Monday, July 29, 2013


It is easy to find fault.
It is almost natural to begin to point out the negatives, the "yeah...buts" and the "why we can'ts or the  "it won'ts"
We all do it.
But why didn't you ...? we might ask as friend
I wouldn't have bought that one  we tell a sibling.

On and on... until in any situation we have compiled a long list of "nots", a roster of  reasons to push back against whatever issue, concern, or subject  is at hand.

But what if  we, instead, look for the most beautiful thing we know about whatever is uppermost in our mind, whatever concerns us, whatever we are tempted to initially demonize.

What if we set aside our skepticism and our doubts?

What if we ask What is the "something beautiful" in this? 

  In Something Beautiful by Sharon  Dennis Wyeth,  right outside her window, a young girl faces the not-so-beautiful aspects of her neighborhood.  She sees trash, broken bottles, and a brick wall.  Someone has painted the word DIE on her building's door, and a homeless woman lives in a cardboard box and sleeps on the side walk.

Following her teacher's request, she sets out to find "something beautiful".  Polling her neighbors, she finds each has a reflective response and names a specific "something beautiful." As she continues to search for her own "something beautiful",  she also takes actions toward making her neighborhood more beautiful, as well as finding out that she is someone's "something beautiful".

In a short creative piece, The Indian Dog, N.Scott Momaday shows us the "something beautiful " about a dog he wanted  when he was growing up, but actually had no chance of keeping. Although he had purchased the dog from the owner for five dollars, he is able to finally find beautiful the fact that the dog ran away-- back to his owner:
The Indian dog had done what it had to do, had behaved exactly as it must, had been true to itself and to the sun and moon. It knew its place in the scheme of things, and its place was precisely there, with its right destiny...
This insightful piece is included in In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal edited by Judith Kitch and Mary Paumier Jones.

It may be that it is not a negative situation with which we are faced, but rather a new or unknown one--or one in which we want to explore and investigate.

We can still look for the "something beautiful."

We can ask  What is the most beautiful thing I know about this? 

For Richard Van Camp, it is horses. Being a Dogrib Indian, he knows about dogs. Folks in his tribe are not horse people. So he sets out to find out more about these animals.  He asks many family members,  friends, and neighbors What's the Most Beautiful Thing You Know about Horses?  in his book by the same title. The answers he receives are thoughtful, poetic, and practical--with each response connected to and revealing something about the responder.

 Teacher Consultants from the 2012 CAWP summer institute gathered yesterday  in retreat, to talk and catch up, to share new ideas, to commiserate and celebrate..... and... of course,  to write.

We asked collectively What is the most beautiful thing I know about___ ?

The diverse directions in responses were as many as people present:
 We found beautiful  that moment when a  child 's uplifted hands reached for her mom, the unselfishness of a son and his fiancee in changing their wedding plans from overseas to closer to home so all the family could be present.
We searched for meaning and identity in the context of  family  and aging.
We considered the beautiful and "unbeautiful" in adoption, explored the new feelings of patriotism for a new army soldier's mom
And we traveled to Jerusalem to ask folks there What is the most beautiful thing you know about Jerusalem?

We found beauty in expected and ordinary places, as well as in unlikely and surprising places.

We challenged ourselves as this school year begins, and perhaps new challenges in our personal lives as well, to ask at ever new challenge and change:
What is the most beautiful thing I know about this?
We challenged ourselves to keep this question in the forefront, asking it not only  of ourselves, but our of colleagues and family and friends, as well.

What is the most beautiful thing you know about.___?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

As you reflect on your work, your personal life, your relationships and all that is involved in being the public and personal you, ask:  What is the most beautiful thing I know about.___?

You may think about your family- spouse, child, mother or father,friend-- or an object
or you may think about your school year-- your classroom, your students or a particular student, education, teaching or a particular subject/concept that you teach.

If you are not a teacher, you may think about your  work or studies or hobbies.

Try writing  your own response to the question that you pose.  

It may be an essay, narrative or poem.
Or you may want to poses your question, and then write as if many other people are responding--write what you imagine their responses to be, write from their perspectives.


Friday, July 26, 2013


We all have heroes.

We all have people to whom we look for inspiration.

We all have those folks that remind us of who we want to be.

They may be the legendary or mythological figures of old.

It may be a literary character whose life provides the lessons and wisdom that we need to live our own lives.

We may still look up to those comic book superheroes with the Bam! Slam! Pow! superpowers.

Which of these is your hero?
Whose philosophy and spirituality inform your life?

More importantly, who are your real-life heroes?
Those ordinary people quietly doing extraordinary things for others and for the world.

