Friday, June 30, 2017

Summer School

Monarchs #4 & #5, female and male on common milkweed
By Mary Oliver

Isn't it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience?  Isn't it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking:  if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I'm alive.  And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky -- as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.  

"Isn't it plain the sheets of moss . . . could lecture all day if they wanted . . . "  School is out and it is time to listen and learn from moss, insects, birds, trees and the flowers in the field.  They may not be able to formally lecture to us, but they are there to teach us nonetheless, if we care to listen.  I suspect one lesson is simply that they are amazing.  Anything that has evolved and found a niche in nature has an amazing quality and something to teach to those who listen.  

A couple of months ago, I had the good pleasure of sharing my green iguana, Harold, with an after-school science class.  The students ranged from six to nine years old and my little presentation was on reptiles.  I need to say that had you asked me ten years ago if I could imagine myself having an iguana, I would have said, "never!"  Never say never.  It's a long story, but I find myself in the unusual position of caring for and opening my heart up to a cold-blooded reptile named Harold.  Iguanas are amazing creatures, and Harold is no exception.  As I was sharing my reptile with this group of students, I was mentioning that anytime you spend time with anything in nature, you should be prepared to be amazed.  This little girl started bopping up and down in her seat and pumping her hand in the air . . . "I love snails!" she exclaimed.  "Aren't they amazing?!" I replied.  We talked a few minutes about the wonders of snails.  How fun!  Snails and the children who delight in them make me happy.   

Insects on wildflower
The more I explore the natural world, the more amazing it becomes to me.  I suspect I could spend the rest of my life wandering the trails and wild places in my small neighborhood and be amazed and delighted every time, and "if the doors of my heart ever close, I'm as good as dead."  

The monarchs above were found as eggs in our schoolyard.  I have fifteen more chrysalises that will open in the next few days, and I will release them all into the wilds of my backyard.  I'm hoping that I'll find more eggs to take in and raise in the days and weeks ahead.  Each monarch I have had the pleasure of raising is unique, and every time I watch one grow and transform it is amazing.  Aren't insects amazing?!  I don't yet know the flower and insect above by proper names but hope to learn more about them in the days ahead.  For now, I just enjoyed spending a moment with them and taking their picture on a lovely summer day.  

Here's what I think . . . when we take time to appreciate the small wonders in this world, we are reminded that we are all small wonders in this world.  Let us imagine and remember who we are.

. . . the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky -- as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.  

A wonderful summer to everyone!

Monday, June 12, 2017

School Year's Close

Spring Monarch Eggs found in School Yard

Russ and Students Birding!

Outside in the field

This spring we have had the good pleasure of going birding again with Russ Schipper!  We saw and identified several more birds this May than during our February outing and we heard the calls of even more species.  Thank you Russ for your ongoing support!

The monarchs are back!  We have been finding monarch eggs on our school property!  It's very exciting to take my students outside for their daily run around the trail and then take a few moments to hunt and find eggs in our front yard!  We have about a dozen caterpillars in various stages of development.  They are eating milkweed voraciously and pooping at an incredible rate.  (I'm hoping I can send a few caterpillars home with eager students.)

Thank you to everyone who has supported my students and the outdoor learning center this year!  We continue to grow.  The large garden in the back will be getting a beautiful sign in the days ahead and we will be doing additional planting at that site next fall (I still have grant money from the Wild Ones organization).  In addition, I'm scheming a new trail down to a small pond on the corner of Blue Star Highway and North Shore Drive.  It would be a pretty small undertaking, but would add a wonderful view of a small hidden pond.  If you are interested in helping, let me know.

We are down to our last two days of school and it is always a bittersweet time.  I have enjoyed watching this amazing group of students grow and learn over the past several months and I will miss them.  It was a privilege to be a part of their lives for a short time.  I hope that they learned to love the process and challenge of  learning just a bit more and perhaps they also learned a bit more about this amazing planet that we call home from looking right in our own backyard.

Happy summer everyone!

Saturday, April 22, 2017


"Yesterday the twig was brown and bare; Today the glint of green is there; Tomorrow will be leaflets spare; I know no thing so wondrous fair, No miracle so strangely rare.  I wonder what will next be there!"  --Liberty Hyde Bailey

Spring has again graced our community.  Our side of the earth faces the sun and we smile.  Those of us in education, both students and teachers, look toward the coming of summer and a time for rest from the daily grind and hard work of school.  As much as I love summer, I find myself lingering and enjoying this spring season more than I remember.  Perhaps as I grow older, new life seems a bit more elusive and sacred.  Perhaps this past winter seemed unusually dark and foreboding.  At any rate, whether it is due to my aging or the darkness of last season, I find myself seeing this spring with new eyes of wonder and filling me with renewed hope.

