Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Spoken Poem for Teachers To Remind Us of our True Direction

I love this poem by Donovan Livingston--his commencement address from Harvard University in 2016 (Graduate School of Education). In light of the current discussion largely by non-educators calling for teachers to be armed, this spoken poem reminds me of a truer call to the work we all must do.

Monday, February 26, 2018

#PoetryBreak: Words for Forgetting

Watching (M.A. Reilly, NY State, 2009)

Words for Forgetting

Loren Eiseley
From Prairie Schooner.
Go forward on these simple roads,
Do not turn back.
The stars behind you in the wind will blow,
The coyote’s track
Delicately replace the lifted dust
Of your own heel.
Go forward and the dark will close
About you. You will feel
The fragrant emptiness of prairie miles.
Now you will own
Nothing that is not yours, yourself
Down to the naked bone.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Celebrating a Small Moment in Time with Derrick Barnes and His Ode to the Fresh Cut

Looking for a read aloud book to help young people understand the concept of a small moment?  I'd advise you take a look at Derrick Barnes's Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James and published by Agate Publishing.  This picture book chronicles a trip to the barbershop.  Part love letter, part history--Barnes's poetic voice comes through with just enough detail to make the ordinary feel royal. For example, after the haircut, Barnes writes:

It's the mention of the sting from apple green alcohol or witch hazel that catches my eye. We have smelt this too and know how a fresh shave alongside some alcohol allows for a bit of a sit-up-and-notice moment. It is these types of details that breathe life into this account.

The writing is memorable and populated with metaphor, rhythm, and diction. The language moves and moves through you.No wonder it received the 2018 Newbery Honor Award for its writing. It was well deserved.

This book also garnered a 2018 Caldecott Honor Book and a 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor. The book is lush, populated with Gordon James's expressive oil paintings that slip and slide across each page. Impressionistic  jewels like this:

The angles, soft focus, and details work in concert to extend Barnes' words by providing images of the people and place where a Fresh Cut is most celebrated and providing an energy that works with the celebratory nature of the text.

This is a winner book.  I hope you'll take a look and find some young people to read it to.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Determined Futures, Russian Interference, and Prescribed Lessons at School

I Think (M.A. Reilly, 2009)

Like you, I too have been following Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russian influence of the presidential election of 2016. After the indictments last week of 13 Russian operatives for interfering in the election and the recent charge Mueller filed against Alex Van Der Zwaan, a lawyer, for lying to investigators about his interaction with former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, new questions have arisen regarding the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia. What I mostly wonder about, beyond the possibility that President Trump, Vice President Pence and their coterie of advisers committed treason is why did the Russian interference work?  It's interesting that little seems to be made of this. Why did so many US citizens believe the false stories generated by Russian operatives? What allowed them to be so susceptible to these lies?

For the last thirty years I have worked in education in the United States. I have taught across the K-12 span and later taught in graduate school and I have seen significant changes with regard to who owns learning and what constitutes thought. The insistence on measuring language arts and mathematics learning through high stakes tests for the last thirty-two years has allowed for greater and greater allegiance to prescribed programs and other “teacher-proof”materials. These practices have generated less and less thinking by teachers and children and more and more following.

In the article, "Restoring Points of Potentiality: Sideshadowing in Elementary Classrooms" (The Reading Teacher, 63(4)), I wrote about the intellectual peril of determined futures. The article focuses on the sanctioned learning of Robertio in a grade 3 suburban elementary classroom--one I had been working with as a researcher and an external consultant. In lieu of an actual curriculum, teachers at this school were directed by the superintendent and principal to cobble together lessons from a reading basal and a professional text about backward design. Marge Tamberson's lessons were delivered so that youngsters would name prescribed answers that aligned with the answers in the teacher's edition. Attaining right answers was the measure of success.

"In many classrooms, like Tamberson’s, time functions like a string of moments unwound by the teacher for students to follow, bead by bead, to determined outcomes. Here, time is understood as points of actuality—not potentiality. Thus, classroom events and sanctioned learning outcomes are foreshadowed. Foreshadowing, Bernstein (1994) wrote, relies on logic that “must always value the present, not for itself, but as the harbinger of an already determined future” (p. 2). The scripted literacy program Tamberson was given to “enact” foreshadows the determined future for students and teachers, making less likely the occasion for students to learn from their own experiences" (p. 298).

