Teacher Time and Spokane Sites

Spokane at sunset Thursday evening.

I just returned from the Northwest Inland Writing Project's annual spring teacher conference in Spokane. Learning new ideas for teaching, seeing old friends, making new friends, and getting a chance to do some poetry writing all contributed to a successful two days.I had the privilege of learning great teaching strategies from author and teacher Jeff Anderson on Friday. Anderson is the author of Mechanically Inclined and Everyday Editing, both excellent resources for building grammar, usage, and style with students in the writing classroom . Jeff led us on an entertaining journey into the creative world of parts of speech, apostrophes, and even punctuation! All of us were busy looking for punctuation in the most unexpected places by the end of the day! I also presented a workshop on using poetry and was inspired by the thoughts and poetry the participants shared.

To top off a full day a group of us took our guest Jeff to dinner at P.F. Chang's in downtown Spokane. You can never have too many lettuce wraps from P.F. Chang's! B (below) wanted Jeff to see the Spokane River falls so we took an unforgettable, brisk walk after dinner down trails and snow covered steps to a spectacular view of the falls close to the Monroe Street bridge. I can't believe I left my camera in the car!It is always a treat to spend time with my friends C and B . They were ready with their Starbucks, paper, and pens to do some serious writing this morning! For me the highlight today was to spend time in a workshop with Marti Mihalyi. Marti is a talented poet, inspiring teacher, and good friend. Each time I am back in a workshop with Marti I leave with more inspiration for putting words to paper and motivation to keep going with my own writing. I hope to polish some of my pieces I started and post them later.

I am energized when I attend conferences, but it is always nice to turn off the highway and find the long driveway home. I was told the dogs wore themselves out watching for me! It was comforting to feel a warm fire, pet the animals, and catch up on life with JEJ.

Looking Up

"The sky is the part of creation in which nature has done for the sake of pleasing man. "John Ruskin

Here are a few of my favorite sky pictures from the photo file. When the snow is dirty and gray, and mud has replaced ice in the driveway, there is always hope of finding beauty by looking up. Even if the skies are gray, there is a sense of calm as the gray envelopes you. Neutral shades have a beauty also.

Where Does the Poetry Come From?

I often share poetry on this blog. These poems all come from a variety of sources. Lately I have been spending time reading through poetry collections in preparation for a workshop I am giving later in the week. If you want to spend some time with poetry, here are some volumes you might want to check out at your local library.

Good Poems , selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor.
This is an anthology of poems he has read on The Writer's Almanac on public radio each morning. It includes a wide variety of poems under categories such as O,Lord, Scenes, Day's Work, and A Good Life. Some of my favorites I found in this book are "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver, " A Blessing" by James Wright, and "Courage" by Anne Sexton.

poetry 180 , a Turning Back to Poetry, selected and introduced by Billy Collins.
When Billy Collins was the United States Poet Laureate he introduced a poem-a-day program with the Library of Congress. This collection is comprised of poems and poets we remember. Ones I love in this book are "Lines" by Martha Collins, " Small Comfort" by Katha Pollitt, and "The Invention of Heaven" by Dean Young.

Otherwise by Jane Kenyon. When she was in remission with cancer she began putting together this collection. In the last five days of her life, she finished this book. Each time I reread it I think of her love of words, her persistence for completion, and her sharp mind as she was adding and deleting with her poet husband Donald Hall up to the last day of her life. I love all the poems in this collection.

New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. This Pulizer Prize and National Book Award winning collection moves into more of a focus on nature. Again, it is hard to pick favorites. I do tend to reread "A Letter from Home", " "Roses, Late Summer", and "The Return."

Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda. This, like all his volumes, are presented side by side in English and Spanish. I was first introduced to this book in a poetry writing workshop years ago, but the reminded again of his work at my brother's writing workshop last summer. Neruda's book brings to light to beauty of the common things we can all understand like a pair of socks, a chair, and a spoon.

by Jane Kenyon
©2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birchwood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Remembering Spring

I remember snowball blooms and green leaves and grass....

...and a time that I could make a bouquet from the tulips around the yard,

...and smell lilacs in Mom's backyard,...and see bleeding hearts that survived the snow.
I wonder if they are all under there growing under that protective cover of frozen snow? Only time will tell... but for now I will just remember spring as a lingering, long ago memory.

