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I have been discouraged when people don’t like my writing—when people don’t like my voice.
I'm sure this is true for all writers.
The truth is, it’s hard to be yourself when people disagree with what you personally find interesting and beautiful.
Authenticity is a lesson that is almost never taught in school but is integral to being an artist. The truth is, sometimes, people won’t like your writing.
Now, sometimes that friction between differing opinions is definitely healthy and necessary. Dozens of blog posts could be written about the value of knowing the rules before you break them, and the importance of having the humility to listen to other artists’ advice.
But, sometimes, when the choice between two kinds of line break or two uses of allusion seem substantially subjective. As writers, we have a choice between doing what people approve of and doing what they find aesthetically satisfying. One lesson that students need to learn is that, throughout their writing careers, they will have a choice between being recognized and having painfully genuine integrity.
And that is the real-life choice between being normal and being divergent, the choice between being a people-pleaser and being a literary mutant.
The good news is that the greats were often literary mutants. Literary mutants who, no doubt, knew the rules and broke them well. Think Walt Whitman, e. e. cummings, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen—all of these people were literary freaks when they first unveiled their writing. Each of these writers faced critics who thought that their writing was careless, boring, or just plain weird. These writers were extremely talented and willing to take risks, but that means that they were also ahead of their time. These writers were the hippies, the revolutionaries, the weirdos, the outliers.
But it’s hard for me to remember that being a hippie is ok when people tear my writing to pieces in the workshop.
So I have a very important question.
To what extent are we willing to let young writers raise their voice?
This is not a typical high school project.
This is a watercolor composition, a gift from a friend.
This is the prized possession that hangs in my kitchen with Mona Lisa's ubiquitous gaze following my paces patiently, "Kim, you can."
Lore has it that Sandra's high school watercolor teacher offered an automatic "A" to anyone in the class who anyone who could paint an egg—a trememdously difficult task to accomplish well.
Now I've never imagined this teacher's comment as a dare, but rather something more like an Eeyore-under-the-breath-utterance that he hoped might someday come to pass. I've never imagined snarky, or cynical, but more someting akin to longing, the longing to motivate.
And I've never imagined Sandra's tackling of this teacher's offering as anything other than a response to the Muse, a delighted response to the spark of imagination. Sandra simply said, "I can."
The sheer whimsy of the composition is my proof. There is not one guile puddle in sight.
Thing is, you might look at this painting and respond, "No, I can't."
But you probably said that about tying your shoe, reading The Cat in the Hat, or adding five apples and three plums. But you can, right?
Not all children will grow up to paint like Sandra. Not all children will grow up to hypothesize like Einstein.
But many children who might have will not because they are not inspired to try. All children have precious potential. And this is why I spend my days encouraging children to press into their important work.
Children who are encouraged to engage in the right kind of practice over time develop Habits of Being and habits of being give us the gumption to say, "Yes! Yes, I can!."
Who would have imagined that, all these years later, a teacher's nudge and Sandra's creative response would continue to resonate, "You can."
I'm so thankful for my dear friend Sandra.
Thanksgiving is a terrific time to connect with friends and family across the miles. But it's also a perfect time to help young writers creatively communicate thankfullness. Visit our Pinterest page and let the writing begin:
Telephones come in all shapes and sizes.
Imagine a telephone.
Now, imagine a telephone made of cardboard.
Imagine someone trying to make a call, but the only telephone is a telephone of cardboard.
Does this person realize that the telephone is made out of cardboard? Does s/he want it to be made out of cardboard, instead of being fully functional? Why? Does the narrator know why this person is using a cardboard phone? Or is s/he just as confused as the reader? Or, what if the character in the story or poem happens upon the phone, picks up the receiver on a whim, and the cardboard telephone actually works? Who is on the other end? Is that person using a cardboard telephone too, or a standard phone?
Imagine the possibilities and then craft your ideas into a story or poem.
The Girl with The Cardboard Phone
There is a girl who talks on a cardboard phone
every day during recess.
Past the thwacking of jump rope
on cement, past the many grabbing hands
at the monkey bars, below the cracked tube
of the playground slide,
you’ll find her clutching the cardboard receiver,
stroking the thin fringe of its ripped edge
with a white finger. We used to wonder
what secret messages were being passed
into the thick brown strip, soggy with dew
and wet leaves, and whether
anyone was replying. We wondered
until one day, we wandered by and caught these words:
“I love you too”— accompanied by a smile
like a warm cup of tea on the greyest day.
