I have been traveling in southern Maine this past week. While photographing this beautiful landscape, I was struck by how the style of the homes, shops, and public spaces keep a focus on nature. The seaside and its accompanying flora and fauna become part of a peaceful natural decor. The colors: ocean blue, dune grass green, picket fence white, daisy yellow, azalea pink, and cardinal red are repeated in pleasing patterns so restful to the eye and spirit.
I realize that much of the way I design my home and office is with this same emphasis on nature. I often look for ways to bring the outside indoors. I have collections of seashells, sea glass, and beach stones. I bring in wildflowers and make arrangements in jam jars and earthenware vases. In the fall, I will collect pinecones, acorns, and the spiky balls of the Sweet Gum tree and place them in wooden bowls, pottery and baskets. I find comfort in staying connected to my surroundings whether it be ocean, mountains, or forest. I have always found these places a source of relaxation and restoration.
The Maine coast holds a special place in my heart, however. Something about the wide expanse of sand and sea and sky, gives me permission to pause, to breathe in the salty brine, and breathe out all my worries. At the ocean my shoulders relax, and I feel truly at ease. I want to take that feeling with me. I want to create the same mood indoors and keep it all year long. I can bring my seaside escape with me and make it truly part of my surroundings, part of how I feel and who I am.
Summer has come, and this is the time I normally take to reflect on my past year’s teaching experience. I have filled two roles for the past two and a half years: first, as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator and then as a Learning Support Coordinator. I didn’t realize how much doing both roles would require of me. I love the creativity of curricular development and also enjoy working one-on-one with struggling students. I like the challenge of finding the right strategies to support each learner. Next school year, I will be solely engaged in learning support, and I have found myself feeling ebullient at the prospect. Though I will miss providing reading and writing curricular support, the whole reason I went into teaching forty-three years ago was to help kids who found school difficult. I love working with kids to find pathways to learning, to make reading and writing playful, to make school meaningful and fun again.
As I shift my attention solely to learning support, I keep thinking about how teacher language supports student engagement and growth. There have been many studies about this idea. Also, I know this to be true from my own experiences as a student. There were teachers who shut me down and who believed more in my limitations than in my possibilities. They could be dismissive, sarcastic, and sometimes downright mean. I vowed never to be like those teachers. When I was unfortunate enough to have that type of teacher, I learned to keep my head down, be quiet, and not to bring any attention to myself. In those years, I did not learn as much as I could have, and my self-esteem suffered. I am grateful that I only had two such years in my long career as a student. Most years, I had teachers who saw my potential, who encouraged me, and who showed they cared about my ideas. In the presence of those teachers, I flourished. I felt good about myself. I took more and more risks, my voice became stronger, and I had the motivation to learn. Their support fed my curiosity and creativity. I began to read widely and teach myself. I was empowered by my teachers’ positive attitude towards me.
The past two and a half years has been difficult for teachers. They have spent less time teaching and more time on administrative minutia. The stress of masks, social distancing, hybrid learning, and virtual technology has taken its toll. Workshops on mindfulness and self-care can only do so much. Since my job is to support learning, I spend most of my days inside classrooms observing teaching and learning. I have witnessed some wonderful, creative, and engaging lessons. However, I have also witnessed some disengagement, frustration, and negative, unproductive talk from teachers. As I reflect on how I can become a positive voice in my school community, I have been reading Paula Denton’s book, The Power of Our Words. The book is part of the Responsive Classroom series and gives concrete advice to teachers on how to reflect on how they speak to their students and how to shift negative talk into talk that is uplifting and supportive – talk that will make students feel valued and talk that will encourage them to become involved in their own learning. I plan to think of ways to speak to my faculty about the importance of teacher talk and to make teacher talk integral to the learning profiles I create for each struggling student.
I hope in this way, not only our students with learning differences, but also all students will benefit. Paul Denton’s words ring true: “…teachers can use language to help students imagine themselves behaving and achieving in ways that go beyond but connect to their current reality. Helping students form and own a vision of themselves achieving success is a fundamental job of teachers, and language is a key tool for doing this.”
Now, more than ever it is important for teachers to become mindful of their talk and to think about the words we use to provide optimal engagement and lead children to see learning as a way to attain their goals. Teachers have that power, and it is important for them to think deeply before they speak.
