DigiLit Sunday: Asparagus: A Digital Poem

When Margaret posted this week’s Digilit Sunday topic, Digital Poetry, I felt a sense of relief. The past few weeks have been pretty hectic and I just didn’t have the time to devote to the topics Margaret had suggested. But Spring Break began on Friday and I finally felt that I could stop and take a breath.

The spark for this poem came from “Autumn’s Way” by Charles Ghigna. I took the first line,

“In their yellow-most goings,”

and reworked it for spring. Thinking about how to narrow down the greening of spring, for some unknown reason, I settled on asparagus.

With the help of this video the poem itself came together pretty easily  As I thought about the digital element of this poem, I wanted to challenge myself and create something that conveyed a sense of movement. I have limited experience with iMovie, but I thought it might create the effect I wanted.

I scoured the web for royalty-free images of growing asparagus. (NOT an easy feat!) While I was doing this, a memory of “Simple Gifts” popped into my head, and I knew that tune would be the perfect soundtrack.

With all the elements collected, I set out to create this movie. After about four hours of trial and error, I have a 24 second video! As with any work, I feel this still has room for improvement. So I offer you the latest digital draft of my poem, “Asparagus.”

In the greening days of April,
stalks of asparagus
raise their heads
after slumbering deep
in the earth.
Stretching into
the air’s bright warmth,
growing taller,
they sway to and fro,
like a troupe of modern dancers
welcoming spring.

© Catherine Flynn, 2017

SOL 17: Slicing Our Lives

                               11454297503_e27946e4ff_h        slide11

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

“…trust me, I’m going to take you somewhere…”
~ Colum McCann ~

I love listening to writers talk about the origins of a story or poem. So often one random, ordinary moment becomes a magical trail through time and space that leads to a breathtaking piece of writing. For some reason, these recollections reassure me. Maybe it’s because my life seems so very boring and ordinary they give me hope that, if I pay close attention, I do have things to write about.

The harder task is finding the bigger truth in the small moment. In her speech accepting the Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo explains that writers “have been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story.” No pressure, right?

These thoughts were swirling through my mind this morning as my husband and I headed to a local diner for our weekly breakfast ritual. Sunday mornings are always busy and we usually have to a wait for a booth. Everyone waits patiently, striking up conversations with strangers about how cold it is or the UConn girls basketball team’s latest win. When we’re shown to our seat, I always face the door so I can continue to people watch. It’s a diverse crowd, with people from all walks of life sitting side by side, eating a meal.

Last week I watched an extended family celebrate a little boy’s birthday. His dad was a big, gruff looking guy, but I marveled at how tender and caring he was with his son. Today, a mom and dad talked and colored with their two small children while they waited for their pancakes. The scene seemed perfectly ordinary. And yet here were two parents, probably juggling many of life’s demands, spending time with their children, paying attention to them, and letting them know through their actions how much they care about them.

When writers sit down before a blank page or screen, we hardly ever know what insights will be uncovered. Maybe there won’t be any. That’s the beauty of writing. We’ll never find those truths if we don’t look for them. And so we return to the challenge each day. Seeking the right word. Searching for the perfect phrase or sentence, we lay down our thoughts. Like a chef choosing the perfect ingredients for a recipe, we strive to shape our thinking into something worthy and nourishing. It’s our way of telling our readers how much we care about them.

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

DigiLit Sunday: Why I Write


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic, in preparation for the National Day On Writing on October 20, is “Why I Write.” Please be sure to visit Margaret’s blog to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

“You were made and set here to give voice to your own astonishment.”
~ Annie Dillard ~

When I was growing up, I loved to explore. Inside or out, it didn’t matter. I was curious about what was under every rock and what I could see from the top of each tree. I wanted to know what was in every drawer and old trunk I could find. At one point, I even wanted to be an archeologist so I could say it was my job to find treasure.

I didn’t become an archeologist, but my curiosity has never left me. Daily walks are explorations. I always return home with something: a leaf or fragment of a wasp’s nest, an image in my head or on my camera. Opening a book and entering into unknown worlds is another way to delve into the unknown. Poking around an antique shop or a flea market also recaptures that thrill of discovery.

