It’s the first Friday of the month, so it’s time for another Sunday Night Swaggers challenge. This month, Molly Hogan challenged us to “find beauty in the ugly” by reinventing “the world around you (or one aspect of it) by shifting your lens to see the beauty in what at first seems to be ugly or unnoteworthy.”
I had a few ideas, but hadn’t gotten far with any of them before I went to NCTE in Baltimore a few weeks ago. There, I attended Georgia Heard, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Ralph Fletcher, and Lester Laminack‘s session, “Seeing the World Like a Poet.” During her part of the presentation, Georgia explained that the job of the poet is to take “the film of ordinary off of everyday objects.”
These words were in my mind the next morning while I was waiting in line to check my coat. My eyes were drawn to a building across the street that was glowing in the bright morning sun. Then, as I turned to give my coat to the attendant, I noticed this:
At first glance, this jumble of hangars is decidedly everyday and unnoteworthy. But take a closer look…
A Wedge of Hangers
Like pinioned swans, captives on a pond, a wedge of hangers wait, silent and still.
Soon each will rise, basking in the embrace of coats, grateful for the support of their plastic wings.
During the same session, Ralph Fletcher shared that “photography uncovers surprises” and that we should “follow where they lead.” As I was writing this poem, I was surprised to learn that a wedge is in fact a collective noun for swans. So even though these hangers aren’t exactly wedge-shaped, I think wedge is the perfect word to describe a group of hangers.
Please be sure to visit my fellow swaggers to see where they found beauty this month:
I want to be a teacher who grows passionate, joyful, independent learners. A teacher who, in the words of Thomas Dewey, gives students “something to do, not something to learn; and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results…”
I want to my students to be curious and observant.
I want them to be thoughtful readers who understand that reading is about more than answering questions about the main character and his problem. I want them to understand that when we read, we learn about ourselves, our lives, the lives of others, and the world around us.
I want to be a teacher who gives my students time to think and write about what they want to think and write about. I want to give them the time and tools they need to follow their thinking wherever it leads them.
I want my classroom to be a greenhouse where students thrive and see possibilities in themselves they hadn’t ever imagined.
I also want to be a teacher who can rise above the day-to-day frustrations that could distract me from this goal.
I want to be a teacher who doesn’t let demands and pressures of the inevitable changes in standards, assessments, etc., deter or sway me from this vision. In the words of Katie Wood Ray, I want to make myself “as smart as I can be about my work so that I can articulate” my beliefs.
This vision is one I’ve strived to fulfill through all my years of teaching. Thank you to all the wise, passionate educators at NERA whose words helped me express these ideas. Thanks to them for also showing me how this vision can become a reality.
I returned from NCTE last November energized by all the informative and inspiring sessions I attended. The Two Writing Teacher’s presentation, “Tools to Build a Culture of Writing Through Story,” was chock full of achievable ideas to promote writing. In her portion of the session, Dana Murphy shared her experience hosting a Family Writing Night. I knew this was an event I wanted to hold at my school. (You can access Dana’s presentation slides here.)
My building administrators thought having a Family Writing Night was a great idea and gave me their support. The PTO provided funds for journals, pens, door prizes and refreshments.
Dana emphasized that in order for Family Writing Night to be a success, you had to spread the word. In addition to having announcements on Twitter and in the school and PTO e-newsletters, old-fashioned hard copies went home in backpacks. Canva was a great tool to create posters, flyers, even door prize tickets! Classroom teachers were extremely supportive and reminded students daily about the event.
To get an idea of how many people to expect, I created a Google Form and asked people to let me know if they were coming. But I made it clear that whether they responded or not, everyone was welcome. I heard from about twenty people. So you can imagine my surprise when over sixty people turned out in near-zero temperatures!
Everyone chose a notebook and pen, then filled out a door prize ticket. When people were settled, I took Dana’s advice to “fill the room with beautiful words” and began the evening with a read aloud. John Rocco’s Blizzard (Disney-Hyperion, 2014) is my favorite new book, so I started the evening by reading Rocco’s boyhood memory of the Blizzard of 1978. (I also thought this might spark some weather-related stories; we’ve had a little snow lately!)
Then I talked very briefly about the the benefits of writing daily and the recursive nature of the writing process. I stressed that the goal of Family Writing Night, indeed any family writing time, was to have fun sharing memories and ideas. I reminded parents how important it is that they encourage kids to write without inhibitions, and not censor themselves because they may not know the exact spelling of a word or the best way to phrase a sentence. Editing is the final step. The most important thing is to get their thoughts down and keep writing daily. Just like athletes, writers develop fluency and build their writing muscles by writing.
I also encouraged parents to let kids to write about events and topics that are important and meaningful to them. To demonstrate that this could be anything, I shared Ralph Fletcher’s “Squished Squirrel Poem.” I had suggested that people bring photos of family vacations or other memorable events to get their writing started. As Ralph Fletcher says, “Memories are like a fountain no writer can live without.”
Then, everyone wrote. It was so gratifying to see more than sixty moms, dads, brothers, and sisters all writing! They wrote about tropical vacations, afternoons at the ball park, their pets, and more.
After about fifteen minutes, I encouraged everyone to share their writing with their families. Dana had shared some commenting prompts, such as asking a question or “tell how the writing made you feel,” which I had available as a handout. These got the writers going for another ten minutes or so.
