Reflecting on wonder

“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” -Abraham Joshua Heschel
Epigraph in Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders
(Foer, Thuras, & Morton).

On the first week back to school after the holidays, I spent time covering classes and duties for colleagues who are out due to COVID protocols. I arrived on campus each day not knowing what I’d be called on to do. This has been the pattern for the whole school year thus far, in fact, and it may continue until June…

But I am not going to focus on the intensified daily juggling act.

I will concentrate on the unexpected moments of light…such as when a colleague told me that my iPhone could understand spoken Harry Potter spells.

This I had to see for myself.

Hey, Siri: Lumos...and my flashlight came on. (Lumos is the spell that makes wands and lamps light up in the books in and movies, for those who don’t know).

Hey, Siri: Nox…and my flashlight turned off.

Hey, Siri: Accio Twitter…and my Twitter app opened up in my phone.

Tell me this is not a great wonder, technology.

Furthermore, the knowledge came in handy when I filled in for quarantined teachers in upper grades. I demonstrated the “magic” and wowed the kids.

That’s the thing about wonders…you want to share them. Wonders are not meant to be contained. They are contagious. They are forever beckoning and burgeoning.

So maybe the magic of Siri understanding Harry Potter is a small thing.

Maybe a greater wonder is finding the right book to inspire a reluctant reader. This past week it was not Harry Potter but books about children with physical limitations and differences who face extreme challenges. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. And, of course, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. They grip you from the start…

I pause to reflect here on all the wonder wrought by books in my own life. I feel the covers tingling with magic whenever I pick them up (maybe it’s just my anticipation).

Last week I watched the wonder on kids’ faces as they learned how a prism or raindrop separates light into colors. I watched in wonder as two students known for behavior issues stayed on task to complete their assignments when they were allowed to work together.

I thought, randomly, about the fireworks that went off in the distance on New Year’s Eve. My six-year-old granddaughter was spending the night. My husband and I allowed her to stay up. She heard the booming of the fireworks at midnight and wanted to see them. We went out on the back deck, but fog and trees obscured our view.

I’ve never gotten to see fireworks, said my granddaughter.

One day you will, I told her.

I like the sound of them. It makes me feel calm.

That filled me with wonder…I have never heard anyone express that about the sound of fireworks. Least of all a child.

Maybe the calmness has not so much to do with the sound but the place and the sense of safety…these are linked in their way to wonder. The unexpected, the new, a bit of uncertainty but also an embracing. The opening Heschel quote encapsulates it well: The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.

Like a bright, beckoning burst suddenly illuminating a moment, a mind, a spirit.

Do you remember spending last New Year’s Eve with us, too? my husband asked our granddaughter.

Oh yeah! Can I stay here next year, too? And the one after that?

Sure you can! You can stay every New Year’s Eve if you want.

Even when I am fifty-nine?

Yes, even when you are fifty-nine.

Wonders upon wonders await.

Of this, I am sure.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge and the wondrous community of writers.

Out of the brains and hearts of babes

November afternoon. Driving down backroads alongside bare brown fields where a smattering of birds takes flight. Snatches of woods scattering scarlet and yellow leaves into the swirling wind. A glance in the rearview mirror: My kindergarten granddaughter, strapped into her carseat, looks pensively through the window.

I shall make conversation…

—You’re very quiet.

—I’m just thinking.

—About what?

—Different things.

—I see.

(pause to see if she’s going to elaborate. She doesn’t. So…)

—I have a question for you.

—What?

—The other day you said you wanted to be a scientist when you grow up.

—Yes.

I’m curious: What kind of scientist? There are so many, you know. Do you want to be a biologist, studying living things?

I want to be a nurture scientist.

A nurture scientist-? Do you mean nature, or…

No, a nurture scientist like the Jeopardy! host.

Ahhh… Mayim Bialik. You mean neuroscientist.

Yes. I want to be a neuroscientist.

—Do you know what neuroscientists do?

