Forest Bathing: New Hampshire Woods

This weekend, I took a much-needed respite from New Jersey, end-of-year school minutiae, and general modern angst.  Normally,  I don’t like to travel on Memorial Day, but my body and mind were yearning from green.  While most of New Jersey headed for the shore this holiday weekend, my husband and I planned a four day get-away to Vermont.  The traffic was non-existent.  Everyone was headed in the opposite direction.  We zipped up the New York State Thruway and onto the beautiful scenic backroads of Vermont. 

Mountains rose up all around us, and I instantly felt at peace.  This is where my mind and body belong – up among the green and growing – deep in the green valley protected by the tall mountains all around. I feel safe here.  I feel like I can finally let down my defenses and lay down my cares. I meditate on one rolling mountain after another like giant green waves lulling me into a restful state. “Relax… breathe…rest,” is my mantra.  I vow to let go this weekend, to not check social media, stay away from cellphones, laptops, and televisions. I just want to be present to nature.

One day of our adventure, we drove from the Green Mountains into the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Again, we took scenic backroads, past red barns, meadows of wildflowers and fields dotted with cows, sheep, horses, and goats.  Little sleepy town greeted us with good coffee, farm-fresh food, and country hospitality.  Spring in the mountains is opposite of the rush of New Jersey.  I longed to stroll along the hiking paths of the Kancamagus Highway.  We went to numerous favorite spots and arrived in the late afternoon at Sabbaday Falls.  This is a mile hike to a gorgeous waterfall.  I love this place.  I once came face to face with a moose here.  Everyone on the trail stood frozen in suspense.  I looked up and saw this gorgeous creature and smiled, “ Oh, you are beautiful,” I told him quietly.  Our eyes met, and I thought I saw an appreciative smile before he bent his enormous head down towards new-green leaves.  I continued on my way, changed.  I encountered one of God’s remarkable creations, saw him close-up in nature.  What an honor!  Having experiences like these in the wild, I believe, is essential to everyone’s health and well-being.  As Richard Louv notes in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “Progress does not have to be patented to be worthwhile. Progress can also be measured by our interactions with nature and its preservation. Can we teach children to look at a flower and see all the things it represents: beauty, the health of an ecosystem, and the potential for healing? ”

All that go-and-do exhausts our senses, and we need to get back to the woods to regain our balance.  Since I learned last year of the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” to reduce stress and maintain a strong relationship with nature, I have reminded myself of the importance that the natural world has on mankind. I am fortunate to live in an area with access to forests, swamps, farmland, and meadows.  And I’m doubly fortunate to have the resources to travel periodically to beautiful wild places. 

So as I walk along the riverside path, up and up and up to Sabbaday Falls, I soak in all I see:  water cascading over river rocks, trees clinging to the side of steep cliffs, and above me a lush canopy of green.  I am surrounded by beauty.  It is easy to feel calm here.  I float on this current of green.  Listen to the thunder of the waterfall, the gurgle of the river, and the songbirds’ lilting tunes.  I try to capture this moment of peace with my camera.  I focus and shoot all along the path wrapping myself in the healing powers of the forest.

Sew Easy: Lessons in Perseverance

There are three rites of passage in the Wonder Studio: using the hot glue gun, working a hack saw, and learning to sew. The joyful expressions on students’ faces as they learn these skills are salve for my weary teacher’s soul.  These small accomplishments remind me of my original purpose when designing the Wonder Studio. Student agency was key.  I want to provide a safe place in which to make mistakes and grow confidence.  Sometimes, I get lulled into the belief that it’s just a messy place where kids spill paint, smear glue, and don’t adequately clean up. And then there are those moments when Susie uses the hacksaw for the first time and loudly proclaims, “I just use the hack saw! It was fun!” Beaming from ear to ear, she lifts up two pieces of wood to show everyone her handiwork. 

