Poetry Friday: Summer Surprise

We haven’t filled our bird feeders for months because we don’t want bears wandering through our yard, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still bringing us beauty and inspiration. I found this lovely visitor tucked into a corner that doesn’t get mowed. What better form than a Fibonacci for a poem about a sunflower?

seed, long
grows summer surprise:
one blossoming, buttery sun.

© Catherine Flynn, 2017

Please be sure to visit Katie at The Logonauts for the Poetry Friday Roundup!

Poetry Friday: Healing Hands

Happy National Macaroni and Cheese Day! Last week, Tabatha Yeatts, today’s PF Roundup hostess, suggested we celebrate this delectable dish in verse. Coincidentally, I had just read Rita Dove’s prompt, “Your Mother’s Kitchen” in The Practice of Poetry. Dove directs writers to include “the oven… and also something green.”  My draft deviates from the instructions slightly by not including “something dead,” and not having a female relation “walk into the kitchen during the course of the poem.” My sister doesn’t like to cook and wouldn’t have been anywhere near the kitchen while my mother was cooking!

Healing Hands

My mother’s hands
were healing hands.
After standing all day
helping doctors stitch
broken bodies back together,
she came home to
tend and mend us.

When she was seven,
my sister suffered
from chronic strep.
Soft and smooth
on her raw throat,
my mother’s macaroni and cheese
was all she’d eat.

In the kitchen, my mother
gathered milk, butter, and cheese.
Velveeta was the cheese of choice.
She took the foil-wrapped
brick from its bright yellow box,
diced it into chunks.
Standing in front
of the avocado green stove,
she whisked the mornay sauce,
stirred until the liquid
was smooth and golden,
then poured it over
steaming macaroni
waiting in a pyrex dish.
Into the oven it went,
where it transformed into a
creamy, bubbling concoction.

To this day,
whenever I see a box of Velveeta,
I can taste the macaroni and cheese
my mother used to make
with her healing hands.

© Catherine Flynn, 2017

Of course I had to make a batch, just to make sure I had the details right. 😉


A Slice of My Summer Learning Journey

“Learning is a journey; art is a map”
~ Tom Lee ~

One frustration I often have after attending workshops or conferences during the school year is that when I get back to school, I’m immediately caught up in day-to-day demands. This leaves little time to process and implement what I’ve learned. Presenters always advise to “pick one strategy or activity” to weave into your practice, but this too can be a challenge. So I’ve loved having some uninterrupted time to process my learning from the four days I spent at the Yale Center for British Art, which I wrote briefly about here

I’ve also been reading Vicki Vinton’s wise and thought-provoking new book, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (Heinemann, 2017). The reverberations between Vicki’s book and my learning from YCBA are striking. Having met Vicki, attended many of her sessions at conferences and reading her book, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, What Readers Really Do, this really didn’t surprise me.

As I reread my notes, some overarching ideas stood out:

  • possibility
  • observing
  • thinking
  • understanding
  • skill development

I created a document with five columns, sorting my notes according to these ideas. I quickly realized that I was “tackling complexity” by “putting the pieces together, rather than taking them apart, [which allowed me] to see connections, relationships and patterns of interactions.” (p. 4) It was deeply satisfying to see these relationships emerge.

Vicki’s underlying argument is that, in our rush to scaffold our students for success, we have deprived our students of opportunities to engage in critical thinking. They need many opportunities to engage in “productive struggle…the process of thinking, making sense and persevering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed” (p.13).

Visual literacy teaches children that, as Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education at YCBA, pointed out  “images have an underlying narrative.” They automatically provide an accessible text that allow students to engage in productive struggle. Images allow students to think “for themselves, with a minimum of scaffolding.” (Vinton, p. 27). Reading images develops the same skills readers need when they read any text, including vocabulary, identifying key details, precise word choice, observation, and formulating and defending a thesis. (What Vicki and Dorothy refer to as “first-draft” thinking). Importantly, visual literacy makes abstract comprehension skills more concrete.

