Monday, July 22, 2013

To Look at Any Thing...


The summer
still hangs
heavy and sweet
with sunlight
as it did last year.

The autumn
still comes 
showering gold and crimson 
as it did last year.

The winter 
still stings
clean and cold and white
as it did last year.

The spring
still comes 
like a whisper in the dark night.

It is only I 
who have changed.

Charlotte Zolotow
 (c) 1978 To Look at Anything 
Lee Bennett Hopkins

This is my favorite poem from Lee Bennett Hopkins's book To Look at Any Thing.  Have you seen the book?  It's a collection of poetry centered around nature photographs by John Earl taken in Georgia.  Circa 1978.

There's something endearing when you find yourself thumbing through the pages of a book that was published 35 years ago.  The black and white photographs, coupled with poetry from some of our most extraordinary poets was a treat to reread.  To read Charlotte Zolotow's words in "Change," or Patricia Hubbell's words in "Beginning of Thoughts," or Lilian Moore's words in "Encounter," or Langston Hughes's words in "Hope."  This is a special book. 

I think it behooves us to look through our classroom and personal libraries and find "gems" we can share with our students.  

More importantly, it's important for us to reread great writing for ourselves.  To nudge our own writing.  To conjure up memories of the poets we love.  To think of ways to inspire others.  To remember that "new" is not always better.  To take a look at "any thing" and know that perhaps there's a poem hidden in even the simplest objects. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Eudora Welty - A Mentor's Mentor

In the late 1980s, my friend and colleague, Laura Benson, recommended One Writer's Beginnings to us at a workshop.  I remember her sharing sections of it and I immediately went to The Bookies for a copy (at that time The Bookies was still in an old bungalow off 6th Avenue... crammed to the brim with books).  

I think it was one of the first hard cover "professional" books I ever purchased and it still has a special place on my bookshelf.  It's the narrative of Eudora's falling in love with language, writing, and story. It's broken into three sections "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice." Based on her lectures, it captures her story of becoming a writer... finding her voice after years of listening and observing those around her.

Imagine for a minute if we used those three section titles as a "curriculum guide"... if we, indeed, took all the complexities we face as teachers and filtered them through what a young girl from Mississippi deemed important as a learner.  As teachers of reading and writing, could we not couch our work in those three areas?  

What if our guiding questions became:
What are the ways my students are learning to listen?
What are the ways my students are learning to see?
What are the ways my students are developing a sense of their own voice?
How?  Why?  So what?

If we simply (or not so simply) helped our students (and ourselves) to "listen," wouldn't we already be one step ahead.  Listen to the rhythm of these words.  Listen to your fellow learners, what did you hear?  Listen as I share this part out loud with you, what do you notice?  Listen to your own understanding, what's floating in your mind right now?  There's something in this piece that I want to try in my own writing, did you hear it?  Listen again. Listen to the pattern of the words, the sentences, the text... what's beating in your heart?  Your mind?    Listening.

Now "See."  See what's around you (write it down).  See what he just did, do you suppose you might have a go with that?  See how that vowel pattern works, are you learning to recognize it?  See how this illustration matches the words the author uses.  Close your eyes for just a moment, what do you see?  When she shared her poem with you, what did you see?  When you share your writing with him, what did he tell you he saw?  Watch me, tell me what you see... now let me watch you and I'll tell you what I see.  Learning to See.

Find a Voice.  Did you hear the way you said that... it sounded just like _____ (insert your favorite author's name)?  You should write about that, it's an important story.  Your thinking is really important, you might recommend this book to someone you think might enjoy it.  You did create a sensory image, how did it help you?  If someone, right now, asked you what you were thinking, what might you tell them?  You know, not many people can capture a moment in time as beautifully as you just did... how will you share it with others?  Finding a voice. 
Learning to See.
Finding a Voice.