Sometimes, success takes a while, sometimes we need to overcome our fears first.  This was the case for Liv, who needed to hot glue small pieces for an intricate wooden spinning fidget that she was constructing.  She was afraid of using the hot glue gun, so I offered to glue the pieces.  Liv was not satisfied with the job I had done: too much glue and not quite in the exact perfect spot.  My big hands couldn’t execute the results she had desired.  Over the course of the next week, Liv got up the courage to use the hot glue gun herself.  She put together her fidget just as she had imagined. 

Then she quietly came up to me and said, “I am so proud of myself.”

“Yes, it is beautiful,” I said.

“Not for making it, Mrs. Emery. I’m proud that I overcame my fear of the glue gun.”

I chuckled and slapped her a high five, “Hooray for you!” I said.

The once hesitant, shy Liv is now master of the glue gun.  This experience of playing and experimenting with materials is essential for building confidence and character.

This week, Allie sat down next to me and expressed her desire to learn to sew. I agreed to show her.  Allie wanted to make a small drawstring pouch in which to collect pom-poms.  Doesn’t everyone?  I first traced a circle on a piece of colorful fabric.  Then Allie cut out the circle.  I outlined in pencil the track in which Lynne should sew.  I threaded a needle and asked her to watch me.  Allie became agitated. She started to recount all the reasons why she couldn’t learn how to sew.  Tears formed in her eyes, and she abruptly stood up ready to flee.  I motioned for her to sit back down. 

“I can’t do it! You have to show me,” she said. 

“Allie, listen.  Take a deep breath.  That’s what I’ve been doing,” I said calmly.

“You have to show me!” she demanded.

“Yes, but you have to look at me. Look at my hands.  Watch what I’m doing,”

She began to relax and concentrate on my hands. 

I began to verbalize my actions, “Up, pull through, down, pull though,” over and over again.

Then I handed the needle to Allie.  She began one stitch, two stitches, then over the edge of the fabric. Oh, no – a mistake.  Allie froze, she stood up, and tears well in her eyes again, “I can’t do it!” she yelled.

I reached out my hand, “It’s okay.  It’s okay.  That’s a very common mistake. I made that mistake a hundred times when I was learning to sew.”

She looked at me skeptically.

“You think that I never make mistakes?” I asked.

“Yes, you are perfect,” she declared seriously.

I laughed,” I make mistakes all the time.  It may look like things are easy for me because I’m old.  But I couldn’t learn anything if I didn’t make mistakes.  Mistakes are opportunities to learn.”

I pulled out the floss, threaded the needle again, and handed it back to Allie.  She sat down and began again.  She sewed all the way around the circle.  I clapped and smiled.  She grinned from ear to ear.  I pulled the drawstring and the circle magically became a pouch.  Allie put in her selected pom-poms.

“Allie, I’m going to help Liv. Make sure that you don’t cut the ends of the floss,” I said and left her for a few minutes.”

When I returned the floss ends were cut short.  I looked at Allie astonished, “Why did you cut the floss ends?”

“Because I didn’t want the long strings hanging,” she explained, adding that another girl told her to cut them.  The other girl loudly denied it.

“I told you not to cut them, Allie.  I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t know why you said that.  I didn’t know what would happened,” she replied looking scared.

“It’s okay,” I said, pulling out the thread and hold up the fabric circle, “Now you have the needle track to guide you. It will be easier this time.”

Allie dried her eyes and took the circle from me.  She began again and made no mistakes.  When she was done, we refilled it with colorful pompoms.  I showed Allie how to carefully put the drawstrings and tie them in a bow so she could easily open and close her precious pouch.

Allie did learn to sew last Thursday, but she leaned so much more.  She learned to never give up, to always try again, and to persevere even when things got hard, especially when things got hard.  And most of all, always push past your mistakes and push through your fear.

Later that day, I was walking down the hallway past Allie’s class.  And there she was, colorful pom-pom pouch in hand showing it off to her admiring classmates like sewing was easy, like she had known how to sew all along.  And this is why I continue to love teaching.  These moments, these times with students, these small important lessons help them grow and make me proud that I continue to be a teacher.

