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.

Poetry Friday Roundup and Can I Touch Your Hair: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship

Happy New Year! Welcome to the first Poetry Friday Roundup of 2018! If you’re new to Poetry Friday, you can learn more from Renée LaTulippe at No Water River.

Today I’m proud to feature a brave and beautiful new book by two dear poetry friends, Irene Latham and Charles Waters, Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship, published by Carolrhoda Books on January 1, 2018. With starred reviews from Kirkus  and Publisher’s Weekly, this book deserves a place in every classroom. (A Teacher’s Guide is available here.)

Assigned to work together on a poetry project, Irene and Charles are ambivalent. Irene articulates this with the frank honesty of childhood: “Charles is black/and I am white.”

Overcoming their misgivings, they find common ground in the everyday worries of all kids, and begin by writing about shoes and hair. These subjects soon give way to more serious topics such as saying the wrong thing, racial tensions, police brutality, and fear of others because they look different.

They walk the tightrope of adolescent friendships when Irene’s request to join “the black girls/ play[ing] freeze dance” and Charles’s friends “play me dirty.” The poems reveal an unfolding friendship, which Sean Qualls and Selina Alko capture in their sensitive illustrations as heart-shaped flourishes erupting from their pens, mouths, and minds.

Throughout the collection, Irene and Charles make their alter egos come alive by honestly revealing pieces of vulnerability, as when Charles realizes he’s “a few shades too dark/to be allowed to call [a new classmate] by his nickname.” This is balanced by their courage to face fear and shame, as Irene does in “Apology.” When an African-American classmate’s family tree is “draped in chains,” she realizes that the words “I’m sorry…are so small/ for something/so big.”

Both poets use figurative language to bring a depth of feeling and wisdom that amplifies the emotional impact of their writing. We feel the “fury rising inside” Charles, as if he’s “a tidal wave about to crash on land,” as well as the joy they each feel as they “stand in line, cradling our books like newborn kittens,” as they wait to meet author Nikki Grimes. 

With Charles and Irene at NCTE in St. Louis last November.

Irene and Charles generously allowed me to share two of their poems with you today. Thank you so much!

“The Poem Project”

When our teacher says,
Pick your partner,
my body freezes
like a ship in ice.

I want Patty Jean,
but Madison
has already looped
arms with her.

Within seconds,
is the only one left.

How many poems?
someone asks.
About what?
Do they have to be true?

Mrs. Vandenberg
holds up her hand.
Write about anything!
It’s not black and white.

But it is.
Charles is black,
and I’m white.

© Irene Latham, 2018

“Writing Partner”

Mrs. Vandenberg wants us to write poems?
Finally, an easy project. Words fly off my pen
onto the paper, like writing is my superpower.
The rest of the time, my words are a curse. I open my mouth,
and people run away. Now I’m stuck with Irene?
She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.
Her stringy, dishwater blond hair waves
back and forth as she stutter-steps toward me.
My stomach bottoms out. “Hello,” I say. “Hi,” she says.
I surprise myself by smiling at her–she smells like
a mix of perfume and soap. We stare at our sneakers
before I ask, “So, what do you want to
write about?” She shrugs. I say, “How about our shoes, hair?
Then we can write about school and church?”
She takes a deep breath. “Okay.”
I match it. “Let’s start there.”

© Charles Waters, 2018

In an interview with Megan Labrise on the podcast Fully Booked by Kirkus Reviews (starting at 32:40), Charles and Irene share the origin of Can I Touch Your Hair, as well as their hopes for their book. Irene states their wish is that “it will make it easier to have these really difficult conversations about race” and as we “talk about it, listen to each other, [we’ll] realize that we’re all human people, we have more in common than we have separate, different, and that the different parts are beautiful.” Because, as Irene and Charles so wisely point out in the book’s final poem, “Dear Mrs. Vandenberg”: “We are so much more than black and white!”

And now for the Roundup! Please join today’s celebration of poetry by sharing your link.