Poetry Friday: An Epitaph for Medusa

Every month I look forward the Ditty Challenge that Michelle Heidenrich Barnes shares on her blog. In February, to celebrate their new book, Last Laughs: Prehistoric Epitaphs (Charlesbridge, 2017), J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen challenged Michelle’s readers  to write an epitaph poem. All month I’ve been at a loss for a topic. Then, yesterday, inspiration arrived in the mail:

“An Epitaph for Medusa”

With slithering, serpentine hair
and a cold, penetrating stare,
you turned men into statues of stone,
so most mortals left you alone.

But while you slumbered in bed,
Perseus chopped of your head.
Now, instead of resting in Elysian’s field,
you’re entombed on Athena’s bronze shield.

 © Catherine Flynn, 2018

Please be sure to visit Elizabeth Steinglass for the Poetry Friday Roundup, and then stop by Michelle’s blog to read more epitaphs.

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)

Poetry Friday: The Maiden and the Dove

Like many Poetry Friday friends, I’m participating in Laura Shovan‘s 6th Annual February Daily Poem Project. This year’s theme is ekphrasis. Each day, a group member posts a photo of a work of art in his or her home. The variety of works shared during the past week alone has been astounding. I haven’t been able to keep up and write a poem every day, but I’m trying. This daily writing is stretching my poetry muscles in different ways and has yielded many surprises. Almost accidentally, I’ve also been playing with new and different forms. Last week, I shared an abecedarian. This week, Heather Meloche shared a block print created by her grandmother, Thelma Wilson Brain.

Troubadours and courtly love immediately came to mind, so I decide to tried my had at a lai. In The Essential Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch writes that “in Old French Poetry, a lai is a short lyrical or narrative poem…usually written in octosyllabic verse.” Sticking to a strict syllable count and rhyme scheme was quite a challenge. I tried not to sacrifice sense while maintaining both, but don’t think I completely succeeded. In any case, this draft was fun to write, and brought back many fond memories of a favorite English professor who specialized in the lais of Marie de France.

The Maiden and the Dove

When troubadours in days of old
Sang songs of maids with hair of gold,
Sweet lady Jane traversed a wood
To where the sacred hazel stood.
Beneath its boughs she met a dove
Who trilled the promise of true love.
“Gather rosebuds of red and white.
Present them to a gallant knight.
For you he will forego all strife,
Preferring an idyllic life.”     

No damsel in distress was she,
Jane soon was down upon one knee.
“Dear dove, thank you for these wise words
But taking such advice from birds
Seems like a foolish plan to make
And sure would bring me much heartache.
Don’t fill my head with fluff and froth.
I’ll only ever pledge my troth
To one who’s loyal and steadfast,
Whose bravery is unsurpassed.
On such a man I will bestow
My tender love, then all will know.”

To her word, gracious Jane was true,
Tales of her love and kindness grew,
Throughout the land her story was told,
By troubadours in days of old.

© Catherine Flynn, 2018

Please be sure to visit Sally Murphy’s blog for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: An Abecedarian

The first few lines of this poem, inspired by the first prompt of Laura Shovan’s 6th Annual February Daily Poem Project, came to me in alphabetical order. I’ve been working on an abecedarian for my WIP, so I decided to go with my instinct and get some practice with the form.

According to the Academy of American Poets, an abecedarian is 

an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached.

Unfinished self-portrait by Jay Shovan

To me, the pain in this painting is palpable, but Jay’s eyes are strong and steady. It felt necessary to acknowledge a possible source of what look like bruises (Real? Metaphorical? Does it matter?), yet see into the fulfilling future those piercing eyes are looking toward.

Bully’s words,
Calculated for maximum
Echo through my brain
Grow softer, but never fully
I want to scream, “Who are you to
Judge me?  Because I
Lurking behind your
Malicious mask is a
Neglected soul.
On my neck, this
Quilt of colors will fade,
Recede from sight and I will
Stitch my soul back
White sails unfurl. I’ll become a
Xebec,* sail to far away shores, leaving
Your taunts behind, reaching my
Zenith despite you.

* “a small, three-masted ship with overhanging bow and stern, once common in the Mediterranean.” (Webster’s New World Dictionary)

© Catherine Flynn, 2018

Don’t forget to visit Donna Smith at Mainely Write for the Poetry Friday Roundup. Also, please stop by my friend and critique group partner Linda Mitchell’s blog, A Word Edgewise. Linda invited me to answer a few questions about poetry and writing. It was revealing process to reflect on Linda’s questions, and I thank her for the opportunity. As usually happens, when I read my responses, I realized I neglected to mention all my poetry mentors, especially Laura Purdie Salas and Mary Lee Hahn. Forgive my addled brain!