Slice of Life: Dumped in Dimples


Each week during Kate Messner’s Teachers Write summer writing camp, Jo Knowles posts a Monday Morning Warm Up. This week, Jo urged us to write about a “favorite summer memory from your teen years.” I’m not sure this is my favorite summer memory, but it is definitely the most vivid!

You hear the roar of the water before you see it. Then you face thousands of gallons of water cascading twenty feet down the face of a rock ledge, creating a foaming, turbulent froth just above where your raft is about to launch for a trek down-river.

Crazy paddlers, including my kids, running Youghiogheny Falls in 2010.

In July of 1976, when the rest of the country was swept up in Bicentennial celebrations, I gazed up at this waterfall in awe and relief that no similar falls waited downstream. The river that stretched in front of me was strewn with boulders. Little riffles of whitewater danced around them and clouds billowed in the sky above. Dense stands of pine and oak lined both banks of the river. I was ready for an adventure!

Little did I know what a ride I was in for.

The first two rapids were easy. Our raft bobbed up and down like a cork over the gentle, rolling waves. The splashes of cold water were refreshing after an hour in the hot July sun. By the time we got to Lunch Rock, I felt like a pro. I inhaled my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the favored lunch of paddlers everywhere. Soon we were back on our way.

My future mother-in-law, was paddling at the front of the raft, showing me the ropes. “We’re coming up to Dimples,” she said. “We have to head straight for a boulder, then paddle hard right to miss hitting it. “Big Jeff out of Baltimore,” an old family friend, was steering at the back of the raft. “Don’t you dare dump us in this rapid!” she warned him.

“Never!” he laughed.

Again, I heard the roar of the water before I could see what was ahead. This sounded as loud as the waterfall at the put-in. “We’ll be fine,” Jeff reassured me.

The once meandering current picked up speed and swept us into a ribbon of waves. A boulder as big as an elephant loomed up before us. “Paddle!” Jeff screamed. I dug my paddle into the water and pulled with all my might. But it was too late. The raft hit the massive rock head on.

Before I really knew what was happening, I was in the rushing water, beneath the raft. Gasping, but trying to stay calm, I got myself out from under the boat. Somehow, I maneuvered myself and the capsized raft into and eddy at the bottom of the rapid. Dripping and paddle-less, I managed to turn the boat right side up.

But now I was on the other side of the river from where my mother-in-law-to-be and Big Jeff had washed up. The rest of our crew had gone ahead to “play” in the next rapid and were unaware of our plight. Miraculously, my paddle washed up next to me. With a whole two hours of rafting experience, I climbed back into the raft and guided it safely across the river.

Someone always gets dumped in Dimples! (This isn’t the raft I was in. If there are any pictures from that day, I don’t know where they are.)

By this time, the other paddlers (including my boyfriend!) had realized we were in trouble and came to our rescue. Fortunately, no one was really hurt. Shaken up? Absolutely! But aside from rubbery arms and scraped shins, I was fine.

After a rest on the rocks, we piled back into the raft and made it to the take out without any more mishaps. I survived my white-water rafting initiation! But “Big Jeff out of Baltimore” never heard the end of dumping me in Dimples!

Years later, I was able to make my way down the river on my own. And I’ve never flipped in Dimples again!

Thank you to StaceyBetsyBethKathleenDeb, KelseyMelanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories every Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: My Great Escape

This draft is my response to the Teachers Write mini lesson that Kate Messner posted on Monday.  In it, she asked writers to consider “how might different elements of [a] story look different to different characters?”

To inspire us, Kate shared the story of a king cobra that escaped from a Florida home a few years ago. Despite my irrational fear of snakes, I knew I wanted to write from the cobra’s perspective.

Kate’s new novel, Breakout, is a fictional version of the real-life drama of two inmates escaping from a prison near her home in upstate New York. Three characters tell the story from different points of view, giving readers a more complete picture of events. One character, Lizzie, often manages to find humor in this serious situation. The article about the escaped snake also included humorous Twitter and Facebook posts people wrote at the time, imagining where in the world the snake might be. But I found nothing humorous about the situation. I felt sorry for the poor woman who found the snake, and I really felt sorry for the snake. 

My Great Escape

Stolen from my jungle home,
stuffed into a barren box:
no royal treatment for me.
My days were spent in misery.

Desperate to stretch,
uncoil my sleek brown body
I watched for my chance,
bolted from that ranch.

I slithered through suburbia,
searching for a place to settle:
a bamboo thicket or a fallen tree
where I would be free.

But my dream was not to be…

I was found behind a dryer.
Hissing, hood flared in warning,
I rose up as if on a throne:
Leave me alone!

I put up quite a fight
before Animal Control officers
caught me, ended my spree
and returned me to captivity.

draft © Catherine Flynn, 2018

Please be sure to visit Poetry for Children, where Sylvia Vardell has some exciting news and the Poetry Friday Roundup!

