I’ve been participating in Laura Shovan’s Found Object Poem Project this month, and although I’ve missed two or three days, my brain is certainly getting a workout! It’s fascinating to see the wide variety of poems people have written in response to the same object. Even poems with similar word choice have very different tones.
My poem for today was written in response to this Found Object, shared by Linda Baie:
Although this is clearly not a corncob doll, it reminded me instantly of Little House in the Big Woods, and Laura’s corncob doll, Susan.
Bouncing along this rutted trail toward a great unknown, I clutch my dolly, Susan, keeping her corncob body close. Ma saved one cob from last summer’s harvest to make this dolly, just for me after I helped her husk the bushels of corn Pa hauled from the field. Corn for us to eat, corn to grind into meal, corn to feed our brown swiss, Bess, so she’d share her sweet, creamy milk.
Ma sewed a little dress from scraps of calico soft as a cloud, blue as the summer sky, sprigged with pink and white daisies like those in our yard. Fashioned a tiny muslin bonnet, just like mine, it’s wide pleated brim shielding our faces from the blazing sun as it leads us westward, toward our new home.
There is a pond in the woods behind our house where we spent many hours exploring when my boys were growing up. They fished there in the summer and we skated in winter, but I hardly ever go back there anymore.
Sunday was a beautiful winter day here in Connecticut. There wasn’t any wind and the sky was a clear, brilliant blue, so I decided to walk down the hill to say hello to the pond. I quickly discovered that my plan wouldn’t be an easy one to carry out. The path was quite overgrown with pricker bushes that kept catching on my coat and hat. I forged ahead, but came around a bend and saw that a tree had fallen across the trail. Vines had grown up over it, making it look like a trellis or bower guarding a secret garden, a garden that I wasn’t going to be able to enter.
As I trudged back up the hill, I realized the overgrown path was like my writing brain. It’s been mostly ignored and untended for the past six months. Every time I sit down to write I feel like I have to fight my way through an overgrown thicket of brambles.
Over the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve been writing more and more and I’ve noticed that I can actually feel my brain become more flexible and limber when I sit down to write. I’m definitely more responsive to the world around me.
This got me thinking about our students, and what happens when they don’t have opportunities to write every day, or chances to sit and contemplate an idea or an image. In her book Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way (Heinemann, 1995), Georgia Heard recommends writing “ten observational sketches” every day for a week, writing everything you notice and hear. “The more accurately you can observe your world and capture it in words,” Heard writes, “the more concrete your writing will become.” It might be a challenge to get kids to write ten sketches each day, but three or four seems reasonable. Think of the writing stamina they would build!
I’m looking forward to spring and getting that path cleared so I can go check on the pond. After all, as Georgia Heard also so wisely points out, “It is a writer’s job to act as witness to the world, to remind us all to stay awake.”
When I was eight, I began ballet lessons. I had been dancing around the living room for years, and I think my mother thought it would be easier on the furniture. (The arms of our sofa made excellent alps when the Von Trapp family had to flee the Nazis in The Sound of Music.) I did love the leotards, especially the ones with satiny fronts that we wore for our recitals, but I didn’t love the disciplined practice. I was also a bit of a klutz.
Tallulah, a budding ballerina who is the star of five picture books by Marilyn Singer, is not a klutz and she does love to practice. From the moment we meet Tallulah, in Tallulah’s Tutu (Clarion Books, 2011), we know that she is going to be “a great ballerina.”
Tallulah’s enthusiasm is irrepressible and shines through in Alexandra Boiger’s watercolors. Tallulah doesn’t understand, though, why she doesn’t get a tutu when she begins her lessons. When her teacher explains that “it takes time and a lot of practice to earn your tutu,” her disappointment causes her to have a tantrum and she gives up ballet. But she really does love ballet. She dances around the neighborhood and through the supermarket. Eventually, Tallulah returns to her lessons and earns her tutu.
In a previous post, I’ve written about A Mindset for Learning (Heinemann, 2015) by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz. Throughout her five adventures, Tallulah exhibits all the characteristics of a person with “a mindset for learning.” Although Tallulah suffers disappointments in each book, her optimism and persistence always pay off in the end.She demonstrates resilience and flexibility as she faces challenges. Also, Tallulah learns much from those around her who show her empathy when she feels most defeated.
Tallulah may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but she was exactly what I needed to lure one of my students, a young ballerina who hated to read with a very fixed minset, into the world of books. We have talked about how Tallulah responds to the problems she’s faced with and how we can learn from Tallulah’s resilience and flexibility. While I still have a way to go with this student, I’ve earned her trust by sharing Tallulah’s stories with her and she’s making progress. We sometimes return to these stories if she needs a break or is having a particularly bad day. After all, it’s hard not to feel better after spending time with Tallulah.
I first read Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine Books, 2006) four years ago, but had heard of her work before that. (Watch Dweck’s TED Talk here.) The book resonated with me on many levels, including how it could help my son, who had recently injured his knee and could no longer pursue his dream of being a firefighter. The implications for the classroom were obvious, especially for older students.
But I work with younger students. How to frame this idea for them? I had no idea, and really no time to think about it. Fortunately, there are superwomen like Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz in the world who make time for these important questions. In their must-read new book, A Mindset for Learning: Teaching Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth(Heinemann, 2015), they break down the elements of a growth mindset into five essential components, or stances. These are empathy, flexibility, persistence, resilience, and optimism. Kristi and Christine explain in detail how these habits of mind can help students see themselves as “ever-evolving and powerful agents of change, both for themselves and for their world.”
