Learning Alongside Children: Math, Craft, & Curious Cats!

Math Cats

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.

Craft Cats

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.

Curious Cats

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!

Learn Something

This summer, I have been concentrating on healing my body and spirit, which has entailed a lot of physical therapy and many walks in gardens and parks. Usually, I read a lot during the summer but this summer I have only read a couple of books so far.  I decided to jump-start my reading by turning to a classic,  The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  I knew of the legend of King Arthur mainly from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone.  I loved that story because it was filled with hope, faith, and possibility.  It helped me to become braver and more courageous. It gave me hope that even a small person could grow into someone who could right wrongs and defeat evil.  As an anxious, insecure child, this legend especially appealed to me.

In early June, I was asked to find a quote about learning as part of a farewell gift for a retiring colleague.  I did what many people do these days, I Googled it. And that’s when I came across T.H. White’s insightful observation about learning via Merlin’s advice to young Arthur, who was upset that his foster brother, Kay, was becoming a knight and he would only be allowed to be Kay’s squire. Merlin offers this sage advice:

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things where are to learn.”

T.H. White,  The Once and Future King, Chapter 21.

Throughout my life, I have found this advice to ring true.  Whenever I faced challenges or needed to overcome obstacles, learning something, was the thing that pulled me through and made me feel confident.  I gained knowledge, and I felt like I had changed for the better somehow.  The Once and Future King is a very long story, six hundred thirty-nine pages, to be exact.  It is not exactly easy reading, so I decided to listen to an audio version.  Over and over again, I was amazed by White’s writing skill and keen insights.  I find myself asking, “ How did he do that?  How does he know all that in-depth information about falconry and trees; badgers and hedgehogs; snakes and giants? He makes writing seem so effortless, and he has so much to say that could guide adolescents and adults.  He, indeed, is Merlyn, and we can learn so much from his words.

In the Book of Merlyn, White explains, “Nobody can be saved from anything, unless they save themselves. It is hopeless doing things for people – it is often very dangerous to do things at all – and the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas. Then, if you make available a larger stock, people are at liberty to help themselves from out of it. By this process the means of improvement is offered, to be accepted or rejected freely, and there is a faint hope of progress in the course of millennia. Such is the business of the philosopher, to open new ideas. It is not his business to impose them on people” I connect strongly with this view: ideas are what make us human and seeking new ideas make us stronger and make our journey in this world interesting and worthwhile.

Throughout my many years of teaching, I made sure that I found new things to learn so that I would never forget the feelings my novice students experienced.  Adopting the mindset of a beginner helped me truly understand the struggles my students encountered.  I believe that made me better able to connect with them and teach them effectively.  When I was teaching 2nd grade, I decided to take a drawing class at the Parson’s School of Design in New York City.  It was a big leap for me, but I wanted to learn how to draw realistically, and I wanted to face a challenge.  The classes were three hours long.  Three hours of sitting, observing, and drawing. It entailed a tremendous amount of concentration.  After my first forty-five minutes of sitting, I began to look around the room,  I stared out the window, I fidgeted in my seat, I got up to go to the ladies room.  I took my time.  I wandered.  I smiled to myself.  “This is what my students’ feel. What can I do to make them be able to concentrate longer and learn more deeply?”

When I taught 3rd grade, I learned Krav Maga,  an Israeli Martial Arts. I am not naturally athletic, and this class called for great physical exertion.  I did not back down.  I studied for three years and was preparing for my brown belt test before a back injury put me on the sidelines. Throughout my martial arts training, ,y students loved to see me demonstrate self-defense techniques and cheered me on. I think they felt more empowered my seeing their teacher take greater and greater risks. I hope I demonstrated to them that learning is hard and that is good – it makes you strong it helps to persevere.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

Time to Play

As the end of the school year approached and I looked out at the plexiglass-framed faces before me, I knew I had to do something to energize the last month of school.  I teach a Study Skills class to 4th graders, and I have tried this year to make organization, time management, and planning fun.  Sometimes, I admit, it is hard to make executive function skills fun and engaging.  I try hard, though.  I used videos, art, photography, poetry, movement to keep the girls actively participating.  However, as March turned to April, the girls’ exuberance was fading, and I knew I had to come up with a plan.  My plan was PLAY! 