Listen to Eudora's words as she describes an important discovery she made about books:

It has been startling and disappointing to me to find out 
that story books had been written by people, that books were not
natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless
of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in 
love with them--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper
they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession
in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for 
them, committed to all the reading I could give them.  (Welty, pp. 5-6)

That's exactly what I want my students to do, to commit themselves to understanding all that books can give them.  Not based on a number of books they plow through.  Not based on a "level" or a specific genre.  Not based on the number of minutes they read.  Not based on the questions they can answer after a read.  Not based on some mystical "core" description of what a reader is or is not.  Not based on a test.  I want the readers in my care to fall in love with the books themselves.  And perhaps if they listen and learn and see my passion for reading and writing, they will perhaps, in turn, find their own voices as readers and writers.

If you haven't read One Writer's Beginnings, you should.  If you haven't read one of Eudora Welty's works, you should.  If you haven't explored her descriptions of life in Mississippi, you should.  There's something grand about her language, her words, the tempo of her writing.  Her simple southern life gave her writing a complex and varied cadence.  And as you read Welty, you have to keep "Listening, Learning to See, and Finding a Voice" in mind.  Eudora Welty is a mentor's mentor.  

Also read A Darling Life:  A Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown.  Ms. Brown has captured the life... in words and photographs (many of Welty's own)... of Eudora Welty for a new generation of learners.  This time for young readers and writers.  From her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi to political unrest to her declining years, Ms. Brown captures the journey of Miss Welty stunningly.  She lead a simple, albeit extraordinary, life.  Listen to these words from Miss Welty:

Lately, in my old age, it has seemed to me, when friends meet to hold
a public service to pay tribute to one of their number who has died, that 
without words to that effect ever being said, they are drawing a circle 
around that friend.  Speaking in turn one after the other, joining them 
together anew, they keep what they know of him intact.
Eurdora Welty, Introduction, The Norton Bok of Friendship  (Brown, p. 75) 

I'm thinking we all need to draw a circle around these two books for a bit of time... just to listen... to see... and perhaps find a bit of our voice, both as teachers and as readers and writers ourselves.  To keep Eudora Welty's contributions as a writer intact... read!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Michael Rosen's Sad Book

I just discovered Michael Rosen's Sad Book.  "This is me being sad," the opening lines read, "Maybe you think I'm happy in this picture.  Really I'm sad pretending I'm happy..."  Quentin Blake's illustration sits above the lines.

In Sad Book, Mr. Rosen describes how he hide his grief and began to deal with death.  He wrote the book after his son, Eddie, died of meningitis.  Anyone who has suffered a loss - a child - a parent - a pet... well, any loss, really, will understand the author's need to express his sadness in words.

I love the honesty of this book.  The way the illustrations by Quentin Blake parallel the story so poignantly.  The beauty of the language, "Sometimes I'm sad and I don't know why.  It's just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.  It's not because Eddie's gone.  It's not because my mum's gone.  It's just because."  The journey through heartbreak and heartache, though long and lonely, that leads to hope.  The remembering.  In all its sadness, Mr. Rosen's book is somehow comforting.

Michael Rosen's writing is a gift.  Sometimes silly.  Sometimes serious.  And, in the case of Michael Rosen's Sad Book, simply special. 

Note: This is another book published by our friends at Candlewick Press.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Forest Has a Song

If you've followed The Poem Farm, you'll love Amy Ludwig Vanderwater's new book - Forest Has a Song.  It's always a treasure to find a book of poetry like this one (especially when combined with Robbin Grouley's illustrations).  

"Forest News" starts out like this:
I stop to read
the Forest News
in mind or fallen snow. 
Articles are printed
 by critters on the go.

And I must say that "stopping to read Forest Has a Song" is well worth the stop!  Ms. Vanderwater captures the treasures of the forest in poems, short and long, breathtakingly.