It may be a favorite teacher, a parent, or the neighbor who helps everyone-- unasked and behind the scenes.
It may be your friend who endures unending tragedy and suffering with grace, dignity, and cheerfulness.
It may that single mother who on a minimum wage salary raised five sons-- all of whom are successful, decent men.
It may be the man you just read about in the news who ran into a burning building to save people he did not know.

Or the soldier willing to die for our freedoms.
Or the activist willing to fight tirelessly for our rights.

Or the person who thinks she can't endure another day, but arises in the morning and do what she has to do. .
Who are your heroes?

While there are many people I admire, many people I imitate and emulate-- there are no greater heroes to me than our young people.

Youth get a bad rap these days.
They are so lazy
They are always hooked to screens and earphones
They don't know how to talk, read, write or _________(fill in the blank).
They are rebellious, ignorant, sarcastic, rude and _______ (fill in the blank again).
Apparently this negative view of our youth has been their albatross for centuries.

Socrates addressed this issue:
The children now love luxury.They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders...They no longer rise when elders enter the room.They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.
Plato also weighed in on this topic:
The young people of today think of nothing but themselves.They have no reverence for parents or old age.They are impatient of all restraint.They talk as if they alone knew everything and what  passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.As for girls, they are forward, immodest and unwomanly in speech, behaviour and dress.
While this ongoing negativity may have been then or may be now true of some few young people, I find most of the youth I meet are not these negative stereotypes.  They are trying to do their best, be their best, and live the lives we expect them to live.

Do they make mistakes? Yes!
Do they sometimes need us to redirect them? Yes!

But many young people in the past did good things, even heroic things.
Philip Hoose gives us a glimpse of history through the eyes  of  courageous kids who were there making the history along with  the grownups in We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History .

He collects  untold stories of  youth who set out to get rich, help feed their families, or to  seek adventure, safety, love, freedom and justice. Some of these stories we are able to read today because the young person kept a diary or journal then. Some stories we know now because someone else wrote about them then.

Many of our youth have done remarkable things more recently.
We can read about some of these young folks and their positive activities in  It's Our World, Too!: Young People Who Are Making a Difference by Phillip M. Hoose and Kids with Courage: True Stories About Young People Making a Difference by Barbara A. Lewis.

 And many of our youth are today doing extraordinary and courageous things as part of their ordinary everyday lives.

My current young hero is Malala Youszfzai, the young girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for  promoting education for girls in Pakistan.  She has been actively  working toward this goal since 2009.

In her speech to the UN on  July 12, her 16th birthday, she demonstrate that bullets have not silenced her efforts:
Let us pick up our books and our pens.They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.
Click here to read the full article New York Time article  and watch a video of her speech.
For additional information see this Huffington Post article and video.

Also you may want to read my earlier post, The Rights of Children.

Who are your heroes?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Who are your heroes?  Who are the people you admire and strive to emulate? Who are the people that make the world better for you? For everyone?
What are the qualities that you believe make one a hero?

Write an essay about the role of a hero in today's world.

Write a praise poem to one of your heroes.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Teachers are people, too.

An obvious fact, right?  No!
Not now in 2013---not ever.

Teachers have always been held to a higher standard --even back in Biblical days.

James 3:1 warns us :
Not many of you should become teachers... because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Teachers lives are devoted to meeting the needs of others.

Teachers lives are spent preparing young folks for the future, for our future-- and  trying to figure out what that future will look like. 

Teacher are mythical creatures, sometimes thought to live lives very different from everyone else.

Ask any teacher, particularly the elementary variety, and they will tell you that at least one student in their career, has been surprised to see them some outside the school building.
Oh! Mrs. Holland, you shop here too!
You are not in the school!  They let you leave?
You have kids?!
Look! Mom, it is my teacher! I don't believe she is at the (fill in whatever place)!
Teachers are under an enormous amount of pressure.

Our responsibilities and duties have increased exponentially in the past century.
(For more on this, see Jamie Vollmer's list, The Ever-Increasing Burden on America's  Public Schools  and my related post on this issue, The Joy (and Burden) of Teaching.)

Our families and friends expect us to know everything... but not to act like we do.

The public expects us to save their children and the world.

We put pressure on ourselves  to be everything to everybody at any given time.

And we sometimes pressure each other.
Pressure can push in two directions- forward and up or backward and down.

What does it look like when teachers push other teachers forward?
What does it look like when the pressure from other teachers pushes us back? 

Teachers who are interested in growing--those for whom teaching is an avocation, rather than a vocation, those for whom teaching is a calling are always striving to be better, to be more.

They are definitely and minimally reading professional literature,  engaging in professional development, and participating in professional groups-both locally and and nationally. 