Slice of Life: Wonder Poems

                     11454297503_e27946e4ff_h   new-teachers-write-2015

For the fourth summer in a row, Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles, and Jen Vincent are hosting Teachers Write!, a wonderful online summer writing camp. What began as the result of a comment during a Twitter chat has grown into a huge community and even inspired a book, 59 Reasons to Write (Stenhouse, 2015).

Yesterday, Kate kicked off the 2015 season with an invitation to wonder. Kate writes that wondering is where authentic writing starts, that “Wonder is essential for writers, but sometimes, we don’t leave time for it in our daily task-finishing, dinner-making, laundry-sorting lives.” Unfortunately, this is often true in our classrooms, too.

I usually make time for wondering during my drive to work and when I’m walking my dog, so it didn’t take me long to come up with a list, which soon morphed into a poem:

What wonders does the world behold?
a chirping robin greeting the dawn
a mighty river carving stone
a million stars shining in the sky above
the ringing of a telephone
the warmth of your hand in mine
finding a friend in the pages of a book.

Not sure what I would do with this list, I went about my morning. Within an hour, I heard a story on NPR about the NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. Of course I started wondering what discoveries will be made about this most-mysterious non-planet. The similarities between the word “planet” and “Pluto” popped out at me, and I started thinking about how to work this into a poem.

J. Patrick Lewis says that in poetry, like architecture, “form follows function.” My work-in-progress has me thinking a lot about poetic forms. Lately, I’ve been working on a diamante (Which J. Patrick Lewis doesn’t consider a true verse form; read why here.) because it seemed like the form might help me accomplish my purpose for writing. This form also seemed like it might work for a planet/Pluto poem. Here’s a draft:

celestial, spherical
orbiting, rotating, reflecting
rock, solar system, outcast
freezing, wandering, eluding
distant, mysterious

While there are parts of this I like, I wasn’t thrilled with it. Still wondering, I did a little research. Tricia Stohr-Hunt’s blog, The Miss Rumphius Effect is a treasure-trove of poetic resources, so I checked her site for more information. Coincidentally, Tricia’s post yesterday was about cinquains, another short form with a strict pattern. So I decided to try the Pluto poem as a cinquain.

rocky mystery
wandering at the edge
of our solar system; outcast:

I’m still pondering this one, but playing around with different forms was fun. It also helped me see a new possibility for a poem that’s been challenging to write. In addition, a few implications for teaching became clear as I was writing.

Asking a child, “What are you wondering about?” is such simple act, yet how often do teachers do it? What a gift it would be to ask our students this fundamental question each morning! What a list kids would generate! If we did this, then all the moaning about not knowing what to write about or groaning about making revisions might fall by the wayside. When you’re truly invested in what you’re doing, it doesn’t feel like work. And who knows where their questions will lead? 

Thank you Kate, and everyone at Teachers Write! for the inspiration, and thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for 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.

Slice of Life: Becoming Fearless


“Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.” 

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

I highlighted these lines in my copy of Goldberg’s wise and funny book years ago. But I feel like I’m just beginning to truly understand their implication in terms of what is possible for me as a writer.

Why did it take me so long to come to this understanding? Maybe I’m a slow learner. More likely is the fact that I’ve been writing a lot this summer. And through the process of becoming more immersed in the story I’m working on, I have become fearless. Okay, less fearful.

But there’s more to it than just writing more. Two experiences from the past month have played a huge role in helping me get to this point.

Thanks to a conversation Melanie Meehan and Betsy Hubbard had on Twitter a few months ago, I am now part of an online critique group. I cannot overstate how lucky I am to work with Melanie, Stacey, and Julie. They are incredibly supportive and kind, but also offer meaningful suggestions and advice. Another benefit of being part of this group is reading my partners’ amazing writing. Melanie, Stacey, and Julie are all talented writers, and I’ve already learned so much from the pieces they’ve shared with the group.

My experience at art camp earlier this month also helped me be more comfortable to “play around” and “take chances” in my writing. One of the activities that I found especially helpful was creating an “analog drawing” of a problem. In analog drawing, only lines are used to express emotion, among other things. As I sketched my problem, I realized I was creating a narrow doorway with a border that looked very much like battlements. “Is this how I approach problems?” I wondered, appalled at the thought. I began to sketch other doorways, doorways that opened wider and were less rigid. As I continued to draw, I came to the realization that these narrow doorways were impacting my writing.

So it was with these two experiences in mind that I was able to not, in Natalie Goldberg’s words, be “tossed away…by [the] fiasco” of this line in my first draft of a story about a girl whose mother has just died:

“Holly was devastated that she would be separated from her two best friends.”

