Poetry Friday: Eureka! Poems about Inventors, Snowflake Bentley, and Erasure Poetry

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Our fifth graders are in the midst of an informational reading/writing unit focused on inventions and inventors. While the students read mostly nonfiction during this unit, we also share several poems from Joyce Sidman’s remarkable book, Eureka! Poems about Inventors (Millbrook Press, 2002). In this volume, Sidman, winner of the 2013 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, celebrates in verse the invention of paper, hot air balloons, velcro, and more.

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“Food of the Gods” describes the history of chocolate, from Quetzalcoatal dropping “ripe yellow pods of cacao” to Francois-Louis Cailler, who, in 1819,

“…seized upon them,

           mixed and ground and tempered,

and by some clean and wholesome magic,

made of them a food–

a wafer of heaven,

a smooth slab of heart’s delight.”

For more about Eureka! as well as a Reader’s Guide and links to information about inventors, visit Joyce’s website.

In the past, the fifth grade teachers and I have talked about having the kids write their own inventor/invention poems, but we’ve never managed to find the time. I had my own eureka moment when I read Dana Murphy’s post about erasure poetry over at Two Writing Teachers last week. Suddenly, I knew this was the way to have our students craft poems about the inventors and inventions they’re studying. This technique is also a great way for students to practice zeroing in on important details and main ideas.

Here is my attempt at erasure poetry to use as a model with students. I chose Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s Snowflake Bentley (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), one of my all-time favorite books to share with students, as my subject. Mary Azarian’s stunning woodcut illustrations for the book won the Caldecott Medal.  Although Wilson Bentley wasn’t an inventor like Gutenberg or Elijah McCoy, he did develop the process to photograph snowflakes and became world-famous for his miraculous pictures.

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I worked in my notebook, jotting down lines that seemed meaningful as I read the book. As I reread, I thought about the importance of particular events and made decisions about including them in my poem. This kind of thinking can be challenging for students, and writing erasure poems will be an engaging way from them to practice these important skills.

The Snowflake Man

~Wilson Bentley~

born February 9, 1865

Jericho, Vermont

A boy who loved snow,

snow as beautiful as butterflies,

studied the icy crystals

through an old microscope.

Saw intricate patterns,

no two the same.

He wanted to find a way

to save snowflakes,

and tried drawing snow crystals,

but they always melted.

At sixteen,

he read about a camera with a microscope.

“I could photograph snowflakes,” he thought.

At seventeen,

his parents spent their savings

on that camera.

Mistake by mistake,

He would not quit.

Finally, in the second winter,

he figured out

how to photograph snowflakes.

Neighbors laughed when

he waited hours

to find just the right crystal.

Willie said the photographs

would be his gift to the world.

He wrote and gave speeches,

became famous,

and published a book.

A book of his best photographs,

of his treasures in snow.

By Smithsonian Institution from United States (Snowflake Study  Uploaded by PDTillman) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Wilson A. Bentley; Smithsonian Institution from United States (Snowflake Study Uploaded by PDTillman), via Wikimedia Commons
 Please be sure to visit Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

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Slice of Life: Mid-Year Goals and Productivity

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Mid-year goal meetings are coming up, and many teachers at my school are in a panic over the new reflection questions they have to respond to and the lesson plan that is required to be included in their portfolio as an “artifact.” I’ve been meeting with them over the past week, answering their questions and helping them as much as I can. But the paperwork still seems overwhelming when added to our daily responsibilities. This is why I was so happy to find this video about productivity at Brain Pickings Curated by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings is “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why, bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are.”  Popova’s posts are full of wit and wisdom, and if you haven’t discovered her website, you’re in for a treat!

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I love this video because it’s succinct and full of helpful advice. And even though many of the suggestions are common sense, I feel better knowing that I am not the only person who needs to be reminded about the importance of habit and routine.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some reflections to write!

As always, thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday. Be sure to stop by to read more Slices!

