The Way I Felt

Sometime earlier this year, Glenda Funke (over at Evolving English Teacher) told me about Ethical ELA‘s monthly Open Write. As I recall, she shared this after I admitted to feeling very nervous about poetry – mostly about writing it (I pretty much hate every poem I write) and sometimes about teaching it. May’s 5-day open write started on Monday, and I’ve been tentatively following and occasionally joining. Yesterday’s prompt was called “The Way I Felt” and was based on a poem from Jason Reynolds’ novel-in-verse Long Way Down. I knew right away what I would write about – my husband and I had just come in from a glorious bike ride – but then I didn’t write at all. Poetry does that to me sometimes. Well, poetry and parenting.

Then today, Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, announced that we will not be returning to school before the end of the school year. The announcement wasn’t shocking, but it still sucked the air out of the room when I heard it. I didn’t have lots of time to contemplate what he’d said because I had too much school to work on, but the emotions swirled around me for the rest of the day. And then, yesterday’s prompt came to me, and I wrote.  (And yes, I hate the poem I wrote- I pretty much always do. But I won’t get better if I don’t write and get feedback, and writing it made me pin down a few things – and that’s what writing does.)

The Way I Felt

when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was relieved.

No more waiting
for people who don’t know me
to make a decision about
my life
my family’s life
my students’ lives
my community’s lives.

No more hoping for teaching and learning
that feels familiar
that resembles what we had started
that would be better if we were together.

No need to
send my own children to a place I don’t think is safe
make decisions about my own safety
wonder what will come next.

I sat at my work space in the kitchen
listening to the Premier speak
and my shoulders settled
my eyes fluttered closed
my breath finally filled my lungs
with a calm I had been missing.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was heartbroken.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyelids
I drew my breath quickly through my nose
and I pressed my lips together.

My children will not run on the playground at recess
or surreptitiously swap snacks with classmates
or stand in front of their peers to present.
My son will not say goodbye to the school he’s attended
since he was four.

I will not see my students again.

We will not laugh or read or write or share
together in a space that is ours.

I will not see some students again at all
they are not in my class this semester
they will not join an online chat
they will graduate and move on.

Their unknown futures will be far more unknowable than we expected,
and I will not get to wish them well on their journey.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was desperate

to remind them – my students, my children, your students, your children –
that though this is different
so different
from what we expected
they can still learn
and grow
and become.
The world is still full of possibility.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was.

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The early train: Slice of Life 23/31 #SOL20

This morning, I woke knowing what day it was. My mother-in-law had posted this message to remember her son, my brother-in-law, D’Arcy:

12 years ago today, my son boarded what I have come to think of as “the early train”.  You know the train – the one we all inevitably, eventually board.  To those of you who have recently, or are about to, undergo a loss that stuns and overwhelms you:  I can’t tell you how, or why, or when, but for me the time came when thoughts of my son turned from searing hand-on-the-stove kind of pain to a flooding of tenderness with the embrace of the deepest love I have ever known.  I suspect that time will come for most of you. It won’t come quickly, though you might feel it in brief waves, early on. Hang in, hang on, reach out. 

Year after year, I am touched by how she expresses herself on this day. She shares freely what is often hidden and, though I know she will scoff, I feel that her sharing has become wisdom. She will say it is simply what it is – we don’t get much choice in situations like this. He is not here; we are. We must continue to live.

Today, I am sharing a poem. It makes me quake in my boots because I am *always* nervous about poetry – and obviously this is one I just wrote this morning, so now I’m sharing a draft! That said, I am inspired by the way fellow bloggers Not The Whole Story or Reflections on the Teche or Nix the Comfort Zone express themselves in poetry (not every day, but often). And an old friend suggested that poetry is a good way to deal with uncertainty.

I can’t quite explain why all of this came together for me in this way, but there it is. And, I want to be clear: the death in the middle is not my child but my brother-in-law. We miss him every day.