Kristi and Christine also provide a step-by-step routine to introduce the stances using guided inquiry of a shared text. An appendix lists two dozen picture books that celebrate a growth mindset as a starting point for this inquiry. Once the stances have been introduced, Christine and Kristi provide strategies for fostering these habits and helping children use them as problem-solving tools. These include self-talk, storytelling, goal setting, and conferring, among others.
The research base for this work is included in every chapter, and there is an extensive list of works cited and books for further reading. Charts, forms, and examples of student work help busy teachers envision how they can integrate “a mindset for learning” into their classrooms. It’s important to note that this book isn’t “one more thing” to add to an already bursting curriculum. Creating a classroom that supports “an energized and engaged learning community” is the bedrock on which our students’ learning rests.
Listen to Kristi and Chrsitine talk about A Mindset for Learning during The Educator Collaborative’s Fall 2015 Online Gathering here.
I created this bulletin board at school to promote Kristi and Christine’s wonderful book to my colleagues:
Some of the books in this photo are on Christine and Kristi’s list of books promoting a growth mindset, but others are not. I’ll be sharing my thoughts about these books and more in the next few weeks.
Thank you, Kristi and Christine, for writing this important book, and for all you do to help teachers become stronger advocates for children!
My One Little Word for 2016 is present. I chose this word mainly to help me stop procrastinating, and so far it is helping. But a month after the fact, I’ve realized that another meaning of the word, being mindful and observant of the here-and-now, is also fitting. After all, observation is the work of poets (and teachers, but that’s another story!). This week I came across two poems that are full of presence, and also happen to be about birds.
“Grace” by Judith Moffet
It comes when you’re not looking. Has been there Before you noticed. Blazes forth between The hickory’s new leaves, their tender green Massy above you flopped into a chair, Hot from the garden with an aching back. Two phoebes flit from tree to eave to tree Feeding the tyrant nestlings you can’t see; You watch them labor, mind and body slack
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Mary Oliver
Packed away somewhere in my attic is a small green glass pitcher with “Mineloa Fair” embossed in gold letters on the front. My grandmother gave this pitcher to me years ago, telling me that on the day she got it, in 1908 when she was four years old, she saw an airplane for the first time.
More than a century later, I spent a week in Northern Virginia at my son’s house, which is directly under the flight path for planes landing at Dulles Airport. It was late April and spring was in full bloom, so I went for a walk to enjoy the weeping cherry and magnolia trees. As I headed back toward my son’s house, I realized that the number of planes flying over had increased dramatically. Curious, I started counting. Soon ten planes had passed over in a very short period of time. I started timing them. There seemed to be as little as thirty seconds in between planes. By the time I was back to the house, I’d counted at least forty planes. What miracle had occurred in just over the one hundred years between the time my grandmother was awed by a biplane on the meadows of central Long Island and that spring morning when dozens of jets flew over my head in a matter of minutes?
I haven’t flown a lot in my lifetime. But over the past year, it seems as if I’ve been on a plane at least once a month. Now that I’m more comfortable with the routine of flying, I hate to look like I don’t know what I’m doing, especially if I’m alone. So, not long ago, I settled into my seat and waited for takeoff, trying to seem blasé about the whole thing. Then I remembered my grandmother at that fair all those years ago. What wonder she must have felt! How could she even imagine flying in an airplane! I glanced around at my fellow passengers and saw people sending off last minute emails or reading intently. Some were already asleep. The miracle of flight had definitely become commonplace to them. I decided to find the extraordinary in what has become for many an ordinary experience.
I decided to be present for this marvelous feat of human ingenuity. Here I was, sitting in a metal tube that was about to hurl itself into the sky, defy gravity, and take me halfway across the country in about the same amount of time it took my grandmother and her family to travel from their home in Little Neck to Mineola and back. I watched as the labyrinth of runways and hangars whisked past. And I felt that indescribable moment when the wheels of the plane left the ground, that microsecond of disequilibrium as the earth fell away and the plane climbed into the astral blue sky.
Today is Reading to the Core’s fourth anniversary. Not a particularly noteworthy milestone, but one which I wanted to acknowledge and reflect upon. Much has changed in education and in our country over the past four years. The demands on teachers are greater than ever, and it’s often a challenge to keep the human face of our students in front of us as we try to meet those demands. But that is what we must do. And we must find ways to help our students find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to be present for the day-to-day wonders that surround us, just like my grandmother was all those years ago. This is my ongoing challenge.
I’m not sure what my expectations were that snowy Saturday four years ago when I finally gathered up the courage to hit the “publish” button. Whatever they were, I know my wildest dreams have been exceeded. I’ve met people and become friends with teachers and writers from around the world. I’ve discovered things about myself, both as a teacher and a person, and have grown in countless ways. Most importantly, I’m much better at paying attention to the world and the people around me.
Thank you for being part of this journey with me. I look forward to many more years of wonder and discovery with you.
Yesterday, I summoned up all my courage and submitted a collection of poems to a writing contest. Then I came home and worked on a poem for Laura Shovan’s annual daily writing prompt project. This year’s theme is Found Objects. Here is the object for February 1st:
Laura posted this photo on Friday. On Sunday I’d written a draft—which is the object of this month-long writing adventure—then went about the many other tasks on my list for the day.
After a busy day at school, errands, and grocery shopping, I sat down to take a quick look at my draft before I posted it on Laura’s website. As I read, I had a sinking feeling. I convinced myself that my poem was terrible and not worth sharing.
Fast forward 24 hours. I spent the day watching my students take risks reading words they didn’t know, explaining their thinking about the theme of the book they were reading, and drafting nonfiction books. I marveled at their persistence and courage. They inspired me to come home and share this poem:
Nested within the musty confines of this worn pine box, rubbed smooth from years of use, a cache of pencils wait in silence.
Inside their graphite filaments, a cacophony of words, some sweet, some sour, are poised, eager to escape.