It is time to sit down and write. Concentrate. Get your thoughts together. They scattered like leaves in a wind storm. Sit down. Think. It is time to write. You can do it, and you will. Now, sit down. I sit and stare. I play with the keys of my laptop. I pretend to write. I try to think of something. I make lists of all the things I need to do – I must do. Nothing is coming. Nothing makes sense. I seek some of my photographs. Maybe they will help me find the words. Finally, I take a breath. I surrender my mind to the images, and images form in my mind.
Recently, my husband and I traveled south to visit family for the holidays. As he has done on all our road trips, my husband curates music, radio shows, and intersperses his own running monologues critiquing economics, art, fitness trends, and politics as I drive.. He is indeed a Renaissance man. As he talked, he mentioned Icarus in passing. At once, words popped into my head, and I recited to him: “Falling, falling, falling – down through the distant sky – like Icarus on melted wings – Never asking why.”
“Oh, that’s good,” my husband replied, “Where’s that from?”
I laughed, “From me. I wrote that in college. It’s part of a longer poem. But I had forgotten all about it until now.”
My husband went on with his story. I tried to pay attention, but my lost poem kept rolling around in my mind. It had been published in my college literary magazine, Cul-de-sac. At the time, I thought being published in the Cul-de-sac and being part of the editorial board was the height of literary success. I had kept several clippings but had lost them all in subsequent moves. This was long before the Internet and all things digital, and I had tossed out all my college notebooks on some impetuous whim. In my twenties, I was not aware of the need to keep memories. Now, in my sixties recalling memories and emotions is a sacred, almost devotional act.
I began recreating the poem silently in my head as I drove. It was had three stanzas maybe four. I couldn’t remember the exact words, but as I recited it my head, I got closer and closer to the original poem. The rhythm of the road helped me to remember. As the words came to me, in a short time so did my emotions. I thought about why I wrote that poem; all the loneliness and insecurity I felt came rushing back. Though being sixty-five is certainly not a cakewalk, I don’t think I would want to be twenty again. Don’t get me wrong. I would like to have my twenty-year-old skin, hair, knees, and back but not my twenty-year-old self-loathing that I have worked forty-five years to overcome.
My twenty-year-old poet-self wanted so much out of the world, wanted to do so much, and I felt so unprepared. I was so desolate and so hopeful at the same time. I guess that’s the nature of twenty-something. At the time, I was taking a course on Ibsen. We read one of his early poems as a prelude to his play, The Master Builder. I was struck how his poem, written thirty-four years earlier, connected to the essential message of his play.
I was very painfully aware of how ambition and desire were a dangerous mix. I was not at all sure how to build a strong artistic identity. I think I am still struggling with that. I create work – sometimes hiding it and sometimes presenting or publishing it. However, I think I have used teaching as a safety net. If I fall, teaching could always save me. Now, I’m facing the end years of my teaching career. The art and writing are still strong within me. And that poem that I wrote forty-five years ago, still remains true.
It is time for winter break: teachers are exhausted, children are restless, and COVID is on the rise. Everyone is weary except the young children. They are bright with anticipation for whatever holiday they celebrate – Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas. Their sweet voices sing songs of cheer, helping to lift my spirits as I search for something to give me holiday spirit. I sat down with a table of Kindergarteners this week and asked, “What are you writing?” They all looked up at me perplexed, and one of them looked down at her paper and answered, “We are writing art!” I chuckled, “Oh, you are drawing! That’s a good thing to do!” I am ever-amazed at the new way in which children view the world. I have sought to keep that fresh, creative mindset as I age. Sometimes it is easy to do especially since I am surrounded by young, inquisitive minds, but sometimes I get “imagination block,” and I feel lost and without purpose. When I feel this way, I know I have to discover new paths to return to my creative source.
A colleague of mine has a ten-year-old daughter who loves Santa Claus and continues to believe. This has worried some adults who think it’s time for the girl to leave behind childish things. I, on the other hand, love Cassie’s tenacity to believe in the face of doubters both young and old. She will not give up her belief in Santa. I think this is because he represents generosity, hope, and magical thinking. Why would anyone want to give up that? Those are qualities that will bolster us as we make our way on this long journey. There is no need to toss Santa out, instead let’s celebrate him!
