Ice Inspiration

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.

Icarus Found: A Poem Remembered

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.

Something to Believe In

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

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

When Santa was a Baby by Linda Bailey

Working in the Wonder Studio

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.

Living a Life in Verse

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.

.

Week on the Water

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.

Golden


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
Always beckoning.

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

Picture Books:

  1. Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham
  2. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  3. Hello Ocean by Pamm Munoz
  4. Home for Hermit Crab by Eric Carl
  5. Mister Sea Horse by Eric Carl
  6. Stella, Star of the Sea by Mary-Louise Gay
  7. Wave by Suzy Lee

Middle Grade Novels:

  1. A Swirl of Ocean by Melissa Sarno
  2. Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
  3. Fish Girl by David Weisner and Donna Jo Napoli
  4. They Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt
  5. The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
  6. The Wanderer by Sharon Creech
  7. Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Books for Adults:

  1. Gift of Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg
  2. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
  3. The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw
  4. The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw
  5. The Silent World:  A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques-Yves Coustea
  6. The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
  7. Turtle Summer: A Journal for My Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe

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

Word Play

Laughing Elbows

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.

Five Books to Uplift Your Imagination

  • Chimpanzees for Tea by Jo Empson
  • It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles G. Shaw
  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett
  • Max’s Castle (and Max’s Words) by Kate Banks
  • Mirror, Mirror by Marilyn Singer
  • The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak

Magic & Imagination in a Box

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.

Tender Buttons

… 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.

GLAZED GLITTER.

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!

THE WORLD IN A BUTTON

The world in a button,

Spherical and hard,

Sometimes shiny,

Sometimes tarnished with age,

Holes and embellishments,

Disappointments and surprises,

Ocean blue and earthy red,

Buttons in my hands

Slipping through my fingers

Making imaginary music,

Listen.

Getting Wild in the Wonder Lab

 

I don’t think I have a very wild life, but I do have a wild mind.  A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to create a hands-on maker space in my school called the Wonder Lab.  It is a place where elementary students come to work on independent projects and make stuff out of recycled materials.  It has been my dream to be able to create this space.

Now that we are remote learning, the Wonder Lab lies dormant, but my mind is still wildly imagining.  I’ve created lots of Wonder Lab ideas for remote learning these past 3 months.  This weekend, I tried my hand at building a cereal box vehicle from an idea I got from this Ultra Creative – General Mills video.

Step 1: Okay, so what if you don’t have a cereal box?  Use what you have!

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I used 4 small boxes:

1 cracker box

2 tea boxes (1 tea box is inside the cracker box).

1 oatmeal box (cut in half and slid together so it is the same width of the cracker box).

I stacked the boxes on top of each other and taped them together with clear tape.  I made a basic truck shape.

Step 2: Building my Monster Truck

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I needed axels for the wheels.  I didn’t have any wooden dowels, so I used 2 unsharpened pencils.  I punched holes with a sharp pencil. I made sure they were in the place I wanted them to be before I punched through to the other side.

Step 3: WHEELS!

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I needed wheels!  And it’s a good thing that my husband likes to eat a lot of oatmeal.  I had an empty container of oat and grits.  I took the tops off and had 2 wheels.

But wait!  Don’t truck have 4 wheels.  I cut the bottoms off both containers and made another 2 wheels. 2+2=4 wheels!

Step 4: Two Types of WHEELS

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The narrow wheels would be the front wheels and the wider wheels would be the back wheels.  Then I punched a hole with my pencil in the center of each wheel.

Step 5: Try, Try Again!

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I slipped on my wheels and tried them out.  My back wheels were too wide.  The truck did not run smoothly. The back wheels kept getting stuck on the truck body.  So I took the back wheels off and trimmed them.  There are the trimmings under the scissor.  I had to trim a couple of times until it was just right!

Step 6: Wheel Caps

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Here you see that I took the wheels off again to make sure they fit just right.  I added caps to the end of the pencil, so the wheels did not fall off.  I had lots of little water bottle caps.  I poked a hole into the caps with a pen and then pushed a pencil through the hole until it was just right.

Step 7: Designing the Cab

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The tea box on top is the cab of the truck.  I drew a diagonal line across the front of the tea box and then I cut it off.  I made a hood from the cut piece and added aluminum foil headlights and cut a small rectangle from a plastic baggie for the windshield.

I LOVE MY TRUCK!

 Step 8: Ready to Roll!

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WHAT I LEARNED:

Making vehicles out of boxes is fun!

I had to try again and again to get it to work.

Making wheels is harder that I thought.

Next time, I will create all the body first BEFORE I make the wheels.

I want to make another one!  I must start saving more boxes!

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