Poetry Friday: Outside My Window

Last week, poet Julie Fogliano visited Michelle Heidenrich Barnes at Today’s Little Ditty and left readers with this challenge:

 “…just stare out the window and write what you see.”

Some months, I ponder these challenges all month. But I’d been watching this robin for a few weeks, so this month I knew immediately what to write about.

Bedecked in fresh leaves,
delicate and lithe,
an old apple tree,
its limbs loaded
with fat pink blossoms
ready to burst open,
stands outside my window.

Concealed within
this veil of green,
a robin sits on her nest,
still as a statue,
guarding her eggs
from the jays and crows
who screech and caw
in the branches above her,

right outside my window.

© Catherine Flynn, 2018

Please be sure to visit Jama Rattigan at Jama’s Alphabet Soup for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: Cormorant & Swan

I love taking the train into New York City. Not only is it a great place to observe and eavesdrop on my fellow passengers, I love watching the scenery pass by. I can usually count on seeing swans on a large reservoir near the tracks. I love watching as they float along, serene and oblivious to the hubbub passing by. On a recent trip, I wondered how many swans would be on the water, as it’s been unseasonably cold in the Northeast this spring.

I shouldn’t have worried. There were at least a dozen swans swimming in the morning sun. What I didn’t expect to see were, I’m fairly sure, two cormorants, still as statues, perched on stumps near the shore.

My mind immediately started playing with poetic possibilities, but nothing was clicking. Then I read Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s “Poem #20: Back and Forth Structure.” Of course! Here was the structure I needed to make sense of the scene on the reservoir.


By Yerpo, via Wikimedia Commons                  By Jbdavisjb, via Wikimedia Commons

I glide with grace;
You divwith ease.

I’d rather swim among the riffles;
You prefer to perch near shore.

My feathers are as white as skittering clouds;
Yours as dark as a sculpted bronze.

I nibble algae, weeds and grass;
A feast of fish is all you need.

And though my name is “mute,” I make a lot of noise;
You are the quite one.

As different as night and day, you say?
Maybe, except for this watery home we share.

© Catherine Flynn, 2018

Please be sure to visit Tabatha Yeatts at The Opposite of Indifference for the Poetry Friday Roundup AND to celebrate the publication of IMPERFECT: Poems About Mistakes: An Anthology for Middle Schoolers. Tabatha has gathered 70 poems by many Poetry Friday friends. I am proud and honored to have my poem, “The Laws of Motion” included in this collection. Thank you, Tabatha! You can learn more about IMPERFECT at the Team Imperfect blog.

SOL18: An Ode to the Slices I Didn’t Write

For the first time in five years, I am NOT celebrating a month of slicing. Despite a record number of snow days, despite staying healthy, posting a slice every day eluded me. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I have. I just couldn’t get into a groove with slicing.

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash

Even though I didn’t participate in the challenge on a regular basis, I did want to post something today. But as I drafted a few ideas last night, nothing clicked. Then, this morning, I read my friend Linda Mitchell’s Poetry Friday post. Linda had used Gary Soto’s “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes” as a mentor for a poem she read at a friend’s Bar Mitzvah. This was exactly the form I needed for my end-of-March slice.

Ode to Lost Slices

They wait in my notebook
half-baked, embryonic
at the edges
where I feverishly
scribbled ideas
before they evaporated,
my attention grabbed
by a bird at the window.
Some thoughts made it
to page, to screen
to you (who are you?)
Others are gone,
out of reach.

Now it’s the end of March.
I sit at my desk, listening
to the birds chittering
it the treetops, grateful
for warm sunshine.
My ideas, friends
who flutter through my brain
are whirling.
I should not have slept,
But I did.
(Wisps of dreams
still cling to my hair.)

I want to tame
my thoughts,
still wild
and winged,
capture them
on this page
where they’ll make
some sense to me,
to you, a friend,
to whomever stumbles
across them in
this vast universe.
I love writing,
polishing ideas until
they shine, then
sending them out
to fly on their own.
But I’m distracted.
I skink into my chair.
My eyes sting
from the harsh words

that inundate our world.
I need eight hours (days?)
of peace and quiet
to let ideas settle,
grow their flight feathers,
and soar.

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

SOL 18: Poetry Is…Revisited

Last week, Slicer Christie Wyman of Wondering and Wandering realized she was writing about a topic she’d written about last year. (Another nor’easter; my New England friends don’t even want to think about the new one brewing for next week!) Christie wondered, “do you have a slice from last year’s SOLC you could revisit because some things never change? Or maybe because they have!”

