Someday Soon

My good friend, Molly, never fails to send me wondrous things via email.  Sometimes it is a photo of her hennaed hand, sometimes it’s a poem she wrote, sometimes it’s an image of the woods she is walking through, and many times it is an educational idea, activity, or concept.  Today, it was a link to Kids for Peace: Uplifting our World Through Love and Action. As I scrolled through the website, something struck my eye:  The Someday Soon Jar activity. As soon as I saw it, I knew what I was going to blog about. 

Yesterday, I was complaining to Molly that I had writer’s block.  I didn’t know what to write about – too many ideas were swirling in my head, and none seemed inspirational.  I’ve been pulled down by torrential rain and a flood of increasingly bad news.  I haven’t had nightmares in a very long time, but last night I had a terribly helpless one that recurred all night long!  I was walking on my school’s campus. It was winter and snow was piled high. I was looking at the mounds and mounds of snow.  I realized that the mounds were actually cars covered with snow and a thick layer of ice.  On one car the ice was beginning to melt and slip from the back window.  When I looked through the back window, I saw a child’s face submerged in icy water.  I screamed, but there was no sound.  I took a shovel and started hacking through the ice and snow, but I could not get to the little boy.  Then I realized there was a whole line of cars with people trapped in them submerged in icy water covered in mounds of snow: a female college student, a family with young children, a young man with a beard – all looking at me with frozen screams.  I run from one to the next, helpless.  There was no one else around to help me.  It was too late.  That’s when I wake up. My heart is racing. I calm down and tell myself that it’s just a dream.  I go back to sleep and dream the same exact dream again.  This happens three more times until it is morning, and I’m too exhausted to go back to sleep.

I get out of bed.  Make a cup of tea.  Check my email. And there it is:  the email from Molly waiting for me like a gift – The Someday Soon Jar.  It’s exactly what I need right now – HOPE in bright glowing rainbow colors. Hope that the ones I love will stay healthy and strong.  Hope that America will be a place of inclusion and peace.  Hope that I can make a difference with my words, images, and stories.  Hope that we are not all frozen in anger, fear, and anxiety. Just plain, old-fashion, childlike hope.

The idea behind the Someday Soon Jar is that children write out all things that they wish or hope to do someday soon. It could be taking a trip, visiting friends and family, collecting rocks or sea shells. It could be baking a treat, eating ice cream, watching the sunset.  It could be playing a game or laying in the shade of a beautiful oak tree, reading a good book.  I love this idea of happy anticipation.  I definitely need more happy anticipation in my life right now, so I created my own Someday Soon Jar and will start to write my ideas down.  Of course, my jar is an empty tissue box instead of a beautiful glass jar, but I don’t think that matters.  What matters is hope and the joy of happy expectation.

Someday Soon

Someday Soon

I will sit at my window

Looking out into the pouring rain,

Fat drops against the panes,

Thunder grumbling, a crack of lightening,

Then sheets drenching the trees –

Green-leafed umbrellas,

Shelters for the squirrels

And a pair of soft gray doves.

A cup of steaming tea, a good book

I am warm and dry.

Someday Soon

We will take a long drive

Out into the country

Out into the mountains

Rising to meet us,

Green and welcoming.

My husband riding shotgun,

Telling wild stories,

Laughing as we ride along.

Rows upon rows of hilltops

On the summer horizon.

Someday soon

I will walk along the shore,

Sand beneath my feet,

Salty bubbles between my toes,

The waves casting out shells

And pulling them back in –

A rhythm close to breathing.

Bending down to reach

The slippers, scallops, and clams,

Pearl-pink and shiny

In my grateful hands.

Someday soon

I’ll walk back across

The Sant Angelo bridge

Lined with ten graceful angels.

Ornate wrought-iron lamps

Curve brightly at dusk.

Lovers linger, peering down

Into the murky waters of the Tiber.

Walking between the angels

Into the park strewn with twinkling lights,

Music plays, and I begin to dance.

Ming Tao Xuan or How to Relax in Old Montreal

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.”          – C.S. Lewis

This summer I was fortunate to spend a week in Old Montreal, one of the most beautiful places in the northern hemisphere: cobblestone streets, majestic Notre Dame Cathedral, quaint shops and restaurants nestled on the St. Lawrence harbor.  It is really a delight for the senses.  My husband and I walked all over the city exploring all the different neighborhoods in Montreal. For me, Old Montreal is a respite from the world, a solace for my busy soul.   We’ve taken many trips to Montreal in the past five year, and so I’ve come to know this historic part of the city well.  I love exploring all the shops, tasting culinary specialties at the various restaurants and cafe, but the place I go to treat myself, to take a mindful breath in my day is Ming Tao Xuan Tea House on the corner of Rue de Brésoles and Rue Saint Sulpice in the shadow of Notre Dame Basilica.