The students had been cooped up all year: learning behind plexiglass, wearing masks, keeping socially distant from friends.  This year has been difficult, and incredibly difficult for children.  I’m not sure of what the ramifications will be in the future, but I do know that children have more fear and anxiety now.  The only remedy I know for fear and anxiety is collaboration and play. So, in mid-April I gathered my students and told them that for the rest of the school year they would be researching PLAY.  Many of them looked at me skeptically. “You mean we are putting on a play?” they asked.  I chuckled. “Well you could put on a play, but I mean you are all going think about and tell about why playing is important.” All of a sudden, the room became electric.  They buzzed with ideas. I smiled.  That’s just what I hoped would happen.

The first thing I did to prepare my students was to create a slideshow about the importance of play.  I added videos of children giving their opinions on play as well accounts from experts about how play helps people learn and thrive.  I found some great videos of animals playing, which I knew would be of interested to my nine and ten-year-old students. I loved watching their faces as I played the slideshow.  I had them hooked.  When the slideshow ended, they ran to me with ideas.  I told them to think about what they wanted to research about play.  It could be making a game, conducting an interview with a play expert, designing fidgets, or anything else they could imagine.

For the last three weeks, the girls have been thoroughly engaged in the process of creating.  They set goals, planned, organized materials, worked collaboratively, monitored their own progress and adjusted their plans to complete their projects.  I saw their independence and self-confidence blossom.  They were play engineers. They were in charge of their learning.

At times, they asked me for assistance, but these requests were mainly in the realm of getting specific materials.  Their work was their own. They did not seek me out to generate ideas or resolve problems.  I stood in the wings ready to help but found myself having free time to just  observe and document their progress.

Sometimes, when my colleagues witness my students at work, they think it is too chaotic.  The children are moving and talking constantly.  They are building and dismantling, and building again.  This is the process of creation.  It is messy and noisy and marvelous. It is the true nature of play.

Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens.

It renews our natural sense of optimism

and opens us up to new possibilities.

– Stuart Brown, MD

SOME RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO CHILDREN ABOUT PLAY:

Baby Ravens Play

Kids Need Recess by Simon Link

Play is a Fundamental Human Right

Play is Important! by Brody Gray

When Huskies Meet a Wild Polar Bear

World’s Youngest Olympian: Skateboarder Sky Brown

Invitations to Wonder…

Last week, Ruth Ayers invited her online writing group (SOS: Sharing Our Stories) to write about 7 small things.  Instead, I chose to write about anger.  Anger is not a small thing.  Anger is a big thing, an explosive thing.  It starts small and then grows.

As I read some members’ blog posts this week, I was reminded about the importance of simple joys.  All week, I  kept turning lists of small things over and over in my mind.  I have always been attracted to the small seemingly insignificant things: stop to notice the dandelion blooming between the cracks in concrete.  I’m a photographer, and so as I make my way through a mountain pass or a city street, my eye is always on the small things that most people would miss.  Those small things aren’t always aesthetic or beautiful, they were just common, ordinary things.  In their ordinariness lies their unique importance.

Poet, Valerie Worth, wrote a book for children called All Small.  I’ve used her poems to teach children to notice the wonders of small things.  Small IS beautiful.  The world consists of countless small things and those small things are what what makes the world an incredible place of wonderment.

As I made those lists in my mind of small things, as I reflected on a selection of small items, I thought about the work of Basho, the 17th century Japanese poet who was a master of haiku – the 3 line poem of 5-7-5 syllables.

                                                  The old pond.                                                                                                                                           A frog leaps in.                                                                                                                                        Sound of the water.

                                                   **************

                                              Their own fire                                                                                                                                          Are on the trees,                                                                                             the fireflies Around the house with flowers.

 

I decided to try my hand at some haiku for this last week of April, focusing on the small all around me.  I offer these seven small things to you now.

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Apple blossoms pink                                                        Branches tap on my window                                        A burst of bright spring

 

 

 

 

 

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Here pinecones scatter                                   

Among the gray-green bracken                     

Thorny and silent

 

 

 

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Petals on petals

Circular meditation

Center holds beauty

 

 

 

 

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Salt, sand, surf meets shore

Shells in pink light perfect                                         

Curves – one to another

                                                                                                             

 

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Perfect sculpted fur                                            Squirrel’s not camera shy                                   Swishes his puffed tail

 

 

 

 

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Egret stands alone

Graceful curved neck – peaceful

Alert – swish of fish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poet Found: Ross Gay

Back in February, I bought a slim volume of poetry because I loved the cover – a bright floral abstract and the title, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay.  I flipped to the first page – a poem about figs.  Figs – my Grandpa Charlie’s favorite and my favorite too.  I often splurge and buy a basket of them when they are in season, slice them in half and enjoy them twice as long, not sharing a single one of them with anyone!  All to myself – those figs are my treasure.  So yes, I knew I would love this book.  But of course, in my true inconsistent fashion, I forgot about the book before I read all of it, and it became wedged between my countless notebooks on my my bookshelf.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

Last week, as I was ready to go off on vacation, I was looking for a sweet summer read. I pulled out the book, returned to the figs and was mesmerized. I read on and on trying to uncover the rhythm, welcoming the repetition, wondering how this young, gay, Black professor from Youngstown, Ohio composed words in lines I wished were my own. I invite you to dip into the nectar of his words.