Concrete poetry is not child's play but rather the intersection where typography and poetry meet to play. Sir Ken Robinson reminds us that “...imagination is the source of every form of human achievement.” Concrete poetry is an invitation to imagine possibility.
So how do you begin to craft a shape poem? Of course there are many wonderful resources online, but the best place to begin is to remember that what seperates all poetry from prose is, first and formost, its shape. Each and every poem has a very specific arrangement on the page because white space, to the poet, is an extension of punctuation, directing the reader's eye to pause, move, breathe. Concrete poetry takes shape a step further into the realm of representation. For example, if your poem is about a blooming garden, your poem might be flower shaped. If your poem is about sorrow, it might take the shape of a teardrop. What I love about Constance's poem below is that the simple window shape draws me, the reader, to come near, to peer through the panes and contemplate the complexities of thankfulness with each drop drop drop that fabricates the window frame.
Concrete poetry is not child's play.
So here's my idea. This week, when I introduce shape poetry to my young writers, I'm going to begin by exploring Constance's poem with them—a single statement with repeated words to form a shape. I'll invite them to meet me at the intersection where typography and poetry play. And together we'll imagine the shape of thanksgiving. Imagine the possibilites.
Why not join the fun? After all, "...'tis the season to be thankful!" We'd love to hear from you. Feel free to post your poems in the comment section of this post.
The first rain of the year announces its presence by every thick
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
drop drop drop
on the glass drum of our kitchen window: a rain that, with kind
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
drops drops drops
they say, is mother to the stale cracked skin of godforsaken lands.
-Kim & Constance
So many films for younger audiences, from Finding Nemo to The Incredibles to How to Train Your Dragon, teach them to take pride in being different. So many children’s movies tell kids that it’s important to “be yourself.” It’s ok to be a mutant or divergent. Today, in children’s films at least, individuality is being pushed as a positive virtue for young minds.
You are special.
Yet, in real life, how often are children allowed to be themselves?
What about the real life world of education, are we really encouraging children to be themselves?
I remember dropping out of an English class in middle school because I was having trouble adhering to its rules of writing. The reason? The problem wasn’t that I had little motivation to produce interesting, informed work. The problem was that I was using seven-instead-of-five-adjectives-per-paragraph. That I had one-too-many-sentences in my papers. That I wasn’t-using-enough-transitive-verbs.
The problem was that teaching me to mimic an example paragraph was easier than engaging me in the work of discovering my unique writer's voice.
This situation isn’t unique to my experience—it’s embedded in every textbook that would rather teach the rules, instead of the art, of writing. It’s encoded in every lesson that finds it easier to teach MLA formatting than the musicality of diction. Sometimes even well meaning educators turn unquantifiable aesthetic sensitivity into calculus, artistic standards into rules.
This struggle didn’t become quite clear to me until I entered college. I remember sitting in a creative writing workshop during my freshman year, listening to two honors teachers discussing concrete poetry.
By “discussing” I mean “cutting to bits.”
I distinctly one of them saying, with a short laugh, “Oh, shape poetry! If you’re not in fifth grade, don’t do it.”
I then distinctly remember thinking of my high school writing teacher, who was a lover of shape poetry. Due to her influence, John Hollander’s “Swan And Shadow” is one of my favorite poems of all time.
Now, here were two artists whom I admired greatly, who wrote spectacular stuff and definitely were aware of what qualities made writing great. I was stuck between two opinions that seemed equally credible. I had no idea of what the rules were because there seemed to be two competing sets of rules.
That was the moment that I realized the importance of being myself.
In that moment, I realized that no one was going to tell me the “right” thing to do. In the end, I'm going to face many sets of legitimate opinions that clash over certain issues. And, in the end, it will be up to me to decide what I want to do with my writing. It’s up to me to decide whether shape poetry is worth consideration or not. (Spoiler alert: I believe it is.)