Pushing open the heavy glass door, I am immediately transported to a realm of beauty and quietude.  It is a small space filled with wood and glass.  There are floor to ceiling cabinets filled with teapots of all shapes and sizes: iron, clay, and porcelain. Huge colorful porcelain urns sit atop the cabinets like peaceful, sleeping sentinels. There are only four tables in the tea house.  They are study, square, and ornately carved. I take a seat at one table in the back of the room near the small marble fountain. I look out the window at the crowds and city traffic, but cannot hear a sound.  This is truly a sanctuary.

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The proprietor comes to greet me,  a distinguished gentleman with dark-rimmed glasses.  He hands me a thick, celadon-colored menu.  The food offerings take up one page while the next twenty pages are filled with teas of every color, aroma, and taste imaginable.  I become a bit overwhelmed by the choices, but finally choose one that I think will sooth my stress away.  After sipping and savoring, I meditate on this beautiful place and write a poem to commemorate this moment.

 

Ming Tao Xuan

Glass and dark wood,

The sound of trickling water,

People whispering tales

Around heavy square tables

Carved with flowers and serpents.

I take a respite here –

Set down my bones, and books,

and heavy backpack.

A tall, old man in dark-rimmed glasses

Brings me a thick, celadon-colored menu,

Six items: mango salad, tofu envelope, steamed buns,

Chicken skewers, cookies, and cheese cake.

And pages and pages and pages of tea:

Black, green, red, yellow –

There is such a thing as yellow tea?

Yes – aromatic buckwheat.

I choose the tofu envelope

And the Jasmine Pearl tea,

Because if I had had a daughter

Jasmine Pearl would have been

A beautiful name for her –

Jasmine Pearl – lavender and green,

Delicate and sweet.

 

The waiter returns unrolling

A red rattan mat,

Places the teak tray on top,

Arranges the tiny porcelain tea set:

The tiny teapot with a lid

Etched with a bamboo design,

The rounded pitcher with the graceful handle,

And a small white bowl from which to sip.

He prepares the tea,

Allowing the buds to open,

Pouring the first cup

And emptying the water through

The slats of the teak tray.

Now it is ready,

Now it is time for me

To sample and savor,

Relieve my mind,

Release my imagination,

Among the iron, clay, and porcelain teapots

of the Ming Tao Xuan Tea House.

 

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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

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Mindful Assessment: Breathe, Lean in, & Listen

Fall is here, and for me September and October mean it’s time for ELA assessments. The teachers, specialists, and I gear up to assess the reading, phonics, spelling, and writing skills of students to help support their learning throughout the year. It is an intensive rush to provide the best instruction possible. This year, as I begin to assess third, fourth, and fifth grade students’ reading, I feel the usual pressure to get the assessments completed quickly and efficiently. Then I remember the Zen principle of being present. Instead of thinking of all the things I need to do as I listen to a student read about early railroads, I stop myself. I take a deep breath, lean in and truly begin to listen. As I listen, I ask myself, “ What strategies is this student using to help her understand the story?” I marvel at how young readers naturally “talk back” to the text, questioning what they’ve read and re-reading to fully consider the information. Of course, I’ve been reading some of these same passages for several years, but it never fails to amaze me how each reader brings something new to the reading. The students’ beginner minds allow them to be open to the text and to create understanding together with the author. I have had some fantastic conversations about steam-powered railroads, the process of respiration, and an author’s travels to Japan. The most important outcome of these assessments is the time I spend with young readers listening to them construct meaning. I call this process Mindful Literacy, finding joy in the reading moment.

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In the rush of everyday life, when dinner has to be put on the table and clothes need to be washed – I urge parents and teachers to take a deep breath, lean in, and listen to your children and students read.  You will discover the strategies they are learning to decode new words and to understand complex text. As they read, their words will transport you to new worlds. They will ask questions you may have no answers for and together you can ponder the possibilities. You may, in turn, want to read to them and then it is their turn to breathe, lean in, and listen with their full imaginations.

Mindful Literacy cannot only slow us down and help us to attend to what’s important, it can also help us to love texts and the subjects we know through them. This deep engagement with books can inspire in us a reverence for word and deed and for one another. It just takes a small space in the day to connect with your young reader and share a magical reading moment.