—They learn about how brains work.

She is five.

Full of love and wonder and confidence. These and the deep blue sky are reflected in her eyes. No limits, only infinite possibility. The faith of a child is a pure and mighty thing.

Someday I shall tell her about the hippocampi, the two little seahorses in the brain that so fascinate me, and their importance to learning, memory, and emotion, how they navigate us through the stormy seas of life.

But on this golden afternoon, as we head home where her mother and baby sister await, I just marvel at her own brain. The beginning of a brilliant neuroscientist, if that is indeed what she wants to be. The world can surely use more. Humans, know thyselves. It is a daily, moment-by-moment undertaking.

Meanwhile, as evening settles in, I Christmas-shop online for my granddaughter and discover a book by her role model, Mayim Bialik: Flash Facts: Ten Terrific Tales About Science and Technology!

I place it in the cart, thinking about Bialik’s own inspiration to pursue neuroscience, born of a love for understanding the way we think and feel and communicate. On a whim, I search for “nurture scientist.” Turns out that nurture science is a real thing: research-based therapy around the healing power of nurturing as a means of helping families cope with emotional, behavioral, and developmental difficulties.

The tugging of the tiny hippocampi on those reins between the brain and the heart.

Ever a delicate balance.

“Sketchnotes Contemplative Neuroscience with Richard Davidson at Wisdom 2.0”. ForbesOste. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life Story Challenge

Against the zeitgeist: lines of gratiku

Today, a “sick-out”:
cafeteria workers
protest for more pay

District wrote parents:
“Staff shortages mean no meals”
-but not at my school

Today I thank you,
beautiful food providers,
for still being there

greeting the long lines
of children coming to eat,
for your loving words

Today I thank you,
bus drivers, who kept rolling
despite a protest

that kept many kids
from getting to school, again
-except for my school

Today I thank you,
my superhero colleagues,
for coming to work

for you are the glue
keeping pieces together
for kids, for us all

again reminding
collaborative spirits
always win the day

*******

and thanks always to
Two Writing Teachers for space
and place to express









Milk carton analogy

breakfast for all if they want it
during COVID,
so they enter the cafeteria,
pick up a bag with a biscuit or
cereal or french toast sticks
(without syrup;
the cafeteria ran out of it yesterday)
or breakfast pizza, whatever
that given day provides,
and wait for a neon-vested
safety patrol in fifth grade
to send them,
one by one,
to my colleague or to me
so we can seat them

protocols say they can’t sit facing
one another at the diagonal,
spaced-out tables
so seats fill up fast,
and a lengthening line
of masked, bag-clutching children
must stand until somebody in the
crowd finishes eating, meaning that
my colleague or I must dash over
with spray cleaner and a paper towel
(that won’t absorb)
while calling for safety patrol:
“I can take one here!”

the children seem so dazed, sometimes,
like they don’t recognize this planet or
maybe even humanity anymore
but once at the seats,
they open the bags
to eat

forgot the jelly

go back and get it

I need a spoon

it’s in your bag, look again

and invariably, the one thing
most often prompting a
little raised hand:

I can’t open my milk

I see. Have you tried?

shaking of small head

well, you must try

some little fingers are more adept
than others…some little faces light
up upon realizing: they actually can
open the milk carton, without help

some must be told, no, not
on that side, see the side with
the arrow, it says open here,
push it back, all the way back,
see these words, push here,
no, not smush, more like pinch,
like this, see?

one by one, the cartons open

like windows in the mind, for one
does have the ability to do things
not attempted before, and the secret
is really in the trying, not relying

learned helplessness

is what I am thinking about
as I scrub my hands five times
before I can go finish preparing
four training sessions
for teachers tomorrow,
on professional learning teams
and problem-solving
in the time of COVID
even though I’m already tired
and the day’s only just begun

yes, we can
we must try

*******

special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Brave beginnings

with thanks to Tammi over on Ethical ELA for sharing the “sevenling” poem. She writes: “The sevenling is a seven line poem written in two stanzas with an additional single line wrap up. The first stanza (lines 1-3) consists of three lines with connected ideas, details, statements. The second stanza (lines 4-6) also contains three ideas, details or statements. These may or may not be connected to previous stanza. Line seven should wrap up the poem or offer a juxtaposition to your previous stanzas. Because of the brevity of this poem, the last line should leave the reader with a feeling that the whole story has not been revealed.”