It is this unwinding action that most interests me now as I think of the allure of fake news that by its design must posit a determined future in lieu of possibility. Like many of Tamberson’s third graders, adults influenced by the Russian propaganda, followed seeds to a prescribed outcome: Hillary Clinton was a criminal and was not to be trusted with the presidency at any cost. It's that any cost, that allowed so many to select third party candidates like Jill Stein or even the GOP candidate, Donald Trump. It gave voters not inclined to vote for the rather amoral Trump,  permission to do so. Clinton in some of these fake news accounts was connected with a false conspiracy theory that "claimed that the [John Peodesta's] emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting several U.S. restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party with an alleged child-sex ring" (from here). Although ridiculous and discredited, many believed these lies to be truth and established the false claim that Hillary Clinton was involved in child abuse. On Facebook, "a large number of the posts on Heart of Texas went after Clinton directly, like this one with a manipulated image showing her shaking hands with 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and referring to her as a 'lying murderer and criminal' (from here). At Trump rallies, chants such as "lock her up" were also used on the fake news accounts by Russia.  These pages showed Clinton behind bars, citing she was a criminal and should be locked up. What these believed lies opened was permission to select a  other candidates given the false accounts that would lead one to believe that Clinton was treasonous and amoral.

To be clear, I am not suggesting here a causal relationship between education and the susceptibility of masses of people to believe manufactured news, but I do wonder if there might be a correlation. what happens when year after year, children learn to follow, rather than think?  Imagine now that Marge Tamberson's teaching which involved following prescribed lessons to determined outcomes was not a novel situation but rather the norm. What happens to how one thinks when getting the "right" answers is rewarded, whereas more novel and/or inaccurate attempts at thinking are punished?  Our desire to be right may well be undermining our need to think. What happens to the quality of thought when students watch teachers year after year mime the language of some other as they read from prescribed curricula? What do these actions teach? What exactly is being learned in such daily exercises?  What is being modeled about thought and thinking?

I'm curious what you think about this.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love in the Morning

To warm you today.  A Valentine's Day poem.

Prayer (M.A. FReilly, 2017)

Love in the Morning

Morning’s a new bird
stirring against me
out of a quiet nest,
coming to flight—

breath-filling body,

clean as clear water,

kindling companion,

mystery and mountain,

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Musicians and Artists: #nf10for10

Today is Non-Fiction Picture Book Sharing, #nf10for10, hosted by Cathy Mere, Reflect and Refine: Building A Learning Community, Julie Balen, Connecting to Learn and Mandy Robek, Enjoy and Embrace Learning. Below find 10.5 nonfiction picture books I can't live without. These nonfiction picture books are about musicians and visual artists. 

from Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos.
Brown, Monica. (2017). Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos. Illustrated by John Parra. New York: NorthSouth Books.

This picture book biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo portrays her childhood and adulthood with a twist: the text focuses on how she was like her pets. For example we learn that Frida was colorful like her parrot and independent like her cat. In the style of the artist Frida Kahlo, illustrator John Parra uses acrylics to capture the folk art sensibilities of Kahlo. His work is gorgeous and earned the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2017. Well deserving.

Brière-Haquet, Alice. (2017). Nina: Jazz Legend and Civil-Rights Activist Nina Simone. Illustrated by Bruno Liance. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge Publishing.

It wasn't until I was well into my 30s that I first heard Nina Simone sing. Rob had a CD (yes it was that long ago) of hers and we listened to it on a trip north to Maine. I was hooked. Her voice carries such tension, such blues. Hers is an aching beauty that comes together especially well in songs like, "Tell Me More and More and Then Some." I could listen to that over and over again.

This picture book biography told by Nina as a story she is telling her daughter illustrates  the woman as musician, the mother, and the activist. Told through Bruno Liance's black and white illustrations that offer a stark simplicity. This is a jewel of a book.

from Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire.
Guglielmo, Amy & Jacqueline Tourville. (2017). Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. New York: Atheneum Books.

This picture book is based on the life of Disney illustrator Mary Blair. Blair is most well known for her design of the the 1964 World's Fair ride--It's a Small World--a ride I have been told I rode as a very small child. Truthfully, I can't recall. Years later I would see that ride again in Florida. What I like most about this book is how the text focuses on Blair's use of color.  The text opens:

and then goes on to explain that when Mary's family moved to California, the sights she saw along the way --hues of various colors--would influence her work as an artist.  Lovely.

Harshman, Marc & Anna Egan Smucker. (2017). Fallingwater: The Building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Masterpiece. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. 

The story about how Fallingwater was designed and built opens with a quote from Wright's autobiography: 
"No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other."
Harshman, Smucker, and Pham then go on to illustrate in beautiful written and painted language how Fallingwater embodies that quote.

Without question one of my favorite of the ten.

