SOL 18: Poetry Is…Revisited

Last week, Slicer Christie Wyman of Wondering and Wandering realized she was writing about a topic she’d written about last year. (Another nor’easter; my New England friends don’t even want to think about the new one brewing for next week!) Christie wondered, “do you have a slice from last year’s SOLC you could revisit because some things never change? Or maybe because they have!”

I had already been considering revisiting an exercise from Karen Benke’s Rip the Page: Adventures in Creative Writing. (Read another post inspired by this book here.) Here’s the explanation of  “Juxtaposition” (found on page 56) from last year’s post:

This exercise begins by folding a piece of paper in half lengthwise, then choosing ten words from one of the many word lists in the book. Next, add a descriptive word in front of each of the chosen words. Turn the paper over and follow the directions for what to write next. When you unfold the paper, write “Poetry Is” at the top. Try various combinations from the assortment of words and phrases you wrote until you find a “juxtaposition…two unlike things (side by side) to wake up your ears and make your mouth smile.”

In response to last year’s post I wrote, Some of these pairings aren’t really a surprise, but I liked the images they conjured.

I did not reread the last year’s poem before starting this year, but some images appeared again anyway. I guess those words and ideas are deeply ingrained in me. Last year’s poem is structured differently from this year’s poem, and I think I like it a little better, but this year’s poem created some images that deserve a poem of their own.

Poetry hides…

In gentle rains of summers past
In rippling, whispering waves
In the soft peaks of a lemon meringue pie

Poetry lurks…

under the slow drift of pale sunshine
inside the molten silver of Wednesdays
behind the secret of cerulean blue

Poetry lives…

inside a cosmic whirl of serenity
in the full moon of my imagination
within the quickening spark of my heart.

© Catherine Flynn, 2018

This activity is exactly what Benke’s subtitle promises: an adventure in creative writing. Students love it for many reasons. Some of the combinations turn out to be very funny. It also provides a structure that reluctant writers find comforting and supportive. Confident writers will appreciate the flexibility they have to play with the format of their poem. The possibilities are endless!

Photo by Jeff Golenski via Unsplash

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.


SOL: A Happy Accident

“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Louis Pasteur

My One Little Word for 2018 is focus. At school, I’ve been focused on incorporating the growth mindset stances laid out by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz in their book, A Mindset for Learning, as well as the habits of mind explained in Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick. This means I’m constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weave these habits into my lessons.

In Costa and Kallick’s work, this focus would fall under the habit of “creating, imagining, and innovating.” Maybe it’s the poet it me, but I prefer to think of this as “serendipity,” those happy accidents of chance that occur when we’re paying attention. Yesterday, such a moment occurred.

As I was working with a second grader, he noticed The Day the Crayons Quit in a basket on a nearby bookshelf. “Can we read this, too?” L. asked as he pulled the book from the basket. “Mr. M. read it to us in Library and it’s really funny.”

“Absolutely,” I replied. “Let’s finish our other work first.” He agreed, and I presented How Bear Lost His Tail from Fountas & Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention kit.

He wasted no time in reminding me that he’d already read this book. The advantages of rereading are well-known and many. Among other benefits, rereading increases fluency and deepens comprehension, my goal in this case. I explained to him I knew he’d read the book before, but that readers always find something new when they read a book a second, third, or even fourth time.

He launched into the book, and because it was his second read, he read it fairly fluently and with good expression. When he finished, I asked him if he had an idea about why Fox tricked Bear. He replied, “Maybe Fox was sad.” Seeing an opportunity to develop his vocabulary, I asked him if there were any other words he could use to describe how Fox felt. “Upset?” he said, with a hint of a question.

“Why would he be upset?” I asked him.

“Because Bear’s tail is bushier than his,” he replied, this time with more confidence.

I asked him if he knew the word “jealous.” He said he didn’t. I explained that if someone has something you would like to have, you might be jealous. I asked him if his sister ever had anything he wanted but couldn’t have. He remembered that at her last birthday party, he’d been upset that she was getting so many presents. “That’s what it feels like to be jealous,” I explained.

Seizing the opportunity he’d presented me with when he asked to read The Day the Crayons Quit, I asked, “Do you think any of the crayons were jealous?” He shrugged and said he couldn’t remember. “Let’s find out,” I suggested.

Working together, we reread the first few letters of protest from Duncan’s crayons. Lo and behold, there was Beige, feeling very left out because Brown got to color all the “bears, ponies, and puppies.”

“He’s jealous,” L. announced proudly.

From The Day the Crayons Quit, by Drew Daywalt, pictures by Oliver Jeffers

New learning sticks when learners apply “past knowledge to new situations” (Costa & Kallick, p. 28). Granted, this new situation was within five minutes of L.’s introduction to the word, but he made the connection between the two characters on his own and was articulated his thinking clearly. It’s unlikely that I would have planned this sequence of events ahead of time. But L. is more likely to remember this new vocabulary because a number of conditions were in place that engaged him in a meaningful way. Serendipity at its finest.