To get myself in the spirit of the season, I went to a neighborhood nursery where they sell trees, wreaths, and holiday gifts. They had an outdoor market with a treat wagon selling hot cocoa, mulled cider, and various kinds of cookies. Immediately my mood brightened with the smell of apples, pine, and juniper. I ventured into the gift shop and took my time looking at the ornaments, pottery, candles, and candle holders. I selected a gift for myself, a small tin candle holder in the shape of a tree. A smile appeared on my face, and I knew this was the right place to be. I lingered a little longer watching young children come into the shop to choose their favorite ornament for their tree. You could tell from their parents’ faces that this was an important moment, that they were building a Christmas tradition, that they were kindling their child’s imagination. I watched as a two-year-old selected a glass popcorn ornament for her tree. She clapped as her father picked it up and gave it to the saleslady, her golden curls shaking with glee. My heart was warm now, and I was ready to venture outside where everyone was awaiting the arrival of Santa. I stopped to get a cup of mulled cider before leaving. I breathed in deeply its cranberry, orange, and apple essence. I walked about the lines of trees and wreaths. I wasn’t in the market to buy; I just took a leisurely stroll soaking in holiday spirit.
On the way back home, I passed a street I have passed many times since living in this small town for nineteen years. It looks like every other street in town, except at Christmastime. The street is named St. Nickolas Way, and at this time of year, the street sign is donned with a Santa hat. Every time I pass by, I smile. This time, I decided to stop and take a photo to remind me of holiday hope and Christmas imagination. I headed home, with a warm heart and a mind full of cheer.
Books Celebrating Santa
A Cooke for Santa by Stephanie Shaw
Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera
Dasher: How a Brave Little Doe Changed Christmas Forever by Matt Taveras
Dear Santa by Rod Campbell
Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs
Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood
How to Catch Santa by Jean Reagan
How Santa Got His Job by Stephen Krensky
Hurry Santa! by Julie Sykes
Little Red Sleigh by Erin Guendelsberger
Little Santa by Jon Agee
Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough
The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore (Illustrated by Holly Hobbie)
Santa Calls by William Joyce
Santa Claus and the Three Bears by Maria Modugno
Santa Duck by David Milgrim
Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson
Santa Mouse by Michael Brown
Santa’s Stuck by Rhonda Golwer Greene
Santa’s Underwear by Marty Fingley
The Animals’ Santa by Jan Brett
The Big Secret: The Whole and Honest Truth About Santa Claus by D.W. Boom
The Real Santa by Nancy Redd
The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold by Maureen Fergus
A number a years ago, I created a makerspace for our elementary students based in an old unused art room. I blogged about creating and re-imagining with children in the Wonder Lab here. However, last spring, I was told that the Wonder Lab needed to be dismantled to make room for the Innovation Lab, which would be used to teach students computer science (coding) and engineering. I complied with undoing the Wonder Lab with a heavy heart. It had taken many years of planning and collaboration to finally get approval. Then in three short years it was suddenly discarded. I didn’t want to let it go, but I had no choice. I thought long and hard about a way to re-establish it. We had no open space except a small lobby between the newly named Innovation Lab and my office. I worked two full days by myself and cleared out the Wonder Lab and the lobby. I put everything in storage, which happened to be on the third floor, and there are no elevators in the Victorian house in which the Wonder Lab is housed. I trotted up and down the stairs working out my anger and disappointment. On my final trip down the stairs, I surveyed the lobby. The words, “Wonder Studio” popped into my mind. Yes, the Wonder Lab could be reincarnated into the Wonder Studio. I just had to think small.
This fall, Wonder Studio is operating full steam. Small is certainly beautiful. I have invited small groups of children each week to work on small projects. I keep small and tidy supplies on hand. Tidy has been a challenge, but I keep working at it. And my favorite phrase to the students now is, “If you do not clean up after yourself, you will not be invited back to the Wonder Studio.” That seems to have done the trick. The girls are learning increasingly to be accountable for their materials.