Books that Promote Positive Talk:
This past Friday was my last day of school and my first day of vacation. I decided to celebrate by meeting my friend, Karen, at a local gardening shop aptly named, The Farm at Green Village. It has a pond, acres of trails and foliage, an enormous greenhouse, and even a resident peacock. I am not a gardener, but I love going to The Farm. It is my Zen place, my place to unwind and breathe; my place to meet a friend and laugh.
When I arrived, Karen was already picking out plants. She is the gardener. Her home is surrounded by flowers. I love visiting her; sitting out on her back deck surveying her flowers, watching bees and hummingbirds pause by the blossoms, and scolding her cat, Pepe, as he tries to catch butterflies in his claws. It’s like a wonderful summer ballet.
We walked the aisles looking for the right flowers and hanging baskets for Karen’s home. We marveled at the colors and types of flowers. Karen knows many more flower names than I do. I would love to be more garden-knowledgeable. I love reading the names off the garden tags: salvia, hydrangea, echinacea, begonia, petunia, impatience, zinnia. Lots of lovely rolling syllables. Lots of bright and cheerful colors. We filled up two carts with flowers for Karen’s garden and planters. I felt my body relax as I roamed the aisles of flowers, taking in their fragrance. It was like spending a morning in Eden with a friend. It made me so happy. What better way to start the summer.
My new favorite flowers were the Lantana. I have admired them but didn’t know their name. They have delicate little flowers that grow in little bunches in a variety of complementary colors. I especially loved the Sunburst Lantana. They just make me happy when I look at them. They remind me of flowers you would arrange for a summer tea party for the fairies or a wedding for garden gnomes.
After a couple of hours, we sat among the flowers and chatted, soaking in the morning sun. Then we headed inside to look for houseplants and planters. This is another happy place for me. While Karen, selected two small houseplants, I went hunting for colorful pots with my camera. I don’t have room to collect such things, but I collect them with my camera, and that means I can keep them forever and never worry that they may break.
I roamed among all the beautiful things, clicking away in wonder of each little object: pots, statuettes, vases, mirrors, and baskets in an array of colors. If I had a grand mansion, I would fill one wing like this full of plants and light and love. Instead, I choose two small ceramic objects: a bunny and a turtle. The bunny will grace my desk, and the turtle will be a present for my husband. He loves turtles because they remind him to slow down and concentrate on what’s truly important.
I am glad I slowed down today. I am grateful for this time with Karen, for this day among the flowers. I cannot wait until our next trek, but for now the flowers are enough.
It’s June. I live in New Jersey. It’s time to “go down the shore,” as we Garden State residents say. It’s beach time! The last three weeks, I have trekked to the Atlantic, which is only an hour and. Half away. The past two weeks have been crowded: throngs of people in the water, on the beach, on the boardwalks, and lining up at restaurants. That was not the beach escape I was craving. I am in much need of ocean meeting sky, of a blue expanse, and a summer of possibilities.
I have been fortunate in my life to have had a career that allowed me to have my summers free. Of course, I do not count the twenty or so summers that I taught remedial English or directed summer camp. Instead, I count the twenty summers that I had the whole twelve weeks free to explore, gather, and breathe. I traveled, read, wrote, and met with friends. The twenty summers seem like a bright blue blur. I’m not sure I will get the gift of twenty more summers. This summer, I want to remember keenly: what I am thinking, what I am reading, and what changes I made happen. I know this sixty-sixth summer is important for me.
This weekend, I came to the beach on an overcast day. The sand was wet with recent rain. Just stalwarts were laying out on bright blankets. But there was the sea and quiet and a space for thinking. I just finished reading Katherine May’s memoir about walking Britain’s southeast coast path, The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Women’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home. I love her writing. Much of what she expresses, I feel so deeply. She wrote about the “value of being in places you love and knowing them and coming back to them.” I have always loved the Atlantic coast (on the American side). I have lived close by all my life. This place I know well. Some of the surroundings have changed but the sea remains the same: the salty smell, the sounds of the waves, the glint of light on the ocean. The Atlantic is where I feel most at home. It is comforting and makes me feel connected to something larger than myself.