Hood, Susan. (2018). SHAKING THINGS UP: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World. Illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Emily Winfield Martin, Shadra Strickland, Melissa Sweet, Oge Mora, Julie Morstad, Lisa Brown, Selina Alko, Hadley Hooper, Erin Robinson, and Sara Palacios. New York: Harper Collins.

This is a keeper book and an extra bonus book here as I am not telling you about the whole book, but rather just one of the 14 young women featured. The text is written in free verse and each illustration is done by a different artist.  All 14 women are exceptional. For this post though, I am only focusing on Maya Lin, "A New Vision." Lin is the architect-artist who won the competition (entry #1026) to build the Vietnam Memorial. The first time I visited the memorial it was with several hundred 12th graders who had met all of their senior high school obligations and were on their way to Virginia Beach for a bit of holiday. It was the dredded (if you were a chaperone and I was) senior trip. But what happened that day stays with me--30 years later. The kids were loud as you might expect, but as we came over the hill, the black wings of the monument rose up out of the ground and the students grew quiet, silent, absorbed. 200 voices, hushed. It wouldn't be until 20 years later that Rob, Devon and I went by boat to the war memorial at Pearl Harbor that the same sense of silence would descend.

At the end of "A New Vision," Susan Hood asks this provocative question:

After all, 
what should a war memorial do? 
Unearth memory, 
make us cry, 
see ourselves, 
and then lead us back up 
into hope, 
into the light.

It's a question and a response that stops me and makes me think. 

Julie Morstad (loved, loved her book, The Wayside) illustrated the Maya Lin pages. 
At the conclusion of the book are biographical notes and links to more information about each of the women. Below is the book, Bloom, that Morstad illustrated as well.

Maclear, Kyo. (2018). Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli.  Illustrated by Julie Morstad. New York: Tundra.

A picture book biography about Elsa Schiaparelli, an Italian fashion designer who was influenced by surrealism. Told from first person point of view, we learn about her childhood (she thought herself ugly and questioned what was beauty) and her art that took form as she designed clothing and bags, and shoes in bold, bold colors.  Julie Morstad captures the spirit and dazzle through mixed media. 
from Bloom

Mahin, Michael. (2017). Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters. Illustrated by Evan Turk. New York: Atheneum.

There's more than enough energy in the telling of this history and the images that launch a reader off of the page. This picture book biography of legendary blues guitarist, Muddy Waters, is spectacular. Evan Turk's paintings and collages electrify while the dialogue by Mahin is simply spot on.  Consider this exchange between Muddy and his grandmother:

This story though is not only about the musician, but also about the way he stood up when the indignity of being an African American sharecropper the Delta grew too great. 

But today Muddy couldn't do it. He was tired of being picked on."I ain't a boy," he said. "And I sure ain't YOUR boy." 

The boss man's face went red with anger as Muddy walked away."Stop right there or you'll never work in this town again!"But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.
And so Muddy left the Delta and headed up to Chicago with his guitar and his blues. 

Turk created the illustrations with watercolor, oil pastels, china marker, printing ink, and collage. Another top favorite and also New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Book of 2017.

Veirs, Laura. (2018). Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten. Illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. San Francisco, CA; Chronicle Books.

This picture book biography is about folk singer and guitarist, Elizabeth Cotten who is most well know for a song she composed at the age of 11, "Freight Train." Veirs captures the perseverance Elizabeth Cotten showed and how it was Cotton's housekeeping work for the Seegers that helped to place her on a stage for all to come to know. And as lovely and powerful as the words are to this story, the images made me want to weep. 

First time illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh's graphite illustrations are moving and evocative. She made me want to look and relook every single page. Stunning and evocative work. Here is a link to her website. You will want to check out her work.  One example of her art:

Street Work: Brooklyn, NY 2017

This is Elizabeth Cotten performing.  I love this video as it helps me to get a sense of the woman and her music. She was quite the storyteller. 

Wallace, Sandra Neil.  (2018). Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. New York: Simon & Schuster. 
from Between the Lines
This picture book biography explains about the life of African American NFL player Ernie Barnes (1938-2009) who became an American painter during the 20th century. This picture book focuses on Ernie's love for painting and what he needed to do in order to become a painter having grown up in the Jim Crow era. One section of the text that really moved me was the exchange Ernie had with an art tour guide when he first visited an art museum in North Carolina. He asked where the paintings by Black artists were and was told, "Your people don't express themselves in that way." Although this biography tells the story of a man destined to paint, it situates that story within the story of the civil rights movement. 

Bryan Collier who included an artist's note in which he explained meeting Ernie Barnes in 2000 at an art festival created the images for the book using watercolor and collage-his signature art style.  This book is evocative, informative, and moving.