This week, I was working with a group of 3rd graders. They were wrapping yarn around small wreath forms on which they were ultimately going to attach jingle bells with ribbons. Two girls were painting with water colors. One was making a ferret out of a toilet paper roll, pipe cleaners, felt, yarn, and a plastic Easter egg. Another made an octagonal loom out of popsicles sticks and created a web with yarn. Yet another, was sitting on the steps gleefully finger knitting. I paused and looked around everyone was busy and happy. They were all creating in their own way. Then the loom maker said, “Wonder Studio is better than Art because we get to do our own thing.” The other girls agreed loudly. I sensed a rebellion in the making. So, I quickly explained that you needed both Art class and Wonder Studio. Art class teaches you skills and Wonder Studio allows you to practice those skills and stretch your creative muscles.” I look around at a lot of little nodding heads. Crisis averted. Phew!
I know that this brief time with the girls – 30 minutes at recess time – is so important. Wonder Studio supports creativity, imagination, agency, and self-confidence.
“Look what I made!”
“I made that!
Do you have rubber bands?”
“I want to make a slingshot.”
“Do you have balloons?”
“I want to make a stress ball.”
I love these statements and requests from our young learners. They keep me on my toes. I am endlessly searching for junk that they miraculously turn into their treasure.
Last week, I was walking through the cafeteria with my tray of food, when Mallory, a 5th grader, patted the spot next to her and called out, “Sit with us!” I was planning to go back to my office, but from the look on Mallory’s face, I knew she had something important on her mind. She put her tray down and hurried to grab a chair from another table for me. Wow – she was determined.
Quickly she said, “I have been thinking about you!” I looked up at her surprised. “Were you sad when they took Wonder Lab away?”
“Ut…Oh,” I thought, “I better answer this very carefully, but honestly.”
So, I smiled and said to Mallory, “ Yes, I was sad because I knew how important Wonder Lab was for you girls. I knew I had to keep a place for you to play.”
She smiled back at me.
“I think Wonder Studio is working out well, even through it’s small.”
Mallory looked at me intently, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about. I think we should build you your own Wonder House.”
I started to laugh, “That would be wonderful,” I said (pun intended).
Mallory continued enthusiastically, “We could build it right outside the Wonder Studio. We could go out onto the porch, make a pathway, and then build the Wonder House right on the empty space on the lawn. We wouldn’t have to cut down any trees.”
I marveled at how much planning and daydreaming Mallory had been doing. She is usually a shy and quiet girl. But her Wonder House idea had given her a strong voice. I was so humbled and honored by her thoughtfulness.
“Well, that is such a great idea to have our own house to work in, but it cost money to build a house,” I replied.
“I was thinking about that too!,” Mallory said eagerly. We could make things in the Wonder Studio and sell them. We could save up and then build the house. I’m going to talk to the Head of School about it. We need a BIG Wonder Space.”
And this is why I love working with children. They are ever optimistic and determined. I am so glad I didn’t give up and made a space in which the girls can dream and create. Every day, they give me more and more evidence for why creativity matters. Every day, they fill me with hope.
So many times, when talking about reading, teachers put an emphasis on decoding and comprehension. They want to make sure kids are reading accurately and fluently. They want to make sure they teach their students how to predict, how to find the main idea, how to infer from the breadcrumb trails the author leaves her readers. They want to check off all the boxes. And yes, these are all important, but in the midst I think we are losing the importance of the story. Why is this story important? How does this story connect to you? How has it changed you? What differences has it made in your thinking, in your life? Isn’t that what reading is all about? Isn’t that what keeps us reading? It isn’t my ability to read accurately and fluently; it isn’t my proficiency in finding the main idea or making an inference, it is my love of and connection to the characters in the story. I want to crawl into their lives for a while and live their experiences. That way I become more them and less me. I am able to take on different points of view; I am able to grow in my thinking and being.
Recently, I have been reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson with a sixth-grade student. She is a proficient and prolific reader and writer. She loves Percy Jackson novels and all things Greek mythology. She was in a rut. Whenever this happens, whenever students gets stuck in their reading, I often turn to poetry novels. I find that verse creates a space where kids can take more chances. Verse seems to challenge their thinking, but does so in a gentle, playful way. By reading Brown Girl Dreaming, Hadley and I are able to step into Ms. Woodson’s reality. We get to see and feel what a brown girl growing up in the south experienced – parent conflicts, loving grandparents, sibling rivalry, the love of reading – all things we can connect with. There are also lots of historical and geographical pieces that nudge Hadley’s knowledge and make her curious to want to know more. This is the very essence of reading; this is why we read.
