Poetry Friday: Little Lesson on How to Be by Kathryn Nuernberger

The Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by Karen Edmisten.

Yesterday, someone Tweeted out this excerpt from Langston Hughes:

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The daily news is too much to bear: too much evidence of how not to treat one another, to think, to live what is (in the grand scheme of things) a rather short time on this good, green Earth.

This evening, in search of poetry that reflected the world I’d like to live in, I found this:

Little Lesson on How to Be by Kathryn Nuernberger


The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is in her eighties
and she underestimates the value of everything, for which I am grateful.
Lightly used snow suits, size 2T, are $6 and snow boots are $3.
There is a little girl, maybe seven, fiddling with a tea set. Her mother
inspects drapes for stains.
Sometimes the very old and lonely are looking for an opening.
She glances up from her pricing and says something about the tea set
and a baby doll long ago.
I am careful not to make eye contact, but the mother with drapes has
such softness in her shoulders and her face and she knows how to say
the perfect kind thing—“What a wonderful mother you had.”
“Yes, she was.”
Why do children sometimes notice us and sometimes not?
From the bin of dolls: “What happened to your mother?”
“She died.”
The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is crying a little.
She seems surprised to be crying. “It’s been eighty years and I still miss
When my daughter was born I couldn’t stop thinking about how we
were going to die. If we were drowning, would it be better to hold her
to me even as she fought away or should I let her float off to wonder why
her mother didn’t help her? What if it’s fire and I have one bullet left? I
made sure my husband knew if there were death squads and he had to
choose, I’d never love him again if he didn’t choose her. If I’m lucky,
her crying face is the last thing I’ll see.
The mother with drapes is squeezing her daughter’s shoulder, trying to
send a silent message, but children are children. “Why did she die?”
“She was going to have a baby and—And she died.”
“But she was a wonderful mother.”
I’m holding a stack of four wooden jigsaw puzzles of farm animals,
dinosaurs, jungle animals, and pets. Each for a quarter.
“It’s silly how much I still miss her.” She takes out a tissue and wipes
her eyes and then her nose.
When my grandmother threw her sister, Susie, a 90th birthday party,
one hundred people came, including 5 of the 6 brothers and sisters. At
dusk only a few of us were left, nursing beers with our feet kicked up
on the bottom rungs of various walkers.
Susie said then to my grandmother, “Can you think of all the people
watching us in heaven now? And our mother must be in the front row.”
Grandma took her sister’s hand. “Our mother—Estelle.”
“Yes—her name was Estelle. I forgot that.”
They looked so happy then, saying her name back and forth to each
other. Estelle. Estelle.

Slice of Life Tuesday: When you know your work is done

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

We are closing in on the last days of school (eight more days), and the last days of my teaching life (a bittersweet thought, which I am mostly avoiding).  Each day is a reminder to walk into our classroom with eyes and heart wide open for those moments I know I will want to hold onto and remember when I no longer have a classroom full of sixth graders bursting to the seams with energy, angst, imagination, and feeling.  I am holding on so fast that I cannot even bring myself to write about our daily life and learning, as I so religiously did, right here on this blog, for so many years.

In a way, nothing has changed from the years past.  These last days of life in Room 202 look no different from the last days of school for as long as I can remember: my kids are working on their multi-genre writing projects, on their slave life historical investigation projects, and then we come together to share a last read aloud.

Our room is mostly quiet as we work (students and teacher) to write/revise/clarify/elaborate/rethink our writing pieces.  From time to time, we forgo the Google docs conferences via comments for the old side-by-side, knee-to-knee variety from the beginning of the school year.  We work for two periods, some times three, without a break.  There is an air of purposeful intensity in the air: we have meaningful work to do, and a limited time to accomplish it all.  We have been preparing for this time since the first day of school: a time of independence, of self-direction, of knowing how to go about the business of managing one’s time and shaping one’s work.

Today, I took some time to just watch my kids, my almost-seventh-graders, and marvel at the progress they’ve made in the space of just a year.  I watch as they toggle back and forth from one task to the next: writing one piece, putting the final touches on another, moving on to their social studies research project as they wait for my comments, and then circling back to check on their writing.  Every once in a while, they check in with me to make sure they are on track (four writing pieces are due next Monday, their history project is due Friday).  At one point, I had to leave the classroom to get a drink of water for a coughing fit,  no one noticed…

…now, I know, my work is done.