Time really does fly when you’re having fun! I was amazed at how quickly the hour went by. Soon it was time to draw the winners of the door prizes.
Parents were effusive with their thanks and appreciation for the opportunity to come out and write with their children. Many wanted to know when the next Family Writing Night would be, and one mom asked if we could do this monthly! But the best feedback came from a third grader who told me, “I can’t wait to get home to finish my story!”
Thank you, Dana, for inspiring this wonderful evening. Thank you also to Stacey, Tara, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for sharing your terrific ideas at NCTE. As always, thank you for this space to share our stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.
It was raining yesterday morning when I arrived at the the Connecticut Reading Conference. But Ralph Fletcher’s inspiring keynote address and break-out session about the importance of narratives and mentor texts quickly drove away the day’s dreariness.
Fletcher told the ballroom full of teachers that “mentor texts breathe new life into the classroom; they expand kids’ vision of what’s possible.” He demonstrated this by asking us to use his poem, “The Good Old Days,” as a model for our own writing. A hush came over the room as everyone wrote feverishly about childhood memories. If anyone in the room doubted the importance of giving writers choices about their writing, this activity dispelled that notion.
He encouraged us to share powerful mentor texts with students so they can be “showered by the pixie dust” that comes off these books and poems and write their own powerful texts. He urged us to leave room in our curriculum for personal narratives so our students can learn to write with voice. “Kids find their stride as writers by writing about themselves,” he said.
After his session, Ralph graciously stayed to sign books and answer questions. When he signed my copy of his poetry collection, A Writing Kind of Day: Poems for Young Poets (WordSong, 2005)he told me his favorite poem in this book is “Squished Squirrel Poem.” I love it, too. I can picture a student (or two) of mine who would be inspired by this poem. This is a poem they could go into and find exactly “what they need” to create a poem of their own.
He also gave me permission to share this poem from the collection, the perfect poem for a rainy autumn day.
“A Writing Kind of Day”
It is raining today,
a writing kind of day.
Each word hits the page
like a drop in a puddle,
creating a tiny circle
of trembling feeling
that ripples out
and gathers strength
ringing toward the stars
Then it hit me,
Ma was my first word.
As if the word swam back
to where it all began.
I want my students to think every day is a writing kind of day. Thank you, Ralph Fletcher, for sharing your wisdom with teachers and inspiring us to create classrooms that will encourage our students to create “tiny circle[s] of trembling feeling.”
Please be sure to visit Cathy Mere at Merely Day By Day for the Poetry Friday Round Up. Thanks for hosting, Cathy!
National Poetry Month is just around the corner, and although I teach and use poetry all year, I do make a fuss about all things poetical in April. This book spine poem really wrote itself as I revisited some of my favorite resources:
Pass the Poetry, Please!
For the Good of the Earth and the Sun
Awakening the Heart
I’ve written before about using poetry with students (here, here and here) and I know I’ll be writing about it again. For now, here’s a snippit of the wisdom contained within each of these excellent resources.
Originally published in 1972, Lee Bennett Hopkins’ book is a classic resource for sharing and teaching poetry. Here is a comment he shares from poet David McCord:
“Poetry is so many things besides the shiver down the spine.” (p. 7)
Jane Yolen is one of my all-time favorite authors. In Take Joy: A Writers Guide to Loving the Craft (Writers Digest Books, 2006), her wisdom and passion for writing permeate every page.
“…poetry, at it’s most basic, is a short, lyrical response to the world. It is emotion under extreme pressure or recollection in a small space. It is the coal of experience so compressed it becomes a diamond.” (p. 87)
For the Good of the Earth and the Sun: Teaching Poetry (Heinemann, 1989), by Georgia Heard, is filled with practical advice and inspiration. In chapter 5, “Language: The Poet’s Paint,” she offers this:
“Sometimes I pretend a word is like a geode: rough and ordinary on the outside, hiding a whole world of sparkling beauty inside. My job as a poet is to crack the words open to find that inner treasure.” (p. 74)
Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom (NCTE, 1999), by Katie Wood Ray, was a revelation to me. Here were the answers I’d been looking for about how to teach writing. Ray’s thoughts about read aloud confirm what we know in our hearts:
“Our students need to be…fortunate enough to be read to every single day by someone who values wondrous words and knows how to bring the sounds of those words to life in the listening writer’s ears and mind and heart.” (p. 69)
Georgia Heard offers more thoughts about teaching poetry in Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School (Heinemann, 1999).
“One of the most important life lessons that writing and reading poetry can teach our students is to help them reach into their well of feelings–their emotional lives–like no other form of writing can.” (p. xvii)
Ralph Fletcher wrote Poetry Matters: Writing a Poem From the Inside Out (HarperTrophy, 2002) for kids, but it’s one of my favorite books about the craft of poetry. Speaking directly to children, he advises them
“There is poetry everywhere. [Write] What you wonder about. In my book A Writer’s Notebook, I wrote a chapter on ‘fierce wonderings’ and ‘bottomless questions.’ These are the kinds of haunting questions you can live and ponder but never really answer. Not surprisingly, these ‘wonderfull’ questions provide great grist for poems.” (p. 51)