When we talk to young writers about "naming" and "noticing" and "marking their day" it's having wonderful poets like Amy that make our jobs so much richer.  Our own writing so much richer.  The patience in "Waiting for Deer," the tapping in "Woodpecker," the honking of geese in "Song"... each poem leaves you a little closer to the sights, the sounds, and the songs of the forest.  It's the exact kind of close observation that we want to encourage in our young poets and young writers. 

My favorite poem in the collection is "Snowflake Voices."

Snowflake Voices

I like to walk 
in winter woods
behind my home.

I close my eyes
to softly hear
snowy voices
crystal clear

Each silver 
sings my name
Guess what?
No two sound the same.


One of my favorite books on the teaching of poetry is A Note Slipped Under the Door by Shirley McPhillips and Nick Flynn published by Stenhouse (2000).  On page 37, it says, "Poets live wide awake in the world.  They 'eavesdrop," watching and listening in the moment, letting things catch their attention.  They wonder and ask questions, letting what they see and hear inform their lives.  Sometimes a poet will notice the exact words that people use.  These 'found' bits of speech can be a springboard for new ideas or a backboard against which to bat ideas and test them farther.  Just by listening closely to what people say, to the very words they use in their everyday speech, the world around us can be revealed.  We can be moved by the words themselves at the moment we hear them, yet we don't know why.  But, as poets, we keep them, believing these words can hold new meaning."

In our work with young writers, I can imagine that books like Forest Has a Song can be that springboard for writers.  It can help create meaning.  It can expand writer's lives into the forest... even if they've never physically experienced the sights and sounds and songs that Ms. Vanderwater invites us to visit.  All it takes is a close read... close your eyes, ponder. Poetry like hers can't help but increase the background knowledge of young writers and invite them to notice their "world" and the poetry that hides within it (be it city, country, subway, or dirt road).  

Ms. Vanderwater is a writer's mentor.  Forest Has a Song a newly found treasure.  And in all the hustle an bustle of our teaching, we can't neglect poetry.  "Helping writers find their song..." now that's a goal, eh?  Thanks, Amy, for the reminder.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Jen Bryant - A Conundrum

I have three books in my "new" pile to write about... and they're all by Jen Bryant which is causing me a huge conundrum!  Do I write about them in one entry?  

Nope.  But let me write about two today...

The first book is Georgia's Bones.  It's a wonderful book about Georgia O'Keefe.  Listen to the first lines:
As a child, shapes often drifted
in and out of Georgia's mind.
Curved and straight, round or square, 
she studied them, and let them disappear.

The way Jen Bryant takes us on a "collection of words" about Georgia O'Keefe's life is gentle and spirited.  Even though the book is "fiction," you gather a sense of Georgia O'Keefe's innate curiosity and sensitivity to the natural world.  And Bethanne Andersen blends her illustrations with Ms. Bryant's words almost magically.  As I read it, I felt like I was learning about a part of Georgia O'Keefe's life that I never knew.

How will I use it?  I might use it in a study of "Stamina and Endurance."  Or I might use it to introduce the concept of "Noticings" as we work in our writer's notebooks.  Or I might use in a study of lyrical nonfiction.  Or I might use it during a study of "Line Lifts" to nudge our writing.

• • • • • • • • • 

The second book is Abe's Fish.  This will go into my classroom collection of "Books about Abe Lincoln."  Listen to this writing:
The late-day sun warmed Abe's back and 
deepened the red of a ripe apple that hung
by the roadside, just out of reach.  Abe tried
three times to poke it down with a stick, 
but the apple refused to drop.

I wish I was tall! he thought

Ms. Bryant takes us on a childhood journey of Abraham Lincoln's life that is eloquent and poignant.  Freedom.  The ending pages are breathtaking.  I loved that it focused not on his presidency, but on his childhood.  The author's notes at the end of the book are an example of superb nonfiction writing.  Amy June Bates has illustrated the books beautifully.

How will I use it?  I might use as a "cousin" text to my other Lincoln books.  Or I might use it in a study of "Stamina and Endurance."  Or I might use it in a study of "Evoking Sensory Images."  Or I might use it as an example of "mixing narrative in a nonfiction study." 