Poetry Friday: Funeral Blues & The Trees

Poetry Friday is hosted by Margaret at Reflections on the Teche

Betwixt and between many worlds at the moment, I found this on Netflix:

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I have watched it many times already, and will no doubt watch it again and again.  Didion is fearless, whether she is examining war, the counter culture scene of Haight-Ashbery, or grief.  Personal grief – of the sort that comes about from losing one’s husband and only child in the space of two years.  Grief the likes of which I cannot even imagine.  And yet, there she is, speaking of it, writing of it, and living it…

The Joan Didion of today is front and center, even as the documentary slides back in time to earlier days through photographs and home movies.  It’s this juxtaposition that I found so moving, and so arresting: what was and what is, the way our lives change, the way we age.  Especially moving, I thought, was the way in which Didion uses the entire length of her arms and hands when she speaks. She gestures so extravagantly, so eloquently, even though those hands look so intensely blue veined and frail.

In the final section of documentary, Didion relives her grief.  Here, she is journalist and writer on the one hand, and wife and mother on the other.  Back and forth she seems to go: what is raw and what is observed, what is felt and what must be hidden, what she comes to understand about grieving and how her craft still calls upon her to name that grief:

“I tell you this true story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story.”
― Joan Didion, Blue Nights

So, this Poetry Friday, I share two poems that seem to me express some of Didion’s polarity – a poem of grief in all its abandonment, and one that recognizes that life is always about renewal:

Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

The Trees by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Six Lessons My Sixth Graders Taught Me




The last day of school , and also the last day of my teaching career, is exactly four weeks away.  It’s a bittersweet time in Room 202, the room in which my teaching life happens.  Amidst all the student work, books, and anchor charts that fill the room early this Tuesday morning, my eyes are drawn to the many photographs of students I have up on our walls and windows and classroom doors.  My kids.  The Smithlings, as one student dubbed us so many years ago.   Today, I’m thinking about what these kids have taught me about the craft of teaching…

Really Listen To Us…Pay Attention and Notice the “Small Things”

Teachers talk a lot. Part of that is in the nature of the work we do, but part of that is also due to the fact that most of seem to feel far more comfortable in the role of speaker rather than listener. Even when we listen, it often seems to our students that we do so with our own thoughts foremost in our minds.  Our kids can tell.  First, they become reluctant to share their thoughts (after all, what is the point?), and then they revert to doodling and checking the clock instead. It is boring to listen to one voice for the entire length of a class period, because listening is only one small part of either engaging in learning or caring about the endeavor in the first place.  I learned to listen, to wait for my kids to muddle through thinking and formulate their ideas, to honor their efforts so that they felt empowered to keep trying.

Listening goes and in hand with noticing.  Our kids show us a hundred important things in small ways.  Their world weighs upon them every bit as much as ours, perhaps even more because they have so little control over their world.  The act of noticing can be life changing, even life saving.  Of course, noticing can be messy; once you notice you are compelled to respond, to get involved.  In a school setting, involvement can mean time, paper work, meetings…in addition to all the other things in our school day which require more time, paperwork, and meetings.  But, our kids make the effort to listen and notice so worthwhile.

Respect us

Respect is one of those words we teachers bandy about with great frequency; we require it of our students without much of a sense of true reciprocity.  There are so many ways in which our kids see their daily interactions with  us as a litany of disrespectful acts: we waste their learning time with irrelevant anecdotes from our personal life and meaningless “seat work”, we ask them to speak politely and take their turn even as we often are dismissive of what they have to say, interrupt their responses, and are quick to be sarcastic or curt.  We expect them to understand the pressures we face in our own school lives without taking the time to know how stress is part of their lives, as well.  We assign tasks that are easier for us to grade but simply boring and mechanical to do.  My kids taught me that respect given them is earned in return, which made our life together all the more pleasant and productive.

Give us Meaningful Work To Do

Kids rise to the occasion when we give them meaningful work.  Even when the work seems beyond their sixth grade grasp, my kiddos will reach for it every time IF they  feel that the work has meaning and relevance.   Kids want to be taken seriously, to be given the opportunity to rise to high expectations, and to have the satisfaction of  (to quote Teddy Roosevelt) “the chance to work hard at work worth doing”.   Students deserve to know why their learning time should be spent doing this or that, and how the task connects to and extends the learning that came before.  I jettisoned workbooks and worksheets long ago in favor of student centered (and often designed) work, and I have my students to thank for that move.

