At the beginning of May, Michelle Heidenrich Barnes, of Today’s Little Ditty, posted a lovely interview with Nikki Grimes. At the end of the interview, Grimes challenged readers to write a “wordplay exercise and create your own free verse poem” based on a word chosen from a short list. Be sure to head over to Michelle’s blog to read all of the poems contributed for this challenge.
I’ve been playing with this all month. First I picked lemon, but wasn’t happy with the results. Once I started thinking about bell, the possibilities and references in popular culture seemed endless. If I had more time, I think it would be fun to create a found poem just from lines in songs and movies. Here is my current draft:
Bell is a heralding word— Whether pealing in joy
or tolling in grief;
clanging on trains
or ding-donging on doors,
a bell says, “Listen to me!”
Bells are blue in the garden and silver on sleighs.
Bells of brass
sound on ships at sea.
Bells wake us each morn, they urge us to flee;
they can jangle our nerves
or proclaim angels’ new wings.
Once the town crier, now they ping on our phones.
Whatever song they send
through the sky,
Bells cry out “Listen to me!”
Words sprout from my pen like weeds in my garden,
crowding my thoughts
and obscuring what I really
want to say.
If I keep at it long enough, will I one day know
how to show and not tell
as easily as I can spot
a purple coneflower
hidden among the grasses?
I’ve been gardening for a long time. Some of my earliest memories are of helping my grandmother in her garden. Both of my grandmothers were expert gardeners, and they taught me the names of favorite flowers and the basics of gardening. Many of my peonies, iris, and poppies came from their gardens, and I feel confident when I’m caring for these hardy plants.
My writing is a different story. I didn’t keep notebooks when I was growing up, and I haven’t always wanted to be a writer. In fact, for a while I seriously considered majoring in horticulture. Although I keep at my writing, it’s easy to become frustrated and want to give up. In the garden, I know which weed to pull. In my writing, I go back and forth, changing this word and deleting that one, until all that’s left is an unintelligible pile of gibberish.
And yet, from time to time, I see a glimmer of hope. A turn of phrase that is good, not just one I think is good because I wrote it. I feel something, some awareness or knowledge that I can’t even name, begin to take root in my brain. The gardener in me knows I have to nurture this fragile shoot. It needs watering and feeding. It needs the right amount of sunlight. This nascent writing requires the same kind of attention I give my newly sprouted plants. If I leave them for too long, they’ll be choked out by dandelions and other hardier plants.
In his memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, Glen Kurtz writes that practicing is “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition…that teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change.” The process of growing and changing isn’t easy, but the rewards are many. So I’ll keep practicing as faithfully as I tend my garden. Who knows what will sprout up?
In Minders of Make: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), Leonard Marcus writes, “To those who worked in the children’s book industry of the early 1940’s, New York could seem as small as a fairy-tale village.” By the 1950’s and early 1960’s, many writers, illustrators, and editors of the children’s book world had moved to my corner of Connecticut, trading one fairy-tale setting for another. Renowned illustrator Leonard Weisgard was among them. Although I didn’t know until Saturday that he had lived nearby, Weisgard’s books were a staple of my childhood.
Weisgard illustrated classics such as The Golden Egg Book and The Golden Bunny. My sister and I loved Pussy Willow so much we wore out several copies. Weisgard won the Caldecott Medal in 1947 for The Little Island, written by Golden MacDonald, a pseudonym for Margaret Wise Brown.
Last Saturday, neighbors, friends, and family gathered for “Modernist in the Nursery: The Art of Legendary Illustrator Leonard Weisgard, a talk by children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus. (Connecticut is still a mecca for the children’s book world; I sat next to Lane Smith!) Marcus talked about Weisgard’s love of color and nature. He discussed Weisgard’s many collaborations with Margaret Wise Brown and how her work at the Bank Street Writers Laboratory influenced his art. Weisgard loved folk art, and Marcus shared several examples of how that love influenced his art.
When Marcus concluded his remarks, Weisgard’s daughter, Abby, answered questions and shared memories of her father. Neighbors and friends shared recollections of Weisgard’s generosity and humility, then told stories of wonderful meals with Weisgard and his family.
Throughout the afternoon, it was clear from both his art and everyone’s memories that Weisgard respected children and trusted their ability to “see and hear and feel with simple intensity.” In his Caldecott Medal Acceptance Speech, Weisgard said that “books…have always been a source of real magic in this wildly confusing world.” Thank you, Leonard Weisgard, for sharing your singular magic with the world.