Inviting Readers to Slow Their Pace in a Digital World

I’ve read many educational books throughout my forty plus years as a teacher. I have learned so much from other teachers, writers, and researchers.  I’ve taken what I’ve read and applied it to my classroom practice and my work mentoring other teachers.  Sometimes, I come across a book that literally takes the top of my head off!  The ideas are so innovative and complex that I am totally stunned and need to slow down my pace and deeply consider what the author is communicating.  Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf is this kind of book.  Wolf’s previous book was Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, which tackled the history of written language and how this human invention has changed throughout the years and how this related to how best to support children with dyslexia.  Wolf is currently director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA.

Each chapter in Reader, Come Home is written as a letter to readers describing various aspects of how our reading brains are evolving in the face of technology.  Wolf expresses complex information in a personal way.  She begins with a brief history of how reading has changed, explains the neuroscience behind the reading process in an easy to understand and visual way, and she gives much thought to how adults can raise competent readers in a frenzied digital reading world. Wolf explores the nature of reading in light of increasing human dependence on digital technologies and artificial intelligence.  She expresses the need for children to develop critical thinking skills, background knowledge, and empathy for cultural differences (becoming the other).  These skills require reflection or what Wolf calls “cognitive patience.” What emerges from this type of close reading comes more questioning and wondering, which generates new perspectives and creative thought. It is slow but not stagnant. It is an intensively active reflection that leads to great insight. It is imperative that readers’ focus and attention need to be honed first in order for them to successfully navigate the frenetic, digital landscape.

I love how Wolf makes seamless connections between technology, neuroscience, physics, history, literature and philosophy.  At times, I had to pause and reread, just as Wolf invites us to do in order to cultivate a bilateral reading brain that can tackle both slow-paced, old school paper texts and fast-paced digital texts.  Wolf’s hope is for a world of readers who are curious, contemplative, and compassionate.  That is my hope too.  This is an important book that deserves a slow and careful read.

Daughter, Mother – Spring, Summer

As Mother’s Day approaches, I. have been thinking a lot about my mom, Vivian, who died at the age of 91, almost ten years ago. She was a dress designer, seamstress, artist, and teacher. What I didn’t know until this week, was that she was a poet.  Poetry was my father’s realm, so I guess she kept her poetry writing private.

My cousin’s daughter has been doing research recently on our family, and she found a newspaper clipping of a poem of my mother’s that was published in her local newspaper in 1953.  She was 31 years old at the time and had a one-year-old daughter, my sister Vivian. Ever since I read my mom’s poem, I’ve been imagining her as a young wife and mother and the hope she had which she imbued in her poem, “Summer’s Coming.” It comforts me now and gives me renewed hope.

This week, the Kindergarten students at my school are busy learning to recite a spring poem I wrote several years ago called “Awaken the Peas.”  As I listened to the children recite my poem, I realized how similar it is to my mother’s summer poem.

There is so much my mother has given me, and I’m learning more and more about her after her death. I often refer to her as “my first teacher,”  and she continues to leave me lessons.  I hope she knows that I am listening and will continue to listen until my final winter comes.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

Photograph by Joanne Emery, May, 2023

Inside the Wonder Studio: Marvelous Mess

Last week, the 4th graders were in the midst of their third week of studio work.  They have been inspired to try some new things.  A few found old knitting needles and lots of colorful yarn, so they have been sitting together chatting and knitting, happy to be in each other’s company.  Another group was fascinated by a paper-mâché sphere I created using a balloon as the base.  As they worked, it was apparent that this was the first time they ever used paper-mâché.  I stopped assuming they knew how to apply the newspaper and sat down with them to demonstrate the technique.  They quickly caught on and sat contently applying layer after layer of newspaper.  Patting down air bubbles and smoothing the surface of their spheres.  I asked them what they were going to do with them, once they were done and each child responded the same, “I don’t know.  I’m thinking.” So I left them to their thoughts and gooey application.