We are almost at the end our journey with Ms. Woodson, so I thought we’d take a break and write using the first line of the title poem of the novel for inspiration. When I ask students to write, I also write alongside them. I think this is so important. We write quietly beside each other and somehow there is such power in this simple act. Hadley types. I write long-hand. She marvels at how fast I can scrawl words across a page. I find that the act of writing by hand magically connects my mind and fingertips. Sometimes I wonder what my fingertips are writing. How exactly am I creating? It’s like my fingers have a mind of their own. Hadley pauses. “I’m stuck,” she says. Well, I say, “Let’s read it out loud and see what comes to mind.” She is twelve now. She does not like hearing her own voice, so I read her poem aloud to her. She reaches for the laptop again, “ I got it now,” she says and continues. I love being within this process with her. I don’t want it to end, but it does. She is finished. She has run out of steam. She says that she is done. I do not argue. I read it one more time aloud to her. . I read mine aloud, and we enjoy the fact that Ms. Woodson’s one line could create two different poems. We are satisfied.
It is a typical Monday. I sip on a cup of French vanilla coffee, inhale the rich soothing aroma, then head off to my first class of the week. Every morning for about two and a half hours, I observe and support young children from three to ten years old. Many people might find this job daunting, but the more I do it, the more I realize I was born to do this. I love solving problems. I love connecting with kids. I guess that’s why I have been able to teach for over forty years without feeling burned out and uninspired. The kids always find a way to kindle my curiosity.
This morning, I settle into the back of a 5th grade math class. The teacher is eliciting ideas from her students about number patterns on a thousands chart. “What do you notice?” she asks, and several hands shoot up. Soon, students are taking turns discussing all kinds of patterns, some easily apparent and some more enigmatic. I am sitting between two students who engage me in conversation. My role has changed since last year when I was the ELA Curriculum Coordinator so the student on my right is surprised to see me in math class and asks ,“Mrs. E, what is your job? I just don’t get it!” I laugh and she apologies, but I reassure her that she doesn’t need to apologize. I tell her that many adults don’t know exactly what I do, and sometimes I myself have a hard time explaining what I do. Simply put, I help students learn.
“If you need help understanding something, I’m here to show you the way,” I say smiling broadly.
Then the student to my left begins to explain an intricate pattern she sees in the thousands chart. I am amazed. I tell the girls that math is not my strong suit, but I am curious about it.
I explain, “Numbers are like cats to me, they want to do their own thing and they are a bit mysterious.”
“Me too!” shouts the girl to my right.
“On the other hand,” I continue, “ Words are like puppies, they are friendly, and you can play with them.”
The girl on my right shouts again, “SAME!”
The math teacher is now looking at me, and I know it’s time to get back to business. I circulate around the room to see how students are tackling fraction problems. I am able to guide some on the right track and that makes me feel proud. I want the girls to see me as an adult who doesn’t always know the answers, but who will keep trying to understand and find the answer.
Later on Monday, a small group of 5th graders join me at recess to craft in the Wonder Studio, which is the lobby outside my office that I converted into a makerspace after the original makerspace (The Wonder Lab), was dismantled to create a new classroom space for computer science and engineering. The space can no longer accommodate a whole class of students, but small groups can participate. This makes for an intimate and cozy makerspace. I let the girls dabble and get acquainted with the available materials. I start crafting too. At the end of our time, Erin tells me to hold out my hands. I obey and a bright litter of pipe cleaner kittens tumble into my hands. I want you to have them,” Erin says cheerily. I thank her and she run back to her classroom. An hour later, I see Erin in the hallway. She tells me to go to her desk in her classroom. She has make more kittens for me. I enter her empty classroom and pick up the kittens. Erin’s teacher greets me as I turn to leave. “Cute, aren’t they?” I say. She smiles weakly, “She make them all through my social studies lesson.” “Oh,” I say suddenly deflated, “ We will need to talk to her about that.” I quickly exit quickly, walking down the hallway softly petting my new kittens cupping them in my hands protectively.
