Friday, August 29, 2014

minnow by minnow
When I was still quite a new teacher in East Harlem more than 20 years ago, I accepted the offer of a volunteer for my classroom.  He was an older man, perhaps 55, who had worked all his life running his own HVAC repair business.  Now, having sold it and retired, Sal wanted to try to something he'd always been interested in: teaching.

Sal came to my first-grade class regularly for about six weeks.  He was great with the kids and easy to work with, and everybody loved him.  I don't remember much about Sal's projects in the classroom, but I do remember what he said about why he had realized that teaching wasn't for him after all.

"In my work I've been used to walking into a building, figuring out what's not working, and repairing it.  You leave at the end of the day knowing that you completed the job.  But here in the classroom, the progress can be so slight each day, or maybe you don't see any progress.  There's a lot of waiting, and sometimes you can't tell if you fixed anything at all.  I guess I still need to walk in, see what's broken, and fix it."

That's obviously my paraphrase of Sal's wise assessment of his experience in first grade, and off he went back into his life--but his observation has stuck with me.  I'm not an angler, not a fly-fisher like my friend Mary Lee, but I'm joining her in her Trout of the Day project, and I guess that

what I am good at
is catching little minnows
kiss then throw them back

By this little instaku I mean that here they come swimming--
I reach in, catch them up midstream and plant a little challenge on them, then toss them back in to catch their breath and find their own next level.

And each day--even in this first week of school or maybe especially--I can see growth and change and progress in each child, and those little increments are enough to keep me feeling like I'm doing the right work for me.  I love it when Caty-Jean realizes she's safe and can step right up in the line with confidence.  I notice that Jake is thinking hard about which way his capital J should hook.  I see that Emara is learning to say goodbye to her twin after recess.  And look at Hector planting his finger on his lips and waiting for his turn to tell me everythingeverythingeverything all at once!

In this work, you don't walk in, see what's broken, and fix it.  It's a little more slippery, a little more daily than that.  It goes minnow by minnow.
For lots of hefty poetry keepers, Check It Out is the river to fish in today, with our host Jone.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

OIK Tuesday returns

Happy New Year!  All the preparation done, the new recipes, the new table linens, a little extra spent on the better bubbly for the welcome guests--now the feast can begin!

You know the feast I mean:   the New Year celebration of classroom teachers the world round...we prepare, plan to try out some new ideas and approaches, dress things up a bit, splurge a little to get a special new tool...and then they arrive!

This year I have 16 adorables (so far)--a perfect number of kindergarteners, if you don't have an assistant. Oh, they are lovely!  Even my poor sad twin, who has never been apart from her brother and is finding it hard to love school, raises her arms like a ballerina to pose when I take her picture.

Yesterday, as always, we read Swimmy and became Ms. Mordhorst's Mighty Minnows.  In between, Camillah [all names are changed to protect privacy] lost track of her lunchbox.

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed.  I think I left my lunchbox in the Food Court!"


Oof.  I tried to write a food court poem and composed a draft so bad I can't even post it...I guess the Happy New Year excesses have left me a little hung over!   I resolve to forgive myself.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

my writing process: hen and ink blog tour

A short while ago I was contacted by an old friend from my year in France--the multitalented Sandra Guy. When Bobbi Katz found out that we would be spending a year in Paris (2007-2008), she offered to put me in touch with Sandra, whom she had known for some time.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Sandra lived pretty much ACROSS THE STREET from our borrowed apartment in Vincennes--we at number 48 Avenue de Paris and Sandra at number 1 or so!  We joked about stretching a rope across the avenue to pulley a basket full of our manuscripts to each other (though mostly we just met in various cafes to critique each others' work).
Sandra was inviting me to participate in a blog tour in which writers for children to respond to four questions about their writing process. She lives now in Amsterdam, where she has been training in acupuncture as well as writing; she is represented in part by Erzsi Deak's agency, Hen&Ink Literary Studio. I was also supposed to recruit two more writers to post on their blogs, but my first round of invitations went to sensible people who were clear that they didn't have time just now (or that they'd already participated).  Now that school has started for me, it'll be harder to recruit the next participants, so I'll cross my fingers that someone reading this will want to be next to answer these four questions....

What are you working on now?
In a departure from my usual work for younger readers, I've been busy all summer revising (for the second time!) a poetry manuscript that started out being about how the connections we humans make among ideas are ill-reflected in the way we organize school learning.  It had an alchemy theme that is now morphing into a coming-of-age theme for teens--which makes sense considering that I have a nearly-12 and a 15-year-old transforming themselves before my very eyes!  I also did some haiku work this summer, for my own development--enough to know that maybe me and haiku are not meant to be together.
Why is your work different from other work in the same genre? 
I often hear the critique that it's hard to know who the audience for my poetry is. I've realized that when I write a poem "naturally," to get it you have to be a grown-up, but to appreciate it, you have to be a kid.  This limits my audience rather severely (usually to other children's poets). Thus, part of my writing process is to go back and uncomplicate or clarify or decleverize or trim or recast or layer on more, depending on who my reader is supposed to be.