As I stopped to survey their work from my perch on the stairs, I noticed that we were teetering on the brink of capacity.  The rest of the wonder crew were using balsa wood, cardboard, and hot glue to make various structures, signs, tine abodes for rock people, jewelry storage stands, and other imaginative gadgets. Every square inch of this small space was occupied. One student, who has been intent on making a large wooden box was busily gluing on the floor in my adjacent office.  From this height, I also noticed what a great mess they were creating: balls of yarn rolled across the floor, bits of balsa wood scraps scattered over the rug, a trail of red paint crossed the room from table to garbage can. It was a good thing I bought two dozen craft aprons so at least the students could remain relatively clean.  The paper-mâché  crew were up to their elbows in white goo as they patted their stick spheres.  I realized that this mess-making was making everyone happy.  It created a calming atmosphere.  Children need these sensory experiences.  Curious, I asked the group, “How many of you have a place at home to make art and get messy?” Not one child raised her hand.  I was not surprised, but it saddened me.  It made me doubly aware of how much the children need this time and space to create and get messy.  This realization made me more patient with spills and splatters.  Learning is a messy process.  Children need lots of practice getting messy, trying, failing, and trying again.  So when Leah suddenly called out, and I see the glue solution has spilled all over her apron and down her legs, I smile, and I say, “It’s okay, go to the sink.  It washes right out.”

When Libby has spread out a large, taped-together piece of paper and arranged little paint pots set in a semi-circle, I am so glad because her body has finally relaxed.  Her shoulders aren’t up to her ears anymore.  Her body flows, moving with her paint brush.  I take a quick photo and send it to her mom with the subject title: “This Girl is an Artist.”  So often, we are quick to label the natural trials and tribulations of childhood as a pathology of one type or another.  We want to name every human quirk and eccentricity.  Instead, maybe we just need more art.  I know from personal experience the power art has to heal.

Finally, as I cajole the girls to clean up after our short time together.  Callie dawdles.  She is having trouble gettering her jacket on.  “My arms are sticking inside my sleeves,” she declares.  I touch her arms, “Callie, didn’t you wash your arms?” I exclaim.  She assures me that she did.  I guide her back to the sink to show her how to wash off the glue.  She had just stuck her arms under the water the first time.  Now, I show her how to rub the glue off with water, soap, and paper towel. Simple things, but not so evident to children. I laugh and help her dry off.

This messiness is all part of the charm of childhood. It is part of play, learning, and being together with one another.  This messy space I manage is crucially important. Even though it’s just a small crowded hallway to most people, it is a special and magical messy space to the children and me.

Spread A Little Fairy Dust

Last week and this coming week marks two weeks of standardized testing at my school.  One week for the test and the following week for make-ups, for anyone who was sick or whose parents decided to take them on vacation. Yes, vacation.  For some crazy twist in the universe, I am in charge of testing.  At first I resented that someone would take their 3rd, 4th, or 5th grader on vacation during testing week.  I now admire the parents’ thinking:  “The test can wait.  It will still be there when we return.”  What a commanding attitude.  Fun, rest, leisure come first.  Testing? 

Testing can wait but not for me and most of my students.  We could not avoid being assessed, judged, and quantified.  I am responsible for all the students with learning differences who require extended time.  I remember what it was like to be a student taking those yearly spring exams. I’d get so nervous that I’d have butterflies in my stomach.  I’d read passages and word problems and suddenly nothing made sense to me. I’d try to focus and reread what I just read.  Test taking was a slow and painful process. 