As my husband might say, “Well, no s*&t, Sherlock.” As soon as I read this line, I knew my critique partners would point out its many weaknesses immediately. I really didn’t want them to even see this lame line. I also thought of my drawing of the opening doors. Why was I afraid to find out how Holly dealt with this devastation?  Just write. Dive in and see where this line leads.

After an hour of revision, one short sentence had become two pages of action and dialogue that reveal much about Holly and her mother. These are the lines (which still need plenty of work) that replaced the original, obvious statement of Holly’s feelings:

“Holly stared in disbelief at the lists taped up on the glass doors. Tears filled her eyes as she turned away and ran from the parking lot toward the playground. “Arrrgh!” she screamed as she jumped onto bottom rung of the jungle gym. Her hands clung to the cold metal of the bars as if they were all that kept her from falling into a giant black cave.”

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes that we are “creating pathways [into our] consciousness through which the creative forces can operate.” I realize now that I had to write the first line in order to create the pathway to get to the second line. Uncovering deeper understandings about these characters and their story isn’t always possible without a surface level understanding of who they are. Put another way, just as artists have to sketch the outline of a subject before they can add layers of color that create nuance and depth in their drawing or painting, writers have to start with a general idea of what their writing is about before they can add the nuance and depth that creates memorable characters.

While I’m happy about the writing I’ve done over the past month, I’m unsettled by the implications of how I arrived at these insights for teaching. Having the luxury of filling my days with reading, writing, drawing, and thinking about what interests me, at my pace, is not an opportunity we give our students very often, if ever. Children need the time to play and explore, to discover what is possible, not just in writing, but in all areas of their lives. They also need the kind of supportive and nurturing environment my critique group has given me. Finding a way to provide these conditions is critical for anyone, young or old, to create the pathways into their consciousness that will awaken them to all the possibilities within themselves.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?


I brought a stack of books home with me from NCTE, and I’ve had fun making my way through those over the past few weeks. Today I’m highlighting two of my favorites.

Although I was overwhelmed by the Exhibition Hall at the Hynes center, this immediately caught my eye at the Clarion booth:

Clarion, 2013

I love teaching with wordless picture books because they are accessible to all students, and David Wiesner is a genius of the form. The level of sophistication in his wordless picture books make them especially appealing to older students. Mr. Wuffles (Clarion, 2013) is one of his best. At first I was surprised by the slightly cartoony quality of the cover. But, after reading the first few pages, my notion that this might be a departure from Wiesner’s usual photographic style was gone.

Mr. Wuffles can’t be bothered with the many toys his human has tried to lure him with. Nestled in amongst the stuffed mice and jingle balls is what at first glance might be a tea infuser or some other forgotten mid-20th century kitchen gadget. Mr. Wuffles ignores this too, until something about this curious little silver ball catches his attention. Then the fun begins. Priceless facial expressions tell much of the story, and Wiesner plays with point of view throughout the book. Rich with details, Mr. Wuffles is a treat for picture book lovers of all ages.

Meet the model for Mr. Wuffles and learn more about Wiesner’s creative process in the book trailer:

Another highlight of my visit to the Exhibition Hall was meeting Gae Polisner and getting a signed ARC of The Summer of Letting Go. (Algonquin, publication date: March 18, 2014) Gae is one of the forces behind Teachers Write! and her kind and generous feedback about my writing was a real boost to me last summer. This may make me biased, but if I hadn’t liked this book, I just wouldn’t have written about it.


And actually I didn’t like it. I loved it. I wish my 14 or 15 year old self could have read this book. It would have been such a relief to know that other girls were insecure about their looks or felt like they couldn’t do anything right. Francesca, aka Frankie, worries about all this and more. She feels responsible for the drowning death of her younger brother four years earlier, and she worries about her parents, who are each coping with this tragedy in their own way. The Summer of Letting Go is the story of Frankie’s journey to forgiveness and acceptance; to understanding that “not even the ocean can drown our souls.”

Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!

Poetry Friday: The Sand Beneath Our Feet

Image                  Image

TeachersWrite, the summer writing camp for teachers organized by Kate Messner, Gae Polisner, Jo Knowles, and Jen Vincent, ends Monday. While I’m sad that the structured lessons, quick-writes, and feedback opportunities will be ending, I’m very excited about the writing I’ve done this summer. I’ve learned so much and can’t wait to get back to school to share these insights with my colleagues and students.

Sand, magnified 250x via Science is Awesome

Today’s poem was inspired by this photo, which a friend shared on Facebook a few weeks ago. I was amazed by the uniqueness of each individual grain, and it got me thinking. This is the current draft of the resulting poem:

Sometimes in our busy lives,

we brush others aside

as carelessly as we brush

the sand off our feet

after a day at the beach.

But what if we stopped,

took a moment

for a closer look?

What wonders might be revealed to us?

