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,
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.
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.
We have traveled the long dark cold tunnel of winter and made it into the light! This year that journey is especially sweet. My confirmation of spring came this week at school where first and second graders have been busy writing poetry. After reading Kenard Pak’s book, Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring, the first graders tried their hand at writing poems. The neat and concise form is comforting to beginning writers. All students, no matter their level, felt successful creating images of winter and spring. Here are two examples.
One of my private students, who is in 5th grade, tried here had at this poem format and created this:
The second graders focused on sound mixed with imagery. They explored including onomatopoeia in their poems. First, they brainstormed as a group what they see as winter turns to spring. Then they made a list of the sounds that could be heard in the springtime. Second graders, in particular, love to play with sound. They like to get silly. They take risks and there is a wonderful spontaneity to their poems.
The students’ poems inspired me to take a good look at the world transforming from winter to spring. I decided to take a long deep breath. I made myself pause, look around, and notice. I wanted to collect images that I could arrange into a collage of sorts or more aptly, a spring mosaic. Here is what I played with this week.
The moon appears
Like a pearl in the morning sky,
In the woods, beneath the brown
Undergrowth, skunk cabbage
Pokes its green ears
Out of the soggy ground.
Spring peepers croak out
A morning song,
Yellow buds pop from
Tender tangles of forsythia,
White and lavender crocuses
In their small way.
Bare branches are laced
With pink, white, yellow-green,
Cherry, pear, and dogwoods bloom.
Birds gather and scatter
Swooping here and there
Looping through the blue sky
Up toward the pastel clouds
Then landing lightly,
Visiting feeders and garden gates.
As turtles lounge on logs
Sitting end to end in the pond
Following the sun.
On the fertile surface,
Another spring is reborn.
The Earth is renewed.
A soft rain lightly falls
Slowly forming puddles,
In their reflection,
My spirit is restored.
Five Spring Picture Book Choices
and then it’s spring by Julie Foliano
Spring is Hear: A Bear and Mole Story by Will Hillenbrand
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A Little Bit of Oomph! by Barney Saltzberg
Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall
Art by Patrick Mc Donnell
Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg
David Wiesner Books: Art & Max, Flotsam, Free Fall, June 29, 199, Tuesday…
Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
How to by Julie Morstad
Hum & Swish by Matt Myers
Journey by Aaron Becker
Lift by Minh Le and Dan Santat
Max’s Castle by Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov
Niko Draws a Feeling by Bob Raczka
Not a Box by Antoinette Portis
Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
Perfect Square by Michael Hall
Peter H. Reynolds Books: The Dot, Ish, Skycolor, Happy Dreamer…
Spring approaches. It seems to be coming from underground this year. I look out on to the field behind my home, and I can see the warmth spreading: the green tenderly returning… slowly, ever so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. But it is there. It is no doubt there. This week, I have some respite from work, a spring break of sorts: a little time to reflect, relax, do some spring cleaning. It started with my heavy woolen winter clothes, but then I read fellow blogger Stuart M. Perkins’ post, “One Man’s Trash,” and I turned my attention to my junk drawers. Stuart recalled his mother keeping a junk drawer in the kitchen full of things, which she left intact for years. He vowed not to have one himself but to no avail. After reading his post, I went into my kitchen and realized I had not one, but two junk drawers full of things I have not used in months and in some cases years. Why do I keep these bits of things. Apparently, I have a thing for collecting plastic bottle tops. I think I’m going to use them with the kids on some school project, but that never happens, or hasn’t to date. Then there are the pens, the pens that are out of ink, or whose springs are lost. Why am I keeping those? And at some point my husband bought a gross (144 packs!) of rubber bands. Some of those are shoved at the back of the drawer threatening to make it stick shut forever.
The kitchen is only the half of it. I have two more junk drawers in my art table in my bedroom. I pulled them open tentatively to survey the damage. There, I found more pens, dried up markers, dusty finger splints, a little rubber ball, a book of prayers and affirmations among the assorted bric-a-brac. How can I transform this junk into something artful? How can I make it something not to leave and forget, but something I want to return to? I want to make it more than spring cleaning, more than an executive function organization project. Seven years ago, when Marie Kondo’s first book was published, I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up cover to cover and back again. I went to my closet lifted each item and asked myself “Does it bring me joy?” I ended up giving away at least half of my clothing. Then I attacked my sock drawer. Truth be told, I am obsessed with socks. Somehow I always lose one of them, and I do not have the gumption to toss it out because somewhere in my heart I hold out hope that the other sock will return. Ever the optimist. I even bought a sock drawer organizer, so that it is the only drawer in my house that is neat and perfectly aligned. My socks are mostly black, maybe navy, with some simple gray and as Marie Kondo teaches, folded tightly. It is beautiful. It is a little boring.
What if I took my junky art drawer and treated it as a piece of art? What could I make? How could it become a pleasing aesthetic part of my art space? All my life, I have loved to make collages and assemblages, to build something or make sense of the pieces. I could now do this with my art drawer. I took some of my favorite small bowls and baskets and started to play with the arrangement. I tried many different variations. I had fun thinking about color and shape and placement within that three-inch deep rectangle. I chose blues and green because those are my favorite calming colors: the colors of the woods and fields around my house, the color of the sky and the sea. I mixed squares, rectangles, and circles. There was suddenly possibility instead of mess.
With the superficial things in order, it was time to think about my mind. What clutter was I carrying that I could let go? Usually, I push away not clear out. Push all the doubt and anxiety to the edges and make a simple clearing. Lately, the doubt, anxiety has been creeping in more and more quickly with a ferocious tenacity. I remembered Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a powerful testament to memory and the Vietnam War. I’ve read it a few times over the years with high school students. The power in the listing of items at the beginning of O’Brien’s tale is evident:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake.
I can see all these items clearly. I can imagine those young soldiers’ faces. I can smell the jungle and hear the mosquitoes whining. I can begin to grasp their pain. Though I have not experienced the unbearable cruelty of war, I think all humans carry things deep inside of us: joyful things and things that bring untold despair. I’m especially thinking of some of my students who are trying to wrap their minds around this pandemic. They smile, they laugh, they play, they keep their desks in order. But I know inside they are struggling to understand all the death and restrictions. They move less and stress more. We all do. I do. And so in coming to terms with the state of our world, I think about how to reframe the things I carry into creativity and play. How can I take those things, both good and bad, both seen and unseen, and shape them so they live together harmoniously? Is it possible to re-organize and transform an assortment of objects and words, and in the process transform yourself? I believe so.
Old rusted key
To something I’ve
Forgotten how to open,
I cannot remember.
It is locked in my memory
And I know it was terrible,
I can feel it
And I want to run,
I want to
Hide my eyes,
I want to forget.
I collect things:
Keys, bottle tops, bits
Of paper, broken pens,
Little boxes of
I can store away,
Safe and protected,
Safe and unnoticed,
Safe and forgotten
Until I open the drawer
And see those things
With new eyes.
Those old things
And rusted things
Useless to everyone,
When I put a pen in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
I can rewrite the tragedy,
I can illuminate the dark places
With bright colors,
I can make things whole.
When I put a brush in my hand
I have the power
To transform things.
Sweep cobalt into the blue harbor,
Place a line of crimson at the horizon
Of a glorious sunset,
I can create beauty.
When I move through a space
I have the power
To transform things.
Reach up confidently,
Twist and sway,
Breath in and out,
Be in this single moment -
Heart open, mind free.