Why do you write what you write?
Brains entertain me.  How people think--and don't think, or have senior moments (at any age) or "brain farts"--fascinates me.  The bareness of their thinking is why I love teaching little children.  In my writing I'm most often trying to convey to other brains a tickle of delight or intrigue that I have experienced in my own.  I'm therefore not so much a storyteller but more of a moment-catcher, and very often the moment I am trying to capture in words is an intellectual episode with a big emotional impact (or occasionally just a good punchline).

Of course, brains don't work in a vacuum.  They need fodder for their delights, intrigues and tickles, and the best brain fodder I know is nature (whence all brains, from human down to ant, arise).  Most often my poems sprout up from an encounter with or in nature, and they tend to be sensory--but cerebral:  "What can it all mean?"  

What is your writing process?
Usually, I hear or see or smell or taste something that sets in motion a chain of possibilities--connections, associations, inventions.  A good example of this is the seed for the title poem of my first book, "Squeeze."  A preschooler I was teaching said the words "lemon heaven"--who knows why now?--and the rhythm of the syllables, the assonance of the vowels, and the surprising concept all tickled my brain and sent me down a short, sweet and sour path to the power of personal choice.

Practically speaking, I have finally learned to write the first draft by hand on the left side of a notebook spread.  This makes it easier to see how the seed sprouted and grew when I more or less immediately redraft it on the right side, fixing things that changed between the first line and the last line in Draft 1.  If I'm lucky, Draft 2 is pretty close to what I wanted to catch, so that when I type it out, later that day or the next, I'm making most of the final tweaks...until I show it to someone and they ask, "But who is this poem for?" (See Question 2 above.)

Then Draft 3 might become 4 or 5 over a week or two, and that's usually enough.  There are a handful of poems that have suffered through 15-20 drafts (and come out better on the other side--or not), and lots of poems that have undergone what you might call "limb transplants"--the spine of the original idea remains, but all the outer structure changes.  This happens most often when I'm trying to fit a poem into a collection and it needs to accomplish some small piece of the arc (or the ark) that it hadn't known it was responsible for.  For this big-picture manuscript drafting, there is no substitute for printing it all out and spreading it all over the floor, just like we did with our notecards when we wrote our first term paper.  Then all the poems can see and hear and feel each other, which can never happen on a screen.

I'm grateful to Sandra for giving me this opportunity (and I learned a lot just now by having to answer what seemed like rather pedestrian questions at first!).  I'm off to nominate a few more writers, and beg forgiveness in this first week of school that I don't have time to add any illustrations.  Kindly use your imaginations!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

poetry friday brought to you by..

summer's last fling!  This weekend Duncan and I are making one last visit to the beach and to Funland (above) in Rehoboth.  On Monday I go back to school for a week of preparation for exciting and demanding new beginnings, and (impromptu poem of the moment):

Lo we have looped the year
once again--
gallop gallop rise and 

Time to

and notice that summer is not

Still the tomatoes swell and ripen
Still the sun rises hot and bothers
me exquisitely with its brightness
past dinnertime
Still there is time to be still.

May I have the strength to
and notice even when summer is

HM 2014
all right reserved

This is my Happy New Year, full of resolutions.  Do you have any resolutions for the new school year? We're all on different schedules, of course, but I think for many of us Poetry Friday brings a weekly opportunity to pause.just stop. and notice.

Here's the menu of our noticings this week...there will be a lengthy midday break to allow for boating to The Paradise Grill, so eat hearty so you can last until Happy Hour!

Breakfast Buffet

Steven joins us with big news about his collection Crackles of Speech.  Congratulations, Steven!

I'm so glad Robyn enjoyed my Summer Poem Swap offering--she's posted it at her blog. Thanks, Robyn.

Carol offers us a New York City skyline poem, and is getting ready to unveil her Summer Serenity online gallery.

Karen gives us some of what we need today, by David Budbill.

Diane, another participant in the Summer Poem Swap, is posting all her lovely poetry gifts at Random Noodling.

At Kurious Kitty, Diane concludes her "restaurant week" celebration with an Amy Lowell poem.

Michelle of Today's Little Ditty has a visit from Renee LaTulippe today, doing her Lyrical Language thing.

Bridget Magee expresses the sentiments of many a bitten and itching target with her poem "Mosquitoes Suck," also her celebration of Bad Poetry Day.  : )

Tara joins us with reflections on the news from Ferguson, MO at A Teaching Life.

More on this week's news comes from Jone, who is remembering Robin Williams.

Happy Birthday to Matt's youngest daughter who is ONE today!  He celebrates with a poem for Phoebe at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme.

Violet joins us with an original called "Ant" over at her blog.

Tabatha offers a poem that is "pretty close to a thousand years old."  I thought she meant that figuratively, like an old one from her files--but no, she means it literally!  Find it at The Opposite of Indifference.

Renee at No Water River returns to blogging with poems from J. Patrick Lewis's new book.  Everything is a poem, if you look at it right!