• • • • • • • • • 

Jen Bryant is an talented writer.  We loved her River of Words about William Carlos Williams.  She's bringing nonfiction to young readers in the most interesting and breathtaking ways.  Her ability to blend "fiction" with "nonfiction" is the exact kind of book I like to read... it causes me pause.  It makes me reread.  It makes me notice.  It makes me want to read more.  It makes me want to learn more.  Dare I say her writing deserves a closer read?

So what's the rest of my conundrum?  I'll mention that in my next "Jen Bryant" post...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Reading in the Wild - A Preview

For the past several weeks, I've had the pleasure of prereading the final manuscript of Donalyn Miller's new book Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits which will be published in November (it's kind of fun, turning over page after page of 8 1/2 x 11 paper).  
The cover... beautiful!
Having a friend like Donalyn is one of the blessings we have as teachers, isn't it?  Whether you've spent time with her at dinner, listened to her speak at a conference, or heard her whisper her beliefs to you as you read The Book Whisperer:  Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child you have, indeed, met Donalyn.  

Donalyn is a teacher's teacher.  She's passionate about her work with readers and in helping us become better at our craft.  What impresses me most about Donalyn is her sincerity.  She believes so strongly in "cultivating" and "awakening" the reading lives of young readers.  I imagine the blood that flows through her veins likely contains "read" blood cells. 

In her new book, she, along with Susan Kelley, share five important lifelong habits that they believe readers need in order to prosper.  They share ways to nudge children to be "readers in the wild."  It's sprinkled with the rituals and routines that Donalyn, and Susan, know from experience will cultivate the types of readers we want children to be and to become, both in the classroom and out of the classroom.

I'll write more about this book as it gets closer to the publication date, but I have a strong inkling you'll want to preorder it!  

I was reading the other day and ran across this marvelous quote by Terry W. Glaspey, "Books provide the most helpful of road maps for (an) inner journey.  They show us the tracks of fellow travelers, footprints left by earlier pilgrims who have trod the path that stretches before us.  Their luminosity helps to light our way.  As we read we realize we are not alone."  

And, that's how I feel about this new book by Donalyn.  She, along with her friend Susan, are luminaries for teachers, no matter our experience.  There's a reasonableness to their work.  It causes us to focus, reflect, and make meaningful decisions about the learners in our care.  Grounded in thoughtfulness, this book will nudge us as teachers... and, in turn, stretch the readers with whom we work.

What are the five habits?  I'll mention those in a future post.  But, for now, know that you're in for a treat from Donalyn (and Susan).  In the meantime, read wildly... think deeply... and discover the habits YOU have as a reader.  After all, aren't the very habits we possess the ones we want our students to emulate?  Then ask yourself, "How am I teaching my students to do the same thing?"  Donalyn has.  As fellow travelers, we should too!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Endeavor... Forever... A Tribute to Holly Meade

In December 2011, I wrote about a book by Holly Meade called If I Never Forever Endeavor.  It quickly became one of my favorite books.  I use it with adults, with children, and when I'm feeling "swamped," I read it for myself.

When I received the Tweet from Candlewick Press today that Ms. Meade has died, my heart sank.  Her obituary said, "She loved coastal Maine where she drew much of her inspiration from the natural world." 

All you have to do is explore her illustrations and you'll see evidence of her love for beauty, her love of art.  Her obituary said about Ms. Meade, "A deeply creative soul, Holly surrounded herself with art and was forever seeking an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual education through the aesthetic world."

She began illustrating children's books in 1992.  Twenty one years to share her gifts with those of us who love picture books.  Over 30 books.  Hundreds of works of art.

It's important that we, as teachers, stand together firm and recognize the importance of picture books.  We need to shout to world to ensure that the illustration of story, nonfiction, and poetry remain a living, breathing aspect of our reader's and writer's workshops (at all grade levels).  We must value beauty and creativity at the core of our work with children.