By incorporating visual literacy into our regular literacy routines, we create opportunities for students “to wonder, generate questions, and form hypotheses, then to test out those hypotheses, using reasoning and logic, to arrive at a final judgment or claim” (Vinton, p. 37).

Give it a try. What do you see in this painting? Images such as “The Young Anglers,” by Edmund Bristow, offer students a chance to orient themselves to the narrative of the image, just as readers have to orient themselves when reading  written text.

Edmund Bristow, 1787–1876, British, The Young Anglers, ca. 1845, Oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

After observing and gathering information, students share their thoughts. Just as with a piece of writing, students’ ideas have to be grounded in the details of the painting. Again, the process of reading a painting parallels and supports what we do when we read a book. If someone says they think the dog above belongs to the two boys, they have to share the exact detail from the painting that makes them think that. This is a critical step. As Vicki states, “the more opportunities students have to talk about their thinking, the more likely they are to transfer that thinking from one text to the next” (p. 77). This is true for images as well as written texts, and will also transfer from images to written texts.

Once students have developed an understanding of the narrative of the painting, the response options are limitless. Students can sketch or draw their response, write about their thinking, or (ideally), both. And, just as writing deepens our understanding of a text we’ve read, sketching deepens our understanding of visual images by drawing us ever deeper into the fine details.

The possibilities incorporating visual literacy into our classrooms are endless, and I’m excited to get back to school and working with students to build their thinking skills. In the meantime, I’m going to finish reading Vicki’s book and continue gathering images that will “give [students] a chance to build up the muscle to deal with the problems texts like this pose” (p. 79). 

Thank you to the incredible educators and speakers at YCBA, including Jaime Ursic, Patti Darragh, Tom Lee, James Shivers, and Darcy Hicks, for your insights on incorporating visual literacy in the classroom.

Poetry Friday: How Many Greens Can One Day Hold?

According to Marcel Gleiser, Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravitiy “is a gem. It’s a pleasure to read, full of wonderful analogies and imagery and, last but not least, a celebration of the human spirit, in ‘permanent doubt, the deep source of science.’” What it is not, however, is a beach read. (Krista Tippett’s interview with Rovelli here is worth listening to.) That didn’t stop me from picking it up at the library a few weeks ago. While some of the science confused me, the poetry of Rovelli’s prose was immediately apparent. I decided right away that this book was perfect for the “Collaborative Cut-Up” exercise, shared by Anne Waldman in The Practice of Poetry, that my critique group partner, Margaret Simon, shared on her blog last week.

Rovelli’s text definitely “utilize[s] a vocabulary not [my] own.” Less apparent was what lines of my own I would “intercut” them with. Then, as I sat on my porch one afternoon, the answer was obvious. My yard and the woods and fields around it are a riot of green at this time of year, and I asked the question out loud. Lucy, my trusty beagle, looked up at me, but had no reply.

How Many Greens Can One Day Hold?

How many greens can one day hold?
I’m not sure.

As many greens as blades of grass, lit by sun-
light falling on a surface like a gentle hail shower?
Or ferns, reaching toward the sky, forming
small diaphanous clouds
of vibrant, growing green.

Nothing stays still.
Glossy green treetops
tremble like the surface of the sea.

Step into the unknown,
where coolness hides.
The truth is in the depths
of shadowy green pines.

Fireflies’ neon green signals
speak with the voice of nature,
blink on and off, whisper goodnight,
accept living immersed in mystery.

© Catherine Flynn, 2017 (italicized lines by Carol Rovelli and translators Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

If quantum gravity isn’t a topic you’re anxious to learn more about, this book isn’t a good choice. But in the last chapter, “Mystery,” Rovelli asks some serious questions about the nature of knowledge and what we can know with certainty. He states “to seek to look further, to go further, seems to me to be one of the splendid things that gives sense to life.” Splendid, indeed.