Show us how to do meaningful work

Working hard at work worth doing is a learned thing.  Even my most industrious students struggle with organization and pacing.  It took me time to learn this, and time to figure out the best way to teach the “how” of  our work.  I learned to teach process, to model different strategies of process,  and to make that sort of work as visible as possible.  My students taught me that I needed to make sure that they had consistent practice in this kind of habit building, and that their failures were turned into opportunities to fine tune these habits.

Make our Work Relevant to Who we Are and the World we Live In

I will always be grateful to the students who pushed me out of comfort zones (mine as well as the school’s) to answer the “why do we have to know this?” questions.  They taught me that the social studies lessons I had labored to devise would be soon forgotten unless I could make those lessons relevant to the world outside our building.  In truth, my students taught me that this question was the foundation upon which to build all our learning – it’s the one that opened doors of interest, curiosity, questioning, and wondering.  If I could answer this question, I’ve found, my kids would remember what we we learning, and their learning would therefore matter.

Greet Each Day as a New Day

No matter what had happened the day before, my kiddos always walk in to class each day expecting new chances to learn and grow.  They’ve taught me to leave yesterday’s grievances at the door when I first turn on our classroom’s lights and think about the day ahead.  Each new day is a chance for me to be a better teacher, a chance for them to better students, and that has been an incredible gift.

Thank you, Smithlings, for lessons learned…I will carry them with me always.

Poetry Friday: Hippocrene by Elizabeth Smith

Poetry Friday is hosted by Jama Rattigan at Jama’s Alphabet Soup

Packing up the house where one raised one’s children is a tricky business.  This is what I’m discovering as I delve into closets, under beds, and through stacks of papers my three children have left behind in their journey from childhood to independence.  School projects, English papers, love letters, knick knacks picked up on travels here and there…all the detritus of growing up and growing into the beautiful souls they are today.  Some things I open up and then put away quickly in boxes labeled for each of my three, these are their private detritus, which they can choose to keep or toss away as their private selves dictate.  Some things are just meant to be lingered over, revisited for the glimpses they provide for each child at some particular stage of their development.

Elizabeth’s AP English poetry project falls into this latter category.  I never saw these poems or this booklet in real time.  So, it was all the more meaningful to stumble upon it at this stage, the stage of packing up the home she grew up in.  On the eve of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share this relic of our past, where she pays homage to all the words we celebrated together when we lived together, and then creates something that is indelibly her own, as children are wont to do.

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Monday Memories: “The Good Old Days”

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As my teaching life winds down, I find myself delving into the reams of student writing that I’ve collected through the years.  Many of these students are now out in the great wide world, living lives far removed from the twelve year old selves they once were in Room 202, but their twelve year old writing lives on in the form of scraps of paper and Google folders I have saved.  I am so grateful for these – they are tangible reminders of all the young people I have had the pleasure of working with, all the young writers I endeavored to fill with the writing spirit.

Some writing ideas sparked more interest  than others, and some revealed aspects of my kiddos which I was not privy to in the context of our classroom life.  I loved these the best, of course, and can’t count the number of hours I spent thinking of new ways to nudge my young writers this way and that.  Ultimately, what I really hoped for was that my kids came to see writing as something that was worthy of doing on their own, for themselves.  After all, that was what I had discovered about writing for myself, far away from the confining strictures of a long line of English teachers.  I found my writing voice on my own, and for myself.   And deep down, in spite of all the mini lessons I labored over to craft and deliver, I knew that my kiddos would only learn that lesson  if  I gave them freedom and an authentic venue that allowed for some nudging and shaping from me, their guide to a writing life.  Enter our Slice of Life writing: a writing blog (Google Classroom in our case) – once a week, sometimes free choice and sometimes driven by a prompt of some sort, always open to a supportive community of responders: our fellow classmates.

Today, scrolling through an old set of Slice of Life writing,  I chanced upon one centered around the phrase “the good old days”.  If memory serves me right, one student began talking about ” the  good old days” back in elementary school when life was full of fun and sweetness (also, no homework), which began a litany of similarly themed “good old days”, and which became our SOL writing for the week and took on the form of a poem.  I have a feeling there was a poem like this which served as a mentor text idea, but I can’t seem to remember what it was.  Here are a few of my kids’ versions, which bring me close to tears:

The Good Old Days by Mia

Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
when the weather was nice
and the sun was blazing hot.