Walters, Eric. (2018). From The Heart of Africa: A Book of Wisdom. New York: Tundra Books.

This picture book features aphorisms from Africa that have been collected and then illustrated by Eric Waters. In the introduction Walters explains that the aphorisms were ones he heard from friends. I appreciated that where each aphorism came from was listed along with an interpretation. 

The images were created by more than a dozen artists who created the illustrations using traditional and digital media. 

A portion of the royalties will be given to aid Kenyan orphans through Creation of Hope. Further Penguin Random House Canada will match the donation. Hope you will buy a copy.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. (2017). Dorothea Lange: The Photographer Who Found the Faces of the Depression. Illustrated by Sarah Green. Park Ridge, IL: Albert Whitman & Company.

Carole Boston Weatherford's writing always draws me in and this picture book biography of one of my favorite photographers is no exception. Weatherford allows us a more personal glimpse of the iconic photographer beginning with the nickname Lange was called by peers after she had polio.  They called her Limpy.  It was this sense of other that Weatherford says Lange embodied that allowed her to empathize so greatly with those she would capture on film. The inclusion of original photographs makes this a keeper.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Teaching about Perseverance, Invention, and History

Image result for All the Way to Havana


Margarita Engle's All the Way to Havana, illustrated by Mike Curato, is a celebration of perseverance and ingenuity. The story told is simple. A family sets out across the countryside heading to Havana, Cuba in order to visit a newborn relative bearing gifts and cake in their very old 1954 blue Cara Cara Chevy.  Before they can get on the road though the car needs to be fixed. We learn that it simply isn't making the right noise as today it sounds like a tiny baby chick.

The narrator, a young boy, helps his dad figure out what's making the wrong sound and together they fix the car after several wrong tries.

Are they discouraged?

The narrator tells us:

"We don't give up.
We experiment.
We invent."

As I read this I thought about American poet, William Carlos Williams and imagined how he would have been proud to hear this young boy speaking. Williams told us long ago in the poem,  Deep Religious Faith, that the job of the poet was invention.  In this story, everyday people are poet inventors. This simple picture book tells us what invention sounds like, looks like, and the taste of its sweat.


The family finally gets into the car and they are joined by neighbors who need to travel too. The car quickly fills up and the narrator says that he felt "like we're traveling in a barrel of elbows and knees." I love the playfulness of that and how it sounds like something a child might say.  As the family travels across the countryside, we hear the various sounds the car makes and encounter lots of other vintage American cars when the Chevy rides along "the curved road by the seawall" that leads into the city of Havana.

"...Mama points out noiosy old cars of every color--yellow, pink, purple, green, orange, and even a bright red car with huge fins like a lurking shark."

As the setting shifts from country to city, the beat of the lines change too--becoming more syncopated. The narrator tells us that some of the cars have "torn seats, shattered windows, and cracked mirrors." Cars "roar, growl, whine, or putt putt but most just honk, honk, honk as they glide, bumpety bump on potholed city streets."

After getting to Tia's home and meeting his newborn baby cousin, eating cake and opening presents, the narrator falls asleep and is awakened to learn it is time to start driving home. The next two-page spread is bathed in blue night as the car makes it way back across the rolling hills, under a waxing moon.

Engle closes the story the next morning when the narrator and his dad work "under the hood" again, never giving up, never losing hope..." The car which was Abuelo's as a young man will someday be his.


At the end of the book, Engle includes an author's note explaining that American cars stopped being imported to Cuba after 1959. We know that is because of the embargos enacted by the United States in the late 50s and again in the early 60s.  As such, Cubans had to remain "creative" in order "to keep machines of all sorts running long past the age wealthier people would discard them."

The book closes with an illustrator's note. Mike Curato outlines the process he went through in order to create the lush paintings.  He writes, "I created the illustrations by combining pencil drawings, paintings, and textures from the  photographs I took while in Cuba." Fascinating end pages invite readers to study the variety of classic cars that populate Cuba. As Curato notes, the cars may not always look as they were first intended because the Cuban "people have to work with what they have, so some car have parts that use to belong to completely different cars."


What I especially like about the picture book is how the subject of cars can help to tell the bigger story about the "everyday ingenuity of poor people everywhere who have to struggle, persevere, create, and invent on a daily basis."

I plan to read the story aloud to a group of first graders and their teachers in a few weeks at a public school in the Bronx. It's a book I'll leave with them as I am certain the children will want to revisit the text again and again.  Depending on how things go, perhaps we'll talk a little bit about ingenuity and maybe we'll do some drawing and writing too. I hope as we grope towards some kind of meaning, that the boy's insights will be ours too:

"We don't give up.
We experiment.
We invent."