This is my first sevenling, really a tribute to someone special…reveal to come afterward.

Facing the Inevitable

Life pivots on this point.
Resolute but trembling at the threshold,
she considers her new place of belonging.

Releasing pent-up breath,
she takes a draft of courage with familiar paper and pencil:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

—She’s starting kindergarten. 

My granddaughter’s handwritten takeaway following kindergarten Open House:
“#1 Teacher seems nice #2 Not too scary”

Strength and safety to all going back into schools as COVID rages on.

Thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge and for always promoting writing. To paraphrase Donald Graves: Children really do want to write. They want to leave their own marks on the world. At age five, that is. Too often “school” turns writing to a chore, emphasizing receptive literacy over expressive, or valuing the ideas of others over one’s own.

Let us be about nurturing a lifelong love of the craft and belief in the power of one’s own thoughts and voice.

Write bravely.

Shedding

Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.

But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.

I hope to always be teachable, so…

Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.

A few weeks later, I found another.

This morning, I found a couple more.

So.

Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.

Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what I was. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.

So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.

And coming into my garage to moult.

Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.

I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.

But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?

I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.

I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.

This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.

I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.

But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.

So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…

Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.

And it feels good.

Thanks to the snakes.

******

thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.

Culinary adventure

“Cooking is an art, but all art requires knowing something about the techniques and materials.”

—Nathan Myrhvold, former Microsoft CTO and author of Modernist Cuisine

At a restaurant during our recent vacation, my health-conscious husband ordered a black bean burger. I don’t recall him ever eating one before. For the better part of his life, he’s been a hearty meat eater. The man loves food…his reaction upon tasting this vegetarian concoction: “AMAZING! I can’t believe how good it is!”

Then, with a subtle batting of his eyes: “I wish you could make these.”

—Was that a throwing down of the gauntlet, at my very feet?

Call it inspiration, determination, seeking to please, or self-challenge, whatever: I decided on the spot. I would do this.

I’ve never made black bean burgers before.

As a rule, I don’t like veggie burgers. They’re mushy. The whole idea of a burger is, you know, substance.

And so I do my research. I find a recipe entitled “The Best Black Bean Burgers I’ve Ever Had.” Seems a reasonably good starting point (why settle for less than the best?).

It doesn’t seem too complicated, really. While I organize and prep the ingredients, however, doubts seep in…if this tastes awful or falls apart, maybe we’ll go get Mexican

I learn a couple of things in this new undertaking. It’s essential to get as much moisture as possible out of the beans. The drier they are, the better the texture, so the recipe says. Not only do they need to be drained, rinsed, and patted dry, they need to go in the oven on a baking sheet for a few minutes. I discover that cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, and Worcestershire blended with the dried beans create a surprisingly grilled taste.

One big concern: Will the burgers hold together after baking? Sometimes my regular hamburgers don’t. Not enough bread crumbs, maybe? How did my Grannie ever make those phenomenal, flavorful burgers of my childhood? She could have sold them and made a mint. I’ve never been able to duplicate them. The scent of Worcestershire stirs the memory with a wave of intense longing…

Furthermore, I’ve decided not merely to make these black bean burgers, but to recreate the one my husband thought was so amazing. I’ve looked up the restaurant menu for the toppings: avocado, tomato, arugula, red onion, spicy mayonnaise.

— What IS spicy mayonnaise?

More Googling. Mayo mixed with hot sauce, apparently.