Preset Style = Travelogue Format = 6" (Medium) Format Margin = Small Format Border = Sm. Rounded Drawing = #2 Pencil Drawing Weight = Heavy Drawing Detail = Medium Paint = Natural Paint Lightness = Auto Paint Intensity = More Water = Orange Juice Water Edges = Medium Water Bleed = Average Brush = Fine Detail Brush Focus = Everything Brush Spacing = Medium Paper = Buff Paper Texture = Medium Paper Shading = Medium Options Faces = Enhance Faces
A view from a late afternoon walk last week, enhanced by Waterlogue.

But the most important way I keep my sense of wonder and curiosity alive is by writing. When I write, I can wander through the woods where I played as a kid. Or pore over old photos from the desk in my grandmother’s living room. I can rummage around in forgotten boxes for hours and still be excited when some long-forgotten memento turns up.

Writing lets me puzzle through questions. The page, after all, is a good listener. Writing lets me have a conversation about subjects no one else is interested in. In both cases, writing clarifies my thoughts about my work and life. Sometimes writing captures my frustrations. Letting the paper absorb my irritation or discouragement helps to dissipate negative feelings.

Writing also allows me, as Ted Kooser so wonderfully described it in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, to have moments “full of joyous, solitary discovery.” I have experienced these moments, although they are they exception, not the rule. What I have learned during my life as a writer, is that the more you write, the more likely you are to make one of those joyous discoveries; a flash of insight, when the right words flow out in the right order. It is a deeply satisfying moment.

The writing I do for myself, because I want to, also puts me in a better position to help my students. I know that extended periods of time to write about things they’re passionate about is necessary if they are to become skilled writers and thinkers. I want my students to have the opportunity to see where their writing takes them. Who knows what they might discover about themselves?

Writing may be satisfying, but it can also be deeply frustrating. My writing always falls short of my expectations. So why do I continue? I keep writing because I always learn something new. And I’m always searching for the undiscovered treasure waiting for me at the bottom of the trunk.

DigiLit Sunday: Agency


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Please be sure to visit her there to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

When Margaret suggested the word agency as our topic this week, my first step was make sure I was using the term correctly. This Merriam-Webster definition confirmed my working ideas about agency:

“the capacity, condition, or state of acting or exerting power”

The next day, a teacher came to me with concerns about one of her students. The teacher felt that Anna (not her real name) wasn’t decoding well or understanding what she read. The teacher had administered a Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment, which indicated that Anna was reading in the instructional range for her grade level expectation. Because it’s still early in the year, and this assessment had just been done, the teacher really hadn’t tried anything to address her concerns. But it was clear she wanted something specific from me—an intervention, a strategy, anything that might improve Anna’s reading behaviors.

I was at a loss. The information shared by Anna’s teacher was so general, and none of Anna’s previous teachers had ever expressed concerns about her. So I suggested that I come in to visit and read with Anna so I could get to know her better and understand the teacher’s concerns.

Arriving in the classroom during independent reading time, I noted that Anna was intently reading a book that looked like an appropriate choice. I observed her for several minutes as she read. She sub-vocalized in some spots, used her finger to guide her in others, and seemed completely engaged with the book.

After about five minutes, I went over to her and asked her to tell me about her reading. She did a fine job retelling what had happened in the book so far. Then I asked her to read the next page to me. She didn’t hesitate and read the first line fluently and expressively.

Just as I was wondering why there was such a disconnect between what the teacher had observed and what I was seeing, Anna stumbled. “Cloud giants” became “could grants.” This made no sense, and she knew it, so she stopped and looked at me.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about Anna. Everything I had seen suggested that she did have agency when she read. She was reading an independent level text independently and with understanding. She even knew that meaning had broken down for her and she stopped. As we know, many students would have just plowed ahead!

