a lifetime achievement award, and one of the highest honors a children’s poet can receive.   Before becoming a poet, Janet was a lawyer.  Currently, she serves on the Yale Law School executive committee.  However, decades ago she decided to change the direction of her life to become a children’s book author.  She has published over forty books for children and teens on diverse subjects. This workshop was special to me because, as a member of the advisory board of RUCLD, I had been asked to help Janet throughout the day. I have always admired Janet, and now I got to spend the day with her.

Janet brought two large suitcase of props: flip-flops, popcorn, marshmallows, nori seaweed snacks, gummy worms, a rubber duck, a bunch of bananas, a bag of just-ripe avocados, a can of peas, an apple, an orange, an onion, a clove of garlic, and much more.  As she read poems and told the stories behind the poems, Janet would give away objects as gifts to the audience members.  This is where my job began.  I put on my best “Vanna White” imitation – holding objects up in the air, smiling, and then racing around the conference space delivering the precious objects to participants.

One poem that Janet acted out for us and had participants act out in turn was “Noodle Soup.”  It is a short, happy rhyming poem. From the repetition, alliteration, and whimsical rhyme, one would think it was just a funny kid poem.   However, Janet told us the story behind this poem.  When she was a child, she invited her best friend over for breakfast.  Her mother made a steaming pot of wonton soup, Janet’s favorite. When her friend arrived late, she looked at the soup and said, “Don’t you eat ‘normal’ food for breakfast?”  This hurt Janet immensely, but she never told her friend.                    

Another of Janet’s poems, “Waiting at the Railroad Café,” recounts a tense scene when Janet and her family were on vacation and went to restaurant to eat.  When the family entered, it was like they were invisible.  They weren’t greeted or taken to a seat.  They weren’t given menus.  They were completely ignored because they were Asian.  That experience made a profound impact on Janet.

These two poems come from Good Luck Gold, which was the first book Janet published in 1994.  Good Luck Gold & More was published in 2021 and took Janet’s original forty-two poem collection and added fifty more pages of prose explaining the backstory of each poem.  I loved that Janet took everyday objects and connected them to times in her life. Out of that connection a poem was born.  Many times we read poems but do not know the backstory.  The backstory creates context and gives us a deeper understanding of the poem.

After her large group presentation, participants were able to attend a small group session with Janet.  That session was designed to give participants a chance to write.  Janet and I stacked copies of her various poems and spread a majority of the contents of her two large suitcases onto four long tables.  As a warm-up, Janet asked us to match her poems with the objects that were displayed around the room.  Then, Janet asked us to choose an object and write a poem about it.  As we shared our poems, Janet gave away more objects to the poet-participants.  It was clear that Janet has a generous spirit: she gave her time and knowledge freely. She enjoyed gifting people with the objects she had lugged from Seattle, Washington to Piscataway, New Jersey.

Below is the poem I wrote for my object – a small yellow rubber duck.  The poem came to me as I remembered my friend, Arman, telling me how his son, Caram, did not like water and bath time at all.  He would cry and cry.  So I re-imagined how Caram could become in love with bath time.

As we packed up what was left of her belongings into now one suitcase, Janet encouraged me to keep writing and to join her summer initiative, Think Poetry, which will provide opportunities for teachers and librarians to publish their poems.  As we departed, Janet stacked cookies, popcorn, and Nori seaweed snacks in my arms.

“Put them in your faculty room,” she said with a smile. “I couldn’t have had a more helpful partner today. We are a good team.”

I smiled, thanked her, and walked to my car juggling my teacher treats.  Janet not only connected people to objects and experiences, she connected people to each other, and that is the true power of poetry.

Some Books by Janet Wong

Picture Books

  1. Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
  2. Apple Pie 4th of July
  3. This Next New Year
  4. You Have to Write
  5. Homegrown House
  6. Me and Rolly Maloo

Poetry Books

  1. A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems
  2. A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE
  3. Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving
  4. Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year
  5. Good Luck Gold and Other Poems
  6. Gold Luck Gold & More
  7. Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions
  8. Once Upon A Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals
  9. Night Garden: Poems from The World of Dreams
  10. The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children
  11. Twist: Yoga Poems

Anthologies Created with Sylvia Vardell

  1. Dear One: A Tribute to Lee Bennett Hopkins
  2. GREAT Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud
  3. HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving
  4. The Poetry Friday Anthology Series
  5. You Just Wait – The Poetry Friday Power Book Series

Stirring the Senses – Part 2

Last week, I planned a winter sensory poetry lesson for out 2nd graders.  I decided to start with a slideshow of winter photographs and then brainstorm words that they might use in their poems. My goal was to quickly set them off to write so they’d have plenty of time to compose their poems and share them.