No Map

No Map

How close the clouds press this October first
and the rain-a gray scarf across the sky,
In separate hospitals my father and a dear friend
lie waiting for their respective operations,
hours on a table as surgeons crack their chests.
They were so brave when I talked to them last
as they spoke of the good times we would share
in the future. To neither did I say how much
I loved them, nor express the extent of my fear.
Their bodies are delicate glass boxes
at which the world begins to fling its stones.
Is this the day their long cry will be released?
How can I live in this place without them?
But today is also my son's birthday.
He is eight and beginning his difficult march.
To him the sky is welcoming, the road straight.
Far from my house he will open his presents-
a book, a Swiss Army knife, some music. Where
is his manual of instructions? Where is his map
showing the dark places and how to escape them?
-Stephen Dobyns

Cabin Fever Part 2

Well..... cabin fever has definitely taken over today at our house. It is snowing again... and sticking!When I got my fill of the white stuff powdering up the deck I decided to escape to the greenhouse.
Thank goodness for thriving plants and these beautiful variegated geranium leaves. I am ready for these plants to move outside.I think Isabelle just got tired of the snow also. She decided to ponder what to do next here while she caught up on her sleep.
I am afraid if this weather continues Annie will now have to get a sweater!
I am not dreaming of a white St. Patrick's Day.... I want a green St. Patrick's Day!! WAAAAHHHHH!

Perhaps It Is Cabin Fever?

Usually cats keep a set routine that rarely changes. Not at our house. Perhaps we can attribute it to cabin fever. McDuff hadn't visited inside the house since Shelby arrived, which was more than three years ago. He would hang out in the room attached to the garage and certainly in a bed in the garage, but not in the house. All of a sudden a few weeks ago McDuff has reappeared like he has always been hanging out with us in the evening. He comes in the kitchen in the morning to be fed and has even joined us on the bed at night. Go figure!Lily has also showed signs of a changed routine. When we adopted her she had never been around people or other animals much so she has always been a bit of a loner. She watches us a lot and is a follower outside, but keeps to herself inside in the room attached to the garage. Now she is venturing out also. She has jumped up on the back of the chair in the sunroom and rested behind JEJ's head. Today she just sat by the door like she was waiting for me to come and get ready for school (She always follows me in the morning and watches my routine of getting ready).
Did we add another dog to our pet family? No, Annie was given a spring cut that looks like a summer cut while it is still winter. Her fur was getting to be a bit of a mess and it was hard to tell if she was getting chubby or just had a lot of hair. JEJ decided a cut was in order earlier than usual. I can't believe how many cute freckles she has now! She does resemble a Pointer or German Shorthair and appears more lean as she continues to walk atop the snow that is STILL HERE!!
Of course, all these changes around the house just provide Shelby with new motivation for trying out her herding skills. With one more cat to corral around the house there is never a dull moment for Shelby.She still finds time to go out eat snow with her best buddy. Both of them are sure there are some yummy treasures buried right here. Will the snow ever melt? Perhaps there is someone else around this house that has cabin fever.

Learning How to Write

After yesterday's post I began thinking about how I learned how to write. When I say writing I am not referring to penmanship, but words to paper. The process of learning how to read is more vivid in my mind. At some point each child is given opportunities to write, but writing takes on so many more forms. Some of my early writing experiences were foundational structures which allowed me to move on to "real writing" later. I do remember copying the following poem in the fall of second grade:

The Squirrel


Whisky, frisky,
Hippity hop;
Up he goes
To the tree top!

Whirly, twirly,
Round and round,
Down he scampers
To the ground.

Furly, curly
What a tail!
Tall as a feather
Broad as a sail!

Where's his supper?
In the shell,
Snappity, crackity,
Out it fell.

I remember Mrs. Meyers reciting it, then me writing in on lined paper and drawing a picture of a squirrel. What is most memorable was memorizing it and performing it in front of the class. Looking at the poem now I can see the power of rhyme and strong words like "snappity, crackity". Even a simile has been introduced which I couldn't call by name in second grade. I don't even know if Mrs. Meyers knew by teaching that poem that she was forming a foundation for future writing, but experiences like this fill a child's imagination with examples that can be drawn out later.