Gay takes mundane things: buttoning his shirt, sleeping in his clothes, drinking water from his hands and creates a cadence you can’t help but read aloud and wonder: “How does he do that?” Something about the arrangement of his words and the sounds he created encouraged me to read his words aloud.  There is something so powerful – not just in the images, but in the sounds in composed. I read the book cover to cover, and over and over, trying to get his genius to repeat in my brain. Rereading his words opened the floodgates of sorrow and beauty, and I began to write poetry again. For this, I am grateful.

Room 109                                                                                                                                                by Joanne L. Emery

The hotel used to be a sturdy and elegant bank,

On a street corner in Old Montreal:

A historic landmark, a fortress now for art:

Warhol, Indiana, Hirst, Magritte, Miro –

And there in the gilded frame

Against the pale yellow wall,

Monet’s garden peaks out:

Corner of Garden at Montgeron

Peaceful greens and blues,

Speckled pinks and dappled yellows –

Century-old paint

Brushed into being

To soothe me as I sit

In the yellow chair by the window

Anticipating sunlight.

 

 

 

 

 

Write What You Notice

I recently attended a teacher’s workshop presented by Penny Kittle at Rutgers University sponsored by Rutgers Center for Literacy Development.  I’ve seen Penny many times. Usually, she talks to teachers about creating reading and writing workshop spaces in high school classes.  Penny was a high school English teacher in New Hampshire and her mentor was the late, great Donald Graves.  I was looking forward to Penny’s presentation because she is always inspiring and gives my teaching doldrums a spark.   This time, I was especially looking forward to hearing her because she would be talking about one of my favorite subjects – Poetry.   However, in the back of my mind, I thought there was very little new that I’d learn ,since I was a student of Adrienne Rich, have published some poetry, and have taught poetry to children for the last 40 years.  What could Penny teach me that I could bring back to the faculty at my school?  Probably not much, but I’d have a great day listening to and writing poetry.  That is a noble undertaking in cold and dreary January.

And of course, Penny had much to share.  She talked about exposing students to a lot of poetry, reading it aloud and re-reading it.  Then lifting a favorite line and using that line to spark one’s own poetry.  I’ve done this many times before both as a student and as a teacher, but practicing it again with unfamiliar poems made it all brand-new again to me.  One of Penny’s creative admonitions also rang true:  Don’t write what you know – Write what you noticeAs a little child, I was always noticing everything in my environment.  In fact, I was such a slow reader, because I was absorbing and dissecting the author’s craft.  I didn’t want anything to escape my notice.  I was also a notorious eavesdropper, using everything little tidbit in different poems, stories, and drawings. Helping students develop a keen eye for noticing is a essential in having them grow to be more curious and deliberate writers.

Then came a space in Penny’s presentation in which she showed a video clip of a poem by Patrick Roche, “21 Cups.”  I could not keep up with the rest of the workshop activities after that.  I became entranced by Patrick’s poem both the way in which he constructed it – counting back from 21 years to one year old – and the compelling way he described the dysfunctional relationship he had with his father.  Patrick’s poem completely held my attention; completely made me sit up and take notice.  Now, this is the true power of a poem. I immediately had to share it with someone.  Who could I share this poem with?  I knew almost immediately – Mike Rosen!  Mike is a former student of mine, and now he is an amazing, accomplished spoken word poet.  I would share Patrick’s poem with Mike; he would understand.  And of course, the world being what it is – small and round – Mike knew Patrick’s poem and had organized a poetry slam in which Patrick was one of the participants.  Small world, indeed.  And that is the other power of poetry – it connects.