Last week, my students and I spent five mornings together taking an assortment of reading, writing, and math tests.  I tried to make it less stressful.  I tried to make it fun.  I brought doughnuts!  As we were about to begin, they asked me question after question:  “How many questions are there?  I long will it take?  If I have to go to the bathroom, can you pause the test?  Good, smart, practical questions.  I answer every single one.  Then I said, “I’m going to sprinkle fairy dust on you.  This will give you good luck and the test will be easier.”  I thought they would laugh and think I was being goofy. I’m sure they did, but also, to my surprise, each and every one of them called out wanting to make sure that I didn’t miss them.  Some of them asked for another helping for fairy dust.  We laughed loudly.  We were now ready for the test.

Like all the years before, the students got through the testing week and were relieved and happy when Friday came.  I know testing is necessary, but I think there is a way to quantify what they really now is a more creative, positive way. But of course, that would be labor intensive, take commitment and imagination, which we have a short supply of lately in education.  As I compete my forty-second year of teaching and look forward to forty-three, I wrote a poem as a balm for testing week.

No Reason to Fear the Wind

Spring is normally a busy time for me at school.  I’m in charge of standardized testing, grade placement, and wrapping up all student support documents for the year.  Everything in my entire being yearns to resist this regimentation.  Rather, my body and mind desperately need to relax, refresh, and find things to celebrate.  I have no desire to analyze test scores, manage student placement for fall, or organize all the hundreds of pages of documents that I am responsible for keeping current and filing away in the right places.

Instead, I want to relish warm weather and blue sky.  I want to delight in bright colors and the air filled with the steady hum of bubble bees.  I left school one day just a half-hour early to find my way to my local garden shop, Back to Nature.  It is a place I revisit regularly to find my balance and connect with green and growing things. 

As I park my car and enter the space, I immediately feel at ease.  Yellow and purple pansies greet me.  I take a deep breath.  I consciously drop my shoulders and let go of all the stressors that have been accumulating throughout the day.  They all mean nothing .  What matters to me is beauty and flowers and the spiraling bees drunk on honey.

I let myself wander, taking photo after photo of spring colors in the form of flowers.  I inhale their fragrance.  I’m not at school any more.  This is my small moment to enjoy.

For about a decade or more, I’ve been slowly growing my roots.  Letting go of toxic people even when they are family and allowing myself to feel joy. Growing my roots was a hidden and slow process.  I have always felt a little untethered, aimless, impulsive. Now, as I approach seventy, I want to slow down, consider the small wonders all around me, take them in, and sit in gratitude with them.  I don’t want to rush around being anxious and fearful.  I am cultivating faith and peace.  I know I will need a steady supply of these as I age.

The garden sheds that in December were filled with holiday wreathes, flowers, and decorations are now transformed for spring.  Bouquets of tulips and daises line the shelves.  Statutes of bunnies, frogs, birds, and turtles hide in every corner.  A large banner hangs in one shed proclaiming “When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind.”  I stop and smile at this garden wisdom.  I know I need these moments for my roots to dig more firmly into the ground.  I know that tending my inner garden is crucially important.  Without these bits of respite.  I would once again feel in flux, at the mercy of the slightest of breeze.  Now, I have dug in deep, spread my strong and agile roots.  Now, I can’t be easily toppled.  Now I stand firm.

Inside the Wonder Studio: A Space for Mistakes

All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved

for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed…

– John Ruskin

When I conceived of the Wonder Studio eight years ago, I thought of a space where students could go to create and play with craft and building materials.  I wanted the kids to have freedom to think up an idea and create it.  Their projects were not made by following directions. They were made by experimenting and tinkering; trying out an idea and changing it.

For the first six years, the space was called Wonder Lab, and it was housed in a large former art room where kids could build large projects with cardboard, wood, duct tape, hammers, nails, and paint.  Then, two years ago, the Wonder Lab space was needed for a new Computer Science & Engineering  (CS&E) Lab, so I quietly moved to the lobby area between the CS&E and my office.  It was cozy with a fireplace and access to a circular porch.  I dubbed it the Wonder Studio and continued to invite children to come and imagine, and they have.  Their projects are smaller now, but their ideas continue to be big.