Slice of Life: Pickles, Owl Moon, and the Hard Work of Revision

sols_6Last spring, during a poetry writing unit, a 5th grade student asked me to read a poem she had written. “I’d love to,” I told her as she handed me her notebook with pride. I knew this girl to be a good student and a strong reader, so I was quite surprised to read what she had written.  It was mostly about pickles, but her poem was full of forced rhymes and then no rhymes. I told her that her love of pickles was coming through loud and clear. Then I asked her about some of the more questionable rhymes.

“What do smelly feet have to do with sweet pickles?” I wondered

“Nothing, but sweet and feet rhyme,” she said matter-of-factly.

“I wonder if  there are any other words that rhyme with sweet that have more to do with pickles than feet.”

“Probably, but today I just feel silly and want to write a silly poem.”

“Fair enough. Let’s look at it again tomorrow and see if you still feel that way. Writers often see their work differently after a day or two,” I said.

She wasn’t convinced, and she didn’t change the poem.

Over the years, I’ve had plenty of students who were unwilling to revise their writing. It seems as if getting anything down on paper is torture enough. Then to have to make changes is just insulting. Part of me empathizes with them. I know it’s hard to get our thoughts down in the first place. But I also know how much better writing can be after the second or third revision.

january2014cover_FAKE_200x300I wish I’d had Jane Yolen’s article from the current issue of The Horn Book to share with my reluctant reviser. In it, Yolen muses over different forms her Caldecott-Award winning picture book, Owl Moon, might have taken. A sonnet? No, too short. What about as a rap? Definitely not. She states that “a writer has to make choices [about] how to tell a story. But when a writer finds the right voice, everything comes together.” (pg. 46)

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Writers do make choices. But I feel that our students don’t really understand that this means more that just thinking of words that rhyme. As Yolen goes on to say, finding this voice for our writing takes “hard work, inspiration, even perspiration.” (pg. 50)

So why did my young poet short-change herself and her poem? In this case, I think she just needed more time. Time to build the habit of writing every day so being asked to write didn’t feel like punishment. Time to experience the joy of finding just the right word, the perfect expression of her feeling. Time to play with different versions of her poem to find out if silly really was the right tone. Sometimes we may get lucky and stumble onto the right form on our first try, as Yolen feels she did with Owl Moon. But in most cases, we need to sweat over our writing before sharing it. Only then can we sit back and have a pickle.

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life every Tuesday. Be sure to stop by to read the hard work of many devoted writers.

Slice of Life: Getting From Point A to Point B

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About a month ago, I found myself driving in an unfamiliar city at dusk. As I exited the highway into rush hour traffic, my GPS informed me that it had lost its satellite connection. After my initial panic, I took a deep breath and, because I had looked at a map before I left home and had the map feature open on my phone, was able to navigate to my hotel without a wrong turn.

Being able to read a map is an important skill. It provides us with a bird’s-eye view of where we’re going. Some people may argue that not knowing is what keeps life interesting, but I like having an idea of what lies ahead.

In teaching, our curriculum calendars and lesson plans are like maps in that they lay out a predictable path that will lead us from point A to point B. But like a driver encountering a roadblock, or me when my GPS failed, we need to possess the skills to help us adjust our teaching in a way that addresses the roadblock but still gets us, and more importantly, our students, to point B.

The school where I did my student teaching used a scripted math program that spiraled through concepts at a fairly quick pace. When we taught long division according to the program’s sequence, the kids were stumped. They just didn’t get it. They were frustrated and I was practically in tears. My cooperating teacher, however, believed in being responsive to the needs of students, not being a slave to the script. We worked together to use lessons from the old basal math program and other resources to give our students the time and support they needed to practice the steps of long division until they understood it well and were able to apply them independently. Without his guidance and support, I would have soldiered on and the kids wouldn’t have learned much about division.

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have worked in a district where we’ve never had a scripted curriculum. The administrators have always trusted us. They’ve given us the autonomy and flexibility to make decisions about lesson plan and materials that we felt met the needs of our students. I worry that if teachers are never allowed to use anything other than a scripted curriculum, or are admonished or punished for deviating from this script, they will never know how to deal with the roadblocks our students present us with daily.