In the end, it’s important for us to teach children that after learning the rules, there will be moments when they will have to break them in order to assert their own voice. After learning the importance of using a certain proportion of adjectives in a paragraph, I should have been taught that Hemingway steered clear of adjectives and Fitzgerald brought them to the party in hordes. And, of course, students should be taught that in those moments when they don't even know what the rules are, but they sense something that just must be crafted to words on the page, they can confidently follow the creative impulse into the murky unknown knowing that the likes of EB White's Elements of Style will be waiting on the other side.
Remember, writing is a process and when it comes to writing the most important thing is to raise your voice. The most important thing is to be authentic, to be yourself.
And I mean it.
Imagination is just the thing to inspire young writers.
To get started, visit our Pinterest: Snail of Orange
Juxtapose the grotesque and the delicious, the crude and the dainty by drawing inspiration from this snail—usually not considered the most beautiful or appealing creature-—created from an orange.
How can you create a beautiful concept out of something unexpected; something strange and slimy like a snail? Or vice versa?
Unexpected images are just the thing to quell writer's block. Think vintage tea set covered in ants.
Here's another bit of fodder from Les Miserables: “One morning [Bishop D---] was in his garden, and thought himself alone, but his sister was walking behind him, unseen by him: suddenly he paused and gazed at something on the ground; it was a large, black, hairy, frightful spider. His sister heard him say:-- ‘Poor beast! It is not its fault!’”
"An Art Lesson"
stamps of greasy lips
and fingertips on napkins are
This month my daughter Hannah turned 25, and my youngest son Søren turned 15. Once upon a time Reading Rainbow was a happy part of our literacy routine. Recently Sara came to visit and we stood in my kitchen humming the theme song, laptop in hand, anticipating LeVar. Surprisingly, what we gleaned from this little stroll down memory lane transcended sentimentality. The treasure struck us in the first four words of the episode: “Hi, behold the egg.” LeVar Burton looked us straight in the eye and took the better part of a minute (55 seconds to be exact) to enunciate four words.
Like Mr. Rogers before him, LeVar knew how to settle us into slow motion and slow motion is just what our children need to learn well.
Let's face it. Overexposure to electronics is over stimulating, diverting precious brain space from creative thought. Letting the mind engage in the stillness of imagining utilizes areas of the brain that will be left inactive while engaging in electronics.
Children should not have difficulty sitting with a book for a long time.
Children should not have difficulty sitting with a pad of paper and colored pencils.
And children should not have difficulty sitting, without implements, enjoying their imagination in silence.
Our world is cluttered with all sorts of noise—auditory and visual. We are saturated. And the outcomes are disturbing. Rampant distraction is diminishing the capacity for contemplation and creativity. The din is overwhelming.
Let’s change the atmosphere. This fall, why not create a tradition of reading? Engaging with books helps children settle into slow motion so that imagination might thrive. And slow motion is stress sapping!
Back away from the vortex of fast-forward-too-muchness.
Sillness is a form of silence. And everyone knows that silence is golden, “Behold the egg.”
Readers really love sharing their culminating thoughts about great stories in creative ways. Some of the fondest memories for Sara and me are the projects our children created inspired by great stories. There was the blue-striped papier-mâché dragon after reading My Father’s Dragon, the claymation stop action video after Perloo the Bold, handcrafted bonnets and stacked pancakes after reading Farmer Boy, and the spaceship constructed from empty soup cans, cardboard, and foil after The Wonderful Flight to Mushroom Planet.
During the fifth week, Section 5 of our Blackbird & Company Literature Discovery Guides, children are encouraged to reflect and respond creatively to the great story they read. They are provided with a variety of project options to spark ideas. Children not only have a chance to demonstrate their originality, organization, clarity of purpose, and critical thinking skills, more importantly this culminating endeavor will allow them to show off what they have learned in their own, uniquely creative way.
This week, as Sara and I sat around the table constructing multiple twin Lolly Dolls for a matching game (thanks Tea Wagon Tales for the adorable idea), Sara looked at our fashionista girls lined up on the table and exclaimed, “How cute would these be for a project tied to The Hundred Dresses?”
“So cute? Right?”
And, by the way, if you haven't read The Hundred Dresses with your children, please read it soon! This is a terrific story to begin the school year. No spoiler alerts, but Wanda’s courage has been a topic of discussion in our home for years.