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every day in March and each Tuesday throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

SOL: Focus

After eight weeks of trying it on for size, I’ve decided “focus” is the right OLW for me in 2018. We develop our own understanding of words throughout our life, so I was curious about what the dictionary had to say about my word. The first definition listed in my old Merriam Webster states that focus is “the point where rays of light, heat, etc, or waves of sound come together, or from which they spread.” Although my original thinking had more to do with “to concentrate, as to focus one’s attention,” I love the image of rays of light coming together or spreading out as I pour my energy into two projects, one personal, the other work-related, that are the real impetus for me choosing this word.

In a recent blog post, Vicki Vinton, author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, invited her readers to become “protagonists in their own learning” by adopting an inquiry based approach to a problem or question. Over the past few months, my colleagues and I have been focused on cultivating a growth mindset in our students. This is challenging, ongoing work that easily lends itself the kind of action-research Vicki advocates.

Following Vicki’s model, we have our question: How can we cultivate a growth mindset in our students? We have done research, although this is really ongoing process, and have a hypothesis: Modeling growth mindset behavior and embedding growth mindset stance vocabulary into our daily interactions with children will cultivate their own growth mindset.

Our research began by reading Carol Dweck’s foundational book on the subject, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House: 2006). Two books are guiding us as we move forward. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, (ASCD, 2008) edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick is an incredible resource, filled with suggestions for creating “thought-full” environments, assessing students’ (and our own!) attitudes and ideas about mindset, as well as lists of additional resources. Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz’s A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful, Independent Growth (Heinemann, 2015) has guided our K-3 teachers in making the stances of mindset accessible to our youngest learners.

Through surveys, we gathered information regarding how students perceive their current mindset. To encourage reflective thinking about these stances, we asked them to include specific examples of when they engage in a particular behavior. The results were a mixture of brutal honesty (I am not persistent when my math homework is hard.) and responses that need a bit more reflection. (I am always persistent.)

Read-alouds are one way we are embedding the vocabulary of growth mindset into our day. Children’s literature is filled with determined, resilient, flexible characters who overcome incredible odds to achieve their goals. My personal favorite is Brave Irene by William Steig, which has been my go-to book for teaching character traits since it was published, but there are hundreds of worthy titles to choose from. Nonfiction is also full of inspiring stories of people who didn’t give up on their dreams. (This post from 2013 has a short list of a few of my favorites.)

We are still in the process of testing our hypothesis, and will be for months to come. As Costa and Kallick point out, “we never fully master the Habits of Mind…we continue to develop and improve them throughout our lives.”

I’ll let you know how well I’m doing staying focused and share any glimmers of light spreading out from our work.

Thank you also to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing 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.



“You can develop this ability to see. You just have to know what to look for…and where to look.”
Erlin Olafsson *

It seems astonishing to us in the modern age, when microscopes and telescopes have revealed so many wonders, that not that long ago, people didn’t know where butterflies came from. When Maria Merian was born in 1647, a majority of people still believe Aristotle’s theory of “spontaneous generation…that insects did not come from other insects, but from dew, dung, dead animals, or mud.” Growing up “in a household filled with growing things,” Maria became curious and “from youth on [she was] occupied with the investigation of insects.”

Joyce Sidman’s engaging and colorful biography of Maria Merian, The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), is itself a wonder. Each chapter opens with a poem chronicling the lifecycle of a butterfly. These poems, told from the insect’s perspective, mirror Merian’s own transformation from a curious girl helping in her stepfather’s art studio to a pioneering thinker who lead the way for future scientists. As Sidman writes, “she saw nature as an ever-transforming web of connections—and changed our view of it forever.”

Sidman’s clear, poetic prose, interspersed with Merian’s own words from her field notes, brings Maria and her world to life. The book is lavishly illustrated with Merian’s intricately detailed paintings and Sidman’s own photographs of the metamorphosis cycle. Maps and period paintings of daily life in Germany and the Netherlands provide young readers with clear images of 17th century Europe. Additional information about aspects of daily life at the time, including “Women: Unsung Heroes of the Workforce,” “Science Before Photography,” and “Slavery in Surinam,” among others, place Maria’s life and accomplishments in a broader context. A glossary, timeline, and suggestions for future reading are also included.

At one point, Sidman explains that “Maria had decided that insects belonged to plants and plants to insects. Together, they formed a community of living things that nurtured one another.” In this book, Sidman has woven together many strands from art and science that enhance each other to create a stellar example of what is possible in nonfiction for young readers.