World of Ptolemy as shown By Johannes de Armsshein, Ulm, 1482 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
World of Ptolemy as shown By Johannes de Armsshein, Ulm, 1482 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Medieval cartographers labeled areas beyond their ken “Here there be dragons.” In other words, venture here at your peril. And yet, intrepid explorers ventured across unknown oceans. They trusted their knowledge, skills and instincts to carry them safely to shore. Teachers do this every day. We draw upon our past experiences, skills and knowledge as we interact with students. We aren’t always sure if our students are going to learn a skill or concept exactly they way we plan for them to, but we have a pretty good idea of what to do when we encounter a roadblock.

Just as drivers shouldn’t become dependent on their GPS, which might stop working at a critical juncture, teachers shouldn’t be held to scripts or curriculums that don’t meet the needs of our students. We have to have the flexibility to veer off course if needed, but still reach our destination. Anything less is a disservice  to our students.

Poetry Friday: Aurora Borealis

Yesterday, I was thrilled at the possibility of northern lights being visible in Connecticut. I have vivid memories of the handful of times I have witnessed this display of dancing light, but it’s been ages since I saw them last. These mysterious lights must have been terrifying to people throughout history without our knowledge of solar flares and ions bumping into Earth’s atmosphere. Fortunately, knowing this doesn’t diminish their beauty or their ability to inspire.

I don’t share my own poetry very often, but I couldn’t find a poem that matched my memories or feelings about the auroras I’ve seen. So here is a very rough draft of a poem inspired by watching northern lights with my boys in March of 1989.

By Xander [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Xander [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Aurora Borealis”

Do you remember

that spring night, long ago,

when we stood on the lawn,

transfixed?

We gazed up in awe

as curtains of shimmering light

danced across the sky,

wrapping the big dipper

in veils of glowing green.

Your eyes grew wide

when a burst of red

flared and rippled,

casting an eerie glow

over the countryside.

“What is it, Mommy?”

you wanted to know.

“Magic,” I replied.

© Catherine Flynn, 2014

Gaze at the world through the eyes of a four-year old today and be amazed. And, for plenty of amazing poetry, be sure to stop by Mainely Write, where Donna has the Poetry Friday roundup.

Spreading Some Sunshine

my-only-sunshine-wallpaper-nature-picture-spring-images It is a rainy, dreary Monday here in Connecticut. What better day to spread a little sunshine? I felt incredibly honored to be nominated for the Sunshine Award by four bloggers: Amy Rudd of The “Rudd”er, Michelle Haseltine of One Grateful Teacher, Vicki Vinton of To Make A Prairie, and Julieanne Harmatz of To Read To Write To Be. The mission of the Sunshine Awards is to recognize bloggers who inspire.

The specifics are:

1.  Acknowledge the nominating blogger(s).

2.  Share 11 random facts about yourself.

3.  Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger created for you.

4.  List 11 bloggers who inspire you.

5.  Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.  Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

Eleven random facts about me:

  • I have rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon twice. (You can read more about these adventures here and here.)
  • I won an award for cursive handwriting in 6th grade. photo-2
  • I have a stationary fetish. I love going into stationary stores (those that still exist) and buying beautiful notecards.
  • I love musicals; Funny Girl is my favorite.
  • I went to the prom with the inventor of LeapPad.
  • I live in the town where I grew up in a house built on land my great-grandfather bought in 1910.
  • I have a tendency to procrastinate. I also want things to be perfect. This is not a good combination.
  • I have never been a good speller. My spelling has improved significantly since I started teaching phonics.
  • I am a serial collector. Throughout my life, I have collected seashells, stamps, antique bottles, kitchen collectibles and McCoy pottery.
  • I am an excellent Trivial Pursuit/Jeopardy player. Collecting stamps helped me acquire a lot of facts about a wide variety of topics.
  • I love to knit.
A sweater I made for my great-nephew a few years ago.
A sweater I made for my great-nephew a few years ago.

Like other bloggers who were nominated by more than one person, I’ve chosen 3 questions from each person.

Vicki’s Questions:

1.What book would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island? In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. I think it would me take a while, and it’s a book I’ve always wanted to read.