Sometimes, I think the children are not paying attention, that they don’t fully understand the importance of the Wonder Studio. And of course, I’ve been proven wrong.  This week, a group of 5th graders were working on building a replica of their classrooms to present as a gift to their teachers on Teacher Appreciation Day.  They have been working diligently to complete it for the past six weeks.  As they began to decorate the structure, they wrapped muslin onto the walls of the classroom.  They used Elmer’s glue and as a result the fabric bubbled and buckled.  I wish they had consulted me beforehand, but they are an independent and tenacious lot.  When they came to me for advice, we talked about their options. First, I thought of removing the fabric, but it was glued down so well, it would have destroyed the walls. Next, we tried smoothing it with our hands and some tongue depressors.  Then, I tried pulling the fabric tighter and trimming off the excess. The girls were dismayed and dissatisfied. I told them that when the fabric dried, it might look better, and that when they attached the miniature bulletin boards and whiteboards, they would hide much of the buckling fabric.

The leader of the group was clearly disappointed.  She said, “Oh it’s ugly now.  Let’s give it to Mrs. Emery.” 

I smiled, “Well, thank you very much.  You are going to give me it because you think it’s ugly?”

Another girl piped up quickly,” No, Mrs. Emery, we’d give it to you because you are a creator, and you understand when thing don’t turn out perfectly.  You love them anyway.”

I laughed and touched my heart, “That is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. Thank you.”

Then we returned to work together to make the fabric smoother.  They decided that they would indeed give the model to their teachers.  I can’t wait to see how it finally turns out.

Never underestimate children!  They truly appreciate this space in which to make mistakes.  And I’m so glad I created it for them.  I beam with pride knowing that they see me as being someone who accepts mistakes; someone who embraces ugly.  I have always been that way.  I don’t know why.  Naturally shy with people, I am bold when crafting. I love challenging myself and trying new things. I’m okay if something turns out wobbly and uneven.  That gives the object more character, more charm, more substance.

My favorite movie as a child was The Music Man.  First of all, it was a musical, and as a kid I wished life was a musical, so we could all burst into song at any moment of the day, in good times and bad.  Indeed, the world would be a better place if this were the case.  The ending of The Music Man has remained in my memory, and its message took hold deep in my heart and mind.  Professor Harold Hill was clearly a huckster, but he was also a dreamer.  So when his music students (who could not read a note of music) come out to march in the town parade, they are seen by Professor Hill and the townspeople as being a brilliant, accomplished band.  That scene formed my philosophy of education, which has sustained me for over 40 years: Give kids space and encouragement to create.  Applaud both their accomplishments and their mistakes.  With time, they will surely grow and do great things.

Inside the Wonder Studio: Life in Miniature

A brave and brilliant 5th grade Wonder Studio crafter wearing kaleidoscope glasses.

When I was in the 5th grade, I loved making miniature replicas of things that I was learning about in school: prairie houses, covered wagons, log cabins, and so much more.  When I read about ancient history, I would make models of castles, pyramids, and I even made a sugar cube Roman Colosseum. I loved designing and building in miniature. I loved the challenge of finding materials that could be used in my creations. My good friend, Roxane, was an expert at sewing tiny families of mice clothed in wonderful Victorian costumes.  I didn’t know how she crafted them so meticulously. My creations definitely looked child-made.  I was so proud of them.  Taking the time to create them deepened my understanding not only of the crafting process, but also of the time period I was endeavoring to replicate.

This month in the Wonder Studio, the 5th graders have been working on a small scale.  No one mandated that they do so.  They all just started making tiny projects.  It might be due to the fact that they are starting a unit in math in which they are required to make tiny houses for clients. The clients are comprised of willing teachers and school staff.  No matter what the reason, this focus on small is age appropriate and well-suited to their developmental level.  Their fingers are now skillful enough to manufacture tiny things, and they are intellectually curious about how various things work.  By making miniature models, they are able to gain a fuller understanding of how the real things work.

