Poetry Friday: Penelope’s Ditty


Each month, Michelle Heidenrich Barnes of Today’s Little Ditty shines the spotlight on a noted children’s poet. February’s featured poet, David L. Harrison, left readers with a challenge to compose a poem inspired by the word “ditty.” David explained that “I’m always entertained by how many poems come spinning out of the same word, and they arrive in all sorts of packaging.”

My brain started spinning and something made me remember this stuffed parrot, a baby gift from a friend for my oldest son:


I named her Penelope and hung her over Brian’s changing table. I made up stories about her and used to sing “Penelope the parrot is such a pretty girl…” to him as I dressed and changed him. He used to laugh and eventually sang along with me. After almost thirty years in the attic, she’s a little worse for the wear. She used to have black button eyes, and her colors aren’t quite as vibrant as they once were, but here she is, ready for her updated ditty.

“Penelope’s Ditty”

A parrot named Penelope
grew restless, bored, and fluttery.

She longed to soar over the ocean blue,
not sit in a cage like a stuffed statue.

Spreading her silky feathers wide,
she caught the breeze and began to glide.

Above an island, volcanic and steamy,
she met her mate, oh so dreamy!

Now nestled on her balcony
in the lush rainforest canopy,

she primps, she preens and looks so pretty,
visits with friends, is charming and witty.

Happy to be footloose and free,
Always singing her sweet little ditty!

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Please be sure to visit Elizabeth Steinglass for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Slice of Life: Sick Day


A sinus infection has laid me low. Here are the highlights of the last five days:

Sick Day

Sinuses clogged,
Head throbbed.

Soup simmered,
Tea steeped.

Pillows propped,
Cat curled.

Books stacked,
left unread.

Dozed all day.
Will this bug ever go away?

 Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

NFPB10FOR10: Our Feathered Friends

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It’s time once more for the annual celebration of nonfiction picture books! An outgrowth of Cathy Mere and Mandy Robeck‘s August Picture Book 10 for 10, this is an opportunity for bloggers to share nonfiction picture books they love. Be sure to join Mandy, Julie, and Cathy’s Picture Book 10 for 10 Google Community to read about hundreds of wonderful nonfiction picture books.

This is nfpb10for10’s fourth year, and I have participated each year. Here are links to my previous posts:

2015: Lives of the Artists

2014: Nature

2013: Passionately Curious People

This year I’m heading back to nature and focusing specifically on books about birds. I’ve been fascinated by birds my whole life, and have written about bird books before. There are so many books about birds I could have created a list of ten books just about eggs or bluebirds or poetry or any other subcategory imaginable! I did try to limit this list to newer books, although there are a few older titles that are too good to miss. There are also many field guides aimed at young readers that are worthwhile, including National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America: The Best Birding Book for Kids from National Geographic’s Bird Experts (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2013), which I chose not to include on this list.

1.  Olivia’s Birds: Saving the Gulf, by Olivia Bouler, grades K-3 (Sterling Children’s Books, 2011)

When Olivia Bouler learned of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, she was determined to help save the birds and habitat she loved. In this book she not only tells her story, but provides an introduction to different types of birds, as well as links to organizations where children can learn more about birds. Olivia is an inspiring role model for kids who want to make a difference, and to date has raised over $200,000  to clean up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico. 

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2. Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart, illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen, grades K-3 (Charlesbridge, 2014)

In this book, which was named a National Science Teachers Association-Children’s Book Council Outstanding Science Trade Book, and an ALA Notable Book, in addition to many other honors, noted science writer Melissa Stewart combines scientific facts with poetry to describe the many ways birds use their feathers. Sarah S. Brannen’s illustrations capture many fine details of different feather types. Be sure to visit Melissa Stewart’s website for a wealth of information and resources about Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

3. Beaks!, by Sneed Collard III, llustrated by Robin Brickman  (Charlesbridge, 2002)

Just as he did in Wings (Charlesbridge, 2008), Sneed Collard provides an in-depth look at the wide variety of bird beaks. He describes how each type of beak is perfectly adapted to its owner’s habitat and diet. Robin Brickman’s collage illustrations have a 3-dimensional quality to them and are so life-like you can almost hear the birds singing. Cornell University’s Lab of Ornighology has a page devoted to activities to to along with Beaks! at their BirdSlueth K-12 website.

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4. Birds: Nature’s Magnificent Flying Machines by Caroline Arnold (Charlesbridge, 2003)

This book, aimed at an older audience, provides in-depth descriptions of how a bird’s anatomy enables it to fly, as well as details about the many stages of flight. Colorful illustrations include a cross-section of a bird’s body, as well as close-ups of the inside of bird bones and feather structure. Birds: Nature’s Magnificent Flying Machines was selected for The Best Children’s Books of the Year list  by the Children’s Book Committee of the Bank Street College of Education, the CCBC Choices 2004, published by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, among other honors.

5. Egg: Nature’s Perfect Package, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, grades K-3 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Any list of nonfiction picture books about animals wouldn’t be complete without a book by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. And although this book describes eggs and nesting habits of insects, reptiles, and fish as well as birds, the combination of Jenkins’s stunning collages and fascinating  facts make this book irresistible. Details about each animal’s size and habitat are included, as is a list for additional reading.