Mary Lee really does have an old poem from her files at A Year of Reading.  It's to her students and it flows!

From Catherine we have an original about freckles!

Carol is also getting ready to hit the ground running at school, and is in with a poetic picture book text at Carol's Corner.

Irene joins us with a look at Janet Wong's Night Garden (one of my favorite books ever)--and her new puppy!

Laura PS is also highlighting J. Pat's work at Teaching Authors--"What a Day."  Sorry for the previously incorrect link!

At The Logonauts, Katie shares a wrap-up of her haiku series with favorite haiku picture books.

Catherine has "I Am Poetry" by Pam Muñoz Ryan at Reading to the Core.  Everything is a poem and I am too.

Anastasia joins us with beach thoughts "On Kiki's Reef" by Carol L. Malnor at Booktalking.

And finally this morning, over at TeacherDance Linda shares two Summer Poem Swap pieces by Tabatha!


Happy Hour Specials

First, apologies to Sylvia over at Poetry for Children--I "misplaced" her link this morning.  She has a reading and teaching guide for the novel in verse by Margarita Engle about the opening of the Panama Canal--Silver People.

Little Willow of Bildungsroman has both an interview with YA author Kelly Jensen and a little Emily Dickinson for us--and if you scroll down you'll find a mind-blowing list of the people she has interviewed on her blog!

Janet shares Avis Harley's "Sea stars: saltwater poems" at All About the Books.

At Kelly's blog there's a review of an awesome anthology of poems by 19th century African Americans.

And last for today, McHugh at Free Range Readers offers up a poem from a Naomi Shihab Nye anthology.

Let's raise a glass to all the times we can enjoy being still to notice, and let's wish them to all others whose lives allow these moments less often.

Friday, August 1, 2014

the not-so-subtle signs

Duncan drinking in Italy 2013
I needed a vacation this summer--I mean, seriously needed it.  Those inner teacher resources were painfully depleted by June 16, and I am lucky enough to have nothing required of me this summer--no coursework and no paid work.  I've been sleeping in all the way until 6:30 and going with the flow, just enjoying my kids and my wee garden, the pool and summer produce and reading.

Then, last week, things turned.  I know when I've had enough vacation each summer because suddenly little children become intensely interesting again.  Last summer it happened at an outdoor table around the corner from Piazza San Marco in Venice:  a group of Italian bambini, ages 3-7, were climbing all over a dry fountain in our small, enclosed piazza, and even in a foreign language they were suddenly tremendously more entertaining than the boisterous and traditionally very entertaining European relatives we were with.

This year it happened last week while I sat waiting for my 15-year-old to finish playing a summer league soccer game:  a younger brother, maybe 6, in the bleachers behind me, with his confident, erudite pronouncements about everything under the sun, distracted me easily from both the game and the book I was trying to read.  (It's something about the openness of young children, how nothing is calculated or self-conscious as they try out  positions, ideas and interactions, both physical and intellectual.)

And yet, having enjoyed an ample sufficiency of relaxation, I found myself not quite achieving anything for several days.  I wanted to tackle my long summer Tasks list that has been dutifully syncing across my devices; certainly I kept looking at it; and yet at the end of the day  nothing was cross-offable.  I finally took action.  I sat on Monday with a legal-size sheet of physical paper and a mechanical pencil, and I drew a calendar of my [choke] last three weeks of summer break.  I filled in all the scheduled events, and then I added in all the as-yet-undone projects and...oh my.  Time to Get Down to Business.

On Wednesday I awoke in the dark at 5am (as usual), with just a little tickly anxiety pricking me about things to get done--and it felt good!  Having kicked a really damaging adrenaline habit, it was good to feel like my productive self again, with some focus and a plan in place.  Then I went back to sleep until 6:30.  : )
No need to overdo things for now!  Five-year-olds and school and work and routine and opportunities are on my mind again, but I'll enjoy the less-structured, daydreamy mornings for a little longer.

One of the items of business was to fill out forms for a very nice upshot of having poems in The Poetry Friday Anthology.  A Texas school district is buying the rights to a group of poems for 3rd graders, so that they can post them on a website for easy classroom access (what a great idea, right?).  The remuneration for this extra use of my poem is modest, but it's a thrill for someone whose writing can't be a main income source for now.  Duncan, age 11, saw me working on the permission forms and asked what poem they wanted.  It's a good one for this moment in my summer arc, at the top of the roller coaster between vacation daydreams and the first day of school.


                                    Funday, Imaginary 1st    

Dear Daydream,      
I’m glad you are my secret friend.
When will you tickle my brain again?
You’re welcome in math, in science and art.
Your wondering wandering makes me smart.
Please come to visit and read with me.
Just don’t interrupt when it’s time for P.E.!


            Heidi Mordhorst 2012
                all rights reserved

Duncan read it, laughed and said, "Yeah, that poem is worth fifty bucks!"

You can enjoy more worth-y poems over at Reflections on the Teche with Margaret, today's Poetry Friday host.