So with fall, fast approaching, make the most of Section 5. Remember that imagination connects to books.
Like verbal languages, the language of visual art has phonics of its own. By combining the 26 letters that scaffold the English language in a variety of ways, we are able to communicate vast complexities and wonders. By manipulating five simple elements—line, texture, shape, value, and color—we are able to communicate what can’t be written.
So how to begin a study of value?
Don’t outline! When handed pencil and paper and asked to translate a 3D scene to 2D, the comfort zone element is line. But drawings that begin with hard edges end up stiff and stuck. Outlines define edges but don't help us see dimensionally.
Focusing on shapes of light and dark, rather than the edges of objects is the best way to being to shift out of line-drawing mode.
Light and shadow defines objects. Train your eyes to see like an artist, look for the light and shadow that defines objects.
The best way to begin is to apply pencil using the tilt and not the tip to mirror shadowy shapes. Smudge the shapes to blend and use an eraser to create light shapes. Try to create a range of value from the lightest light to the darkest dark. Use the background to define foreground objects.
The potential of value in drawing is to communicate the light and shadow and surface tones we see in order to create a three-dimensional illusion. So curl some paper and let edges fade into the background.
Think scavenger hunt.
Found poems are snips of non-poetic language gathered from unexpected places collaged into verse.
Think scraps of newspaper, snippets of conversation.
Think clipped magazine phrases woven to phrases you've invented.
Think scramble, unscramble.
Keep your eyes open, you never know where a sliver of poem might be lurking.
This nifty little music maker is a simple DIY project for little hands. Way more like a kazoo than a harmonica, it's a music maker sure to bring smiles nonetheless. Thanks Housing a Forest for the fun idea!
“Let us dig our furrow in the fields of the commonplace.” Jean-Henri Fabre
Children become science-minded by exploring their observations of the world around them. Science is much more than facts in a textbook. Facts are only a fraction of the picture. Science is a process that allows us to discover how the world works.
I remember one summer my brother being fascinated with caterpillars. One, in particular stands out in my mind. His name was Ralph. Yes, Ralph the caterpillar. My brother kept the fuzzy creature in a Stride Rite shoebox nested with a handful of twigs and torn leaves. What I remember most about the brief time that Ralph spent in my brother’s observation box before being set free, was my brother’s focused attention, magnifying glass in hand. While he did not keep a record of his observations, I know that my brother was honing his curiosity. But, I must admit, I’ve often wondered what his Observation Journals would have contained. How fun it would be to look back on an archive of his curiosity.
All four of my children have numerous journals of this sort and it is wonderful to look back and recognize the diversity and specificity of their unique observations.
Here is how to begin an Observation Journal:
1. Look at the subject for a while. Look at what you are observing. Pick the object up, turn it around, use a magnifying glass to see texture and detail. Take your time and try to throw out any preconceived notions about the subject.
2. Talk about what is seen. Join the fun by engaging children in conversation about the details of the object being observed.
3. Draw the object with realistic detail. Encourage children to look at the lines, textures, and shapes. Have them think about proportions as they translate the three dimensional object to a 2-dimensional object on paper. When the drawing is complete, have them think about the color of the object and try to match the colors as close to the real thing as possible.
4. Read about the object. Find a book or internet article to find facts about the object being observed. Suggest that notes on a topic wheel might help to organize ideas.
5. Explore the object's potential. What did you learn? What importance does the object hold in our world?
6. Write about the object. Combine and convey information gained through direct observation and research.
When children observe they utilize diverse reasoning modes that will, in turn, cultivate their ability to engage in the art of learning.
Why not begin the Observation Journaling with a caterpillar? Taking Fabre’s advice to heart, no need to travel to observe nature! Step out into your own backyard in search of a caterpillar or two. And, if need be, transplant a caterpillar from the World Wide Web via your printer!
Provide your child with some colored pencils, a pitcher of ice water, and a cozy backyard perch. Curiosity will do the rest.
Here's to Da Vinci Summer V, eyes open!
