One Little Word: Balance


Three bloggers I admire very much have nominated me for a Sunshine Award. I feel so honored to be included on their lists of “bloggers who inspire,” lists that include the names of many bloggers who inspire me. Over the next day or two, I will answer all their questions and come up with my own list, but until then, I’m going to answer one question that both Amy and Michelle asked: What is your “one little word” for 2014?

Balance. We hear this word everywhere. Balance your checkbook. Eat a balanced diet. Balance your tires. Entire Eastern religions are built around the idea of balance. In art, balance is achieved when no single element of a work overpowers another. So why is it so easy for our lives to become unbalanced? How is it that we forget the importance of eating right, exercising, doing things we love, and finding time for friends and family every day?


I took this picture at Point Judith lighthouse in Rhode Island last September. The asymmetry of the construction of this cairn intrigued me. How does the small stone on the left remain poised on the end of the stick? Does the stability of the larger rock on the right allow this?

In 2014, I want to be the small stone on the left, poised on the brink of whatever the day brings, yet able to maintain my balance. Just as bridges have firm footings and extra capacity (thanks, Anne!) that allows them to withstand forces of use, wind and weather, the firm foundation of the large rock keeps this cairn in place. I think that if our beliefs are solid, if we know our own mind, we have a firm foundation for our choices, both personal and professional. We may waver or deviate a little, after all flexibility is a good thing, but with secure footing and a good support system, we’ll be able to withstand whatever life throws at us.

Cairns have been used since prehistory to mark trails. This cairn will be marking my path through 2014, helping me to keep my balance.

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers and all my fellow slicers for their friendship and support over the past year. Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and balanced New Year!

Slice of Life: The Nutcracker


“The spark divine dwells in thee; let it grow.”

~Edna Wheeler Wilcox~

On Sunday, my friend June and I went to see The Nutcracker. Dancers from a local theater and dance studio performed the ballet to Tchaikovsky’s beloved music. The cast was full of students from my school and it was wonderful to see them in a different light. Each dancer’s face beamed as they jetéd and glissaded across the stage. As I watched them, I was reminded of something I had read earlier in the day about yoga and the belief that “there is a Divine spark within each of us that is located in the heart chakra.” (Yoga Journal) Their Divine spark was shining through, bringing joy to every person in the auditorium.

June and I have known each other since Kindergarten. Our friendship has waxed and waned over those almost 50 (gasp!) years, but we have always been bound together by our love of music and dance. We started ballet class together when we were in second grade, and we sang together in chorus through all our years of school. We sing together still in a local choral group. Yet somehow, neither one of us had ever seen a performance of The Nutcracker. What more appropriate way for us to celebrate Christmas than by watching one of the most famous ballets in the world?

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for providing this space to kindle our divine sparks. Wishing you all a season of light filled with love and joy and peace, filled with friends old and new.

Poetry Friday: “O Holy Night”


‘Tis the season for traditions. Every family celebrates the season in their own way, and singing Christmas carols has always been part of Christmas at our house. Beloved carols and songs fill the air as we decorate the tree, bake cookies and wrap gifts. One of my favorite carols is “O Holy Night.” The music was composed in 1847 by Adolphe Adam for Placide Cappeau’s poem “Minuit, chrétiens.”  In 1855, John Sullivan Dwight adapted the the poem and created the lyrics we sing today.

“O Holy Night”

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,

‘Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on you knees! O hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night, when Christ was born;

O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

(read the rest of the lyrics, as well as the original French poem, here)

Wishing you all a holiday filled with love and joy!

Be sure to visit Buffy Silverman at Buffy’s Blog for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: The “Ugly” Sweater


I am a pack-rat. I hate to throw anything away. My cousins and I tease each other that this must be genetic because my grandmother saved EVERYTHING. I have a love/hate relationship with this part of my personality. On the one hand, the piles of boxes and books in my attic and office drive me crazy. On the other hand, I can usually find what I’m looking for and am glad that I still have whatever it is I’m trying to find.

This was true last week when we had our Christmas party at work. The party organizers thought it would be fun to have an “Ugly Sweater” contest, with a prize for the ugliest sweater. “You know, those tacky holiday sweaters everyone used to wear,” one of my colleagues explained. Yes. I did know. I still have one. (Okay, maybe two, but I swear my tackiest Talbots sweater, circa 1994, went to Goodwill at least a year ago.) In the days leading up to the party, conversations like this could be heard throughout the halls: “Do you have an extra sweater I can borrow?” or “Maybe you can find one at the thrift store.”

Happy to know I didn’t have to search for something to wear, I was faced with another dilemma. I like my sweater. I don’t think it’s ugly. That’s why I still have it. I was relieved to find out that other people agreed with me. (Although maybe they were just trying to be nice.) Still, I felt better when I saw my friend Cathy.


The winner of the contest didn’t have an ugly sweater, so she created one by raiding her Christmas decorations.


All this good-natured fun got me thinking, though. Even if my sweater wasn’t ready for the donation box, are there elements of my teaching that are? Am I clutching to an activity or practice just because I’ve always done it? I like to think that I’m reflective and objective about this, but I’m not sure. I definitely have favorite books and projects, but I also read new books and am always on the look out for ideas that will improve my teaching.