I had already been considering revisiting an exercise from Karen Benke’s Rip the Page: Adventures in Creative Writing. (Read another post inspired by this book here.) Here’s the explanation of  “Juxtaposition” (found on page 56) from last year’s post:

This exercise begins by folding a piece of paper in half lengthwise, then choosing ten words from one of the many word lists in the book. Next, add a descriptive word in front of each of the chosen words. Turn the paper over and follow the directions for what to write next. When you unfold the paper, write “Poetry Is” at the top. Try various combinations from the assortment of words and phrases you wrote until you find a “juxtaposition…two unlike things (side by side) to wake up your ears and make your mouth smile.”

In response to last year’s post I wrote, Some of these pairings aren’t really a surprise, but I liked the images they conjured.

I did not reread the last year’s poem before starting this year, but some images appeared again anyway. I guess those words and ideas are deeply ingrained in me. Last year’s poem is structured differently from this year’s poem, and I think I like it a little better, but this year’s poem created some images that deserve a poem of their own.

Poetry hides…

In gentle rains of summers past
In rippling, whispering waves
In the soft peaks of a lemon meringue pie

Poetry lurks…

under the slow drift of pale sunshine
inside the molten silver of Wednesdays
behind the secret of cerulean blue

Poetry lives…

inside a cosmic whirl of serenity
in the full moon of my imagination
within the quickening spark of my heart.

© Catherine Flynn, 2018

This activity is exactly what Benke’s subtitle promises: an adventure in creative writing. Students love it for many reasons. Some of the combinations turn out to be very funny. It also provides a structure that reluctant writers find comforting and supportive. Confident writers will appreciate the flexibility they have to play with the format of their poem. The possibilities are endless!

Photo by Jeff Golenski via Unsplash

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

Slice of Life: Be Astonished

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

When I took my dog outside one morning not long ago, I gasped when I looked up. The moon was a glowing, golden egg hanging in the western sky. Just to the south, his sword raised for eternity, his quarry just out of reach, Orion stood tall. A scattering of fainter stars dotted the sky around him. It was an astonishing sight.

It occurred to me how rare the word astonish has become. In fact, Merriam-Webster ranks it in the bottom 50% of words. This is a shame, and a fate this word doesn’t deserve. Defined as “to strike with sudden and usually great wonder or surprise,” astonish arrived in our vocabulary from the Middle English words astonen or astonien. These, in turn, are derived from the Anglo-French word estoner, “to stun,” which comes from the Latin ex- + tonare, “to thunder.” An obsolete meaning is “to strike with sudden fear.” I prefer our modern definition,  

And although Mary Oliver instructs us to “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” modern life throws so many distractions at us, it’s easy to forget even these simple steps.

Each day as I come and go to my classroom, I pass a wall of windows that looks out over the playground. At the far end is a maple tree whose leaves turn the most gorgeous red I’ve ever seen. I’ve always felt a kinship with that tree, that I was the only one who appreciated its beauty.   Yesterday, two teachers were standing by the windows deep in conversation about a student. They paused and said hello as I walked by. With Mary Oliver’s words in my mind, after returning their greeting, I pointed out the flaming red leaves of the tree. One of the teachers hadn’t ever noticed the tree’s beauty and thanked me for pointing it out to her.

I want my students to be astonished by the world around them. I want them to notice the wooly bear scurrying off toward his winter hiding spot. I want them to astonish themselves, like one of my first grade students. After reading a sentence perfectly, he looked up at me and exclaimed, “I read that!” He was truly astonished that he had such power within himself.

Writing also gives us access to that power. My writing practice has been in the doldrums lately, for all the reasons you already know. But I miss writing about small astonishments I see each day. This rather scattered slice is a first step in returning to this practice. One of the profound lessons of writing each day is that those small astonishments lead to larger insights and discoveries. And like Orion, always on the hunt, I don’t ever want to stop searching for those bigger insights about who I am and my place in the world.

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.

Slice of Life: Ode to Microbes


Each month, I look forward  to the ditty challenge on Michelle Heidenrich Barnes’s blog. But when Diana Murray, August’s featured author, challenged Michelle’s readers to “write a poem about an unlikely hero,” I was stumped.