Untitled for now

My first son came slowly.
He hesitated, reluctant to be rushed.
“Push,” the midwife urged me, “you’re going to have to push.”
Wait wait wait
I was focused, determined
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, as the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
White white white
A thin covering over the gray, dirty snow we wish away.
For a few minutes, a few hours, forever
The world is purified.
We remember the beauty of Winter
While we long for a Spring we imagine, beautiful.
And Spring will come
Messy, muddy, melting until the rotted remnants of life
Revealed as death under the dirty snow.
Spring will wake
Wet, insistent, unrelenting with its green promises.
Spring will force us to accept the hope
Concealed by this thin white cover .

Twelve years ago today we woke to a changed world
Because twelve years ago today he did not wake.
No fresh snow covered the gray.
Spring’s muddy mess pushed forward, pushed forward
And he did not.
That year we fought hope forever, for mere moments.
Yet Spring came, unrelenting.

My second son came quickly
His will to be in the world overwhelming.
“I’m pushing,” I cried, though I had just sent the midwife for medicine.
Now now now
Animal, insistent
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain.
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
A reminder that last week, last month, last year
We played in this cold, wet miracle.
Tomorrow, the rain will come.
We will revel in the messiness of Spring,
The searing pain of the memories transformed
To a flooding of tenderness,
The deepest love we will ever know.

The pain is really the briefest sense of undertow as we play in the waves of his presence.

 

And here is the poem my mother-in-law wrote this poem a few days after D’Arcy’s death:

The Early Train

some are travelling northbound
their cheeks flushing pink with the cold
some are travelling sideways
moving west or moving east
some lose tickets, miss the gate
either way, theirs is to wait
and some    are bound for the early train
one      has taken the early train

copyright © mls March 29 2008

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Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

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Watching the Game

Image result for basketballThe last time I was in a gym watching a high school basketball game, I didn’t even own a cell phone. I’ve nearly forgotten how much I love high school basketball: the excitement, the daring three-pointers, the hard-won rebounds, the turnovers, the exhaustion. Walking towards this afternoon’s game, I wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve done this. (I know the answers: work, children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue.) Today, I arrive partway through the second quarter. I can hear the noise of the game long before I open the door: the squeal of shoes skidding to sudden stops; the pounding of feet in counterpoint to the relentless beating of the ball against the floor; the staccato whistle punctuating the game.

As I enter the gym, I’m overwhelmed by the powerful sweaty musk of teenage boys’ concentrated effort. The bright lights and echoing space make me feel simultaneously terribly visible and ridiculously small. This is their place, not mine, I realize. I perch uncomfortably on the bleachers and am immediately engrossed by the game. 

I want to tell you about the players, many of them young men who have shared and currently share my classroom. I want to tell you about their intensity, their focus, their grace. I want you to hear their voices raised loudly, unselfconsciously, in unison as they chant: “De-fense! De-fense!” I want you to see how easily they communicate, how confidently they move, how intensely they focus. But I don’t really need to. I know that what is particular to my experience of these boys in this game at this moment is also universal: if you have ever seen a high school game, if you have ever cared for a child playing in that game, then you know what I am seeing as I sit in this bright, echoing gym.

Still, it has been years since I’ve actually watched a game. Five minutes ago, I could have told you that many of my students are at their best when they are playing their sport, but here, now, I am experiencing this truth all over again. The basketball court is 200 steps and 2 million miles from the English classroom down the hall. I need to come here more often, but now I need to go home. Children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue… I miss the end of the game as I drive home in the rain.
______

I kept thinking about the boys after the game, and as I rearranged the voice notes I’d created as I’d watched, I realized how engaged my senses had been. So, I started a poem about the game. Here it is – unfinished, but you’ll get the idea.

Their restless feet fly across the floor
pause
then propel their bodies upwards.
Released from their desks, their bodies
unfurl
stretching towards the orange circle above them.
Uncurled now
from the orange prisms of their pencils,
their fingers flex around the sphere
that is their body’s
focus.