When I was a kid, my imaginary friend was nameless and unacknowledged. Sure that others, including my parents, would think I was weird, I never mentioned my imaginary friend to anyone.
How times have changed! Not only are there plenty of picture books about imaginary friends, Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend (Little, Brown, 2014) won this year’s Caldecott Medal. So much for weird.
Marilyn’s Monster (Candlewick Press, 2015), by Michelle Knudsen, with illustrations by Matt Phelan is a variation on having an imaginary friend. Knudsen’s heart-felt storytelling and Phelan’s expressive illustrations work together to create a satisfying emotional journey all children will recognize.
Having a monster is “the latest thing,” but Marilyn doesn’t have one yet. “Your monster has to find you.” Soon, Marilyn is “the only one left without a monster.” At first she’s sad, and “tried to be the kind of girl no monster could resist.” Then she gets mad and tries to convince herself she doesn’t need a monster. Deep in her heart, though, Marilyn knows she wants a monster “more than she could say.” She defies the rules and takes matters into her own hands. She follows her instinct, faces her fears, and sets off in search of her monster. Along the way she discovers, like Beekle, that sometimes it’s necessary to push back against conventional wisdom to achieve your goal.
Marilyn’s happiness at the end of the book is more than just satisfaction at having found her monster. It’s far deeper than that. It’s happiness that comes from the confidence gained by overcoming her fears and accomplishing her goal by herself.
Marilyn’s Monster is an endearing book that young audiences will love, but I would share it with second and third graders, too. Not only will they enjoy the story, they will learn much about word choice, tension, and character growth from Knudsen’s masterful writing. In addition, Marilyn’s Monster and The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend are a perfect pairing for comparing and contrasting point of view and setting. Most importantly, though, the theme that when you follow your heart, anything is possible is one worth sharing again and again.
Candlewick has an interview with Michelle Knudsen and Matt Phelan here, and an activity guide here.
This morning there was a story on Marketplace called “Pro Tool.” Host David Brancaccio caught my attention when he referred to a pair of scissors as “dear.” This usage of the word, meaning “high or exorbitant in price” is uncommon these days. As I continued to listen, though, Brancaccio’s use of the word made perfect sense. Hairdresser Lauren Popper was clear that these shears, as calls them, were indeed “highly valued, precious” to her. After all, without the right tools, this hairdresser wouldn’t be able to do her job effectively. My husband, a toolmaker, and my son, a cabinetmaker, both have favorite tools that they would feel lost without. And I have my favorite bowl, knife, etc. in the kitchen. But what about my job? Do I have a tool without which I couldn’t teach?
In fact, I do. I can’t imagine teaching without books. The books I read as a kid instilled a sense of curiosity in me and made me want to learn more. Books have pushed me to be a more compassionate and empathetic person. Then there are books I have depended on to learn this craft of teaching.
Books have helped me be an effective teacher in another way. They’ve helped me build relationships with students and colleagues. Reading a book with a group of students is one of the best ways I know to build a community. Sharing the experiences of characters we come to love brings us together. After crying together when Charlotte dies, or cheering for Auggie during his standing ovation, we are a team. Without the healthy, trusting relationships that books help us forge with our students, we wouldn’t accomplish much.
Some may argue that computers are indispensable to teaching. They do make life much easier (most of the time), and I love how technology has broadened my horizons. But I love the people next to me everyday more. I love that my first grade students are taking off as readers and that the seventh grade writers met their writing goals. I love that when children see me in the hallway, they tell me what book they’re reading. These people and moments are all precious to me. They, and the books we share, are dear.
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” Albert Einstein
My sister recently attended the funeral of a friend’s mother who had been a teacher in our town for many years. My sister’s fourth grade teacher was also at this funeral, and when Joanie saw her, she hugged her and told her, “You were my all-time favorite teacher.”
Imagine that. After forty years, to be told you had made so much of an impression and had such an impact on a person’s life. Of course it’s a teacher’s goal to help every child learn every day, but there are some teachers who stand out, who somehow make us feel special. These are the teachers who ignite our joy for learning, who set us on the path to our future. So in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’d like to recognize the teachers who’ve made the most difference to me.
If we’re lucky, our parents are our first and forever teachers. My parents taught me the value of hard work and instilled a curiosity about the world around me. They have always encouraged and supported my dreams, and I am still learning from them.
