Slice of Life: Purpose and Passion


“The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.”
Richard Feynman

(A few weeks ago, the theme of Margaret Simon’s #Digilit Sunday was PURPOSE.  Since then, I’ve been jotting ideas and working to clearly articulate my thoughts around this topic.)

In the Prologue of The Search for Delicious, Natalie Babbitt refers to “those commonplace marvels which [the world] spreads so carelessly before us everyday.” When I taught third grade, I read this book to my students every year. Babbitt’s magical tale of mythical creatures and human folly was a perennial favorite. The story of Galen’s quest for the elusive definition of delicious is nothing less than a metaphor for the quest for knowledge of any kind.

Helping children be attuned to these marvels and to be filled with a sense of wonder about the world has always been at the heart of my teaching. I want to help my students learn to be enchanted with the world around them. In my classroom, as often as possible, routines are woven into our days that nurture this ability. Such seemingly prosaic objects as dried sunflower heads, birds’ nests, and seashells become treasures to marvel over. I want my students to understand that they are explorers, and that the world is full of mysteries waiting to be uncovered.

So every book I read, every lesson or activity I teach is chosen or designed to lay out these wonders and enchant students. Enchant them so they grow a love of the world and become better stewards of our planet. I want them to look at the moon and see a peach nodding off, its eye at half-mast. Or hear music in the rattle of dried out bamboo as a woodpecker prospects for his breakfast.

I want to enchant them so they grow a love of words, and come alive as readers and writers. I want them to read and write with joy, in a way that allows them to deepen their understanding of themselves. I want them to find a book that holds up a mirror and lets them know they’re not alone. Someone else understands them and loves them, warts and all. I want them to read books that will open windows and help them discover truths about others, and the world around them. I want them to set out each day searching for, finding, and loving the possibilities in themselves and in one another.

That is my purpose. That is my passion.

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa 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: The Moon’s Wondrous Tale


“Soon as the evening shades prevail,
The moon takes up the wondrous tale.”

 ~ Joseph Addison ~


The moon has always fascinated me. Each day, I notice its passage through its eternal journey around the earth. I feel as if my day isn’t complete if I haven’t greeted my old friend. This month, the mystery of the moon has offered me a welcome distraction from the turmoil of our world. I wrote these haiku in response to the mood of the moon throughout the month.


in the crisp gloaming,
a sliver of moon winks through
shadowy branches


music fills the night;
each note carried on a beam
of silver moonlight


at dawn, a ghost moon
floats above purple hills;
not ready for sleep


eyelid at half mast,
tonight the moon is a
drowsy peach

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Please be sure to visit Carol Wilcox at Carol’s Corner for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: “A Sliver of Liver”


This afternoon, while her mother was having her conference with her teacher, a first grade student came into my room to say hello. We chatted for a few minutes, then she looked around and said, “It’s kind of messy in here.” Out of the mouths of babes, right? I told her I agreed, it was kind of messy. But the mess is really organized chaos on top of shelves and shelves of books. I have a terrible time getting rid of books. And even though I did manage to shed a few when I moved into a smaller space over the summer, I still have a lot of books. Is that really such a bad thing?


I don’t think so. Because so many of those books are treasures that are now out of print. Including Poem Stew, “a feast of hilarious poems about food” selected by Kenneth Cole and published by HarperCollins in 1981. This book was a favorite of my third graders, but I don’t use it too much anymore as I work mostly with first graders. This year, I see a group of fourth grade students and needed a poem for them with -er endings. And I found just what I was looking for in my well-worn copy of Cole’s rib-tickling collection.

“A Sliver of Liver”
by Myra Cohn Livingston

O sliver of liver,
Get lost! Go away!
You tremble and quiver
O sliver of liver–
You set me a-shiver
And spoil my day–
O sliver of liver,
Get lost! Go away!

Of course the kids loved this. When one girl said she wouldn’t eat liver if her mother served it for dinner, another student immediately noticed that “dinner” had an -er ending. Then they were off, thinking of other words and coming up with ideas with their own foods they wish would “Get lost!” They’ll be writing poems about these foods next week. Stay tuned for the results!

Please be sure to visit Brenda Davis Harsham at Friendly Fairy Tales for the Poetry Friday Roundup.


Poetry Friday: “All of These People”


“…all real unity commences
In consciousness of differences”

W.H. Auden

What is there to say at the end of a week such a this?  We turn to poets and find solace in their words. We turn to each other and find comfort in this space.

Krista Tippet recently interviewed Michael Longley, a Northern Irish poet whose work has sought “to reassert the liveliness of ordinary things, precisely in the face of what is hardest and most broken in life and society.”

Living in Northern Ireland throughout the years known as “the Troubles”, Longley has much to teach us as we come to terms with the results of this week’s election. I will keep his wise words in my heart as I go about my work in the coming months:

“And good art, good poems is making people more human, making them more intelligent, making them more sensitive and emotionally pure than they might otherwise be.”

“All of These People”
by Michael Longley

Who was it who suggested that the opposite of war
Is not so much peace as civilization? He knew
Our assassinated Catholic greengrocer who died
At Christmas in the arms of our Methodist minister,
And our ice-cream man who continuing requiem
Is the twenty-one flavours children have by heart.
Our cobbler mends shoes for everybody; our butcher
Blends into his best sausages leeks, garlic, honey;
Our cornershop sells everything from bread to kindling.

Who can bring peace to people who are not civilized?
All of these people, alive or dead, are civilized.

Listen to Michael Longley read his poem here.

Please be sure to visit Jama Rattigan at Jama’s Alphabet Soup for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Slice of Life: The Edge of Winter


When I taught third grade, Leo Lionni’s classic, Frederick, was one of the first books I read to my students. We admired Frederick’s independence and creative spirit. We relished his stock of words and images. Then we went outside to gather our own colors and words.