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

#SOL18: Motherhood

The Familiar Falling Away (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. - Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (p. 22). 


For each easyspace, I have occupied and forward movement felt--grief nonetheless reasserts itself and some days, even two years after, I stumble.  Life after Rob feels cumbersome. The starkest difference between life prior to Rob's death and now is that living life then was effortless. I had no idea.

Loss continues to open me to new understandings. Now, unmoored, life requires a level of attention I did not need before, revealing the unfamiliar--especially of parenting.


The image that tops this post is one I made of Devon running on a day we ditched school and work and I made images of Devon playing in the state park nearby. It was one of those fabulous fog days.

"What do you want me to do?" my son asked.
"Just take off and run. Here, take the umbrella."

Coming through the Rye (M.A. Reilly, 2011)
I did not know that day would later be a placeholder for the intangible time that rises between a son and his mother. Rob had gone to work that morning and Devon and I had gone to play.  I tell you now years later, I am so grateful for all that the image reminds me of and the place viewing it opens.

That was day about love. I did not know that then.

Later, we would return to another field. That evening I would lift my camera and see my son running through the field. Click.

So much more was captured then.


Being a single mom now is stressful and at times, tender. Without Rob to talk through situations, I find myself acknowledging the limitations of being a mom.  There's so much that exceeds my grasp.

This past week my son turned 19. In a few weeks he'll be off to Europe where he so wants to live. I wonder what Rob would have to say about all this? What words might he offer? What perspective would he share? The familiar stance of mother-son has slipped as Devon has aged. What is emerging? Somedays I wonder where we have gone. 

What remains regardless of all of the doubt and worry, tenderness and talk is love. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Few Writing Resources for the Restless Writer

Crows on the Mind: A Self Portrait (2017)
I have been cutting my heart out the last year writing a memoir, that I suspect now will become a trilogy.  I have the first book written and have tucked it away as I write the second. The third is nothing more than good hope. 

Each section written, requires rest. My resting moments where I distance myself from the stories I am telling are often ones where I am reading.  In 2013 I wrote a post listing important texts that have aided me as a writer and thinker.  In this post, I update that list, citing works I recently found compelling. Here's a link to the 2013 post.

A Few Books that Help Me to Consider How Place Shapes a Person
Bachelard, Gaston. (2014). The Poetics of Space. New York: Penguin.
Basho. (1996). Back Roads to Far Towns. New York: Ecco.
Biss, Eula. (2009). Notes from No Man’s Land.  St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press.
De Botton, Alain. (2008). The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Vintage.
Ehrlich, Gretel. (1986). The Solace of Open Spaces. New York: Penguin.
Lopez, Barry. (1989). Crossing Open  Ground. New York: Vintage.
Norris, Kathleen. (2001). Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Oliver, Mary. (2016). Upstream: Selected Essays. New York: Penguin.
Stenger, Wallace. (1987). The American West as Living Space.  University of Michigan Press.

A Few Books That Inspire Me to Look Closely (Really this list is arbitrary.  Perhaps substitute with those texts you cannot help but put down/pick up/put down/pick up/Turn towards and away... and so on)
Currey, Mason, (2013). Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. New York: Borzoi Book.
Danticat, Edwidge. (2017). The Art Of Death: Writing the Final Story. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. 
Didion, Joan. (2006). The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Vintage.
Doré, Garance. (2015). Love Style Life. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Li, Yiyun. (2017). Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. New York: Random House.
Solnit, Rebecca. (2014). The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. San Antonio, TXL: Trinity University Press.

A Few Books To Tune Your Ears and Call You to Play
Rushdie, Salman. (1991). Haroun and the Sea of Stories. New York: Granta Books.

A Few Books To Strengthen Your Own Art as Writer
Casey, Maud. (2018). The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. 
Clark, Roy Peter. (2008). Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. New York: Little Brown.
Doty, Mark. (2010). The Art of Description. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press. 
Gardner, John. (1979). On Moral FictionNew York: Basic Books.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. (2013). Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Vintage.
Lopate, Philip. (2013). To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. New York: Free Press.
Smith, Marion Roach. (2011). The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing& Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Woolf, Virginia. (1985). “A  Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being. New york: Mariner Books.

A Few Books To Complicate Your Teaching Practices
Latta, Margharet Macintyre. (2013). Curricular Conversations: Play is the (Missing) Thing. New York: Routledge.
Newkirk, Tom. (2017). "Telling a Better Story about Writing." Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.