This is the 5th graders’ second round in Wonder Studio this year.  They no longer need an introduction to where materials are stored or how to operate simple machines  the hot glue gun, saddle stapler, saw, drill, cardboard scissors, iron, etc.) As soon as we enter the studio, they rush to work.  They all have ideas and are ready to put them into action.

The hot glue guns are very popular!

A group of three students, then four, now six are constructing a model of their classroom to present to their teachers on Teacher Appreciate Day in April. Four students are creating the classroom with foam core, cardboard, and wood scraps.  Two others have labeled themselves “the carpenters,” and are making a series of tiny wooden desks and chairs for the classroom.  I sit back and marvel at their ingenuity.  I jump in when I’m asked for materials or crating assistance.  But the ideas?  The ideas are all theirs.  In these short set of weeks, I’ve seen their confidence and ideas grow.  They are more willing to take risks.  They problem-solve, collaborate, and call on each other’s best skills.  When I witness this natural buzz of creative process, I become so excited because to me this is the essence of learning.  They are in the zone.  They are in what Csikzentmihalyi called the state of flow.

Students make miniature bulletin boards for their tiny classroom model.

Another pair of students have decided to create bakery products.  They are concocting donuts, coffee cakes, and cupcakes with found objects from the Wonder Studio.  One student found a way to make roasted marshmallows. They find things that I didn’t even know we had!  They cut, paint, glue with happy abandon.

Donuts, coffee cake, pie, cake pops, cupcakes and roasted marshmallows!

Anna has brought a small plastic bag with her to the Wonder Studio.  She takes out a miniature pinball machine that she started at home.  It is incredibly tiny, and she is determined to make it work.  I am in awe of her precision. I keep wondering how we can transfer this kind of agency and enthusiasm to regular classroom experiences.  The students always tell me that Wonder Studio should be a “real subject” like math and English.  They want that challenge of coming up with an idea, their own idea, and seeing it grow into a reality. They need time to do this.

Tiny working pinball machine.

Ida, who is unafraid to try something new, excels in Wonder Studio.  I call her “our engineer.”  She loves making tiny replicas of machines that really work (a humane trap, a windmill, a rolling cart – to name a few).  This week, she saw a “That was Easy” button I had on a counter and decided to make one out of cardboard soup container lids.  Ida’s button says, “OOF!” on the top, and when you press it, it makes a soft whooshing sound.  I am amazed and ask her how she constructed it. Ida looks at me like I have just asked the dumbest question on the face of the planet, shrugs her shoulders, and says confidently, “Compressed air.” I am constantly surprised by Ida’s ingenious designs.

Engineers and crafters at work.

These small creations, this work in miniature, garner big results.  The students now own the Wonder Studio.  It is their space.  They know how to use it.  They are no longer hesitant but dive head-long into projects – trying ideas, sometimes abandoning them, but mostly following through and sharing their creations proudly.

Object Connections: Janet Wong’s Poetry

Last week, I had an opportunity to attend a poetry workshop presented by Janet Wong and sponsored by Rutgers University Center for Literacy Development, which is directed by Dr. Lesley Morrow.  Janet won the NCTE excellence in children’s Poetry Award in 2021.  It is a lifetime achievement award, and one of the highest honors a children’s poet can receive.   Before becoming a poet, Janet was a lawyer.  Currently, she serves on the Yale Law School executive committee.  However, decades ago she decided to change the direction of her life to become a children’s book author.  She has published over forty books for children and teens on diverse subjects. This workshop was special to me because, as a member of the advisory board of RUCLD, I had been asked to help Janet throughout the day. I have always admired Janet, and now I got to spend the day with her.

Janet brought two large suitcase of props: flip-flops, popcorn, marshmallows, nori seaweed snacks, gummy worms, a rubber duck, a bunch of bananas, a bag of just-ripe avocados, a can of peas, an apple, an orange, an onion, a clove of garlic, and much more.  As she read poems and told the stories behind the poems, Janet would give away objects as gifts to the audience members.  This is where my job began.  I put on my best “Vanna White” imitation – holding objects up in the air, smiling, and then racing around the conference space delivering the precious objects to participants.