I also remember doing Picture Study which involved studying a great work of art, the teaching composing sentences about that art, and the students copying them down on paper. Again, imitation is an effective strategy for moving a writer from set structure to structure with original thoughts. Later in sixth grade I felt so free when our teacher let us write our own page about the great work of art.
Letters were always a form of writing I recall composing as soon I knew how to write words. We wrote letters to our grandmothers, thank you letters for gifts, and in Camp Fire Girls it was a letter to a guest that had come to speak at our meeting. Many have said that the art of letter writing is fading, but I am a traditionalist. I still love to write letters and send them snail mail. I give my students opportunities to write notes and letters of appreciation to adults that surround them. I encourage them to also do "gifts of writing" to family members using their writing skills and heartfelt words at Mother's Day or before a parent conference.

In third grade my teacher gave us big white construction paper if we finished our work and let us create little villages with people and animals. I remember adding details to those pictures and sharing ideas with my friend KW, who was very artistic, and loving that creative time of letting my ideas out. I also think we wrote stories about those pictures.

As a grew as a writer I was given opportunities to compose poems and stories in class. It was always a big deal though. It was not part of our usual routine. I wish we would have written more, but maybe having it be such a special event made it memorable.

Today I had students working in groups to collaborate on a story. As they were keyboarding or writing in journals the room was abuzz with laughter and sharing. Budding writers move through phases that become a comfort zone. The boys in my class are in the "farts " stage and can describe that bodily function perfectly with vivid words and descriptions. In experimenting with theme, they have also decided every story has to have a zombie appear. Everyone waits now to see how the zombie appears. The girls are into mysteries. It always involves friends, spooky phone calls, a scary house, and boyfriends. They will move on soon to new and more challenging storylines. My phase used to be rhyming poetry. I would work so hard on getting the last word in each line to rhyme, I don't even know if the poem made sense!

As adults we are challenged to find the time to write. In the busyness of our work and life it is often difficult to have energy and inspiration to write much in the evening. Sometimes I just take that time to enjoy others' writing by reading blogs, grabbing poetry books, or a folder of student writing.
When you learn to read the letters and words begin to make sense. You move into more complex understanding of text, but once you learn how to decode the words, the science of reading is learned. Writing is different. I am still learning how to write. There are so many parts to writing that I shy away from. I don't write short stories because I don't feel like I can build characters effectively. I am not a lover of science fiction, so I don't attempt it. Academic articles have not been something I have sat down to create lately. The process of writing makes us lifelong learners. I can't imagine any writer ever saying, " I am done. I have mastered everything there is to know about writing. I guess I will move on to gourmet cooking." Hardly.

Learning How to Read

Next week I will be presenting a workshop on using poetry to teach reading and writing strategies to a group of teachers. During my preparation I have been reading and rereading poetry selections from many sources. I am struck by the volume of good poetry I continue to find in books, magazines, and web sites that I haven't even posted here yet!

Today I want to share one my new favorites I discovered this week. I really like the poetry of Billy Collins and he has worked hard to make poetry much more accessible to our students. This poem is a reminder of simpler days, a long, shiny hallway at Silver King School, and learning how to read.

First Reader

By Billy Collins

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustration of their neighborhood
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting "Look!"
pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet's small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.

Old School Rebel!

Sometimes I am so old school. I remember when white boards were first introduced in classrooms. I thought I would never say good-bye to my colored chalk, soiled blouse cuffs, and dry cuticles for some high-powered dry erase markers. I did say farewell and I haven't used a chalk board for at least ten years now!

Now I was never that old school about desks. They always seemed awkward when you wanted students to group together to conference on writing. There was never enough room for them to stow their musical instruments, big coats, and backpacks underneath. I have used tables in the classroom for a long time now. In fact I have students beg to have one of the "old desks" sometimes because they like having their own space.

Old school and new school have always included the plan book and grade book, teacher neccessities handed out at the start of each school year. It is a yearly ritual to organize all your classes on those pages and see how much worse your eyes had gotten over the summer as you try to read the days of the week in the tiny squares placed there for attendance.

Urban legends have floated around the halls of education forever about those grade books going into the archives for one hundred years because there just might be a student who graduated from the district thirty years ago that will be asked on a job application how many days of school he missed in seventh grade.
We need to be ready to give that information. We turn in those books every spring as we leave for another summer break so somebody in the district office will have that information!

