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/Read Across America/Slice of Life Mash Up

At school today, we kicked off our month-long celebration of Read Across America. Usually we adopt the theme promoted by NEA, Read Across America’s official sponsor. Last year we made truffala trees out of butcher paper to decorate the hallways. Throughout the month, students created book jackets based on books they loved to decorate the trees. We also had a read-a-thon to raise money to purchase a tree in memory of a student who had recently lost her year-long battle with aplastic anemia.

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Truffalas waiting to be hung up.
Completed truffala tree
Completed truffala tree

A few years ago, we encouraged everyone to literally read across America and read books from all 50 states. This was harder than you might think. To promote the theme, (Here comes the poetry part of this post!) I wrote a song, with a little help from some students.

See the USA

(Sung to the tune of Dinah Shore’s old Chevrolet commercials)

See the U.S.A., read a book today.

America’s got lots of tales to tell.

From Paul Bunyan’s woods,

to the engine that could

Reading is the way to meet them all.

On a couch or on a chair in the library,

Travel out west,

Meet Ramona the Pest.

To many new sights you will be carried.

So make a date today 

to read the U.S.A.

Pledge to read a book today!

© Catherine Flynn, 2009

It was lots of fun, and we still sing it. Here’s Dinah in an old commercial if you don’t remember the tune.

Which brings us to today. While I love this year’s “Hats off to Dr. Seuss” theme, last October our school accepted Rachel’s Challenge. Rachel Joy Scott was killed in the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. After her death, her parents decided to share her story and writings to inspire people to prevent bullying. As Rachel said,

“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.”

As soon as I heard this, I thought of Auggie and Dr. Wayne Dyer’s precept, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” The dovetailing of these two messages made doing a school-wide read of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder seem like the perfect theme for our Read Across America celebration this year.

Because we’re a K-8 school, we had to find a related text for the lower grades. Jacqueline Woodson thoughtfully wrote the powerful Each Kindness late last year, which filled that bill perfectly! Our PTO generously funded the purchase of a book for every classroom, and today we kicked off our month-long celebration.

Books waiting to be distributed to teachers
Books waiting to be distributed to teachers

We began the morning with each upper grade homeroom visiting a lower grade classroom. Teachers read Each Kindness aloud, and then the students paired up to create and illustrate Kindness is… statements. These will be displayed on bulletin boards throughout the school. Each homeroom in grades 4-8 will be reading Wonder aloud throughout the month, and the lower grades will be reading other picture books related to the theme of kindness. The whole morning went off without a hitch, and we have many fantastic Kindness is…statements. By the way, we wore hats too!

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Sixth graders and Kindergarteners creating Kindness is… statements

Happy Read Across America, everyone!