When she said, “that doesn’t make any sense,” I praised her for noticing that and asked her what she could do. She knew that sometimes rereading helped, so she tried that. When that didn’t work, she tried looking for a smaller word she knew. She found “ants” in “giants,” but because she didn’t know (or wasn’t sure about) soft /g/, this strategy didn’t help. I asked her what else she could try, but now she was truly stumped. Her go-to strategies hadn’t helped, and there were no visible supports in the classroom to help her.

Anna did roll up her sleeves!

I noticed that the picture held a lot of information that might help her, and she hadn’t even glanced at it. After I reminded her that sometimes readers use the illustrations to help them, she took one look and the light bulb went off. She went back to the text and read it easily. We talked about what she had done to figure out the unknown words, and she told me that using the pictures was a strategy she would use the next time she came to new words.

I’ll talk with Anna’s teacher about using anchor charts to support growing readers.

Now I was feeling a little frustrated. It wasn’t Anna who didn’t have agency. She was doing the best she could with the skills she had. But there were supports that should have been in place for her that weren’t. Where was the anchor chart for this reading unit?  And why hadn’t her teacher already had this conversation with her?

I began to wonder if I had provided too many scaffolds for Anna’s teacher in the past. Had I swooped in too quickly when she came to me with questions about students? But isn’t that my job as a literacy specialist? 

This is the tip of the iceberg for my work with Anna’s teacher. By sheer coincidence, yesterday I watched Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s session about listening to and learning from our students as part of The Educator’s Collaborative’s Online Gathering. (If you missed this, go there now and watch as many sessions as you can.) They confirmed what I had done when I sat down with Anna. “Every single day, when we slow down and get to know the people around us, that’s data.” But sitting down with Anna not only helped me get to know her, it gave me insight into how I can work with her teacher to develop her agency. Watching Clare and Tammy’s session together will be our first step. I anticipate many many follow-up conversations, and I’ll be sharing more about our work together in the future.

DigiLit Sunday: Motivation


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Please be sure to visit her there to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

When Margaret posted this week’s topic for #DigiLit Sunday, I groaned. Where to begin with the word motivation?

I started jotting my thoughts as they came to me. My list looked something like this:

  • Love motivates us to do things for others.
  • A sense of accomplishment can motivate us to do things.
  • What about desire? What role does this play?
  • People are motivated to learn about and do things that are interesting to them.

None of this helped me narrow this topic down. I could think of personal examples for each point on this list, but I was curious about how these feelings work in the classroom. I had some examples from my own teaching experience, but I didn’t want to write only about anecdotal evidence.  In The Journey is Everything (Heniemann, 2016), Katherine Bomer advises writers to “Read, watch, and listen. All types of texts—books, movies, art, music, Ted Talks—provide inspiration as well as actual content for elaborating essays.”

Sure enough, a quick Google search brought me to Daniel Pink’s Ted Talk on motivation.  After about fifteen minutes of describing why carrot and stick approaches to motivation don’t work for “definitional tasks of the 21st century,” Pink went on to explain that intrinsic motivation is the best way to ensure high performance on creative, cognitively demanding tasks. Pink stated that people are motivated when they “desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, and because they’re part of something important.”

He went on to list three factors critical to intrinsic motivation:

  • autonomy—the urge to direct our own lives
  • mastery—the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • purpose—the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

I was struck by the similarities between what I wrote on my initial list and the three factors Pink describes as necessary for intrinsic motivation. And although Pink was looking at these elements in terms of business, their application to the classroom is obvious.

My students are always more motivated to read a book they have chosen, even if I limit their choice by giving them two or three options. Writing stories and essays about self-chosen topics is a much richer learning experience because the subject is meaningful to the writer.

The importance of students setting their own learning goals is not a new idea. But I know I need to do a better job at facilitating this process with my own students. Again, we can guide students through this process, even if we give them two or three goals to choose from.

Finally, giving our students a sense of purpose, of working toward “something larger than ourselves” is highly motivating. In the weeks after 9/11, I wanted to find some way to involve my 3rd grade students in efforts to help the families of the victims of the attacks. We ultimately designed and created an afghan that was raffled off. We donated the money raised to a fund for victims’ families. The kids were proud of the fact that they were contributing, and many even wanted to learn to knit so they could help with that part of the project. 