And, it's important that we point out to young readers and writers that people like Holly Meade (and so many others) take their craft seriously.  Illustrators understand the connection between words and art.  Illustrators understand that intellect can be stretched through aesthetic journeys.  Illustrators understand that each brush stroke, each line, each shadow, each color add depth to a reader's understanding.  Illustrators understand that before we write, we draw--drawing has to be an integral part of a writer's life.  Illustrators understand art.

If you don't know Holly's work, do an investigation.  Look at her gallery.  Look at her body of work (start with Candlewick Press).  Read a book or two to your students, to your children, to yourself.  And remember Holly's family in your thoughts and prayers.  

Here are a few of my favorites:

A illustrator's work is worth a thousand words.
Sometimes we have to say goodbye far too early, but we're always better for having experienced a bit of life via the talents of another person.

Thank you to Holly Meade for sharing your gifts with the world.  
Thanks for your endeavors!

• • • • • • • 

After I wrote this post, I discovered that Candlewick Press has set up a memorial fund for Holly Meade.  You can click here to see it at The Curious City.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Every Living Thing - Revisited

As I write, I'm sitting in my backyard in the shade.  My Newfoundland Dog, Timber, is sitting at my feet trying to stay cool (which isn't easy for a huge black dog to do).  The mist from a sprayer is floating along the light breeze, giving us a cool burst periodically).  It's 95+ degrees in Denver today.  It's hot!  Escaping the heat means a good book is close by...

Today I'm rereading Every Living Thing by Cynthia Rylant.  My paperback copy in my classroom is dog-earred and well-loved.  It's one of my "go to" books.  I have a hard cover copy at home and I've been spending my reading time with it today.  I'm sure you know it, but it's a treasure trove of wisdom... worth a reread.

Who doesn't love the story of Leo in "Slower than the Rest."  Simply because it's one of Rylant's masterpieces.  As you read, your reading heart melts when Leo fills "fast" for the first time in his life... thanks to Charlie.  How many Leo's have you known in your classrooms... "slow in reading, slow in numbers, slower than nearly everything that passed before him in the classroom"?  Brilliant writing.

Who doesn't love Velma?  And Miss Cutcheon in "Retired"?  Simply because we love what we do, this calling of teaching and can't imagine not doing it.  As you read, you can't help but think of your own teaching life... perhaps impending retirement... change.  How many times have we heard the saying "Old habits are hard to break"...  "Each day Miss Cutcheon would creak out of her bed like a mummy rising from its tomb, then shuffle into the kitchen, straight for the coffee pot."  Brilliant writing.

Who doesn't love Emmuanuella in "A Pet"?  Simply because we've all longed for a childhood pet and perhaps had to watch it die.  As you read, you can't help but sigh when she finds Joshua waiting for her after school.  How many times have we had to say goodbye... "In the morning, Joshua was dead.  Emma found him floating on top of the water when she woke up.  When she lifted him out of the water in the net, it surprised her how heavy he was.  He was as large as her hand, and it surprised her because she had never held him."  Brilliant writing. 

Who doesn't feel kindred to Denny in "Safe"?  Simply because our fears often play a huge role in our lives; whether you're a child or an adult, fear is real.  As you read, you can't help but understand Denny's need for comfort.  How many times have we turned our hearts and minds to something or Someone to take away our fears... "The cows' eyes were all large and shining and very, very peaceful.  Denny stared at the eyes and he felt reassured.  He felt stronger.  He felt safe."  Brilliant writing. 

And so Every Living Thing goes.  There's something reassuring about sitting with an old friend in the heat of the day.  Reading words that you've read time and time again.  Knowing how the stories end, but forgetting how superbly they were written.  Of course, in the classroom it's all "What did you notice?" and "Why do you suppose?" but on a 95+ degree day, with a Newfoundland dog at your feet, it's really about revisiting, remembering, and rereading... brilliance.