This week, I executed my plan.  As I presented the slideshow, the girls looked intently at the photographs, which were a mix of nature scenes and people and animals in the snow. After watching silently, they shared their ideas as I wrote them down.  We were collecting sensory words from what we had seen in the photos.  The words would act as a jumping off point to create images for their poems.

Before they began to write, they asked some questions.  One girl asked if she could use rhymes and I nodded my head.  She sparked an idea in my head because I don’t normally compose rhyming poems.  Since I always write when the children write, I decided to challenge myself and write a rhyming sensory poem. I think it is an important part of the writing process for children to see adults writing alongside children.  I made sure the girls were all actively thinking and writing, and then I sat down with my own ideas. One student came over to see what I was writing, but I quickly redirected her to her own writing and told her that I would share at the end of class.

As the children wrote, I circled the room looking at their poetry and making observations that I thought would nudge their writing further.

  • That’s an interesting idea! You’re making an acrostic.
  • Wow! You are using such strong verbs.
  • Oh, you are including lots of sound words.
  • Like each child, like each snowflake, each poem was different, exquisite in its creation.  They took their experiences of snow and thought about how it looked, smelled, sounded, tasted, and felt. They thought hard, they experimented with words, and they formed meaning to share with others.  This time to play is necessary and important for writers. It connected what they have been reading, to what they have experienced, to what they have learned about composing a poem.

Hands-on Vocabulary

Last week in the Wonder Studio, I spent four days during recess time sewing with 4th graders.  The thing I learned about 4th graders is that they have definite ideas and want to carry them out quickly.  The Wonder Studio is filled with all kinds of crafting supplies, but the supplies that captured the 4th graders last week was my sewing cabinet.  They wanted to make pillows – all twelve of them – all at once – and not one seasoned sewer among them.  It was a chaotic and happy flow of ribbon, scissors, fabric, and floss.  They soon learned that sewing takes time and patience. 

One industrious student decided she would hot-glue her pillow until I stopped her and had her reflect on her process.  I called the girls over to look at the hot-glued pillow.  We brainstormed ways to make pillows without using up all our hot-glue and make a pillow that would last and could be washed.  I quickly set up some girls with needles and thread, while I showed another group how to make a tootsie roll pillow, which consists of taking a length of fabric, putting some batting in the center, rolling it up and securing each end with ribbons tied in a bow.  The seam can be stitched or secured with bonding tape.  Soon, we had a bright assortment of tootsie roll pillows. 

As they worked, I showed them how to fold fabric.  I taught them new terms: warp, weft, bias. They quickly understood my command for pinking shears and why you do not usually want your fabric to fray.  They learned how to attach buttons, separate floss strands, and embroider their initials with a basic straight stitch. As we worked together, I realized that  in just a few short days they were learning and retaining so much new vocabulary.  They needed to know these words to create an object of their own.  Words like batting, muslin, bonding tape, t-pins became essential for communicating their needs, so they learned them and used them quickly.

I remember learning this way from my mother – learning in the moment.  She was a gifted seamstress and could make a dress without a using a pattern.  I thought that was pure magical genius. I didn’t even realize I was learning new skills and words when I sewed alongside her. It was such an organic process. It was rewarding to work hard at something and have a beautiful end product.  Of course, even if my stitches were uneven and my hem was a bit crooked, it still was beautiful to me. Sewing taught me how to work through problems and learn from my mistakes. My technique got better and better the more I practiced. Sewing was teaching this group of girls that lesson too.  They love to be busy, to use their hands, and to learn new skills to make something useful.

This organic way of introducing vocabulary can be applied to other content areas.  Connecting new words with an activity that results in a product will ensure engagement.  The learning will stick because it is coupled with relevant action.  I saw this recently during a 4th grade reading/writing unit on graphic novels.  The teacher introduced new vocabulary (panel, frame, speech bubbles, gutters, motion lines, narration, etc.) Then the students would look for examples in the books they were reading, and then used those newly-acquired skills to create their own stories.  At the end of the unit, the students were deftly using the graphic story terminology.  It had truly become part of their writing toolbox.

Vocabulary instruction should not be viewed as a weekly list of words tiered, graded, and set aside in a neat little pile.  New words should dance out to students, play with them, engage them, make them think and do:  Where are those pinking shears?  Why are frayed edges not always a good idea?  Where is the selvedge end?  Stated simply, new words that demand action are remembered.