So much has been written about motivation that it would take a person years to read all the articles and books that have been published recently. But motivating our students is arguably the most important part of our job. So thank you, Margaret, for selecting motivation as our theme this week. It’s been helpful for me to examine my own thoughts about motivation and do a little research on the subject. I also found at least two books I’ve been meaning to read right on my bookshelf about this very topic. Now I’m motivated to start reading them today!

Summer Memories


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Please be sure to visit her there to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get back into the routine of these Sunday posts. I thought Margaret’s invitation to choose our own topic this week was a good opportunity for me to share my contribution to Carol Varsalona’s “Summerscapes” gallery.

When I was a kid, my family and I spent our summer vacations camping with friends in Saunderstown, Rhode Island. Our daily routine always included a visit to Beavertail Point on Conanicut Island (also known as Jamestown). We explored tide pools, collected shells, and watched ships and airplanes from the nearby Quonset Point Naval Air Station.

Earlier this summer, my sister and I spent an afternoon at Beavertail, reminiscing about those distant days. Our visit inspired this poem:

Sky melts into seaSurf crashes onto rocky shoreBeneath a rose-strewn bluff

I took this photo of the view from the very tip of Beavertail Point, then converted it into a watercolor using the Waterlogue app. The border and text of my poem were added using Canva. I’ve used Canva to create similar combinations of images and poetry, but I’d never used a Waterlogue image. The process was fairly straightforward. Aside from writing the poem, I think my biggest challenge was choosing a color for the border! One of my goals for the coming school year is to have students create similar images, pairing their photos with the poetry they inspired. Stay tuned for more about this!

Making Plans for Summer Reading


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is REFRESH.

By Winslow Homer (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Winslow Homer (Memphis Brooks Museum of Art) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teachers often have a long list of projects they want to work on, both personal and professional, that we’ve either put off or just haven’t had time for during the school year. And while I love finishing these tasks and the sense of accomplishment they bring, I don’t really find them refreshing. For me, being refreshed means having time to enjoy long, lazy afternoons reading and dozing.

Making plans for summer reading is one of my favorite activities. In January, I talked with fifth grade students about Reading Resolutions. This is the perfect time to revisit those resolutions, and, if necessary, make some new ones. I finished the Very Famous Children’s book back in February. Lately I’ve been thinking about Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse. This is a book that has intimidated me as an adult, and I feel now’s the time to give it another try.

I have a long list of professional books I’m planning to read this summer. These books are currently at the top of the stack:

I’m also planning on getting caught up on journal articles I haven’t had a chance to read.

I’ll also be reading many picture books and middle grade novels, but I don’t have a specific list. I would love to get my hands on an ARC of Melissa Sweet’s upcoming book about E.B. White. (Hint, hint, ARC gods!) Louise Erdrich is one of my favorite authors, both for children and adults, and she has two new books out this year. Makoons is the fifth book in the series that began with The Birchbark House, one of my all-time favorites, so I’m excited to read this book, too.

There are many books on my shelves that I haven’t read, and sometimes I’ll just browse and see what strikes my fancy. I also like to visit the library and find new books there.

Last year’s shelfie.

Having plans for summer reading is great, but discovering new books along the way and having time to read them is another reason summer reading is such a gift. What are your summer reading plans?

The FUNction of Poetry in the Classroom


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is FUNCTION.


What’s the function of poetry in the classroom? As National Poetry Month comes to an end, this is a good time to to ask this question. Poetry can play many roles and deserves a place in our classrooms every day.

Poetry has always been woven into my instruction, no matter what time of year. When I taught third grade, we began the year studying Mary O’Neill’s Hailstones and Halibut Bones (1961). O’Neill’s “Adventures in Poetry and Color” were perfect for helping my students become more observant and thoughtful about description. Close study of these poems also helped kids solidify their understanding of parts of speech.