I strive to write poems that will make people sit up and notice and connect.  I want to help students writers to notice, connect, and share.  One of the 3rd grade classes in the the school where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, introduces children to philosophical ideas through literature.  This past week, the 3rd grade teacher shared with me her students’ reaction to the question: “Is art and poetry necessary for a community?” after reading Leo Lionni’s book, Frederick This teacher was a bit dismayed that her young students all agreed that poetry and art were indeed NOT necessary.  She wanted to jump into the discussion and tell them that they were wrong, but that is not allowed in philosophical discussions.  My reaction to her was that she needed to provide her students with more art, music, and poetry and have them wonder what life would be without the arts.  This is what happens when we separate the arts from academic instruction, but that is a topic at another time!

Penny ended her presentation by sharing the work she has been doing as a board member of the non-profit group, Poetic Justice, which helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma express their feelings and ideas through poetry and writing classes.  Here, Penny illustrates the immense need for community to forgive and heal through poetry.  Here, she shows  pathways between the outside and inside world.  Here, there is a place for inmates to  explore the depths of right and wrong and redemption.  And it is here where readers sit up, take notice and are transformed.

Being Present to Joy

My colleagues worry about not having time enough to teach.  They have so much content they need and want to cover.  As a curriculum coordinator, I create tons of documents – benchmarks, scope & sequences, lists of standards by grade level to make sure we don’t miss teaching one single skill or strategy.  This is all well and good.  In fact, this is our job: to give our students a quality education.

However,  as I observe many classrooms, I’m realizing that we certainly cover lots of material and teach a myriad of skills, but we often forget the joy of learning.  Often, we cannot find time for stopping and laughing and celebrating what we’ve accomplished.  Many of us squeeze in as many skills and strategies as we can and are grateful that we complete them so we can check them off our lists, our every increasingly long lists.  We’ve forgotten how to be present to a children’s sense of wonder, a student’s newfound knowledge, someone’s struggle with a difficult concept and then – click – her instant understanding.  When we are in a constant hurry, we miss these things.   This view was noted in an October 12, 2013 blog post by Pernille Ripp: “I stopped telling them what to do and waited for them to figure it out.  Sure I ended social studies 4 minutes before I normally do, but we still got through it, they still had the time they needed, and at the end of the day we walked out as the first group in our building with smiles on our faces.”  It is crucial that when students and teachers walk out of their schools that there are smiles and a feeling of achievement – a day well spent.”

Recently,  I was witness to classroom joy during an activity I designed.  Every November, we read aloud Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet to our 2nd grade students.  The book is about the work of Tony Sarg, who was the first person to create the Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. After the students listened to the story and watched a slide show about Sarg’s life and accomplishments, the girls were tasked with creating their own parade balloons using paper, glue, scissors, and lots of imagination.  Each year,  I marvel at the ingenuity of these young students as their balloons take shape: unicorns, pandas, a cube, floating ballerinas, griffins, and more imaginative creatures.

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During our balloon making workshop, as the girls were cutting, glueing, and revising their designs, they spontaneously broke into song,  singing in harmony “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. No one told them to start singing.  They just were happy creating their balloons and began to sing as they worked.  Their classroom teacher and I smiled at each other and watched as they continued to work productively.  It’s in these moments of joy that children truly learn.  There were so many skills and strategies that the girls were applying and using.  They were right in the midst of what Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” It is this optimal condition that we want all students to attain for it promotes independent thinking and motivation.  As Ellin Oliver Keene notes in her book, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8, “Engagement…  is characterized by feeling lost in a state that causes us, on one hand to forget the world around us, to become fully engrossed. On the other hand, when engaged, we enter into a state of wide-awakeness that is almost blissful. We want to dig more deeply into our reading or listening or learning or taking action; we allow emotions to roll over us; we’re eager to talk with others about an idea—we’re even aware of how extraordinary or beautiful those moments are.”

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I urge all teacher to be open to those joyful moments.  Embrace them, make time for them, and realize that within joy lives true engagement, motivation, and life-long learning.

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Books for Teachers:

Mindfulness for Teachers by  Patricia A. Jennings

Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar

Practicing Presence by Lisa J. Lucas

Teach Happier by Sam Rangel

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

Books for Children: 

All My Treasures: A Book of Joy by Jo Witek

Anna Hibiscus’ Song by Atinuke

Augustus and His Smile by Catherine Rayner

Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling

Every Little Thing by Bob Marley

Happy by Pharrell Williams

If You’re Happy and You Know it by Jane Cabrera

Joy by Corrinne Averiss

100 Things that Make me Happy by Amy Schwartz

Perfect Square by Michael Hall

Taking a Bath with the Dog: and Other Things that Make Me Happy by Scott Menchin

The Jar of Happiness by Alisa Burrows

 

 

 

Seeing Possibility

When I was starting my journey as an elementary classroom teacher, my eyes and ears were trained to search out problems.  Who was having trouble decoding words?  who couldn’t continue to build onto a pattern of shares or numbers?  Which ones had trouble settling down?  How could I help this one distinguish right from left?  How could I help that one learn to tie her shoe?  Of course,  I was a teacher and this was my job – to help – assist –  encourage – nurture.  I focused all my attention on the problems.  What wasn’t yet achieved?