One poem that Janet acted out for us and had participants act out in turn was “Noodle Soup.”  It is a short, happy rhyming poem. From the repetition, alliteration, and whimsical rhyme, one would think it was just a funny kid poem.   However, Janet told us the story behind this poem.  When she was a child, she invited her best friend over for breakfast.  Her mother made a steaming pot of wonton soup, Janet’s favorite. When her friend arrived late, she looked at the soup and said, “Don’t you eat ‘normal’ food for breakfast?”  This hurt Janet immensely, but she never told her friend.                    

Another of Janet’s poems, “Waiting at the Railroad Café,” recounts a tense scene when Janet and her family were on vacation and went to restaurant to eat.  When the family entered, it was like they were invisible.  They weren’t greeted or taken to a seat.  They weren’t given menus.  They were completely ignored because they were Asian.  That experience made a profound impact on Janet.

These two poems come from Good Luck Gold, which was the first book Janet published in 1994.  Good Luck Gold & More was published in 2021 and took Janet’s original forty-two poem collection and added fifty more pages of prose explaining the backstory of each poem.  I loved that Janet took everyday objects and connected them to times in her life. Out of that connection a poem was born.  Many times we read poems but do not know the backstory.  The backstory creates context and gives us a deeper understanding of the poem.

After her large group presentation, participants were able to attend a small group session with Janet.  That session was designed to give participants a chance to write.  Janet and I stacked copies of her various poems and spread a majority of the contents of her two large suitcases onto four long tables.  As a warm-up, Janet asked us to match her poems with the objects that were displayed around the room.  Then, Janet asked us to choose an object and write a poem about it.  As we shared our poems, Janet gave away more objects to the poet-participants.  It was clear that Janet has a generous spirit: she gave her time and knowledge freely. She enjoyed gifting people with the objects she had lugged from Seattle, Washington to Piscataway, New Jersey.

Below is the poem I wrote for my object – a small yellow rubber duck.  The poem came to me as I remembered my friend, Arman, telling me how his son, Caram, did not like water and bath time at all.  He would cry and cry.  So I re-imagined how Caram could become in love with bath time.

As we packed up what was left of her belongings into now one suitcase, Janet encouraged me to keep writing and to join her summer initiative, Think Poetry, which will provide opportunities for teachers and librarians to publish their poems.  As we departed, Janet stacked cookies, popcorn, and Nori seaweed snacks in my arms.

“Put them in your faculty room,” she said with a smile. “I couldn’t have had a more helpful partner today. We are a good team.”

I smiled, thanked her, and walked to my car juggling my teacher treats.  Janet not only connected people to objects and experiences, she connected people to each other, and that is the true power of poetry.

Some Books by Janet Wong

Picture Books

  1. Alex and the Wednesday Chess Club
  2. Apple Pie 4th of July
  3. This Next New Year
  4. You Have to Write
  5. Homegrown House
  6. Me and Rolly Maloo

Poetry Books

  1. A Suitcase of Seaweed and Other Poems
  2. A Suitcase of Seaweed & MORE
  3. Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving
  4. Declaration of Interdependence: Poems for an Election Year
  5. Good Luck Gold and Other Poems
  6. Gold Luck Gold & More
  7. Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions
  8. Once Upon A Tiger: New Beginnings for Endangered Animals
  9. Night Garden: Poems from The World of Dreams
  10. The Rainbow Hand: Poems about Mothers and Children
  11. Twist: Yoga Poems

Anthologies Created with Sylvia Vardell

  1. Dear One: A Tribute to Lee Bennett Hopkins
  2. GREAT Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud
  3. HOP TO IT: Poems to Get You Moving
  4. The Poetry Friday Anthology Series
  5. You Just Wait – The Poetry Friday Power Book Series