We have studied many cycles in fourth grade this year . . . the rock cycle, the water cycle, life cycles, the cycle of the earth around the sun and the earth spinning on its axis from day to night and back to day.  Our planet is filled with cycles.  Volcanos spew out new rocks from melted ancient rocks.  Water evaporates into the sky and returns to us in the spring rains.  The earth turns toward the sun and the producers of this world turn from brown to green.  The various consumers of this world build nests for their young, fill the air with various mating and territorial calls and in general, make a mad scramble to care for the future generations that will need to survive a winter that is sure to return.  Our planet is always in motion toward a place it has been before and yet it has never seen.  Every spring something brand new will grow and every winter something newly old will die.  It's a pretty amazing planet.

Our bulb garden partitioned off as an array.
My students and I went out looking for and recording signs of spring a couple of weeks ago.  We studied our bulb plot during math one day last week (measuring area, perimeter and flowers).  I'm taking all the fourth graders (group by group) out to look for decomposers, producers and consumers.  I wish we could spend more time out in the fields and woods.  I hope students take time on their own in their backyards.  Next week, my students will write letters to our representative, Beth Griffin, in favor of making the monarch our state insect (last year the bill was presented, but due to the time limit and the summer break, the bill expired).  This past fall, we raised several monarchs from eggs to caterpillars and then butterflies in our classroom.  We also made milkweed seed bombs with some of the seeds we collected in our schoolyard.  Perhaps some of those seeds will sprout this spring.  We are trying to encourage both milkweed plants and monarch butterflies in our small corner of the world.  I have been looking closely for sprouting milkweed, knowing that when the milkweed is up and thriving, the monarchs will return.  I am hoping that before we break for summer, my students and I will again see monarch butterflies return and find monarch eggs and larvae.  Last fall, we actually had the rare opportunity to watch a newborn caterpillar (moments old) eating its first meal, the egg.  We also watched the spinning of a chrysalis and a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.  Those moments still linger in my mind and perhaps, in the minds of my students.  This spring brings the promise of seeing those processes again, and the cycle continues. . .
A monarch raised in our class last fall.
It is wonderful to find ourselves again in this new spring.  Perhaps we can make it a more inviting place for the monarchs and the milkweed, and in doing that, we will make a better place for ourselves.

Peace and Love.

"Come with me into the woods where spring is advancing, as it does, no matter what, not being singular or particular, but one of the forever gifts, and certainly visible."  --Mary Oliver, Dog Songs


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Poetry Night at the Scott Club!

An evening of poetry reading at the Scott Club

On March 7th, my students read original poetry at the Scott Club!  We read our poems to the Scott Club members in the afternoon and then came back that evening and read to family and friends.  We had a wonderful time!  There is something thrilling about reading a poem you have written, from some creative force from within, to other people.  It's a sharing of the soul.  After we all read our poems, we took some time to autograph our work in the published booklets each adoring fan received. The Scott Club even gave us a donation, which we immediately spent on pizza for a class party on Friday!
The following is one of the many poems that was read . . .

by Kayla

You are the happiness in the room.
You are the angelfish in the ocean.
You are the cookie in the oven.
You are the butterfly in the meadow.
You are the sun that brightens my life.
You are the first leaf to fall in autumn.
And sometimes, you can be the clown at the circus.
But, you are not the mouse hiding under the table 
or the cat looking for trouble.
I am the flower about to bloom and 
the hot chocolate on a cold winter's day.
But don't worry, you are still the happiness in the room.

Poetry is not the sort of thing you bump into at the Wal-Mart checkout.  It is not glamorous like Leonardo DiCaprio or Angelina Jolie.  Poetry is not a popular thing at all . . . and yet it quietly, and sometimes even loudly, persists.   Poetry is something like soul music.  It grabs you and it pulls you in.  It makes you feel as if maybe you aren't alone in this world.  It reminds you that love and words from the heart are more important than popularity and fame.  I think we all are poets, if we want to be, and there is something redeeming about that.  Poems from the heart reach our soul and make us believe that this world is always so much more than this world.      

Ode to my Fourth Graders

You are the caterpillar,
eating milkweed,
eating milkweed,
eating milkweed.
You are the faint smell of muddy spring 
on wet tennis shoes.
You are the sound of graphite 
flattening upon the page.
You are the light before dawn and
sometimes the dark before the rain. . .
You are the stardust in a sunbeam.
Well technically,
We are all the stardust in a sunbeam.
That being said, you are not, the calm before the storm
And you are clearly not the lizard upon my chair.
No, I am the calm before the storm and
To be quite honest,
Harold is the lizard upon my chair.
I am the bird at the feeder looking in and
I am even the question mark placed carefully upon the page. . .
But don't worry,
You are still the caterpillar
eating milkweed,
eating milkweed,
eating milkweed,
And somehow, 
the butterfly.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Citizen Scientists in the Great Backyard Bird Count!