“Hey,” I say to my husband, who’s washing his hands after cheerfully helping to shape the patties for baking, “pick the hot sauce you want to go in this ‘spicy mayonnaise.'”

He has a whole collection of hot sauces.

He picks Texas Pete.

All righty then.

And, if nothing else turns out…we do have gorgeous homegrown tomatoes that have been given to us. They are another reason I love summer, these tomatoes. I think, as I slice into their luscious redness: We could just have cheese and tomato sandwiches in case of disaster…

My husband has also chosen Brioche buns: “The bread at the restaurant was really, really soft.”

We take the burgers out of the oven and—wonder of wonders!—they hold together when we lift them off the pan.

I put them on the buns, layer on the toppings. They’re pretty, but the final test awaits…

My husband takes a bite.

He closes his eyes.

“This is the BEST. THING. I. HAVE. EVER. HAD.”

High praise from my former give-me-steak-and-fries guy.

He eats every blessed crumb for the next three meals.

—Mission accomplished.

The black beans combined with finely chopped onion and green pepper create good texture, much like a tender hamburger.

Pretty proud of my culinary work.

*******

As an educator I could make many analogies between this experience and teaching or writing. We see effective or impactful things that we wish to duplicate. Things we’ve not tried before. It’s daunting. Risk of failure is involved. So is risk of succeeding, if you will. There’s an art and science to writing and teaching, just as with cooking. Myhrvold’s quote on knowledge of techniques and materials at the top of this post struck me as foundational; this is the beginning of process. Knowledge combined with a spirit open to experiment can yield surprising results and discoveries; what you experience and create will not be exactly like your model nor a complete replication what others have done before you. It shouldn’t be. You are making something your own. The work reflects the uniqueness of the artist.

Wishing sustained strength and inspiration to all my fellow teachers preparing to return to school with the residual effects of 2020 still lingering. Here’s to aiming for the best. And to our own learning.

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers and the Slice of Life writing community, ever a safe, nourishing place for creative strivings and growth.

Question (of literacy) poem

On behalf of children, on Day Twenty-Three of National Poetry Month

Speaking Points (Do They?)

Glowing screen split into
graphs, trendlines, colors
a virtual sea of data
and faces of colleagues floating
with the question:
“You are the literacy person—
what do you think?”

What I think is that
there’s no secret code
or formula
or magic bullet
or any infallible translation
of impersonal little dots
scattered like breadcrumbs
leading to ponderous conclusions
about the beating heart
of a living, breathing child
and so I say,
“I don’t know what I think
until I hear this child read.”

For while the thunder of uncertainty rumbles
and pedagogies rise and fall
like generations
on billowing waves,
I cannot imagine the whole
of my own existence
crammed into little dots
for others to interpret
the magnitude of my story
or divining and defining
the scope of my future
without ever hearing
my voice

Child’s hands at the window. Nenad Stojkovic. CC BY

*******

with thanks to teacher-poet Angie Braaten for the suggestion of writing around “an important question you’ve been asked,” using this format:

Stanza 1: Question

Stanza 2: Answer

Stanza 3: Reflection

I didn’t know I loved poem

with thanks to Barb Edler who posted the prompt for #VerseLove on Ethical ELA: “Consider the challenges you’ve overcome, the celebrations you can rejoice, the way you may miss something that you never realized you missed”…as inspiration for a “things I didn”t know I loved” poem.

When I returned to college later in life, after having had a family, I was asked to write an essay on “My Most Memorable Teacher.” I’d never thought about this before and was unprepared to write on the teacher who came immediately to mind…but I did write.

I had to.

On Day Nine of National Poetry Month, I give it to you in poem form.