Now it is Tuesday at lunchtime. I am eating in a tight corner in the faculty room. The same teacher finds me to say that one of her students cannot come up with a topic for her writing assignment. The child is stuck, and the teacher is out of ideas. She asks me to work with the student at recess time, which is in five minutes. I agree and start packing up my half-eaten lunch. I walk to Emma’s classroom and find her just about to play a board game with a group of friends. “Emma?” I say sweetly, “ You are going to work with me. Please get your pencil.”
She looks at me. She is a smart cookie. She knows why I have come. Emma is an avid reader and a talented writer, but sometimes she gets stuck initiating ideas for writing and completely shuts down. All the. way to my office, I keep the mood light. I want to set a positive and carefree tone.
When we get to my office, Emma sits in a sunny seat by a window. I tell her that I am here to help her come up with an idea for her writing assignment. Half of her writing paper is folded up like an accordion. I smooth it down and begin to pepper her with ideas that I think she’d be interested in lacrosse, Vermont, and crafting.
She shakes her head and then says, ”Well, I am making a sweatshirt.”
“Yeah, tell me about that,” I say hopefully.
Emma begins to tell me about the sweatshirt she is making, which is dark blue with light blue sleeves. I stand at my whiteboard easel and make a web as she speaks. I write down all that she describes. I ask some questions to guide her. Soon, the web is complete.
I push her paper closer and say, “Okay now write what you just old me.”
Emma does not pick up her pencil. She is biting her bottom lip.
“Shall we come up with a first sentence together?”
She nods in agreement and we do. Then I walk away and tell her that I am going to give her some quiet time to write. When I return a couple of minutes later, Emma is back to folding her paper. Her feet are tapping the rungs of her chair. Her eyes are wide and glossy as she stares at me. I take one look at her and gently take the paper away.
“You are not in trouble, “ I say. “My job is to help kids through problems. Can you tell me what is making you stuck?”
Emma remains silent.
“You are a great writer. We just have to find the right story,” I say, silently praying for a miracle. “What if we pretend it’s after school and we are having milk and cookies.
I continue, “Hey Emma, tell me about something you love. Can you tell be about your dogs?”
Emma’s shoulders relax. Her blue eyes begin to dance as she tells me all about her Maltese and Yorkie.
When she is through, I smile and say, ”Okay do you think you can write about your dogs now.” My heart is beating wildly. I am holding my breath.
“No,” she says quietly.
My heart skips a beat.
“But…” she adds, “I can tell you about my cats.”
I exhale loudly and grin, “Great, tell me about your cats, and I take up my pencil and begin to make a web from the information that Emma shares. We have completed a second web, and now it is time to return to class.
“Do you think you can write a story using this web?” I ask Emma. She nods positively. We walk back to her classroom both satisfied.
On Thursday afternoon, I am walking past the play area to my office. Emma’s teacher points to a patch of grass where her students are busy writing. I spy a small girl hidden in a blanket hunched over her laptop. Emma’s teacher whispers, “She’s in the zone. She has three paragraphs so far.” I am pleased and relieved. The writer has conquered her writer’s block. Curious cats to the rescue!
Something about water that is so pure and calming whether it’s in the form of river, pond, lake, waterfall, or ocean. The flow of water fills me with possibility. Water is smooth and easy. It can carry itself anywhere. It is versatile and resilient. And water is strong. It can sweep you away and wear great rocks smooth. Water is a force to be reckoned with. I try, in my daily life, to emulate the qualities of water. I want to adopt its beauty, tenacity and strength. I want to achieve its clarity and purpose.
Being close to water always puts me at ease and allows me to center myself. Whatever trouble I face or obstacles I encounter has always been set right with time spent by the water. August calls me to come to the water, and so I obey. Salt water and sand – just what I need to slow down, reflect, and write. I take my camera along to record the images that stand out to me.
Brave children stand
At the edge of the sea,
While watchful waves
Tug at their tender feet.
Come in, come in
The wind whispers,
But the children run,
Scattering shells across the sand.
Their laughter lifts in to the air,
Bounces on the shimmering sea,
The roar of the waves
Closer the children creep,
Tan limbs in pools of white foam,
Ready, watching for
That next wave.
Scooping up sea glass,
Small shells, smooth stones,
The children splash,
Dancing with the sea.
As giant clouds climb
Over the slate-blue horizon
Like dangerous pirates
Waiting to snatch their treasure.