Only as I wrote the poem did the parallels between my experience in their space and their experience in “my” space (though I do try to make the classroom “ours”) come into focus for me – unfamiliar smells, uncomfortable seating, unappealing lighting,  watching apparent experts do something I can’t do and which I have no urgent desire to practice or perfect. This realization, this deepening of my thinking about a situation, is why I write – and maybe why they play. For me, writing takes a tangle of  my thoughts and straightens them out. Basketball, though I enjoy it, provides me no solace, no direction. I suspect many of my students might feel that something close to the opposite is true for them. Maybe this is why I need to make sure to see more games. 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll share this and see what they say. Maybe we’ll all write a slice of life; maybe they won’t all be written.

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Words to describe the love

This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.

But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.

For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.

There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.

Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.

My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m
reconstructing
from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.

Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.

Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.

Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.

-found in a letter from Jim Perry

Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.

I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.

How tender and fragile life is.

Please know that
if you need me,
I will come.

-found in a letter by Shirley Dunn Perry

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Describe Joy #SOL19 10/31

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He copied the phrase
into his agenda
Wednesday, February 6
“Décris la joie.”
Describe joy.
After Math.
Before Reading.

Décris la joie.
Describe how wonder is suddenly more necessary than air
when I check on him before I sleep.
The silk of his hair
The satin of his skin
The even slip of his breath.

Décris la joie.
Describe the way my heart seizes and jumps
when they bound in after playing outside.
The whirl of the air
The whoosh of their hugs
The carefree wildness of their laughter.

I ask
Have you done your homework?
Yes, he says,
It was easy.

Reflection on my process:
I originally jotted this exchange down when the assignment came home. I kept coming back to it, and tried to write it as a humorous piece because it made me laugh out loud when it happened. It sort of worked as a funny bit, but there wasn’t much to it.

I hesitated to turn it into a poem, but decided to take the plunge because Slice of Life writing is, in part, about learning to become better writers. If I can’t try new things in this supportive community, when will I try them? Also, it’s the weekend, so I had some time to work on this if I wanted.

The first and last stanzas came easily because they are what literally happened. I nearly published the poem like that, but I know I tend to cut my poems off at the knees by not offering enough development. The middle two stanzas then, were my attempt to show how hard it is for me to describe joy. I made some of the lines longer because I wanted them to reflect the complex nature of the task. I let the sensory details be shorter because, in the end, they seemed to me to be the essence of the feeling.

In the end, I don’t love it, but I like it. I’m still a nervous poet, but I like how this combines the humour of the initial situation with the complexity of the thought behind it. I’m not sure I love the middle two stanzas, but I’m glad I pushed myself to add them. And hey, maybe I’ll try another poem or two this month. We shall see.

 

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Six six-word stories

A few weeks ago Stacey Shubitz posted a six-word story as her Slice of Life. (She, in turn, had been inspired by Jennifer Floyd’s six-word story post.) I’ve toyed with these before, but I’ve never shared any because, well, I’m never quite content with my own. (“I’m never quite content with my own” = seven words) Story of my life. (= four words)

That said, I can’t quite shake the idea, and I keep writing them. So, without too many more words, in no particular order, here are six of my six-word stories:

His tiny naked body snuggles mine.

Found my love at their wedding.

I constantly wonder what students learn.

Started presents early; still not done.

I forsook politeness to pursue learning.

One more page, then I’ll sleep.

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Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea

Susie Asado.

I am trying to teach poetry to twelve Grade 10 students who, for the most part, are not especially interested. They are very clear about their lack of interest. This year, as I did last year, I am trying to convince them that poetry is about playing with language, and that playing with language is worthwhile because it’s fun and it helps you say things the way you want to say them.

In case you are wondering, they are not interested.

This semester we are struggling. I have done all the things – the interesting intro, the playful, the different, the cool.

We’ve had a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist visit our class. We’ve imitated, tried various forms, talked, created crazy alliteration. We’ve read dead guys, living poets, and instapoets, and we’ve had visits from a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist.