2. What did you learn from your mother? How to bake an apple pie, how to hem a skirt, and how to be a loving and generous person. She also taught me how to spell “mountain.” (see random fact #8 above)

3. Where do you find joy in your classroom or work? I work closely with struggling readers, so watching a child use a strategy to decode for the first time and realize that they’ve read the words and understood them is like watching a lock pop open. It’s an amazing sight.

Michelle’s Questions:

4. What’s your favorite quote? Why? “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Albert Einstein. I love this quote because it is the epitome of what Carol Dweck refers to as a “growth mindset;” that if you cultivate your passion and curiosity, anything is possible.

5. If you had a weekend (and money was no object), what would you do? Who would be with you? I would go to Florence, Italy and climb to the top of Brunilleschi’s dome at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and soak in the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. I should take my husband with me, but my friend Colette and I have talked about taking this trip for years.

By sailko via Wikimedia Commons
By sailko via Wikimedia Commons

6. What book are you reading right now? I typically have at least three books going at once. At the moment, my adult read is 11/22/63, by Stephen King, my mg/ya book is Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein, and my professional book is The Common Core Grammar Toolkit: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Language Standards in Grades 3-5, by Sean Ruday.

Amy’s Questions:

7. What’s your most favorite children’s book ever? Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. This is the book that made me a reader. I wrote more about my experience with this book here.

8. What is your favorite young adult novel? At the moment, The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak is my favorite YA book. 

9. How do you prefer to read books, paper or electronic? I have a Nook and an iPad with a Kindle app that I use once in a while. I love the convenience of being able to get a book at odd hours and not having to lug a heavy book around when I’m travelling, but paper is still my preference.

Julieanne’s Questions:

10. Name one guilty pleasure. Chocolate, in any form at any time.

11. What motivated you to start blogging? I began blogging because I learn so much from the blogs I read, and I love the idea of being part of a community where I can share ideas and learn from others. This experience has been more rewarding that I ever imagined.

12. What is your next challenge? An ongoing challenge for me is working with teachers to update our writing curriculum. We’re making some headway, but sometimes the scope of this work overwhelms me.

Eleven bloggers who inspire me: (Just eleven!? There are so many amazing bloggers, creating this list was almost as much of a challenge as answering the questions!)

  1. Colette Bennett of Used Books in Class
  2. Melanie Meehan of Two Reflective Teachers
  3. Cathy Mere of Reflect & Refine
  4. Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup
  5. Tricia Stohr-Hunt of Miss Rumphius Effect
  6. Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts of Indent
  7. Elaine Magliaro of Wild Rose Reader
  8. Kristi Mraz of Kinderconfidential
  9. Margaret Simon of Reflections on the Teche
  10. Kate Messner of Teachers Write! fame
  11. Gae Polisner of The Wee Bit Heap

My eleven questions:

1. Is there a “classic” book that you are embarrassed to admit you haven’t read?

2. What are your reading now?

3. What is the most important lesson you’ve ever learned from a student?

4. Do you listen to podcasts? Which is your favorite?

5. If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you have been?

6. Who is your favorite children’s book author?

7. What’s the funniest thing a student ever said to you?

8. Tell something about the grandparent who meant a lot to you.

9. Where do you write?

10. Do you have a quote that inspires you?

11. What book would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?

The sun is trying to poke through the clouds now. I guess sharing this sunshine chased the clouds away!

Poetry Friday: This Moment

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This Moment

by Eavan Boland

A neighborhood.

At dusk.

Things are getting ready

to happen

out of sight.

Stars and moths.

And rinds slanting round fruit.

But not yet.

Read the rest of the poem here.

"First Steps (after Millet)" Vincent Van Gogh, 1890 Metropolitan Museum of Art, via wikipaintings.org
“First Steps (after Millet)” Vincent Van Gogh, 1890 Metropolitan Museum of Art, via wikipaintings.org

Eavan Boland is one of “the foremost female voices in Irish literature.” (Boland’s biography can be found at The Poetry Foundation) I wasn’t familiar with her or her work, but was struck by the imagery in “This Moment.” I can’t decide if Boland’s tone is meant to be ominous or just full of expectation. Either way, the anticipation of the unknown seemed appropriate for the New Year.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy New Year! Be sure to visit Betsy at I Think in Poems for the Poetry Friday Round Up.