The Girl Who Drew Butterflies is a true gift to readers. Maria Merian was a remarkable woman who overcame the constrictions of society to achieve her dreams, dreams that have left a legacy still with us today. She deserves this book and our children need to hear her story. They need to know that miracles and mysteries are all around them, just waiting to be discovered.

Maria Sibylla Merian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teachers can download a study guide here. After students finish The Girl Who Drew Butterflies, be sure to direct them to Jeannine Atkins’s gorgeous novel in verse, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science.

Please be sure to visit Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye of Unleashing Readers for more book recommendations.

(quoted in Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island, by Loree Griffin Burns)


Slice of Life: Catalog Nerd

Each autumn when I was a kid, I looked forward to the arrival of the Sears Wish Book. Within this catalog were the items I needed to ensure a perfect life. Barbie dolls I dreamt of, a dollhouse I coveted, and more. There were matching skirts and sweaters and perfectly appointed bedrooms. (I confess, though, the white French Provincial furniture never appealed to me.) I pored over the pages, carefully considering each item before adding it to my letter to Santa.

Of course the Sears Christmas catalog, and others like it, have gone the way of the dodo. But over the course of my teaching career, I’ve discovered two catalogs that fill me with as much excitement as the Wish Book did so many years ago. The Heinemann and Stenhouse spring catalogs arrived today, and I swear I did a little happy dance. Filled with professional books by educators I trust and admire, I now study the pages of these two catalogs with more intensity that I ever invested in the Sears catalog. Because, although I won’t ever have time to read all the smart, inspirational books offered by Heinemann and Stenhouse, I am certain that the three or four books that I do purchase will make me a better teacher. They won’t ensure a perfect life (I gave up that wild goose chase long ago), but they will provide me with ideas, tools, and strategies that I can use to do the best work I can for my students. And while that won’t give them a perfect life either, it will go a long way toward instilling in them the passions and skills they’ll need to create their own best possible life.

Thank you also to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing 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: Maya Angelou’s “I Love the Look of Words”

Did you know today is National Popcorn Day? It is also one of those days when I was at a bit of a loss about what to share for Poetry Friday. So I casually Googled “popcorn poems.” Maya Angelou’s “I Love the Look of Words” was one of the results. The title sounded vaguely familiar, and as I started reading it, I realized this poem is one I shared with my third graders for many years.

Angelou’s poem is a celebration of words and ideas, bouncing around in our brains like popcorn. I’m sorry this poem lay tucked away in my memory for so long. I’m happy National Popcorn Day brought it back up to the surface.

“I Love the Look of Words”

Popcorn leaps, popping from the floor
of a hot black skillet
and into my mouth.
Black words leap,
snapping from the white
page. Rushing into my eyes. Sliding
into my brain which gobbles them
the way my tongue and teeth
chomp the buttered popcorn.

When I have stopped reading,
ideas from the words stay stuck
in my mind, like the sweet
smell of butter perfuming my
fingers long after the popcorn
is finished.

I love the book and the look of words
the weight of ideas that popped into my mind
I love the tracks
of new thinking in my mind.

by Maya Angelou

Photo by Charles Deluvio via Unsplash

Grab a bowl of popcorn and visit Kay McGriff at A Journey Through The Pages for the feast of poetry served in the PF Roundup.



Poetry Friday: Jacqueline Woodson’s “on paper”

“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now.”
Jacqueline Woodson

I was lucky enough to be in the audience at NCTE’s Annual Convention last November when Jacqueline Woodson read this passage from Brown Girl Dreaming, her award-winning memoir in verse. Woodson’s work has always had a place in my classroom, and I am thrilled that she has been named the next National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature This role will allow her to travel around the country sharing her message that “books can drive change and instill hope in young readers.” She summed up her vision as ambassador as “Reading = Hope x Change.” You can hear Woodson talk more about this vision in this NPR interview

During her speech at NCTE, students from around the country asked questions via pre-recorded video. One student wondered why Woodson chose to write Brown Girl Dreaming and her recent novel Another Brooklyn in verse. Woodson’s brilliant response? “I wrote it in verse because that’s how memory comes to us.”

In “on paper,” from Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shares this memory:

The first time I write my full name

Jacqueline Amanda Woodson

without anybody’s help

on a clean white page in my composition notebook,

    I know

if I wanted to

I could write anything.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Woodson reminded the teachers at NCTE that “everybody has a story, and everyone has a right to tell that story. Encourage students to tell their stories.” It’s clear that Woodson’s work springs from her own story, her own memories. But her writing also shines with her love for her fellow humans. She urged her NCTE audience to remember that community is so important. We need to know who we are going to walk through the world with.” I am happy I’m walking through the world with Jacqueline Woodson.

Please be sure to visit Jan Godown Annino at Bookseedstudio for the Poetry Friday Roundup.