Remember

I have been writing this blog every week since April 11th.  That is three months and that is a record for me. I love to write, but I have always written in fits and starts.  I have hundreds of beautiful notebooks with 3, 5, or 20 pages written in them, but I have rarely filled a notebook up page by page.  I have files of stories written, but they sit for years collecting dust, get dusted off, and only to collect dust again.  So how and why did I change?  I changed because one person showed me she cared.  One person invited me to join her in writing.  That’s all it took.  One person.  Again, thank you Ruth Ayres for changing my writing life.

I now have begun taking an online writing course – the famous Writing Down the Bones with Natalie Goldberg.  In the first lesson, Natalie explained how to center yourself  with meditation before you write.  This could be done walking, sitting, or laying down. Then Natalie said something that both surprised and comforted me. She said that we will all go out of this life laying down and we will go out meditating or writing.  I just loved this image because like most everyone in the planet I’m afraid of dying – but if I could go out writing – yes that’s is the way I will choose to go.  I will be writing in my head till my last breath and I will be at peace.

These last few weeks, I have been remembering Catherine and Henry – those days, weeks, and months of taking care of him after Catherine’s death.  I had stored them all up for the last 36 years, keeping them safe for Henry so he would someday know of that time.  I wrote 33 pages in 5 days.  I just kept writing and more old memories came. I wish  I could remember more about Catherine, but what I remember the most was her kindness.  She always wanted to know what I was thinking, so ready to guide and comfort.  She never made me feel like my ideas were simple or ridiculous.  Catherine always encouraged me.

Remembering is painful and sweet – both are necessary to grow.  I think I was put here to remember and record – to witness life and to take it all in for myself and for others. The pain my father caused – those memories are part of my fabric.  I used to want to unravel those threads, but I came to know that the pain was part of the design.

And as I reflect on remembering, I am drawn to what I’ve forgotten.  I’ve forgotten what my mother’s faces looked like.  I need to look at photographs to really remember.  She died only six years ago but still my memory of her is fading. Why can’t I remember her exact looks?  All the images, all the expressions melt into one collage: my mother at 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 91.  My mother at 91 was all soft folds and brown spots, curled over not taller than me anymore.  I think I remember my mother best at 50.  I was 16 then.  That is the mother I remember because that is the mother who took me shopping for fancy earrings when I was heartbroken about some boy whose name I’ve long forgotten.

Every once in a while lately, I can look in the mirror and get a glimpse of her. That used to horrify me, but now it makes me feel reassured.  I know where I came from.  Vivian is still with me, inside me. I remember.

My Mother’s Things

My mother’s things 

Sit upstairs in the little brick Cape

With the gray shutters

Somewhere in New Jersey.

Her things,

The things she left behind:

Old worn white bras,

Soft and comfortable – 

Pastel flannel nightgowns trimmed in lace,

The black and red snowflake sweater

I gave her one Christmas,

Lots of small boxes with cheap jewelry –

Little plastic treasures –

Shiny bits of memories.

 

My mother’s things

Folded and packed away:

Her address book scrawled with

Her eloquent handwriting,

A book of prayers,

A class photo – 1983 –

Her second grade class,

Mom in the middle – the doting teacher –

A moment of pure happiness.

My mother’s things taken away,

Taken by family, taken by strangers.

My mother’s things – 

All her self taken –

Gone, gone, gone.

 

One or two things –

My mother’s things

I squirrel away:

Her laugh, her smile,

The way she’d touch my arm,

The memories of her love

Kept safely, so carefully,

So gently, kept with me.

Her self remains with me

Until I’m gone.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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 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.