In addition, they may also be writing, blogging, presenting at professional events, and/or  producing/publishing teaching materials, articles and books. 

In a recent article, entitled The Vulnerable Population of Teacher-Researchers; Or, “Why I Can’t Name my Co-Workers"  Brian White describes what pushing backward and down looks and feels like on the receiving end. You can read his article here or here.

Sadly, there are teachers who respond negatively when their colleagues engage in the above activities and begin to be both excited about and recognized for the same.

Julie Johnson, one of the teacher participants in our CAWP teacher inquiry group, was so moved by this notion of teacher vulnerability  as discussed in White's article, that she switched her research topic so she could investigate this concept more. 

 In a related survey  she conducted with 50 teachers, 74% of them reported feeling this ostracizing that he discusses. (unpublished research presented at NCTE 2012) 

In the context of  our inquiry group's consideration of White's article I wrote the following response:
I have always been a teacher –researcher.   I have not always considered myself such or formally labeled what I regularly did as research.  But, never the less, I have always intentionally studied my own practice, and sometimes as a coach, the practice of my colleagues, with the intention and expressed purpose of discovering what was working, what might work better and how to implement "the better" in my classroom and my school in the most effective ways.  I also believe simply by intentionally studying something, it improves because the attention brings to the forefront that which was hidden in routine, normality, automaticity, and familiarity.

I have always been lucky in that I fell into, sought, and found reflective, supportive teachers who were interested in what I was interested in--- improving teaching, learning more about teaching and learning, and the system of education.  I have not been ostracized or shut down in the educational setting or not much anyway..  

But....sadly.. although this has not been my experience, I know teachers for whom have this negative experience is real.

So what does it look like when we support each other and push teachers forward?

Geert Keltchermans in Teacher Vulnerability: Understanding its Moral Political Roots, (Cambridge Journal of Education, Vol.26, Issue 3, 1996,307-323) not only recognizes the existence of this vulnerability and  examines its nature, but  suggests taking political action to regain professional, social and workplace identities, as well as restoring a positive work environment  for all teachers. 

Keltchermans also recommends autobiographical reflection and storytelling to deal positively with this sense of vulnerability.  For more about this article click here.

What else can we do to support teachers and push them forward?

Where do you find your forward push?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Whether or not you are a teacher, reflect on your current position and role?

What are you currently doing to be the best you can be in whatever position/role you hold? 

Who is supporting you?
What affordances do you encounter? 
What hindrances obstruct your way?
What changes would you like to see in your current situation?
How can you work to implement these changes?

Write a letter to the person(s) supporting you thanking them for their role in your growth?
Write a narrative of your experience--positive or negative.

At a certain point during the time our CAWP teacher inquiry group met, I reread all of our notes for each session. Click here to read a poem, Haibun 11- 3-1-12, that I wrote attempting to capture our collective experience and the importance of our conversations.

Write a poem as an alternative way to reflect, report, or capture your experience.

Monday, July 22, 2013


Our president, Barack Obama, spoke to the press on July 19, 2013.
Click here to see a video and read the transcript of his remarks at this press conference.
He spoke about a topic on which many of us had been waiting, wanting, and expecting him to address--
the Trayvon Martin ruling.

He, along with most of us, is asking Who are we in America?

He, along with most us, is asking Where do we go from here?

And he, along with most of us,  is searching his heart and soul, his knowledge, authority and power, his expectations, affordances, and hindrances  to discover exactly who we are.

Educator and professional author Christopher Lehman, among others, engages in this soul-searching and wrestles with this topic in his recent blog post, On This Next Day.

In this nation-- in America-- we are created by words and documents.  Those historical and living words say who we are here in this country.  In my book, Deeper Writing: Quick Writes and Mentor Texts to Illuminate New Possibilities,  I address our founding documents and those living words that guide us in this way:

...documents outline our collective rights and rules, our national principles and  purposes, and our highest hopes and dreams.  Throughout our history as a nation, we have also repeatedly been defined and redefined by the words of strong and courageous men and women--words on paper preserved for posterity, and words spoken aloud to audiences--small and intimate or multitudes.
Words have led us to consider ourselves and how we interact with each other, both at home and abroad .... Words have sometimes spurred us to greatness, at other times shamed us into making sweeping changes, and often challenged the best part of our humanity to create a nation that continues to grow and create new possibilities.

In troubling times, in times of confusion and disappointment, like we face now-- in times when our nation is questioning itself-- we return to these documents for direction, solace and restoration.

We have faced many such times.
Who are we in these times?
Who are we in America?

