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.

 

 

 

 

For the Love of Words

 

Some words feel wonderful in your mouth: benevolent, pashmina, Constantinople. They roll right off one’s tongue and into one’s imagination.  Words hold meaning and are the building blocks of all human thought. When I began teaching thirty-eight years ago, I marveled at my preschool students’ curiosity about words and how they could understand and use words far above their age and grade level.  One boy was so enamored with geology and dinosaurs that his vocabulary in these areas far surpassed mine, affording him the opportunity to be my teacher, and I, his attentive student!  I believe that spark of curiosity and imagination in learning vocabulary ignites the power to explore a universe of ideas and concepts.  Teachers consistently embed vocabulary learning throughout the day.  Word learning is not compartmentalized into the teaching spelling or phonics or reading.  It is integrated into all content areas.  For example, the word “boundary” may be introduced as a geographic word in social studies, but then used in physical education to describe the limits of a game, used in art to mean a shift in color, texture, or shape, or again in mathematics as boundary lines on a graph. This deep learning allows students to remember and recognize the new words they are learning and apply them across subjects.  Students at all grade levels are encouraged to use new vocabulary as they speak and write, constantly building their knowledge.

At the school, where I am the ELA Curriculum Coordinator, we celebrate the love of words as a whole community by learning a new word each week. Every Monday, I post the word of the week, its meaning, and a sentence containing the word.  Teachers reinforce the Wonder Word throughout the week, and it often is added to class word walls or vocabulary charts, gradually becoming part of a student’s personal vocabulary bank.  Many of the words I choose coincide with a current theme such as “wisdom” in September to begin the year, “gratitude” in November to acknowledge Thanksgiving, or “absurd” in March to celebrate the work of Dr. Seuss. Those connections allow students to associate and visualize, helping them put new words into their long-term memory. At the end of the year, older students work together to create a vocabulary quiz show that incorporates some of their favorite words, and the whole school participates during our final school assembly. In this way all students celebrate the wonder of the words they’ve learned throughout the year. At the core of vocabulary learning is the love of words, the pure joy of expressing yourself with wondrous words that roll off your tongue!