But in case you are wondering, my class is not especially interested.

Now that I’m really sitting down to think about it, the unit is sort of working, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s sort of not. In fact, this year I have been tempted to give up. Day after day, I come in enthusiastic and prepared. Day after day, one girl reads a book under the table, one boy pulls out his phone and two girls whisper giggle at every transition. Four of twelve is a lot of visibly uninterested kids. Others are angling to convince me that compliance = engagement. I’m not buying what they’re selling, but that’s only fair because they’re not buying what I’m selling either.

As I write, I’m realizing that I’ve been assuming that their behaviour is designed to tell me that – in case I didn’t know – they are *not* interested, but they may actually be even more nervous than students in previous years. This lack of interest may be a disguise for some serious fear. After all, I am asking a lot of them, and the most visibly uninterested are also kids who stand to lose a lot by engaging. One thinks of herself as a writer, but she’s very unwilling to edit or consider any direction for her freewriting. (She also has a habit of abandoning books 3/4 of the way through.) One has told me that he will “probably” be interested in reading when he gets older because that’s what happened to his mom; writing doesn’t figure into his self-image. Two are reading and writing at a level significantly lower than Grade 10. (But they are reading! Hooray!) And I’ve got three exchange students who speak very little English. (But they are trying and they are learning. Hooray!) And some non-attenders (who mostly make it to English right now. Hooray!)

I wonder if when I say “play” they hear “I’m actually going to give you grades for all of this and I’m just pretending this is fun”? Wouldn’t be the first time. But they’ve met their match: I will not give up. Honestly, I pretty much never give up. I’ve got more persistence than is realistic by any stretch of the imagination.

And I want to think about today when we took Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” as our mentor texts. The students were pretty interested in “We Real Cool”. They liked the enjambment, the alliteration, the assonance. (They especially like the word “ASSonance.” They always do.) They were able to talk about the way the sounds were “awesome” and “on purpose.” I think they felt competent in their understanding.

“Susie Asado” was a different story. They pretty much sat, dumbfounded, in front of it. I said, “What do you notice about this poem?” and no one spoke. SIGH. I waited. Finally, one of them risked the truth: “This poem doesn’t make any sense.” No kidding. We talked about the sounds of words. We tried to imagine what on earth Gertrude Stein was doing and why anyone thought this was worth publishing. I made my naysayers put away books and phones. We listened. We talked about onomatopoeia. We watched flamenco dancing (because Gertrude Stein said that “Susie Asado” was an attempt to render the sounds of flamenco, particularly of one flamenco dancer. If you believe Gertrude Stein.) We talked about what things we know that have distinct but changing sounds – my mom driving behind a bad driver, a beach, a storm. And then we tried to write our own sound poem.

Ok, that’s a lie. Then I told the students to try to write a sound poem, and 9 out of 11 (because one was absent) stared at a blank page for five minutes. My ask was really really hard. So I suggested that maybe I should write in front of them and they could help me out. That was the ticket. And this is as far as we got. We are trying to record the sound of the hallway just before the bell rings and then as it fills with students…

Sugar sugar hover hope
Wake cake kick stick fake
Shuffle shelf shake fake yell

We did not get very far, but together we got further than anyone did alone. So tomorrow we’ll try again. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Heck, just keep your fingers crossed for me!

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea
Susie Asado

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What surprises me

socks

What surprises me when I see her 6 weeks later

Not the mock shyness as she stands in my doorway, eyeing me.
She asked to see me.
Not the slender length of her limbs.
She’s four; she might have grown.
Not the wild flare of her colorful skirt as she twirls around.
She is still all energy.
Not the hand-knitted heavy socks defying August heat in blue plastic shoes.
She has her own style.
Not the shameless request for food as her mother sighs, “I just tried to feed her.”
She knows where I hide the treats.
Not even the soft scratchiness of her newly-shaved hair.
I have seen the pictures.

What surprises me is the heat of her head as she tucks her whole body into my embrace;
What surprises me is the sheer hot truth of her.