As we engage in the soul searching and reflection that our president calls all of us to do, we may want to return to these documents, literally, to remind ourselves from whence we have come and to support us as we determine individually and collectively where we are going.

Most important founding and governing documents of our nation, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, the Amendments to the Constitution and the Federalist Papers  can be found here, at Founding Fathers.Info.

Along with these essential documents, wise words of many of our fathers and mothers, our fellow citizens and others have also guided our nation and helped us to discover, remember, and become who we are.

Following September 11, 2001, Walter Dean Myers asked himself  the same question we are all asking now, and felt impelled to reread all of those  founding and governing documents I listed above--those that he felt " formed the core ideas of what America is about..."

Myers explored his findings in a mix  of poetry and quotes from people in our history --famous or not so famous-- along with quotes from our founding documents. The result was We Are America: A Tribute from the Heart. Those wanting more details and references will find that in the back matter, along with notes on the art created for this book by his son, Christopher Myers.
Who are we in America?

Sometimes being an American means speaking the truth.  Sometimes being an American means saying what our fellow Americans may not want to hear or recognize.

Who are we in America?
And what is our Truth.

We are Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  We are Sojourner Truth, Susan B.Anthony, and Michelle Obama---all standing up, speaking out, telling us who we need to be.

Robert Shetterly, like Walter Dean Myers, also felt compelled to reflect upon and discover who we are as Americans.  He used art to explore those qualities, painting 50 portraits of Americans who for him represented the best part of Americans.  He selected those who words were Truth we all needed to hear.
The result was Americans Who Tell the Truth.

Who are the Americans who are today speaking Truth to power?

Who are we in America?

As President Obama has called us to reflect, to search our souls and to reflect on who we are, he ended his remarks with the following words:

And so we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues. And those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature, as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days, I think, have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did; and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union. - See a video and the transcript of his complete remarks here.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Write an essay or letter responding to his remarks expressing your feelings, ideas--your Truth.

Write a letter to the jury agreeing, disagreeing, or questioning their ruling.

Read The Poetic States of America by John Laue (Rattle #38 Winter 2012) and my poem Who Are We In America?

Write your own  poem or essay which wrestling with the question Who are we in America?

Friday, July 19, 2013


I have always known about the Mazza Museum at the University of Findlay, as well as the Mazza Conference. But this was my first visit to the Findlay campus, the Museum  and the Conference.

Wednesday was Day 3 and what a marvelous setting and conference!

The keynote speaker for afternoon was Caldecott Medalist  Ed Young.  He has illustrated over eighty books for children, seventeen of which he has also written.  You may read more about him here.

This delightful and energetic octogenarian  has been writing and illustrating books since I was a baby teacher. I have watched his work change, grow, and develop into the stunningly beautiful art he creates today.

On my shelves of picture books, his work stands among my all time favorite selections.

Although I own and love many of his works, yesterday he focused on  his process in conceptualizing and creating The House Baba Built: An Artist's Childhood in China .

This book has won multiple awards, including: Booklist Top 10 Art Books for Youth 2011, Booklist Editor's Choice for Youth 2011, Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books 2011, ALA Notable Children's Book 2012, the Norman A. Sugarman Children's Biography Award 2012 and several others.

Through remarkable art, photos, and words this memoir unfolds--the story of lives lived in a special house built  in Shang Hai  by Young's father that would shelter his entire family and others through the war.

Whisperings of the story began in the 80's when  Young went back to China after 18 years.  He described how he initially couldn't find the house, and then subsequently once found, was allowed to go in and look at what remained.

He wryly gained more and more access to the house as he shared fascinating tidbits with the  reluctant current owner.
  • The roof where the man fell and died when the house was being built.
  • The hall as a bomb shelter--the safest place in the house.
  • The sagging staircase where he and siblings slid down the banisters.
  • And the pool- among only 3 private pools in Shang Hai at the time-- his father, having been brought up in the United States, wanted his kids to know how to swim.
Young wanted his children to know the story of his growing up in this house.
This was the start of the book without me knowing it.
As he began work on his book, he enlisted his engineer brothers' help in remembering and recreating the floor plan of the house.

I was surprised to learn of the number of versions, approaches, and respective rejections or suggested rewrites before the final form that we know and love. Early ideas and drafts included:
  • rhyming verses about objects in the home presenting general impressions- not a chronological story
  •  a tour of the house through the various rooms
  • and because Jewish family came to also live in the house, an early title suggestion was  My Chinese Brother and Jewish Sister
He finally decided on a biographical approach in chronological order

We were treated to a slideshow of art and  illustrations drafts of illustrations, and work that did not make it into the book .
Click here to visit a website devoted to the book--with a slideshow of art work that did not go into book.