Back then, I paired this book with Mary O’Neil’s Hailstones and Halibut Bones and the kids wove the images they’d gathered into color poems. Today I would add Joyce Sidman’s Red Sings from Treetops. Sidman’s luscious poetry never fails to get a reader and writer’s creative juices flowing.

For the past few weeks, the autumn days have been spectacular in my corner of the world. I’ve been spending as much time as possible outside, collecting images and ideas. This poem grew out of those noticings.

Breathe in the silence
of a barren field
at evening’s edge.

Listen to the sun’s
last rays, seeping
through leafless trees.

Feel the murmur
of starlings as they
dip and dive in crisp air.

Watch the calm shatter
as a flock of geese
announce their approach.

Taste the first hint
of winter, ruffling
the pond’s glassy surface.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Go and gather images and colors and words. Give your students, no matter how young or old, time to write their thoughts, their hopes, their dreams. We’ll all be richer for it.

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa 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.

DigiLit Sunday: Finding Our Focus


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is focus. Please be sure to visit Margaret’s blog to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

At the ophthalmologist’s office, my chin is perched on a cold metal plate. My eyes are pressed into a mask of metal and glass that must make me look like a steampunk insect. The doctor casually flips lenses back and forth. “Better?” he asks, or “This? Or this?” How do I know with any certainty? My eyes are dilated and stung, blurry and burning with this effort. Then the doctor flips the lens again and, as if by magic, everything is clear.


Sometimes I feel like this when I’m writing. I have some nebulous idea in mind that I circle around for days or even longer before I have a clearer vision of what direction or shape a project will take. Other times, an idea appears as suddenly as if a switch was flipped. Who knows why.

The trick is to be ready to catch the idea. I’m fascinated to hear authors and other artists describe how ideas come to them. Francine Prose recently talked about the origin of her new novel, Mister Monkey, on NPR. As I listened, I thought only a true artist could find inspiration in such an awkward and unlikely moment and turn it into a work that moves and enlightens others.

How does this relate to teaching? There are at least two sides to this question. Our primary focus, of course, is our students. But clarifying that focus onto individual students is a much more complicated job.

I wonder, though, if it’s really that different from being at the ophthalmologist’s? We look at students and their work through different lenses. Our first lens is straightforward: we look to see if their work is accurate. Whether it is or isn’t, a second lens will be needed. If the work is correct, we’ll look through a lens of where to go next. If it isn’t, we need our “why not” lens.

As a reading interventionist, this is a lens I look through often. During a phonics dictation last week, a student spelled chase, (as in “The cat will chase the mouse.”) as chaise. Focusing on the why of this spelling and not just the right or wrong of it tells me two things. First of all, this student needs more work with long a spelling patterns. Secondly, and more importantly, he knows what they are, but hasn’t learned that they aren’t  usually used at the same time. With this information in hand, I can focus my attention on how to help him master these spelling patterns.

Not only do we have to view the students and their work through the right lens, we need the knowledge to know what we’re looking at, the skill to catch the idea, if you will. Without this knowledge to give our teaching a focus, we may wander around from idea to idea, but never connect them in any meaningful way. We have to articulate a goal, then keep it in focus. We may fall short, or we may have to alter our path along the way. But as long as our focus is clear, and we remain flexible, we are much more likely to succeed. 

Poetry Friday: “Fifth Grade Autobiography”


Over the past few weeks I’ve been working with 8th graders on poems inspired by memories. After brainstorming possible topics, they began drafting. I was in awe of the depth and range of emotions and tones in their writing, from witty to heartbreakingly serious.

As we began revising, it was clear that they needed some mentor poems to help them think about line breaks. After spending some time on The Poetry Foundation’s archive of poems for children, I found this beauty by Rita Dove.

“Fifth Grade Autobiography”
by Rita Dove

I was four in this photograph fishing
with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan.
My brother squats in poison ivy.
His Davy Crockett cap
sits squared on his head so the raccoon tail
flounces down the back of his sailor suit.

My grandfather sits to the far right
in a folding chair,
and I know his left hand is on
the tobacco in his pants pocket
because I used to wrap it for him
every Christmas.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Please be sure to visit the lovely Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World For Kids for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

The Landscape of Everyday Life


It’s only half a mile from where I live now. Follow the road as it snakes its way down a rock-strewn hill, then flattens out and runs like a ribbon in front of lawns where holsteins once grazed on sweet clover. Round another corner and the house comes into view: a cape, white with black shutters, just like so many others scattered across New England. Except this one is special, at least to me. This is the house I grew up in.

More than thirty years have passed since my family sold this house, yet hundreds of memories flooded through me as I stood in front hallway on Sunday. Ordinary days of running out the door when I was late for the bus; extraordinary days when I left for college, when I got married.

Who was that person, rushing out, so anxious to find out what life had in store? Is there some trace of her within me? When I look in the mirror, I see her still, even though the face, like the house, is transformed with age. Are her dreams so different now?

How long do we keep our previous homes in our hearts? All these years later, I could walk through that house blindfolded. I wept as I stood in my old bedroom, utterly changed, yet still mine. In The Most Beautiful House in the World (Penguin Books, 1990), Witold Ribczynski describes his home as “the landscape of my everyday” life. This landscape of my childhood is seared into my soul because it was there that my soul was forged.

Memory is a tricky thing. The rooms felt smaller, but the sunlight pouring through the window was as bright and warm as it had ever been. Not every memory from that house is happy. How could it be? But I was loved there, and felt safe there. Birds build nests that suit their habitat, their biology and anatomy. They nestle into contours that fit their bodies precisely. That house was a perfect fit.

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa 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.