 

Today, after nearly 6 weeks away, I got to see my friend’s child for the first time since she started chemo. She is doing well & the chemo is doing its job. There is a long journey ahead, to be sure, but right now it is marked by optimism. Much of our visit was the same as always; much of it was not. When they left, I couldn’t stop thinking of her and chose to write this.

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Bayou Song in Kansas

A few months ago I became a regular reader of Margaret Simon’s blog, Reflections on the Teche, and I almost immediately fell in love. Sometime in March, she posted yet another of her beautiful pictures of the Bayou Teche and I pretty well just asked to come visit her. She was gracious in her reply (for example, she did not say, “I don’t even know you!”), and I hope she understood what I was trying to say: her descriptions of the place around her came alive in a way that made me want to be there. I haven’t visited yet, but Margaret’s awareness of the Bayou that surrounds her infuses much of her writing, so I was delighted to learn about her new book, Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Louisiana Landscape (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2018).

The book is a wonderful mix of elements: Margaret provides poetry and short, informative descriptions of various flora and fauna found on the Bayou Teche,  Anna Amelia Cantrell offers whimsical illustrations and Henry Cancienne adds gorgeous photographs. These work together to create mini-sections: a photograph or two, some information, a poem and an illustration. But wait, there’s more! After all that, in each section readers are offered two entry points to add their own ideas to the book: a writing prompt and a sketch/drawing prompt.

I loved it – and I had a feeling my students would love it, too, but… it’s summer. No students at hand. So I turned to my favourite stand-in students: my children. I told myself that I just wanted to know if they would find the format as compelling as I did, that I was not actually forcing them to do school work during the summer… and then, I got a clever idea. You see, we’ve been on the road for a while now. First, we drove from Ontario to South Carolina to visit my family. After a ten day visit, we hopped back in the car for a series of adventures – an overnight in a cave in Tennessee, a trip to a waterpark, a drive through multiple states and, finally, a visit to my sister’s family in Kansas.

In terms of landscape, it’s safe to say that Kansas is not much like Ontario. As we drove along, I couldn’t take my eyes off the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills and the sky and the farms and, well, all of it. My darling children were more engrossed in their tablets than the landscape and, even though they humored me by tearing their eyes from the screens when I called out “Look at the ________!”,  their lack of interest was driving me crazy – until I realized I might have a solution at my fingertips: Bayou Song. I knew Margaret had written this book with kids in mind. In fact, I asked her about the audience she envisioned as she wrote.

“I absolutely envisioned my audience as my students.  I’ve taught them poetry every year and have come to be known as the poetry teacher.  I love this.  My heroes are teachers like Amy VanDerwater, Laura Shovan, Irene Latham, and Laura Purdie Salas.  I turn to their work over and over for teaching and writing inspiration. I also wrote it for teachers!  I want teachers to find a way to enter into poetry with kids that is not intimidating but inspiring and fun.”

I had a feeling my kids and their cousins (all boys, ages 7, 9, 9, and 10) might, indeed, be inspired and have fun if I could get them to read even a bit of Bayou Song. So one morning, as we drove to the Milford Nature Center, I challenged them to observe the plants and animals around them. They were suspicious but I played up the fun and the challenge and they became champion lookers. My nephews are from Kansas while my boys are first time visitors, so their observations built on each other as we explored.

We walked through the nature center and watched the rescued bobcats, turkey vulture, kestrel, bald eagle, prairie dogs, snakes, and owls… we peered into the stream and saw the water bugs, minnows, frogs, herons… we chased down butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles as we wandered down the trail… we heard the cicadas, the bees, the birds, the water…. we found the tracks of deer, raccoon, herons, humans… In short, we immersed ourselves in the landscape for several hours.