Then I heard Robert Krulwich interview Ed Yong about his new book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (Ecco, 2016) at the Strand Bookstore. Within minutes I knew I’d found my hero.


That turned out to be the easy part. Yong’s book makes it clear that microbes are endlessly fascinating, but they are also endlessly complex. The more we learn about them, the more apparent it is that they play a vital role in our existence. They deserve high praise. Here is the latest draft of my attempt to give it to them.

Pasteuria ramosa spores By Dieter Ebert, Basel, Switzerland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Pasteuria ramosa spores By Dieter Ebert, Basel, Switzerland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Ode to Microbes

Despite your microscopic size
you have tremendous power.
Somehow you’ve managed to colonize
every human, hummingbird, and flower.

No habitat’s too hostile,
you flourish everywhere.
And though some may think you’re vile,
you deserve a trumpet fanfare.

The jobs you do are myriad.
Research uncovers more each day.
Your relationships are spirited,
with both symbionts and prey.

The work you do inside our gut
helps digest our food.
On our skin, any scrape or cut
heals faster thanks to your multitudes.

So sing a song to microbes
and their endless variation.
Thank you, mighty microbes,
for propelling our creation.

© Catherine Flynn, 2016

Thank you to StaceyDanaBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lisa 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.

Revision: Finding the Best Words

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

“Poetry: The best words in the best order”
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge ~

Many writers rank revision right up there with root canals and colonoscopies, especially beginning writers. They’ve struggled to get their words down and now you’re asking them to change them?!? Or maybe they’ve hit upon a rhyme they think is perfect. Until you ask them what it means. Then they have to admit they really don’t know, but they like the way it sounds.

The magic of word processing has made the labor of revision much less overwhelming, but still it’s often hard for writers to let go of their words. (“Kill your darlings,” William Faulkner advised.)

This week I was working with a fifth grade student on a poem that had promise. His opening line had a nice rhythm and the second line had an effective repetition. Then came two lines he was really proud of. They rhymed, but he achieved that rhyme through weak, almost meaningless word choice that would stop readers in their tracks.

I began our conversation by reminding him that poems don’t have to rhyme. We had read many poems over the past week, immersing ourselves in persona poems and poems of address. A few rhymed, but most didn’t. Then I asked him to explain the lines to me, hoping he’d use some more effective vocabulary in his explanation. We spent a few minutes talking about what people often say when they lose things. (His poem was about an explorer searching for, but never finding, gold.) I asked him how he thought the explorer felt after expending all that time and energy for nothing.

Feeling like the explorer, I was getting frustrated trying to uncover a nugget of anything that made sense, but still coming up empty-handed. I tried hard not to put words in his mouth, but it was clear he didn’t have the vocabulary to say what he wanted to say. In the end, with the help of a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary, he found the words he was looking for, even though I still had to explain some of the meanings to him. Was that cheating? I hope not. Because I think he learned some valuable lessons in the process. Now he has a better understanding of the words “sorrow” and “woe.” More importantly, he recognized how much better his poem sounded after making changes. His hard work of revision paid off.

What lessons were there for me in this whole process? I considered flat out banning rhymes in our next round of poems, but that limits student choice, doesn’t it? Maybe a better approach would be to study poems with rhyme more closely to discover what makes them work. And as always, it comes down to more writing. Because the more we write, the better the chance we’ll find the best word, and have the skills to put them in the best order.

Every Sunday, Margaret Simon of Reflections on the Teche invites teachers and writers to reflect on digital literacy, teaching, and writing. Please visit her there to read more about revision.

DigiLit Sunday

Slice of Life: PD in My PJs


“I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious”
~ Albert Einstein ~

Last Saturday, I took advantage of a great day of professional development available FREE and ONLINE. The Educator’s Collaborative, founded by Chris Lehman, sponsored a day full of inspiration for educators. More than forty educators and writers were on hand to share their ideas and insights. During her presentation, Linda Hoyt talked about ways to help kids see how ideas go together, to see the relationships between seemingly diverse topics. Over the course of the day, it was hard to miss the relationship between all the sessions. The ideas delivered by so many wise presenters went together like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, and the finished puzzle spelled out: STUDENT ENGAGEMENT = STUDENT LEARNING

In one way or another, each session I watched stressed the importance of inspiring our students, sparking their curiosity, and encouraging them to ask questions. These steps will lead them to make new discoveries, discoveries about the world around them, but more importantly, discoveries about themselves. These discoveries, in turn, will help them dream and discover their passions.