As I gained experience, I relaxed into the role of a careful observer.  I still nurtured students’ nascent talents, but my gaze increasingly became one of possibility.  I was focused not so much on students’ weaknesses – the things they could not yet do.  But rather set my mind and intention to what they could do, what made them motivated, what ignited their passions for learning.  I had several mentors along the way who shared the same belief system.  Carl Anderson approaches writing workshop conferences as opportunities for students to see themselves as writers.  He recommends that during each conferring session, the teacher give the student a glow and grow This consists of giving the student feedback on something in their writing that works wonderfully, and also give a suggestion about their writing that will help them grow.  Katherine Bomer also takes on this stance in her book,  Hidden Gems, she encourages teachers to look for the surprising and fresh writing moves children make instead of focusing on the writers mechanical mistakes.  This growth mindset rings true to me because in my experience more growth and opportunities arise from seeing possibility than from focusing on deficits.

I have been fortunate enough to be teaching for forty years.  And with that amount of experience, I’ve seen young children who couldn’t stand still, had trouble learning to read, had undecipherable handwriting – grow into young adults who were accepted into colleges, including many Ivy League institutions. And later, those young adults became heads of real estate or financial companies, major athletes and artists, and promising entrepreneurs.  They learned to seek paths that played to their strengths and challenged themselves to see beyond their weakness and stay intent on building their strengths.

The very first mentor I encountered in my life was my mother, Vivian.  She was a talented artist, fashion designer, seamstress, and eventually an elementary teacher.  Her creativity and determination became my source of strength in so many areas of my life.  This month marks the fifth anniversary of her death.  I miss her every day.  I recently began reading Barbara Kingslover’s novel, Unsheltered One sentence stood out to me as the main character,  Will Knox, talks about the loss of her mother:  “Really it was her mother she’d wanted to call right after the bad news, or in the middle of it… it had been her mother who put Willa back together.  When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death.  You lost her as you kept living.”  When I read those words, I felt an instant connection to the author.  “Yes,” I thought – “Yes,” that is what it’s like to lose a loving mother.  Time has given me an opportunity to reflect not only on what I have lost, but also on what my mother gave me – all her gifts.  And for that I am so very grateful.

First Teacher

I remember your ruby-red lipstick and dark eyes,                                                                    You were the one who taught me laughter.

I remember the sound of your heartbeat as we cuddled                                                          Cozy together in the wooden rocker,                                                                                               It was you who taught me the power of stories.

I remember your hands pushing and kneading dough                                                              Into a perfect pie crust,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me patience.

I remember your cool cheek on my hot forehead                                                                          It was you who taught me love.

I remember your fingers flashing over fabric:                                                                Folding… pinning… cutting…                                                                                                             It was you who taught me perseverance.

I remember you standing tall,                                                                                                  Bending down close, guiding and reassuring,                                                                              You were the one who taught me kindness.

I remember you dipping into paint,                                                                                      Creating a world of color,                                                                                                                    You were the one who taught me possibility.

I remember your quiet calm in the face of pain,                                                                          You taught me courage.

I remember your lasting embrace                                                                                                    It was you who taught me acceptance.

A Time for Apples

I don’t know whether it’s because my mom was a teacher or because I became a teacher and have been doing this for the last forty years… but I LOVE apples.  I keep an apple collection: marble, ceramic, crystal, brass – all kinds of apples to remind me that school has just started and like the crisp, fall apples – the year is full of sweetness and possibility.

One of my most favorite things to do in the fall is bake with children: picking, washing, peeling, slicing and incorporating apples into pies, cakes, and muffins.  It is not fall to me until the classroom is filled with that apple, sugar, cinnamon scent.  And it’s those memories students are fond of the most, the ones they want to repeat no mater how old they become. As the years pas, it has become important for me to provide apple memories to our Kindergarten students by reading the book, Apple Pigs by Ruth  Orbach, and making the aforementioned apple pigs.