When we got home, we turned to Bayou Song to see how our observations helped us. Margaret is a great believer in poetry for kids and asked her own students about parts of this book. Here’s what she says:

“I write poetry with my students all year long.  When I was editing these poems, I asked for their advice a few times and stole some of their ideas.  The one that comes to mind is ‘Things to Do if You’re a Snapping Turtle.’  My student Lynzee came up with the last line.  She said, ‘Don’t leave home.’  I re-envisioned the line as ‘Don’t leave your room’ thinking about how a room is a special, safe place for a child.”

So, I followed Margaret’s lead. I asked for the kids advice: is this a good book to use in a classroom? We opened the book and the boys were immediately drawn to the Legend of Bayou Teche.

Legend of Bayou Teche

Long ago, in the days when Native American tribes lived
in harmony with the land, there lived a huge venomous
snake. The snake’s body stretched for miles and miles.
The Chitimacha tribe warriors gathered together to
conquer this enemy snake. To kill a hundred-mile-long
snake was no easy task, so it took days for the snake
to die. As the snake fought to survive, it twisted and
turned and created a great gorge in the soil, eventually
dying and decomposing, leaving behind Bayou Teche.

“Creepy,” said one. “Cool,” said another. “Turn the page!” said the third. I did, and we saw this:

© Anna Cantrell, 2018

“LOOK! It’s a snake and a tree!” “And it’s a river!” “There are birds.” We read the poem. The boys nodded a lot and got into a debate about creepy vs cool. Then we read the prompts:

Write it: Choose a place in nature (an ocean, a tree, a flower, an animal)
to write about. If you use personification (as in “I am a Beckoning Brown
Bayou”), you become the thing you are writing about. How would an ocean,
tree, flower, or animal feel, act, hear, smell, or see?

Sketch it: What is a waterway near you? Does it have a shape? Does the shape
match its name? Draw the waterway so that it matches its name.

We repeated this process for the first few sections – one boy lingered over the “non-fiction,” another liked the drawings, two had me read poems out loud repeatedly – until one of the kids looked at me and said, “When do we get to write?” Um, in mid-July a bunch of kids just asked me if they could write and respond to poetry. “How about now?” I suggested. I already had the paper, pens and colored pencils. The kids dove into drawing, writing, and sharing their ideas with each other. They talked about what we had seen. They thought about things in new ways – like leaves as hair or trees as rivers. All four boys were intensely focused as they worked. Here’s a peek into their creations:

img_5768-collage1 Thomas was inspired by both prompts for “Legend of Bayou Teche”.
img_5713-collage1 Eric liked the photographs and drew a prairie dog playing a guitar in response to “What is your favorite musical instrument? Draw a picture of the instrument being played by an animal.”
26c040e1-7343-4f6a-b49f-e35515d650b9-collage1 Philip lives near a military base. He loved the prompt “Think of something in nature that reminds you of something else. How is a tree like a soldier, for example? Write a three-lined poem.”

(The fourth boy was also inspired, but creating his grand vision – the Kansas River and several complicated elements of animals and trees – required more stillness than he could muster in one July sitting, and he asked me not to share his unfinished product.)

Clearly, Bayou Song is an open invitation to children and adults (because, I can’t lie, I wrote a little something, too) to experience their environment and respond to it in ways that are simultaneously thoughtful and playful. When we went canoeing yesterday, the boy in my canoe was still imagining himself as various animals and noticing things as we floated by. As a parent, I couldn’t ask for more. As a teacher, I can’t wait to use it as a mentor text and as an inspiration in my classroom next year.

Would you like to know more about Bayou Song? Continue your tour at these blogs, where you’ll find more poems and illustrations from the book, interviews with Margaret Gibson Simon, and other surprises.

Friday, June 22: Michelle Kogan
Tuesday, June 26: Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core
Friday, July 6: Kimberly Hutmacher at Kimberly Hutmacher Writes
Friday, July 13: Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise
Tuesday, July 17: Laura Shovan 
Tuesday, July 24 Amanda Potts at Persistence and Pedagogy
Friday, July 27: Carol Varsalona at Beyond LiteracyLink
Monday, July 30 Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
Friday, Aug. 3 Dani Burtsfield at Doing the Work that Matters

 

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