Now I work with readers who are considered Tier 3 in the RTI model. They aren’t special ed students, but they also aren’t progressing at a rate that makes it likely they will reach end-of-year benchmarks. Whether we call them struggling readers or striving readers, the bottom line is the same: They need extra help. And I’m lucky to be the person to give them that assistance.

When I was working on my reading specialist certification, one professor urged us to start each lesson with a poem as a way to “warm up our ears.” I didn’t need convincing, but loved the rationale. So each day, my students and I read poems. Poetry is ideal for students who find reading challenging for many reasons. Poetry tends to come as a small packages, which is perfect for beginning readers who get overwhelmed by lots of print.

Another important reason to include poetry that rhymes in lessons with young readers is that these poems give kids a chance to practice phonics patterns in an authentic text. This repetition is key for all learning. Average young readers need “four to fourteen repetitions” in order to “reach a reliable level of word reading accuracy…[but] more than 40 repetitions [are needed] for those with reading difficulties” (Katherine Garnett, “Fluency in Learning to Read: Conceptions, Misconceptions, Learning Disabilities, and Instructional Moves” *) Using poetry ensures these repeated readings will be fun!

I carefully chose poems that are engaging and incorporate the phonics elements we are working on. This allows students experience success with reading right away. Early success not only keeps kids engaged, it increases the likelihood that they’ll want to keep reading. Certain poems quickly become favorites and are soon memorized. These are recited with confidence and pride.

“I See a Cat” by Cindy Chapman (found here) is perfect for beginning readers:

I see a cat.
I see a big cat.
I see a big, fat cat…

You can see the appeal. We also act out the poems, sometimes with props, adding an extra sensory dimension. This increases the likelihood that the students will retain what they’re learning. Copies of poems are always sent home so kids care show off their skills to their families and friends.

Making poetry part of every lesson also helps build vocabulary, science and social studies concepts, and more. The list is really endless, and I haven’t even mentioned comprehension or the emotional impact of poetry. Because we’ve read so much poetry, writing poetry becomes a natural extension (and provides additional authentic practice!).

What is the function of poetry in the classroom? Poetry brings laughter and joy, something we all need, every single day.

Not convinced? Here a few of the hundreds of resources available in print and online:

* Chapter from: Birsch, J. R. (2011). Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills, 3rd Edition. Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks Publishing.

One Little Word: “Present”

So far I’ve been feeling pretty overwhelmed in 2016. This is my own fault. I am a procrastinator. I make piles of things to do tomorrow. Laundry to put away, magazine articles and books to read stack up until I don’t know where to start. I’m not proud of this, but there it is. I’ve come to realize that this leads me to nothing but regret, particularly about those things I just never do. I do know I can’t think of anything I’ve ever done that I truly regret. So I should just do it, right? But what is the opposite of procrastinate?

Online sources aren’t helpful. Forge, forward, and expedite are all listed, as is proactive. Each one of these is fine as a stance, but none appeal to me as a word to live by.

This morning, even though I was without a word, I decided not to procrastinate any longer and forged ahead with the vacuuming I’d been putting off. Sure enough, as I pushed the beater bar back and forth across the living room rug, the word present popped into my head.

Present. The more I considered this word, the more it appealed to me. It has so many meanings, but two immediately came to mind: The here and now and a gift. It seems to me these are really the same thing. To be present right here, right now, is a gift. To be able to sit in my warm kitchen and write these words is a gift. To look out the window and watch the rain drip off the maple tree’s bare branches is a gift.

I’m not under any illusion that it will be easy to give up my habit of procrastinating, although as I get older, putting things off makes less sense. What am I waiting for, after all? Or, more to the point, what am I afraid of? My yoga teacher always tell us that when we find our mind has wandered, return to the breath. This seems an appropriate response to procrastination as well. When I find myself stewing over where to start, I’ll remember to just breathe, and return to the present. Who knows what gifts I’ll find waiting there.

Created in Canva, using a photo of a gorgeous hawk I took while out on a walk last week.

Margaret Simon has invited bloggers to share their OLWs on her DigiLit Sunday Roundup today. Please be sure to visit her there to see her students’ Canva creations.