Alone by the Sea It is my turn to walk alone Along the boardwalk. I am here to collect images, To put together My life story. The day is quiet and clear. After a recent rain, The sand is dark and wet. Some beach goers remain On their bright blankets. Lifeguards jog together, Racing and playing tag with the waves. I slow my steps, Pay careful attention. A redwing blackbird perches above the beach roses And sings loudly. I bid him good-day And continue on, Past the reed-covered dunes, Past the mother and young daughter Sharing a picnic together, Feet dangling over the boardwalk, Holding triangles of pizza in their hands As it drips with cheese Into their happy mouths. I remember moments like these. My mother, sister, and I at our beach bungalow - Sand, sun, surf. Sinatra playing in the background Mingled with the laughter of children. Sailboats gliding across the bay, Fresh laundry flapping on the line, Lazy summer days, Spread ahead of us And we took them in, Soaked them up, Were grateful for them, Knew they were precious. I look out to the Atlantic Try to see to the end, Where ocean meets the sky. The horizon is dotted with clouds. Below, there is a thin azure line. I imagine heaven to be in this precise place, Somewhere out there, Just beyond reach for now And I am content, Truly content. All I need is sand, sky, sea And an overcast day In serene solitude.
This week, one of my former students gave me the happy news that he became a father for the first time on May 4th. This is indeed happy news, but especially joyous because Henry’s mom died suddenly when he was three-years-old as a result of a drunken driver. At the time, I was Henry’s nursery school teacher, and I took care of him full-time for two years following Catherine’s death. Henry and I were reunited about two years ago, and I blogged about his story here: A Pause for Celebration.
I cannot adequately express the joy I feel that Henry and his partner, Maria, are now proud parents of a beautiful little girl, Catherine Nima Maria. A big name for such a little girl. I am so glad that Henry has grown up to be a successful businessman and a loving father. I had prayed for years that Henry would be safe and live happily ever after. My prayers have been answered. His story is both a happy-ending and a new beginning. I am ever-grateful.
I know no other way to express my joy, but to spend the day looking at baby clothes and writing. I am creating a picture book for Catherine. It will be the first of many. This one will celebrate her name and that of her grandmother, who was a good friend, loving wife and mother, taken away too soon.
This has been a heartbreaking week, a gut-wrenching month: senseless violence in Buffalo and Uvalde. Teenage gunmen destroyed lives while people shopped at a grocery store and children and teachers were busy in their classrooms teaching and learning. The rage in the minds of these individuals is unfathomable to me. And though this blog is about literature, art, and education, I cannot let this week go by without addressing the terrible loss and helplessness I feel due to this horrific tragedy. There must be solutions: stiffer gun control regulations, better mental health care, and stronger protection for our school and public spaces. This saddens me deeply. What is happening to humanity? Are we all to live locked away in our private residences with limited social contact? What will happen to us then? As these thoughts buzzed around my mind this week, I turned to nature, as I always do, for solace – for an answer.
Connection to nature, I believe, is a source for hope, well-being and mental health. This spring has been filled with flowers. There are flowers blooming around our school campus, flowering trees in my yard, and a plethora of flowers casting their spell over many local gardens. I pass by wild irises on the roadside, their purple tongues dotted with raindrops. I concentrate on their color and form. I wonder at such beauty, such grace, such an exquisite being, and I want to transform myself into that flower. I want to grow where I’m planted, feel the soil beneath my feet, spread roots, shoot up tall, and blossom.
When I began my teaching career, I worked with preschool children. We spent much of our time outdoors in both good and inclement weather. The children dug in the garden and were surprised when they pulled up carrots and radishes, believing there was magic in the soil. They loved to weed, water, and harvest. They felt control and accomplishment. Flowers served as a respite for us, a signal to stop and take in beauty, to breathe. The children would gather small bouquets for me of dandelions, clover, and buttercups. They would string flowers in each other’s hair and make magic potions from the bits of vegetation they collected. Life outside was a necessary part of their growth and development.
I remember a time, when one girl brought me a lovely red tulip. She had dissected it, separating its stem, leaves, petals and stamen. There were tears in her eyes as she held out her hands to me, “Put it back together,” she commanded. I looked at the flower and wondered, at first, how I could reassemble it for her. I took the pieces from her hands and placed them on the ground making a tulip mosaic. I knew this was not what my student had in mind. She thought I could mend it completely and make it whole again. When I explained to her that it couldn’t be brought back to life, she cried, and I consoled her. She learned that the flower was a delicate and fragile thing, something to care for, something to admire and cherish. And maybe flowers are part of the answer. They have been powerfully and wonderfully made. They are a gift from God to humanity to give us strength and make us resilient.