Sighting a bird with Russ

Watching and identifying the bird

On February 18th, my students participated in the Cornell Backyard Bird Count with help from birding expert, Russ Schipper.   Mr. Schipper, from the Kalamazoo Audubon Society, has come to North Shore for the past five years, sharing his love and expertise of birds with all of the fourth graders.  Every fall he comes to each classroom and teaches a lesson on bird adaptations, habitats and identification.  This year, he also came to the fifth grade classrooms and taught a new class specifically on owls.  He returns each February and takes my class into our outdoor learning center to identify birds and help submit our findings to Cornell University.  Cornell collects information from around the world to analyze trends in bird populations.  Students were able to watch online as the data was reported.  This was the first year that we saw robins in our backyard during this count.  We learned that some robins overwinter here and feed on fruit when insects are unavailable.  The robins were eating sumac berries.  A huge thank you to Russ Schipper for his dedication to educating and inspiring students at North Shore Elementary!          

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Women's March on Washington: We are Worthy!

Me with my sign and my new friends standing in front of a memorial of
 Lincoln and the Emancipation; on our way to the March! 
Last Saturday, I had the amazing opportunity to walk with well over 500,000 amazing people in the Women's March on Washington.  I need to say, this is not intended to be a political blog.  The political issues of the day are complex and I have always believed that there are at least two sides to a story and more than one way to "skin a cat."  I have voted in every election since I was 18 years old and although many times my choice did not win, I have never protested the outcome.  In fact, walking on Saturday, was not a protest and it was not an anti-Trump rally (the protesters were out on Friday, during the inauguration).  This was different.  This was not an anti-Trump event.  This event was for women and the people and the planet that they love.  I went knowing that I had to be there.  I wasn't even sure exactly why I had to be there, I just knew I was going.  Perhaps, I felt something like a fall monarch being pulled to its homeland in Mexico that it had never seen before.  It felt like instinct.  And so. . . I went.

I made a friend on the bus I took out of Ann Arbor (we spent two nights on a bus together and shared our life stories).  Kiersten is a strong and amazing person that I'll never forget (standing to my left in the photo).  We later met up with 3 other amazing women from other buses and we instantly became a group of five.  My son John traveled from New York but we never were able to meet due to the incredible crowds (although amazingly, he bumped into his cousin and her fiance).  My son Ben, marched in Detroit.

Our group started out at the stadium (where our buses parked).  We all had purchased transit cards to ride the subway to the rally, but the subways were packed and we chose to walk.  As we walked, there were lots of police and crossing guards helping us along the way.  Those of us close to officers, thanked them.  Some of us were given a high-five as we passed.  People came out of their row houses to say, "Welcome to DC!  Thanks for coming!"  We even got a smile from a guard dressed in a camo uniform and standing in front of a camo painted tank.  It made me laugh and think I was witnessing visual "doublespeak."  The last thing that tank or person was, was camouflaged.  They should really paint their tanks with row houses, streetlights and sidewalks if they want to look camouflaged and the guard should have ditched the drab colors and gone with pink.  We were several blocks away from the rally on our walk and we desperately hoped to find a bathroom (you can imagine the lines that we women made).  We stepped into a tiny diner and feared we might be kicked out.  Not only did they let us use their facilities, but they gave us free coffee.  Amazing.  We hadn't even arrived on the mall and Washington DC was already pouring out love.

If you watched the news, you probably heard more than I did of the speeches that were presented (I hope to listen to some of them on YouTube in the days ahead).  It was amazingly crowded and hard to get around.  But even in the thickest crowds, people were polite and generous and kind.  At one point our group was pinned against the back of a long row of porta potties.  We couldn't move and we couldn't hear and it became hard to breathe.  We decided that it was time to move and as we tried to get out, I told folks in front of us that we had someone with claustrophobia in our group and we needed to move.  It was a bit like the red sea parting. . . people started moving and calling ahead, "they need to get out!  Make room!"  All day long, people were kind and patient and generous.