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6. A Nest is Noisy, by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Sylvia Long, grades K-3 (Chronicle Books, 2015)

Following the same pattern as An Egg is Quiet, A Butterfly is Patient, A Rock is Lively, and A Seed is Sleepy, Aston and Long give readers a glimpse into the many different kinds of nests built by birds and other animals. Again, the miracle of adaptation is on full display, as readers learn how animals use the materials at hand to create safe homes for their eggs and young. A comprehensive teaching guide is available from Chronicle Books.

7. Just Ducks!, by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino, grades K-3 (Candlewick Press, 2012)

In this charming picture book, Davies describes the life of ducks, as seen through the eyes of a girl who wakes up to ducks quacking outside her window every morning. Facts about ducks’ eating and nesting habits, their predators, and more are provided on each page. An index is included, as well as a short note about the many kinds of ducks found throughout the world.

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8. Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth

The winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature, Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual imagines a world twenty years in the future when birds have disappeared. Samworth has created a “catalog” where bird-lovers can go to create their own birds, choosing from a variety of body types, beaks, and feathers, all based on real birds. The contrast between the fun of creating your own bird with the grim reality of extinction make this book appropriate for older readers. Read more about the book and get a close up look at Samworth’s stunning illustrations at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

9. United Tweets of America: 50 State Birds Their Stories, Their Glories by Hudson Talbott, grades 3-5 (Philomel Books, 2008)

This book combines history and geography about each state along with information about each states’ official bird. Talbott’s cartoon-like illustrations provide a fun look at the wide variety of bird species in the U.S.

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10. The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon by Jacqueline Davies, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, grades 3-5 (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

Named an Outstanding Science Trade Book by the NSTA, among other honors, this picture book biography tells of Audubon’s earliest days in America. Audubon’s passion and curiosity led him to discover that the peewee flycatchers he observed one summer returned to the same woods of eastern Pennsylvania the following year. Melissa Sweet’s collage illustrations depict Audubon’s meticulous observations, a clear precursor to the masterpieces he would go on to paint. A Teachers Guide is available here.

Sharing any one of these beautiful books with a child is sure to spark a fascination with our feathered friends.

Poetry Friday: Blue Jays in the Snow


I’ve been participating in Laura Shovan‘s Found Object Poetry Project this month, and in addition to drafting a poem every day, I’ve been reading Ted Kooser‘s The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (University of Nebraska Press: 2005). Kooser, who served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006, offers exactly that in his plain-spoken, straightforward style. In addition to lots of good advice, he includes plenty of poetry as examples of how “poems freshen the world,” including this beauty from A.R. Ammons.

“Winter Scene”
by A.R. Ammons

There is now not a single
leaf on the cherry tree.

except when the jay
plummets in, lights, and,

in pure clarity, squalls,
then every branch

quivers and
breaks out in blue leaves.

A blue jay in our apple tree last winter.

I don’t remember where I first read Siv Cedering’s lovely “When it is Snowing,” but it immediately came to mind after reading “Winter Scene.”

“When it is Snowing”
by Siv Cedering

When it is snowing
the blue jay
is the only piece of
in my

Please be sure to visit Donna Smith at Mainely Write for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Slice of Life: Coloring, Anyone?


When I taught 3rd grade, I had an assortment of activities available for children who finished their work early. I always had a worksheet (the shame, I know!) that had math fact practice in a hidden picture. The picture would be revealed when the facts were solved and the spaces were colored in according to a code. If, for example, the sum or difference was between 3 and 6, the space was colored green. Kids loved these sheets. They took them home if they didn’t have time to finish them during the day.

Then at some point I realized these really weren’t much of  a challenge. What kind of thinking was going on? Was the fact practice enough of a reason to continue using these sheets? I know that if I had still been in the classroom over the past five years I would have stopped using them. And that would have been my students’ loss.

The explosion in popularity of coloring books for adults seems to justify what I knew instinctively 20 years ago. After working on new math concepts, some of it beyond their still-concrete thinking brains, my students needed these coloring sheets to relax and give their brains time to get ready for the next challenging learning task. A plethora of recent articles extolling the benefits of coloring tend to focus on adults, but there are plenty of reasons to bring coloring back into the classroom, relaxation and improving focus among them. In fact, many studies have found that coloring actually increases creativity. Here’s a link to just one of the many articles I found supporting this practice.

If you feel like you’ve read a post like this recently, you probably have. Elisabeth Ellington wrote recently about how her college students reacted to being assigned coloring for homework. Their responses underscore the benefits of finding time in our busy lives for a little time to play. But I’ve been thinking about this post for a while. In fact, the last save on my page of notes for this post was on January 14th, and this list has been on my desk for at least two weeks:


But you know how these things go. Then yesterday I came across this in my Twitter feed:

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Read this post here.

I immediately thought of this passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead Books, 2015):

“I believe that inspiration will always try its best to work with you–but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and to search for a different human collaborator…This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open up the newspaper and discover that somebody else has written your book [or blog post!]…or in any way whatsoever manifested some spark of inspiration that you’d had…but had never entirely cultivated…Therefore, the idea went hunting for a new partner.”

So this idea has had more that one partner. Oh well. It’s an idea worth writing about. I hope more teachers decide to let their students color on a regular basis. Everyone will be happier if they do.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: Found Object Poetry


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.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

You can read more Found Object poems at Laura’s blog. Also, please be sure to visit Kimberely Moran at Written Reflections for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Slice of Life: Being a Witness to the World


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.”

Brian and Michael at the edge of the pond.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.