The geologist, turning

her microscope to those few

grains of sand,

is rewarded with

an astonishing menagerie:

a crystal jack, broken in half

translucent beads, flecked with whirls of milky white

ivory sea urchins

golden honeycombs

a swirl of pink cotton candy

amber snails, spiraling ever inward

a puffer fish, gaping up out of the darkness.

Shaped by forces beyond our ken,

each one as different from the other

as you and I.

What pressures shaped you?

What winds and rains buffeted you about?

What marvels have been forged

within your heart?

© Catherine Flynn, 2013

Many, many thanks to Kate, Gae, Jo, and Jen, for a wonderful, rewarding summer of writing. I’m looking forward to being back next summer! (And maybe meeting some of you at NCTE in Boston?)

There are more incredible photos of magnified sand at InspirationGreen. I think this would be a perfect quick-write to share with students of any age.

Thanks also to Renee at No Water River for hosting the Poetry Friday Round Up. Be sure to visit her and all the other Poetry Friday folks.

Poetry Friday: Sonnet 30 by William Shakespeare


Sonnet 30

William Shakespeare

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;

Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before;

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All loses are restored, and sorrows end.

I’ve been thinking about this sonnet for the last week or so for a number of reasons. I love the phrase  “sweet silent thought.” And while the speaker is brooding for much of the poem, to me this phrase implies time to contemplate new ideas. Having quiet, unhurried time to think is a rarity these days. Just as by the end of the poem, the speaker has achieved peace thinking of his friend, taking this time to think can bring us peace. (Both literal and figurative!)

This poem has also been on my mind because of a story I’ve been working on. The main character is grieving over the loss of her mother, and by the end of the story I want her to come to the kind of reconciliation with her grief that this speaker has. Whether or not I can accomplish that for her is another story, but I’m going to try.

In the meantime, I think I’ll listen to Kenneth Branagh read this lovely poem once more:

Be sure to visit Keri at Keri Recommends for her inaugural Poetry Friday Round Up.

Routines, Writing, and Excellence


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

Phil Jackson was interviewed on NPR about his new book not too long ago. He talked about the importance of practicing the fundamentals of basketball and how his teams  always started practice by working on the nuts and bolts of the game. Jackson related this to a story about Pablo Casals, one of the greatest cello players ever. When asked about his playing, Casals stated “I go through my fingering for an hour before I start playing a piece of music.”

This got me thinking about the fundamentals of writing. I don’t think we give students enough time to really practice the basics or build stamina for writing. We need to be more mindful of our established routines and ask ourselves “Is this activity/assignment helping the students become better writers?” If the answer is no, then we need a different routine.

The importance of keeping a writer’s notebook/journal has been underscored for me recently. For the past week, I’ve been participating in TeachersWrite! by responding to daily prompts. Some of this writing had nuggets taken from my journals, thoughts I’d jotted down without any specific purpose. Giving our students time to write each day about what interests them gives them the opportunity to practice the fundamentals in an engaging, meaningful way. Who knows what nuggets they’ll come up with when given the opportunity.

Providing our students with a daily opportunity to write about topics of their choice has the added benefit of getting them to think like writers. Since I’ve been writing regularly, I find myself observing the world differently. Telling students that they should see the world with “wide awake eyes” (Did Lucy Calkins write that? I can’t remember where I read it.) and actually getting them to do it are two different things.

A daily writing routine, one that offers students a period of time to just write, whether they respond to a prompt, take that prompt in their own direction, or just write about what’s on their mind, is critical if we want our students to be writers. Not just effective writers, but passionate writers. Writers who learn about themselves and the world through writing.

After I first heard the Phil Jackson interview and started drafting this post, I got side-tracked by work. In the meantime, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts posted “The Do-Re-Mi of Writing,” a thoughtful and practical piece about students improving their writing by having them go through their “scales,” just as musicians do. Be sure to read their terrific post.

Maria Popova also recently wrote about the importance of habit in “The Pace of Productivity and How to Master Your Creative Routine” on Brain Pickings. She gives lots of examples of famous creators, their daily routines, and the excellence they achieved through habit.

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this weekly Slice of Life Challenge!

Poetry Friday: The Cities Inside Us


I’m participating in Teachers Write! this summer, so I’ve been thinking about writing a lot this week. (If you haven’t heard about  this fabulous online summer writing camp for teachers and librarians, you can learn more on Kate Messner’s blog.) With all these thoughts whirling around in my head, it seems appropriate today to share a poem that speaks to the writer in all of us.

“The Cities Inside Us”

by Alberto Rios

We live in secret cities

And we traveled unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize

But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.

They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city

Inside us…

Read the rest of the poem here.

By Herkulaneischer Meister  via Wikimedia Commons
By Herkulaneischer Meister via Wikimedia Commons

Be sure to visit Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s Poem Farm for today’s poetry round up.