“We frequently see, at the ends of pine branches, voluminous bags of white silk intermixed with leaves. These bags are, generally, puffed out at the top and narrow at the bottom, pear-shaped. They are sometimes as large as a person's head. They are nests where live together a kind of very velvety caterpillars with red hairs. A family of caterpillars, coming from the eggs laid by one butterfly, construct a silk lodging in common. All take part in the work, all spin and weave in the general interest. The interior of the nest is divided by thin silk partitions into a number of compartments. At the large end, sometimes elsewhere, is seen a wide funnel-shaped opening; it is the large door for entering and departing. Other doors, smaller, are distributed here and there. The caterpillars pass the winter in their nest, well sheltered from bad weather. In summer they take refuge there at night and during the great heat.”
-Jean Henri Fabre on the Processionary Caterpillar
So begins the march of the Processionary Caterpillar. While children's author/illustrator Eric Carle might say, “Out pops a very hungry caterpillar,” in this particular case, out pops, single file, not one, but a large family of very hungry caterpillars.
When Fabre observed this caterpillar’s strong instinct to follow-the-leader, its steps locked to the caterpillar being followed, he decided to hypothesize and to test his big idea by setting up a simple experiment. In 1896, he coaxed caterpillars to march in a chain around a flowerpot. And there they circled for days. Round and round and round.
And what did he observe?
Not even food set inches from their proverbial noses distracted the caterpillars from their mindless following.
There was no leader.
And so the caterpillars earned their name.
Scientific observation involves much more than seeing. Providing opportunities for students to observe allows them to practice such skills as collecting, predicting, constructing, perceiving. The art of observation helps students to risk and ultimately lead.
Jean Henri Fabre’s acute backyard observations laid the foundation for entomology. His earnest observations and insights are collected in ten volumes entitled Souvenirs Entomologiques.
Micropolis, at St Léons, France, is a wonderful destination dedicated to etymology and Fabre’s contribution to this significant branch of science.
Ever marveling at the power of the neologism, I clicked around on the World Wide Web until I came across the Micropolis website. Unfortunately I don’t read, write, or speak French. Still I couldn’t help but poke around a bit as I pondered the word—Micropolis.
And then it struck me.
What a wonderful testament to Fabre. In a single word—Micropolis—the museum communicates the life of a man dedicated to unearthing the diversity of nature in his own backyard.
Da Vinci Summer 2014 is only weeks away. Join the fun as we conjure big ideas for observing the small worlds brimming with diversity that we take for granted, the simple spaces in our very own backyard. Let’s think small. After all, the Renaissance Man himself reminds us, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
The ability to read and write is complex and involves the integration of numerous foundational skills. Learning to read and write, children must wade through the landscape of phonology (word sounds), orthography (word patterns), morphology (word classifications) and then tackle the more treacherous path through the land of syntax (word patterning) and semantics (grammar) to gather tools that enable them to practice the art of reading and writing. But that’s not all, not at all! We must not discount the child’s EQ when it comes to literacy. Soft skills such as emotional insight, curiosity, and attitude all contribute to motivation and motivation impacts learning. Exposing children to a vast array of language arts experiences in an environment that is brimming with opportunities to enact language from a young age cultivates natural curiosity and promotes peaceful acquisition of skill over time. This is the magic of the tortoise versus the hare in action! And, just to complicate matters just a tiny bit more, literacy is much more than being able to read and write. True literacy is not just the ability to decode and encode language, true literacy occurs when the child moves from the foundational to the realm of creation, the realm of original communication.
Providing prepared opportunities for children to independently discover the tools of literacy across all domains of learning promotes the ability to enact language. It is vitally important that children not lose heart or become discouraged when mistakes occur. Self-correcting materials allow children to learn through their own errors to make the correct decision without having the teacher point it out to them. When encouraged to discover, children are simultaneously empowered to practice such complex skills as:
scrutinizing to make confident decisions
self-critiquing to assert thoughtful opinions
hypothesizing to draw informed conclusions
When Nelson chose the “Bones of the Body” work during our Discovery session, not only did he work through identifying the Latin names for a selection the election of the human skeleton, he was intrigued and invested in the work and, consequently, rewarded intrinsically. This child, while hard at work, was calm, confidently focused, and enthusiastic about learning. I have no doubt that this little exercise had less to do with learning the names of bones and more about strengthening the backbone of literacy. Discovery provides opportunities for children to, not only gather tools, but to encounter and practice the processes through which great ideas are conceived and forged.