Confession time. I was not always a good student. I was much more interested in talking to my friends than listening to the teacher. Today, I would probably be diagnosed with ADHD. But in the 60s, I was told to be quiet and had my desk moved. Because of this, I didn’t see myself as smart, or even that capable. But there were glimmers of hope.
The first hint of possibility came in fourth grade, when Mrs. Mathews read James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and, most importantly, Charlotte’s Web. Thank you, Mrs. Mathews, for introducing me to the book that made me a reader.
Middle school was a long, dry patch. I’m sure I had fine teachers, but none that really stood out. But high school was a different story. Ms. Kazanjian and Mr. Giroux co-taught American history my freshman year, and they opened my eyes in a way that made me want to be a teacher. They also saw something in me that I hadn’t recognized. Their belief in me made me start to believe in myself.
I think I only had Mrs. Bailey for English twice, but she made a lasting impression. I still remember our study of Greek mythology my senior year. Her high expectations and broad knowledge inspired me to dig deeper into subjects, and to keep asking questions.
By the time I was in college, I was fairly confident about my ability as a learner, but there is always more to learn. I was so fortunate to have had three English professors at Western Connecticut State University who expanded my horizons in ways I still feel today. Dr. Jambeck unlocked the mysteries of the English language and entertained us with her peerless Middle English reading of The Canterbury Tales. Judy Sullivan brought passion and joy into the classroom everyday. It makes me smile to think of her, quoting Shakespeare and then grinning and telling us, “See, there’s nothing new under the sun.” Finally, Dr. Pruss, with her probing questions and insights, helped me understand the power of poetry.
We may never know the true impact we have on our students’ lives. But I hope that I bring the same passion and joy to the classroom each day that these fine teachers brought with them. I also hope that I take the time, as they did, to look beyond a klutzy, awkward chatterbox to see the potential beneath the surface, then help her see it too.
Thank you all, for helping me become who I am today.
Thank you to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. You are all teachers I continue to learn from, and appreciate your dedication and generosity. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.
I can’t believe how quickly April flew by. Because today is Friday, I feel like we have a bonus day of National Poetry Month!
On her webpage, Eileen Spinelli has a list of tips for young writers. Her number one piece of advice? “Keep your eyes and ears and heart open.” There is no doubt that this is what drives Eileen’s writing as well. I first encountered Eileen’s writing in Sophie’s Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Sophie, the heroine of this tale, is one of the most thoughtful and caring spiders this side of Charlotte. Sophie’s kindness and generosity inspired my third grade students to learn how to knit after 9/11 and, ultimately, create an afghan that we raffled to raise money for charity.
So when I wasn’t surprised when I saw that Eileen and her husband, Jerry Spinelli, would be part of a panel hosted by Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell titled “Sharing Random Books of Kindness: The Power of Story” at NCTE last November. (Read Eileen’s heartbreaking “Poem for a Bully” in this post by Mary Lee Hahn & Janet Wong about the role of poetry in literacy learning here.) The next day, I waited in line to meet Eileen at a book signing and got a copy of her latest book, Another Day As Emily (Random House, 2014).
I finally found time recently to read this charming verse novel, and I’m so happy I did. Suzy Quinn is almost twelve. She collects rocks and loves the Philadelphia Phillies. She also has a pesky little brother named Parker, who saved their neighbor’s life and is now an official hero. Feeling left out because of all the attention Parker’s getting, Suzy plunges into a project for her library’s summer program and learns all she can about Emily Dickinson. At the same time, Suzy is trying to navigate the challenges of friendship. Overwhelmed when she isn’t chosen for a part in a play and devastated when her birthday trip to a Phillies game is cancelled, she retreats to her room “…to be left alone…Forever. Like Emily Dickinson.” Suzy dresses in white, bakes gingerbread, even renames her goldfish Carlo, after Emily Dickinson’s dog.
Spinelli spins a story full of realistic details about the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Suzy’s family and neighbors remain loving and supportive, even as Suzy pushes the limits of their patience. Eventually, Suzy decides there’s more to life “than being a twelve-year old hermit.” In the process, she discovers that she “missed herself,” even though the self she missed is forever changed.
One of the magical things about books is that they let you try on different personas. Lucky readers of Another Day As Emily get to try on two through the “eyes and ears and heart” of Eileen Spinelli. What a gift!
Here is another gift from the pen of Eileen Spinelli:
“The Month of May”
May is a merry month a flower-into-berry month,
the month to skip outdoors to play,
to tuck your winter boots away,
to honor moms and aunties too
with cards and hugs for all they do.