As often happens, a book popped out a me from our school library shelf wanting to be read. It was a new Caldecott Honor medalist, Have You Ever Seen a Flower? by Shawn Harris. It is brilliantly illustrated using simple tools: pencil and colored pencil. It is childlike and surprisingly powerful in its simplicity. The girl in the story asks the reader to really think about flowers: look deeply, take in their smells, watch them with a microscopic wonder. Watch them so closely that you can imagine what it feels like to be a flower: to grow roots, take in water, and bloom. The book reminds us to use the flower like a resource – to grow, thrive, and blossom. Flowers help us reflect, turn inward, and respect life.
I went searching for solace this week. I went hunting for answers. I found them in the form of flowers and poetry. Once destroyed, lives cannot be put back together. Some things cannot be made whole again. But I believe that the solution for violence must be in a turn towards nature, towards beauty, towards the preciousness of life. Consider the flower.
During the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to get back into the Wonder Studio with students. The Wonder Studio is a little swathe of space formerly the lobby of an old Victorian building that houses some of my school’s classrooms and offices. I created the space to give children a place to craft and have agency over their own imaginations. I gather junk, art and craft materials, and recyclables, and then stand back to see what the girls do with them. Wonder Studio is not a class, though the girls have begged it to be. Studio time is granted two days a week during recess on the days that I don’t have meetings at lunchtime.
This spring, I invited the 5th graders to come back into the Wonder Studio. They love to make messes. Today, they sang the “Clean-up Song” to me that they learned in Pre-K. They sang so sweetly and earnestly, however they didn’t quite clean everything up. Some of them tried to skip out without cleaning brushes or throwing away paper scraps. I get it. I was twelve once. I was, I assure you – and I too loved to make messes, create, build, and imagine. And I still do.
Last week, while Laila was working on yet another new project, I observed aloud that she often created things and then abandoned them. She looked up at me grinning.
“I know,” she said, “I love the process.”
I laughed and agreed. Then I asked her if I could dismantle her massive seashell sculpture so others could use the shells. She gave me her permission. As I worked ungluing the shells, Laila started looking around the room at my materials. She often finds things I didn’t know I had. Soon, Laila held up a small pink plastic bowl, which was serving as a container for someone else’s small project. I looked at her skeptically.
“They won’t mind. It’s not part of the project.” Laila promised. “Here,” she said as she held up a small box, “They can use this.” And off Laila went with bowl in hand to create her next project.
The other girls in the group spend time making bracelets, sewing patchwork pillows, decorating small boxes, or making little rooms decorated with paint, glue, and cotton balls. Everyone is quiet and very intentional in their constructing. I do not offer advice unless asked, and I help with construction only when the student needs assistance. I keep my distance and my humor. Wonder Studio time is actually my time to relax and let joy come to me. It always does, and it’s worth the mess and the cajoling to clean up.
Laila got out her favorite tool, the hot glue gun and began to adhere things to the small plastic bowl. She found that the plastic forks did not stay on properly and then peeled them off. Next, Laila took some fat pink yarn and began to wind it onto the bottom of the bowl. She wanted to use counting bears from the math lab closet, but I told her that we couldn’t use math materials. She frowned and began hunting for a replacement. She found small wooden objects: an alligator, a bear, a snail, a leaf, and a heart. As I watched this process, I was fascinated by how quick she worked and how undaunted she was when she encountered failure. In fact, Laila didn’t think of it as failure, she was enjoying the challenge. Laila would just try something new if the first thing she thought of didn’t work. At one point, I asked her what she was making.
With a smile, she turned and said, “A centerpiece for your desk!”
I laughed and said, “Laila – when I’m old and in the retirement home I hope you will stop by and show me photos of all the sculptures you have on exhibit all over the world.”
“I will,” Laila said cheerfully and got back to work. When it was time to clean up, she was reluctant. I put the bowl in my office and told her that it would be waiting for her when she returned to the Wonder Studio.
Today, Laila finished her project. She put a wooden pedestal in the center of the bowl and turned it over. Then she glued the pedestal to a jar lid and turned it upside down. She came over and handed it to me.
“The centerpiece for my desk?” I asked, taking it carefully into my hands.
“A lamp for your desk,” Lalia replied.