For Mrs. Cooley

You terrified me, you know
looming large
an immovable mountain
in pearls and heels
casting your dark shadow
over my fourth-grade days

The topography of your years
etched deep on your face
your eagle eyes
piercing my very existence

The fear and trembling
of math drills—
Dear Lord
save me
from subtraction!—
I look up 
and there it is 
in your expression:
You can’t squeeze blood
from a turnip

I did not know
that many years later
when I’d be asked to write
of my most memorable teacher
that you’d spring to mind
clear as day
overshadowing all others

and that what I’d recall
is how you read 
Charlotte’s Web to the class

I did not know
I could love a spider so

and then how you read us
Old Yeller

My God my God
I almost died with 
that dog

I did not know
that you were the one
who made me love reading
for there is a difference
in being able to 
and it being the air you breathe

I could not believe
how worried you were
when I fell on the playground that day
how you cradled my distorted left arm
all the way to the office 
and waited with me
‘til Daddy came

I never dreamed
you’d come see me at home
when I had to stay in bed
propped with pillows
ice bag on my cast

I saw you
and the tears came—
I am missing the last two weeks of school
I won’t pass the fourth grade

I did not know you could CHUCKLE
that your sharp blue eyes
could go so soft
and watery
and I never heard that phrase before:
flying colors
you pass with flying colors

Would you believe
I am a teacher now
it isn’t what I planned
but here I am

I never knew until Daddy told me
years ago
that you’d passed
how much I’d long
to see you again
to ask you a thousand things
maybe even to laugh

but more than anything
to thank you
with all my heart

so I do that now
in hopes that you
and Charlotte
and Old Yeller
know that
my love
lives on

Photo: Girl reading. Pedro Ribeiro Simðes. CC BY – reminds me of young me

*******

Thanks also to Tabatha Yeatts for hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup

Digging for awe: Golden shovel poems

I recently wrote a post for the CCIRA Professional Development Blog on the sometimes spirit-crushing work of literacy education. I will not list all of the contributing factors here; I will just say that there are many, especially during this long year of COVID-19. Prior to to writing the post, when asked what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”

As I wrote, and as is usually the case, the path became clearer: Make room for awe.

That is my guiding “one little word” (OLW) for the year, see. And maybe for the rest of my life…

Yesterday I spoke with a colleague who will continue teaching virtually until the year ends in June, for students whose parents have chosen this option. She spoke of awe in regard to the Google Classroom chat feature: “So many more kids share their thoughts this way, more I’ve ever seen in person. I’m in awe of how much they have to say and how they encourage each other. We use the chat all the time now.”

This means students are writing more, which makes my heart sing. If ever there is a conduit for awe, it is writing.

Example: Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman? Who credits her childhood teachers and her school for valuing this kind of expressive, artistic, move-the-mountains writing?

I’ve been lamenting the loss of meaningful writing in elementary schools in my corner of the world, just when it it’s most needed—the writing workshop model having fallen out of favor in the last few years for an embedded, formulaic approach around a topic at a time. That is another whole story; suffice it to say that I am in awe of teachers and students finding their way back to writing that matters.

All of which brings me to Golden Shovel poems. It’s a form I’ve been playing with for about a year. It holds great appeal on a number of levels, practical, creative, metaphorical…the idea of mining for the nuggets of gold, the diamonds that lie within, often so unexpected, yet so important.

A teacher might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying, even a line a classmate has written—anything, really. Not necessarily as a response to the work itself, but latching onto any line that strikes them with its beauty, or pierces their hearts with its poignance, or stirs their souls with its power, to create something new and personally meaningful from it. Make room for awe…

Try digging with the Golden Shovel yourself. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem (or the beginning word, if you prefer). Your poem may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.

I chose this line from Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.

Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,

tossed dice, never quite landing, as

we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.

In the spinning we still loved as we grieved

and we’ll go on, won’t we, 

even as we did when odds against us grew.

And this one, from the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.

Now, who are we

and what should we do,

here where the sun shines not

and Earth’s colors fade.

Even so

consider how easily

we glide from

that room to this,

enduring, rather than living, life

And so I pass the Golden Shovel.

Here’s to the awe of your own discoveries.

Happy digging.

Photo: Golden shovels. Alachua County. CC-BY

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.