Old school has made another big shift. We started doing attendance a few years ago online. I still filled in those little squares each day of the week in my trusty grade book when students were absent. How can we trust a computer? What if it crashes and somebody's life is hanging on what day he/she was sick in 1995? As a teacher you protect your attendance book with your life. It may be coffee stained and have a few germs covering it, but it goes with you each and every day. How could you function if you lost the grades you gave students on their papers?

Now comes the granddaddy of shifts. Recently we were all trained to not only do attendance, but turn our hard copy old school gradebook into a online source. I sat in the training and timidly raised my hand and asked, " Does this mean we don't need to fill in those little boxes every week day of the school year or fill in grades each day on another page?"
She smiled and said, " You are safe! The state does a backup of the system all the time and you will never lose that data! The auditors say it is AOkay to say good-bye to grade books."

Wow! Now that was about a month ago. I hung on with some nostalgia to my worn, coffee stained grade book with the little colored marks showing if students were absent and present. My students kept hinting that they would love a printout of their grades ( What... a sticky note written on both sides isn't official enough for a basketball team grade check?).

Tonight I did it. I sat down, set up an online gradebook, entered all the data, and had beautiful printouts of grades before I knew it. I was amazed how easy it was. My students will be in shock tomorrow. I didn't even enter all the grades as backup in those tiny squares first. I am such a rebel.

I have to be honest here though. I just can't part with that grade book yet. It is filled with lists of things to do, student birthdays, and notes written in the boxes from students when they were waiting to meet with me. I just won't feel so obligated to store it in a fireproof box when I leave the room for lunch. If the water cooler tips over tomorrow and runs all my different colors of ink together on the many pages in my grade book, I will be okay. The Attendance Police will not come and take me away... I have all my data backed up now!

Words about Water


The world turns softly
Not to spill the lakes and rivers.
The water is held in its arms
And the sky is held in the water.
What is water,
That pours silver,
And can hold the sky?

Hilda Conkling

Top Ten Reasons I Want Spring to Arrive!

10. I want to open this gate again!
9. I want to find out if the stuff buried under the ice can be salvaged.
8. I want a locate a place we can drive to, get out of the car, let the dogs run without slipping on ice, and not be concerned the car will get stuck, or or we will run into a snow berm.
7. I want to sit at the table in the yard.
6. I want to see a crocus break through the soil.
5. I want to see a campground open!
4, I want to taste a fresh rhubarb crisp warm out of the over with ice cream.

3. I want to fill a bird feeder.
2. I want to breathe in the rich, earthy smell of dirt again.
and the number one reason I want spring to arrive is so I can pick my own bouquet of flowers once again!

My Eight Special Valentines

I am enjoying this day with my eight special valentines.
Happy Valentine's Day to each and every one of you!

The Heart of the Matter,Part 2: Treasures

Valentine Treasures
Valentine treasures are people who
have often crossed your mind,
family, friends and others, too,
who in your life have shined
the warmth of love or a spark of light
that makes you remember them;
no matter how long since you’ve actually met,
each one is a luminous gem
who gleams and glows in your memory,
bringing special pleasures,
and that’s why this Valentine comes to you:
You’re one of those sparkling treasures!
Joanna Fuchs

The Heart of the Matter, Part 1 : Waiting


Left off the highway and
down the hill. At the
bottom, hang another left.
Keep bearing left. The road
will make a Y. Left again.
There's a creek on the left.
Keep going. Just before
the road ends, there'll be
another road. Take it
and no other. Otherwise,
your life will be ruined
forever. There's a log house
with a shake roof, on the left.
It's not that house. It's
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia,
and marigold grow. It's
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing the sun in her hair. The one
who's been waiting
all this time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
"What's kept you?"

by Raymond Carver

Afternoon Shadows In the Greenhouse

Winter is getting long
students are getting cabin fever
today I heard one yell, " I am SICK of snow".
the ice has never melted around my outside door of the classroom,
the ice has turned to a hue of blue.

It's time to load up my bags
return home again
and step into the greenhouse.

I can't think of a lovelier place to spent some time during this end-of-winter funk!