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.com

Please be sure to visit Carol Varsalona at Beyond Literacy Link for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: “In A Museum”

I was incredibly fortunate to spend four days this week at the Yale Center for British Art‘s Summer Teacher Institute. The goal of this Institute was to provide teachers with strategies for incorporating visual literacy into their classrooms. This is something I have been working on for many years, but my experience at Yale opened my eyes to new ways of supporting literacy with visual arts. In my final reflection, I stated that although school has just ended, I can’t wait for school to begin again so I can share all I learned with my colleagues and students.

The entire, vast collection at YCBA resonates with poetry. We spent hours with individual paintings, delving into the stories they tell. I’m still a little overwhelmed with all I saw and learned, and am grateful to have a few uninterrupted weeks to process the information and strategies the amazing instructors shared with us. This poem, by Thomas Hardy, begins to capture my experience.

“In a Museum”
by Thomas Hardy


Here’s the mould of a musical bird long passed
from light,
Which over the earth before man came was winging;
There’s a contralto voice I heard last night,
That lodges in me still with its sweet singing.


Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird
Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending
Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that
I heard,
In the full-fuged song of the universe unending.

“Tail piece to The Nightingale” by Alfred W. Cooper, via Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Please be sure to visit Diane Mayr at Random Noodling for the Poetry Friday Roundup.



Poetry Friday: The Laws of Motion

Summer is a time to kick back and relax, but for teachers it is also time to work on projects we don’t have time for during the school year. This summer, I’m excited that my critique group and I are reading The Practice of Poetry and completing the writing exercises as a way to build our poetry muscles. Our first “assignment” was “Experience Falls Through Language Like Water Through a Sieve” by Susan Mitchell. (You can read Margaret’s thoughts about this exercise here.)

The gist of this exercise is to “use similes and/or metaphors to convey a feeling, an idea, a mood, or an experience you have never been able to communicate to anyone because each time you tried it seemed that you were being untrue to the experience.” My response, as usually happens when we write, took me to an unexpected place. I haven’t ever shared this memory from high school and still feel guilty that I stood by while a guy I was trying to impress was so mean to a stranger. In her directions, Smith writes that “we often write ahead of our own understanding.” Sadly, we often live our lives ahead of them, too. And, as with writing, our “conscious thinking [has] to catch up.” Writing and reflecting hastens this process, but some lessons take longer than others. Thankfully, this was a lesson I only had to endure once. Figuring out that “simile and metaphor are functional, rather than decorative” and using them effectively may take me a little longer. 

The Laws of Motion

The first time I saw you,
your face reminded me of the scarred,
pock-marked surface of Io,
Jupiter’s volcanic moon.

How brave you were to walk
into that unknown space,
carrying a plastic tray filled
with tater tots,
as if that would shield you
from the shining stars
of our little galaxy.

A comet sailed among us that year,
pulled me into his orbit,
blinded me to right and wrong,
caused me to wobble on my axis
until I was so off-kilter that
I didn’t say a word
when he turned to you,
pelted you with cruelty and insults.

To this day, I’m ashamed
I wasn’t strong enough
to pull free of his hold on me.
Ashamed that I didn’t have your strength,
that I looked away,
as you strode by
with your head held high.

© Catherine Flynn, 2017

Please be sure to visit Heidi Mordhorst at My Juicy Little Universe (how appropriate!) for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: The Wonders Around Us

My summer writing goal:

Sing of the Earth and sky,
sing of our lovely planet,
sing of the low and high,
of fossils locked in granite.

Sing of the strange, the known,
the secrets that surround us,
sing of the wonders shown,
and the wonders still around us.

by Aileen Fisher

Thank you, Miss Fisher, for reminding me.

“A Night in Malibu” by Jeremy Bishop, via Unsplash

Please be sure to visit Carol at Carol’s Corner for the Poetry Friday Roundup.