It would be impossible to choose the best session, or the most inspiring idea, for they were all fantastic and full of inspiring ideas. I did love that all the presenters shared the research base and philosophy behind their ideas, then provided practical strategies that we could infuse into our lessons on Monday.

You really should just stop reading and go to The Educator’s Collaborative website and start watching. But in case you’re not convinced yet, here are a few examples of all the wisdom you’ll find there.

Harvey Daniels explained that Curiosity is a better motivator than grit. Working from the positive is always so much better.”

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater reminded us that “Each of has something only we can say” and we should “say it through poetry!”

Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti gave us ideas for including “notebook time” in our classrooms and explained that this time “is an invitation and a place to play.”

Dr. Mary Howard urged us to build our classroom libraries to ensure that “students have books that will make their hearts sing!”

Linda Hoyt pointed out that we can “ignite a sense of wonder with kids through visuals in nonfiction read-alouds.”

“It’s about generating and creating pathways for thinking. It’s about giving kids new opportunities,” Kristin Ziemke explained.

Maggie Beattie Roberts told us that “tools help us do more, become more, reach dreams we have for ourselves, & make things easier.”

I could keep going, but seriously, just go watch the sessions for yourself. You’ll be so glad you did.

You’ll also find a session I wasn’t able to see because of satellite interference by four of Two Writing Teachers fearless leaders, Stacey Schubitz, Dana Murphy, Betsey Hubbard, and Deb Frazier on “Maximizing Independent Writing Time by Creating Conferring Tool Kits.” I’m looking forward to watching their session later this evening. 

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb 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: Prospecting for Poetry


I’m still in Virginia visiting my son, so writing time has been limited. But I did have time to go out for a walk this morning.

Taking walks is like going on a treasure hunt. I never know what I’ll find or what I’ll see that will spark an idea or a line of what might turn out to be a poem. I have my phone with me so I can take pictures so images will be fresh in my mind. My phone is new and I’m not completely used to it yet, so I ended up taking short videos as well as photos. This is a happy accident because now I have sounds to go along with my images.

Objects I found on my walk this morning.
Objects I found on my walk this morning.

It’s quite breezy here this morning, and any left over leaves from last fall were skittering across the road as I began my walk. Forsythia is in bloom, crab apple, pear, and weeping cherry trees are blossoming, grass is turning green, and magnolias are loaded with fat buds. Birds are busy doing what birds do: singing, soaring, feathering, flocking.

IMG_0018  IMG_0039

         IMG_0050 IMG_0057

When I get home to Connecticut, I’ll sift through these ideas and images, like a miner panning for gold. I’m pretty sure there’s a nugget of something bigger in here. 

This is a perfect activity for students of all ages. Every season is unique, but what better time than spring to go out and see nature in all its glory, when, in the words of Mary Oliver, “the world offers itself to [the] imagination” of poets young and old.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday throughout the year and every day during the month of March. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: “Pouncing Around the Christmas Tree”


Scrolling through Twitter earlier this week, I came across this:

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 5.30.46 AM

Sounds intriguing, right? So I checked it out. Susanna Leonard Hill is the author of several picture books, including Punxsutawny Phyllis (Holiday House, 2005). The contest, which ends at midnight, is to:

“Write a children’s story (children here defined as approximately age 12 and under) beginning with any version of ‘Rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop.'”

Immediately, the wheels started turning. After several false starts and many revisions, here’s my entry:

“Pouncing Around the Christmas Tree”

Pouncing around the Christmas tree,
while the humans are away.
Such a happy, joyous spree,
It’s a feline holiday.

Pouncing around the Christmas tree,
now the garland’s in a heap.
Spying an angel on the crown,
I can reach her if I leap.

Shiny tinsel dangles,
It’s a sight I do adore.
Candy canes and twinkling lights.
Look at that angel soar!

Pouncing around the Christmas tree,
ribbons to frazzle and fling.
Batting at ornaments with glee,
watching them sway and swing.

No more tinsel dangles,
and the ornaments are smashed.
All the lights are in a tangle,
Oops, the tree toppled and crashed!

Yowling under the Christmas tree,
Now my fun is at an end.
Through bent branches I try to flee,
before they catch me and I’m penned!

© Catherine Flynn, 2015

Be sure to visit Tara Smith at A Teaching Life for the Poetry Friday Roundup.