During the march there were several times when the gravity and beauty of the moment brought me to tears.  As we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, we were surrounded by people from all walks of life.  There were young adults, families, elderly couples and people in wheelchairs.  There were people of all colors and faiths and backgrounds marching together in grand unity down the street toward the White House.  And it was the diversity and the love that made this march so amazing.  We were there for our own reasons but I think we were there, even more, for each other.  It is powerful to feel that you are in a crowd that marches, not for themselves but for you and that you march for them.  It was a mothering of sorts.  There was not a single arrest and there was hardly any litter (although all the garbage cans were overflowing, garbage was stacked neatly around the cans).  This was a women's march.  And for the first time, I really understood that we need women in leadership.  We need peaceful, powerful and positive movements led by women.

As we headed back to our buses at the stadium, one woman and her sign stood out.  I never saw her face, she was ahead of me.  Her sign was small and handwritten with black sharpie marker on cardboard.  The march was over so it was swinging by her side.  The sign read, "I Am Worthy."  For some reason, that image is ingrained in my mind and in my heart. . . . I think that is what I was seeking and why I was marching.  I wanted to say to women (and men and animals and rocks and trees and every creature everywhere) . . . you are worthy and I desperately wanted to hear, "you are worthy too."  

Thank you everyone who marched with me and for everyone who made me feel worthy.  We are Worthy.  We are all Worthy!      


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Teaching A Growth Mindset

I have the above Growth Mindset image posted in the front of my classroom and it reflects the current brain research on best teaching practice and learning.  Successful students need to have what is called a "growth mindset."  There has been a great deal written about growth mindset, but in a nutshell, it's about learning from challenges and mistakes.  It's about figuring out what you don't know and seeing those challenges as an opportunity to learn and discover.  This mindset means that education is not about perfection or IQ; rather it's about working on things that are hard and knowing that there is a great deal that we still don't know and can learn.  A growth mindset is what makes us smarter and more productive.  Most of us have been around long enough to know that we learn from mistakes and that when we overcome challenges we grow.  It's logical that having a growth mindset leads to learning.  The real question is, how do we impart this frame of mind to our students?  We have students who come to school expecting learning to be easy, because they have been told they are brilliant.  And at the other extreme,  we have students who believe that they can't possible learn.  They think that anything that requires thinking is somehow beyond their ability.  They feel stupid even before they know what the challenge or lesson is.  How does a teacher proceed?

I suppose if I am honest, I have been both those types of students myself.  There have been times when I've felt like I knew it all and other times when I was sure I was totally incapable of learning anything about the subject matter at hand.  And I'm pretty sure that in the future, there will be more times such as those.  How do I proceed?  I think that teaching a growth mindset requires having a growth mindset.  Having a growth mindset as a teacher means being vulnerable in front of your students.  It's about sharing your lack of knowledge as well as your knowledge.  It means we are never done learning.  It's about teaching that the process of learning is more important than the product.  The irony is that, when you focus on the process, the product usually improves (although sometimes it takes a lifetime or more).  If I want my students to have a growth mindset, I need to remind myself that I need to have a growth mindset.  I need to always be learning and growing and becoming a better student as well as a better teacher.

I suspect that developing a growth mindset will be a lifetime struggle and adventure for me on this journey called life, but I know that it is worth striving for.  In fact, I think we all started with a growth mindset.  Have you ever seen a baby stop babbling because he/she couldn't pronounce the words properly?  Or have you ever seen a toddler stop trying to walk, because he/she toddled into a fall?  We come into this world already hardwired with a growth mindset. Somewhere along the way, it can slip away from us and I think that's when we start growing old.

Developing a growth mindset is not simply an academic pursuit; it's a life pursuit and it requires action to be meaningful.  Can you image if our culture embraced a growth mindset . . .? What if the criminal justice system operated from a growth mindset?  It would no longer be about punishment; it would be about restorative justice and forgiveness.  We would try to help people become better citizens and to learn from their mistakes so that they could live productive lives.  (If you have ever met a person who has spent time in jail and has had a second chance to redeem his/her life, you know what a gift that person is to the community).  What if politicians embraced a growth mindset?  Can you imagine?!  They would admit mistakes and share areas of growth instead of the negative attack mode that was so rampant this election year.  And more importantly, can you imagine if the Senate and Congress had a growth mindset instead of a partisan mindset?  Discussions and actions wouldn't focus on party lines; rather, they would focus on learning from mistakes and from each other and then getting down to work.

In the end, I think that having a growth mindset is about the positive actions that we take from wherever we are.  It's humility and hard work and a belief that we can make this world a better place.  And isn't it wonderful, that we are born into this quest?  It gives me hope for our future.  In the words of Mohandas Gandhi . . .        

"It's the action, not the fruit of the action, that's important.  You have to do the right thing.  It may not be in your power, may not be in your time, that there'll be any fruit.  But that doesn't mean you stop doing the right thing.  You may never know what results come from your action.  But if you do nothing, there will be no result."

Peace and Love.