Come away, come away
To a distant shore,
While the sun sinks in the western sky
Washing everything with gold.
Book Lists: Seven by the Sea
Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham
Flotsam by David Wiesner
Hello Ocean by Pamm Munoz
Home for Hermit Crab by Eric Carl
Mister Sea Horse by Eric Carl
Stella, Star of the Sea by Mary-Louise Gay
Wave by Suzy Lee
Middle Grade Novels:
A Swirl of Ocean by Melissa Sarno
Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
Fish Girl by David Weisner and Donna Jo Napoli
They Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt
The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
The Wanderer by Sharon Creech
Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm
Books for Adults:
Gift of Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg
Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw
The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw
The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques-Yves Coustea
The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
Turtle Summer: A Journal for My Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe
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.
When I was a little girl, my older sister and I would spend hours sorting and playing with my mother’s large tin button box. The buttons were as different as snowflakes. My sister and I spent hours looking for pairs or triplets. Sometimes we were successful, but mostly we intrigued by the uniqueness of each button – almost the same but just a shade different. I can still see them in my mind: the round ivory button imbedded with light yellow daisies; the large round pale pink button embossed with small rectangles; the heavy gold ones etched with anchors and ropes; the tiny pastel buttons like delicate seashells. We would line them up, stack them, create mosaics, trade them, and then tenderly scoop them up and put them away for another day. Tender. That’s a good word for how I feel about those times spent imagining and playing with my sister. We played like this well into our teenage years. When we actually used the buttons for sewing projects, I think we both did so reluctantly. It was like saying good-bye to an old friend. These small ordinary objects were precious to us. They signified a magical time, a respite from the real world.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I encountered Gertrude Stein’s poem, “Tender Buttons.” It is a long abstract, experimental poem that unwinds and wanders in and out of common objects, but there is a certain glittering magic within. Here’s a bit of it.
… A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.
The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing…
And then as a young woman working in New York City, I came across a brick storefront one day on the Upper East Side called Tender Buttons. I spent many a Saturday afternoon gazing at the boxes full of buttons. I began my own collection of buttons, not to actually use, but merely to sit with and marvel. Diane Epstein, the owner of the shop had once described the buttons as “Each one is like a tiny evocative event.” And that is precisely how I saw my childhood buttons. The deep, sea green ones, the tarnished silver ones, the ones in the shape of shiny horns – all told a story – all held a secret. Unfortunately, Tender Buttons closed its doors permanently in 2019. All the more grateful I am that I have kept a small collection of those buttons.
Thinking about my mother’s button box made me realize how important small common objects are for children: bottle caps, erasers, doodads – all manner of ephemera. They collect a myriad of these things in their desks at school. I have confiscated thousands of tiny pencils, paper clips, and beads in my time as an elementary school teacher. These treasure troves are important to children. They are connectors to the imaginary. They are a passport from the real world to an imaginary one. They are indeed important. In fact, they are essential. This is more and more evident in the time of COVID, as my students are going to school in-person behind masks and plexiglass, having to remain in their seats most of the day. The urge to play is palpable. They must sit, but they can still create with their hands. And to my delight they do! They fold paper, link paper clips, use great lengths of tape to transform their school world.
A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues showed me the great gallery of objects her 4th grade students had created. I decided the 4th graders each needed a box of objects with which to create. I talked to the girls about my idea and they enthusiastically gave me ideas of what objects to include in the boxes. One student dubbed the boxes fidgetneering boxes. I loved that name and promptly drove to my local dollar store to buy the boxes and label them with the students’ names. Then I filled the boxes with all kinds of childhood treasures from The Wonder Lab, our school’s maker space: straws, yarn, popsicle sticks, paper tubes, Styrofoam balls, bags of buttons, bags of beads, pipe cleaners, etc. This week, I distributed the boxes to the girls. It was so gratifying to see them uncover the boxes and sort through the objects. Their excitement was electric. It was a rainy day, a great day to play and ponder. Off they went for fifteen minutes to design and build. Watching them reinforced my strong belief that children (both young and old) need the opportunity to wonder and imagine on a regular basis. I told the girls that when the boxes get near empty, I would replenish their stores. Their reaction was like I was giving them gold. One student exclaimed, “This is marvelous junk. Look what I made!” Yes, just look. Marvelous common junk made magical!