I would ride my bike
to the pool,
to camp
and everywhere else.

And I didn’t think about anything else
except for the crisp breeze, cool water
and jumping into the frigid pool.
Playing with my friends
in the lush green grass
and laughing and having so much fun.

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.


The Good Old Days by Shelley

Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
sitting at the kitchen table,
surrounded by my family,
drawing and painting with such concentration,
that my tongue stuck out.

My dad would notice, laugh,
then tell my mom.
Later I would pick my head up from my picture,
only to notice my family grinning at me.

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.
The Good Old Days by Alexander
Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
jumping through the sprinkler on summer afternoons
my brother and I,
the sun beating down,
its powerful rays, stinging our skin,
and the water cooling us off,
cold and smooth,
like  water thrown over a fire.
The soft wet grass
soothed our feet
like a massage.
I felt so happy and free,
….free as a bird,

I want good new days,
like these
good old days.

The Good Old Days by Lauren
Sometimes I remember
the good old days,
sitting around the fireplace
On a cold, winter night.
Roasting a marshmallow
on a single wooden stick,
surrounded by friends, family.
The one’s I love.

My only stressful event
Was when the marshmallow,
just burned away.
I had no worries, then,
of schoolwork,

                                               school shootings,
                                                                               mean “friends”.
Just sitting peacefully,
with rose-red cheeks.

But that was then,
and this is now.

The Good Old Days by Gavin

Sometimes I remember
“The Good Old Days”.

In the depth of a frigid winter night,
warmed and comforted by the crackle of a fire,
with a blanket,

She would come downstairs soon enough,
and I would be there.
She would  sit next to me on the sofa,
and I would eagerly sink into her soft embrace.
She carried a book, a surprise of magical words,
in the nook of her arm.

Then…she would start to read,
and I would soak up every word
and anticipate the next one…

My Mom and I would get lost in other people’s stories,
we would lose track of time and place.
I loved every second of our warm, full adventures,
on those cold, cold nights.

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.
I still can’t remember
Anything better than that.

These are stories that seem to carry so much more weight in hindsight.  I am all the more conscious of how aware my kids were, at twelve, that childhood is fleeting, and innocence is subject to loss.  They were wise, at twelve, and I learned so much from their twelve year old wisdom.

Poetry Friday: Spring in the Classroom by Mary Oliver

Thanks to Irene at Live Your Poem for hosting Poetry Friday today.

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Spring has finally arrived with a vengeance, and we have been bathed in warm sunshine and Spring blossoms all week.  After weeks and weeks of  February-like gloom, it’s a joy to be able to glance out of our classroom windows and see blue skies and lovely cherry blossoms.   All that  Springtime beauty comes at a price, however, which is the immediate loss of my sixth graders’ attention spans.  They long to BE in all this Spring goodness, as in BE OUTSIDE in the midst of it.  I guess it’s time to turn to Mary Oliver’s wise poem about  what it’s like to be a student at the onset of Spring, so that I can turn back to my kiddos  and their book learning with a keener awareness of their suffering:

Spring in the Classroom
Elbows on dry books, we dreamed
Past Miss Willow Bangs, and lessons, and windows,
To catch all day glimpses and guesses of the greening woodlot,
Its secrets and increases,
Its hidden nests and kind.
And what warmed in us was no book-learning,
But the old mud blood murmuring,
Loosening like petals from bone sleep.
So spring surrounded the classroom, and we suffered to be kept indoors,
Droned through lessons, carved when we could with jackknives
Our pulsing initials into the desks, and grew
Angry to be held so, without pity and beyond reason,
By Miss Willow Bangs, her eyes two stones behind glass,
Her legs thick, her heart
In love with pencils and arithmetic.
So it went — one gorgeous day lost after another
While we sat like captives and breathed the chalky air
And the leaves thickened and birds called
From the edge of the world — till it grew easy to hate,
To plot mutiny, even murder. Oh, we had her in chains,
We had her hanged and cold, in our longing to be gone!
And then one day, Miss Willow Bangs, we saw you
As we ran wild in our three o’clock escape
Past the abandoned swings; you were leaning
All furry and blooming against the old brick wall
In the Art Teacher’s arms.
Mary Oliver