As a final surprise--Jean, his " Jewish sister" was present in the audience.  In true sister form, she took full credit for him being an artist today:
He would only draw boy things.  I tried to get him to draw girl things.  I discovered him--- and I am glad he followed up. 
So are we, Jean, so are we!

Do you want to explore more of Ed Young's Work? Here are two of his newer works


and two of his classic works to enjoy.


  Today's Deeper Writing Possibiities

Revisit a house in which you used to live. This may be a literal revisiting like Ed Young's, or it may be simply reflecting back in your mind.

Draw a floor plan of the house.

Add objects and notes to your sketch to remind yourself of  people, relationships and events that took place in each room or area of your house.

Write a poem, narrative, or essay about your house. 

Below is a poem I wrote about one of the houses in which I lived as a child--we all believe it was haunted.

Our House

Revisiting my house
In Shepard, in my old neighborhood
Reminded me of the creakiness
The sneakiness
The built-in/live-in
Evil that resided
In our walls
And flushed our toilets
At night and…
Breathed on us while we slept
And made us dream …..bad dreams,
We, awaking screaming,
My sister and I,
The same horrible round face
Emblazoned on the wall of our room
Branded into our brains

We didn’t often
speak aloud
About the idiosyncrasies of the house
The normal terror --
Until we left it.

Then a rush of words celebrated our release.
Then a hush of words covered our relief.

I wonder if the new inhabitants

are silent….too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Wordle: Poetry is...What is poetry?

Writers, scholars, and everyday-you-and-me have had this conversation since words,  and poetry began.

Poets have been answering this question with elusive, fluttering, fleeting answers forever.
They have filled scrolls and books,declaring the mystery of poetry,  attempting to define its undefinable nature.

There is a name for writing or poetry that attempts to answer this question.  

Ars Poetica

Or the The Art of Poetry.

Edward Hirsch, editor of Poet's Choice, defines Ars Poetica in the following way:

The ARS POETICA is a poem that takes the art of poetry as its explicit subject. It proposes and aesthetic. Self-referential, uniquely conscious of itself as both a treatise and a performance,  the great ars poetica embodies what it is about.

Horace (Roman poet- 65 B.C.- 8 B.C.) gave us the first-known Ars Poetica.  His poem on poetics published in 18 B.C. is the grandfather and model for all others that come after.

In his poem, which is most often translated into prose in English, he offers advice to young poets--much of which stands at the foundation of writing and teaching of poetry still today.

As is painting, so is poetry: some pieces will strike you more if you stand near, and some, if you are at a greater distance: one loves the dark; another, which is not afraid of the critic's subtle judgment, chooses to be seen in the light; the one has pleased once, the other will give pleasure if ten times repeated. -  Click here to read more of Horace's Ars Poetica  

His treatise offers advices on a variety of topics, including technique, tradition, creative invention of form, and audience.

So with him begins the longstanding tradition of poets and others writing about poetry--writers writing about writing. 

Many of my favorite poets and yours have followed in his footsteps and tried to capture-- in words, in rhymes, in verses and stanzas--the nature and phenomena that is poetry.

Many have tried to define the entity that is a poem.

Czeslaw Milosz adds a question mark to his title, Ars Poetica?   and questions the source of poetry and how we maintain our identity as we write:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us   
how difficult it is to remain just one person,   
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,  
and invisible guests come in and out at will.
Emily Dickinson warns us in Poem #1129 to approach the Truth we want to tell carefully:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm
DelightThe Truth’s superb surprise

And Blaga Dimitrova tells us in her Ars Poetica to
Write each poem as if it were our last.

Pablo Neruda  shares the following:
 Poetry arrived in search of me... my heart broke loose on the wind.
Are you curious? Do you want to read more Ars Poetica?

This Art: A Copper Canyon Ars Poetica Anthology (Copper Canyon Press Anthology) edited by  Michael Wiegers offers many selections in this form allowing you to drink in the variety of possibilities and gather ideas for you own poem about poetry, your own Ars Poetica. 

And Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry edited by Dennis O'Driscoll offers short statements on poetry that will feed your imagination--causing you to nod your head in agreement, scratch your head in  puzzlement, and purse your lips in total discontent.  

What is poetry?

How do you define it?

What does it  do for you, to you ?

How and why do you write poetry (or whatever else you write)?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

 Read several Ars Poetica poems or essays.

Click here for an article, Ars Poetica: Poems about Poetry to learn more about this form and to read  many examples.

Try writing your own poem about writing and poetry-- your own Ars Poetica.

You may focus on defining poetry or how it affects you.  You may want to emphasize the role of poetry in the world or politics or some other aspect..