The truth is we get comfortable with materials and routines. It’s scary to change our practices and habits. But is this in the best interest of our students? When I talk with colleagues about lessons or activities, I always ask them, “How does this help our students grow as readers and writers?” If there isn’t a good answer to this question, then we have to let it go. By the same token, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to toss everything over for some shiny new program. If a practice is effective, we should keep it. We may need do some tweaking, but there’s a big difference between abandoning and modifying. We have to trust ourselves to make good decisions in this time of rampant change.

And don’t throw that sweater away. You never know when it will be exactly what you want to wear.

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for sharing your slices. Your stories always give me new ideas to think about.

One Year Later

I originally posted this on December 21, 2012, one week after the tragedy at Newtown. I am posting it again today, in a slightly modified form, in honor of the teachers and children who died that day.

Turn Again to Life

by Mary Lee Hall

If I should die and leave you here awhile,

Be not like others, sore undone, who keep

Long vigils by the silent dust, and weep.

For my sake – turn again to life and smile,

Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do

Something to comfort other hearts than thine.

Complete those dear unfinished tasks of mine

And I, perchance, may therein comfort you.

Mary Lee Hope

Iain Lees [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Iain Lees [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
We owe it to the dedicated educators who died to take up their “dear unfinished tasks.” We must do everything in our power to create a world filled with love and joy; a world where all children can grow and flourish into the fullness of themselves.


Poetry Friday: The Secret


I finished reading Christopher Lehman and Kate Robert’s new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading (Heinemann, 2013) last week. Kate and Chris have done a terrific job articulating the elements of close reading. At the same time, they encourage teachers to be purposeful about using close reading strategies. Close reading is not something to be done on every page of every book. Their main point it that close reading should be done when there is a deeper understanding to be gained.

All week I’ve been thinking about the application of these ideas in the classroom. I have been looking at texts differently since reading Falling in Love With Close Reading. Noticing patterns I might have skimmed over in the past, or asking myself, “I wonder why the author chose that word.” All this thinking reminded me of “The Secret” by Denise Levertov.

The Secret

by Denise Levertov

Two girls discover

the secret of life

in a sudden line of


I who don’t know the

secret wrote

the line. They

told me

(through a third person)

they had found it

but not what it was

not even

what line it was. No doubt

by now, more than a week

later, they have forgotten

the secret,

the line, the name of

the poem. I love them

for finding what

I can’t find,

Read the rest of the poem here.

“Two Girls Reading”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Please visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Christmas Trees and the Gift of Books


“A book is a gift you can open again and again.”

Garrison Keillor

Every year in late November, my town library hosts a cocktail party/silent auction fund raiser to kick off the holiday season. People donate gift baskets, wreaths, and gift cards to local restaurants and businesses, but the highlight of the event are the Christmas trees. The decorations on each tree are inspired by a book, which is of course part of the package. My dear friend, Colette (of Used Books in Class fame), and I have been contributing a tree for at least the last 15 years, and it has become one of my favorite holiday traditions.

The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker Tree, topped by Boalt’s Sugar Plum Fairy

Our trees have most often been based on a children’s book, but we have done a few trees based on adult books. Our Under the Tuscan Sun tree was especially beautiful.  Sometimes we’re inspired by the book itself; other times we find an ornament that strikes our fancy. Many of our trees were inspired by the incredible handmade soft sculpture ornaments by Gladys Boalt. These usually adorn the tree top. The rest of the ornaments are generally a mix of purchased ornaments and ornaments that we make. We’ve gotten very creative over the years about making ornaments out of almost anything. Tiny terra-cotta flower pots and raffia became bells on the Tuscan tree, yellow grosgrain ribbon was transformed into the yellow brick road with the help of a black Sharpie, and a hand-knit I-cord became the garland for a tree full of little sweaters and hats.

Alice in Wonderland Tree
Alice in Wonderland Tree

Ideas for a tree can strike at any time of the year. Colette is usually the mastermind, but I’ve had my share of brainstorms too. This year’s tree was inspired by a set of wooden magnets Colette found in the gift shop at the Eric Carle Museum back in March. With the help of brightly colored bakery string and scrap book paper (to cover the black backs), these adorable magnets became ornaments. Plastic alphabet links were turned into a garland, and the Very Hungry Caterpillar himself sat atop the tree.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar
The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Every year we ask ourselves why we do this, as it takes a fair amount of time to make sure we have all the materials we need, make the ornaments, and decorate the tree. Trees have to be delivered to the library (a big challenge in itself!) right before Thanksgiving, a very hectic time of year for teachers. But every year, as we’re making the ornaments, we remember why we do this. We love it. We love supporting our local library. We love using a creative part of our brain that we often neglect, and we love creating beautiful Christmas trees that bring joy to someone. Most of all, we love giving a child a book they will never forget.

This year's finished tree
This year’s finished tree

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for creating and nurturing this supportive community!