Whenever I’m stuck in my writing, whenever I feel like I’m not sure what to write about, I look on my bookshelf, choose a title, and start reading. Then in the quiet, after a little while, a miraculous thing happens – I begin to get ideas. I begin writing in my head. Sometimes there are so many ideas that I don’t know which one to focus on first.
This happened to me last week, while I was reading Jordan Shapiro’s book, A New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World. He is such a fast thinker – going from one idea to the next, making connections at lightning speed – Greek philosophy, gaming, systems theory, divorce – they all go together in one wonderful coherent whole. How does he do that? He uses metaphors and makes images in readers’ minds so they remember concepts. He brilliantly persuades us that there is nothing to fear about our children’s obsession with technology. In fact, it is a crucial tool that will continue to evolve. Throughout the book, he makes a case for viewing digital devices as beneficial rather than toxic. He quotes Heraclitus of Ephesus who asserted that “Life is flux,” or the only thing humans can count on is that everything changes. And so for those of us who are confounded by the new technology our children are pursuing, think about that during Socrates’ time, he considered the written word as cutting-edge technology. Socrates believed that words on the page were going to ruin peoples’ memories. We all have nostalgia for our childhoods, we all want to return home, and pursue simple pleasures. The thing is that our children are creating their own simple pleasures and much of it revolves around technology. And that is okay – that is what makes the world go round – that is change – that is life.
In his chapter, “The New Language Arts,” Shapiro connects prehistoric cave painting, the invention of finger paint, Aristotle’s concept of the soul, and Steve Job’s realization that everything will be within reach of our fingertips. I loved this section of the book, because as an ELA Curriculum Coordinator, it made me think about teacher reading and writing in a new way. What exactly can technology add to learning to read and write? How is the process of writing enhanced? What can students do with technology that engages their imagination and creativity. I especially enjoyed reading about Ruth Faison Shaw, who invented finger paint. Yes, a woman invented finger paint! When I did a bit more research about Shaw, I found out that we had something in common! We both worked at the Dalton School in New York City. Ruth was there in the 1930’s, and I worked there in the 1990’s and early 2000’s – about sixty years apart. I wish I had known about her work then, I would have scoured the archives and found out more about her. From my small amount of recent research, I found out that before she taught at Dalton, Ruth set up a school in Rome in the 1920’s, and that’s when she got the idea for her finger paint by watching a child smear iodine on a wall. Ruth believed that “Creative work must come from the imagination and personal experience. Your imagination, which directs your hands, will lead you to produce something individual and representative of you.” She came back to the states, taught at Dalton, and wrote a book in 1934 called Finger Painting: A Perfect Medium for Self-Expression. (I immediately scooped up a copy and was lucky that I found one in good condition. I am eagerly waiting for its arrival!) Shaw’s ideas on the creative process inform education for the future. As Shapiro states, parents and teachers should view educating children with a Both/And Mindset. In the 20th century children smeared paint as a means of self-expression, and now in the 21st century – children, with a swipe of a fingertip against a screen, can also express themselves in productive and meaningful ways.
Several years ago, I wrote an article about fostering curiosity and imagination. I described how I went through the process of integrating visual arts, music, movement, and drama into curriculum for early childhood and elementary students. I truly believe that creative expression, in all forms, nurtures growing minds and helps children develop a sense of self that allows them to become independent learners and critical thinkers. Today, I would include all the ways technology has become another tool children can access from their creative toolbox. Instead of having a fixed mindset about the limitations of technology as a means of self-expression, let’s open it up. Let’s ask ourselves: How can coding lead to poetry? How can Scratch help tell a story? How can Procreate make our learning visible?
This summer, I decided to give myself sometime in the Painting Playground. I have created space in my week where I can experiment with paper, pencils and paint. The emphasis is on play not product. This week, I painted with my fingers to return to the process of creating on the page. Then I added some designs with black markers. They are not perfect works of art, rather they are representations of playing on the page. I was so focused while doing this work, I dove in and was in the flow for a good hour and half: I made “mistakes,” ripped up paper, spilled water, got my fingertips dirty. It was the most self-fulfilling activity I did all week. I cannot wait to return!