I laughed, “Of course, a lamp. It looks just like a lamp. I am going to put it by pink teapot. Thank you.”
And with that, Laila turned back into the Wonder Studio and started another project, this time with beads. She took hot glue and put it at the end of some string. “This way, I don’t have to make a knot,” she said.
Human imagination continues to surprise me. After forty-two years of teaching. I’m still not sure how to teach this kind of ingenuity. The only thing I do know is to make space and step out of the way. I know that I have to be quiet and listen. My students always show me the way. They know what they need. They know when they are stuck. They know how to change their circumstances and make something new. The process is the learning, and they are totally engaged and in the flow of creating. The key is to embrace the process.
Early spring showers have turned the landscape green with dots of pinks, yellows, and lavenders. My corner of the world is alive with flowers, and I am immersing myself in their glory and hopefulness. This year more than any other I need flowers and the promise of spring. I need something to celebrate. I am in search for beauty.
I am ever grateful to the flowers of Moggy Bottom. It is my secret garden in close proximity to where I live. I saunter down its gravel paths and savor the colorful sights and fragrant smells. Walking there reassures me that spring is surely here, and summer is on the horizon. It will be soon time for my yearly respite from school. And though I love teaching and learning, I am in much need for a hiatus from busy.
When I was a child, I loved preparing impromptu spring bouquets for my mother. I’d gather them from the wildflowers that grew on the hill at the side of our home: black-eyed Susan, sweat pea, daisies, cornflowers, and buttercups. I’d gather them in simple arrangements in jam jars or wrapped in damp paper towels tied with string. I can still see their colors, smell their perfume, feel the calm their beauty brought to me.
Lately, I have been reading about Emily Dickinson’s life of poetry and gardening. I hadn’t realized that the Belle of Amherst was an ardent and accomplished gardener. Re-reading her poems, I recognize how integral a role flowers played in Dickinson’s experience of the world around her. The garden was a metaphor for life and its complexities. She delved in deeply as a gardener would: tending plants, encouraging growth, and intimately noticing the shift of seasons.
I wanted to delve deeply this week, focus on the flowers of Moggy Hollow, listen to what they were saying, and find a way to express what I was feeling. I created a posy of flowers to share: trillium, lily of the valley, magnolia – delicate and fleeting like this time in spring when the first flowers bloom and then give way to summer’s abundance.
It’s spring. The first graders are trying their hand at poetry. They scribble and draw and make images – some silly, some that will take your breath away. That is the beauty of first graders – the child-mind at work not afraid of making mistakes. They are intrepid and curious. I was so excited when their teacher invited me to “teach” haiku to them. I put teach in quotation marks because the first graders really taught me more about how they construct language than I really taught them. Their exuberance led the way. It energized me and made me see things anew. Isn’t that what poetry and haiku are all about?
At first, I asked the first graders what they knew about haiku. Lots of hands went up: it’s a little poem; it has three lines; it has a pattern with 5-7- syllables. They had been working all week learning and writing haiku. Next, we talked about how haiku is a Japanese form of poetry usually about nature. Then, I told them about Basho, a famous Japanese poet and shared some of his poems.
Then, I read Basho and the River Stones by Tim Myers. The story is about how the fox tricked Basho by giving him three pieces of gold for a cherry tree, but the gold turns into three stones. Basho out-foxes the fox, because he cares most about nature and poetry. It’s a great read aloud. It is a good story to use to introduce haiku.
After reading the story, we wrote some group haikus. First, we listed some natural things we could write a haiku about: seashells, stones, bunnies, flowers, sunshine, rain, etc. Then we made a list of how these things makes us feel: happy, sad, lonely, friendly, curious, excited. I read some of my haiku to them and we counted syllables to make sure I was keeping the haiku form.
Finally, the students got busy writing their own haikus. They were ready to go. No one hesitated. They took up their pencils and began to create. It is so gratifying to see how these are able to stretch words out, count syllables and think about meaning and emotion. The haiku form helps them keep focused and since it is short, it is easy for them to write two or three poems in one workshop session.
The best part for me is that I get to witness our students grow as readers and writers. By the time students get to 5th grade, they are putting it all together and coming up with a haiku in three stanzas. This writer lacked confidence when she was a young writer, and now you can see in her composition how far she has come. Haiku is a celebration not only of nature but of growth and possibility.