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


I brought a stack of books home with me from NCTE, and I’ve had fun making my way through those over the past few weeks. Today I’m highlighting two of my favorites.

Although I was overwhelmed by the Exhibition Hall at the Hynes center, this immediately caught my eye at the Clarion booth:

Clarion, 2013

I love teaching with wordless picture books because they are accessible to all students, and David Wiesner is a genius of the form. The level of sophistication in his wordless picture books make them especially appealing to older students. Mr. Wuffles (Clarion, 2013) is one of his best. At first I was surprised by the slightly cartoony quality of the cover. But, after reading the first few pages, my notion that this might be a departure from Wiesner’s usual photographic style was gone.

Mr. Wuffles can’t be bothered with the many toys his human has tried to lure him with. Nestled in amongst the stuffed mice and jingle balls is what at first glance might be a tea infuser or some other forgotten mid-20th century kitchen gadget. Mr. Wuffles ignores this too, until something about this curious little silver ball catches his attention. Then the fun begins. Priceless facial expressions tell much of the story, and Wiesner plays with point of view throughout the book. Rich with details, Mr. Wuffles is a treat for picture book lovers of all ages.

Meet the model for Mr. Wuffles and learn more about Wiesner’s creative process in the book trailer:

Another highlight of my visit to the Exhibition Hall was meeting Gae Polisner and getting a signed ARC of The Summer of Letting Go. (Algonquin, publication date: March 18, 2014) Gae is one of the forces behind Teachers Write! and her kind and generous feedback about my writing was a real boost to me last summer. This may make me biased, but if I hadn’t liked this book, I just wouldn’t have written about it.


And actually I didn’t like it. I loved it. I wish my 14 or 15 year old self could have read this book. It would have been such a relief to know that other girls were insecure about their looks or felt like they couldn’t do anything right. Francesca, aka Frankie, worries about all this and more. She feels responsible for the drowning death of her younger brother four years earlier, and she worries about her parents, who are each coping with this tragedy in their own way. The Summer of Letting Go is the story of Frankie’s journey to forgiveness and acceptance; to understanding that “not even the ocean can drown our souls.”

Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!

Poetry Friday: What the Heart Cannot Forget


My head is still full of wisdom and inspiration from NCTE, but thoughts of Christmas are starting to push them away. As I pondered what to share today, my mind kept returning to my family’s Christmas traditions. My search for a poem that matched my thinking led me to this lovely work by Joyce Sutphen, Minnesota’s Poet Laureate.

 What the Heart Cannot Forget

by Joyce Sutphen

Everything remembers something. The rock, its firey bed,

cooling and fissuring into cracked pieces, the rub

of watery fingers along its edge.

The cloud remembers being elephant, camel, giraffe,

remembers being a veil over the face of the sun,

gathering itself together for the fall.

The turtle remembers the sea, sliding over and under

its belly, remembers legs like wings, escaping down

the sand under the beaks of savage birds.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Wildlifeppl at en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons
Wildlifeppl at en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons

Once I found “What the Heart Cannot Forget” I copied it into my notebook. I suddenly realized I was doing exactly what Linda Rief described during her session with Georgia Heard and Tom Romano at NCTE. Taking Georgia’s “heart maps” a step further, Linda has her students create “heart books.” These books are collections of poems that reflect a topic on their heart maps. (Vicki Vinton describes Linda’s process beautifully at her blog, To Make a Prairie. Linda Baie also wrote about using heart maps with her students at Teacher Dance.)

Maureen Barbieri introduced Linda as a teacher who “encourages her students to share their voices so readers will see the world in new ways.” Joyce Sutphen’s words made me see the world in a new way. More importantly, they spoke to my heart.

Please visit Robyn at Life on the Deckle Edge for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Connecting With Obsolescence


Last weekend, I took advantage of the extra days off to get ready for Christmas and did some cleaning. When I dusted some long-neglected shelves, I found a phone dialer from my grandmother’s house hidden in the shadow of a vase. As I held this totally obsolete object in my hand, I marveled at how perfectly its design matched its purpose: a finger-length cylinder tapered at the base so it could be easily grasped while a phone was dialed. I remembered watching my Grandmother as she used this dialer to call her friends or sisters to chat about recipes, gardens, and grandchildren.

My grandmother, c. 1905, and her phone dialer.
My grandmother, c. 1905, and her phone dialer.

Although my grandmother, and the phone she dialed, are no longer around, the urge to reach out and connect with others never fades. From letters, phone calls, emails, and tweets, people still crave connections. The mode may change, but the desire remains.

Maybe it’s because of my age, but I still prefer phone or face-to-face conversations over emails, texts, or Facebook. But these new-fangled forms of communication let me keep in touch with high school and college friends who are scattered around the world. And I’m grateful for all the connections I’ve made through blogging and Twitter.

Although I can no longer use this phone dialer, I’m glad I have it. I’m glad I can hold it in my hand and remember the deep, loving connection I had with my grandmother. And I’m glad that when I put the dialer down, I can turn to my computer, and connect with the world.

Thank you to everyone at Two Writing Teachers for supporting this connected community!