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The book was first published in 1978, the year I graduated college.  When I became a nursery school teacher, I read the book to my young students.  They loved the rhyming text and the multitude of creatures who came to the apple feast.  At one point, Apple Pigs went out of print, and I couldn’t find it anywhere!  Even my local library had lost their rag-tagged copy. However, last year I decided to try one more time to find a copy. I was happily surprised that Apple Pigs had been reprinted in England. I quickly bought a copy and read it aloud to the Kindergarteners.  They loved the story and rejoiced in making the pigs.   Throughout the week, many children would find me to thank me for reading. They’d ask me when I was coming again and what we were going to make next.  Even older students, remembered the pigs and asked to make them again. It always amazes me how important good stories and good food stick in children’s memories.

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I think this activity is so appealing to children not only because they get to eat marshmallows, but because they take simple ingredients are able to quickly make something beautiful and delicious.  They want to make it again.  They go home and tell their family and friends.  Apple pigs  has become a tradition.  It is a tradition I gladly share now with generations of students.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year

A New Way of Seeing

I am an educator, writer, and artist-photographer. All those disciplines hold at their core visualization. For the educator and student, it is the ability to visualize the possibilities and set a course to invent and re-invent oneself. For the writer, it is to find a way to communicate ones’ visions to others. And for the artist-photographer, it is to take what is seen and create a new figurative language that goes beyond words.

This summer, I visited Montreal. It is a place of juxtapositions, which I love so much:   French/English, old/new, tradition/experimentation. As I traveled the city, I looked for new ways to express this city’s heart. It is so different from New York, the city I know the best. In New York City, everyone rushes. You have to pull yourself back to truly notice the details of a cornice with squatting gargoyles sticking their tongues out at you. But in Montreal, the pace invites one to linger, to notice, to be attentive.

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During the summer I’m lucky enough to be able to travel to take a break from work allowing me to reflect on my teaching and the teaching practices of my colleagues. And this summer, I began to reconsider the importance of visual literacy. As a society, Americans rush around – DOING. Doing is paramount. If you are not busy doing something, then you are not worthy of success. However, it is those slow, thoughtful moments when people create the best. There can be no true creative expression without purposeful reflection.

Here are some easy ways in which to make visualization an important part of your teaching practice. You will be surprised by your students observations, some of which might have escaped your adult perception!

Guided Imagery: Listening and Imagining

download.jpgGuided imagery is one technique for bringing ideas to life.  Richard De Milne, in his book Put Your Mother on the Ceiling, offers teachers many imagery scripts, which he calls “games” to develop students’ visualization ability. When done systematically, visualization exercises increase student awareness and helps them create deeper understanding using one’s own “mind’s eye.”  Students begin to understand the many perspectives people can have when they visualize the same scene Teachers can further develop visual acuity by asking students to look closely at paintings and photographs, noticing everything they can.  Regular practice viewing art enhances analytic skills. Students need time to consider questions such as: What do you notice? What makes you curious?  What can you conclude? They need space to share their wonderings with their classmates to develop deeper understanding.

Looking Closely 

Now, instead of creating the image in their heads, encourage students to look closely at an image.  It can be a painting or a photograph.   Have students pair up, sitting eye-to-eye and knee-to- knee, to discuss what they are noticing and wondering about the photograph.  Then, as a whole group, discuss what the children noticed and wondered, making a chart of their responses.  Done regularly, this activity gets students to really tune in to detail and this skill begins to transfer their reading. It strengthens their observation skills.

Every Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I love to collect old photographs, beautiful art prints, and funny images that make me laugh and make me wonder.  I keep a box of them in my office and add to the collection periodically.  I often forget what I’ve collected and am pleasantly surprised when I sort through the box looking for some writing inspiration.  Students love looking through the image box too and it is amazing how many different stories, poems, and wonderings they written using the same photograph or painting.  They love sharing their stories and realizing at one picture can mean so many different things to different people.  That is the true essence of imagination!

Constructing What is Imagined: Exploring Place

A collection of doodads, gadgets, small everyday items people toss out: pen tops, springs, and plastic bits and pieces can lead to some unique explorations. This collection of recyclables can become a treasure trove for children tasked with constructing a sculpture, an invention, a bridge, or other edifice. Ask children to think about what they want to construct, visualizing what they need and how they will go about creating their structure.  Place all the materials at their fingertips and then stand back and watch them create what they have imagined. This exercise strengthens problem-solving skills, spurs children to be flexible in their thinking, and gives them a great amount of pride and ownership in completing their construction.  This is very similar to the experience young children have when they build with blocks, but in this activity the structure is  long-lasting and serves as evidence of their imaginations.