Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thinking Ahead

Every Dec. 31 I write personal and professional goals that I plan to accomplish during the new year. Actually, it's more like revising the ones I didn't accomplish the year before. It's embarrassing to admit that I've had the same goals for years and years. I start out determined and inspired, but I never quite get there.
Well, I think I've finally come up with an action plan that will work. It's so simple. I've used this strategy to plan my teaching goals for the last 3 yrs. I don't know why I never made the connection to the goals I set for myself.

At the beginning of every school year, our faculty formulates SMART goals. You've probably already heard of this strategey, but in case you haven't, here it is in a nutshell. SMART is an acronym for:

So, instead of my usual goal of improving my writing skills, my SMART goal is:
  • attend our local spring writing conference
  • enroll in an online poetry class this summer
  • write for two poems each week
  • read at least 3 poems every day
  • read a book on writer's craft once a month

I have other writing goals too, but the "improving my writing" goal must come first.

What about you, what are your writing goals for 2010? How do you plan to accomplish them?

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Last week, my students wrote poems and made holiday cards for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was proud of the gratitude and support my students showed toward the soldiers. The activity brought back memories of Vietnam and how our soldiers were treated so poorly.

I was in the military during the Vietnam War. I was never sent to combat, but I had several friends who were. This is a poem I'm working on in rememberance of a friend who was drafted and sent to Vietnam.

What He Lost

and congratulated,
hometown hero
of our high school
football team—

My best friend,
barely eighteen
was drafted
to the big league--

He didn’t want to go,
but his country needed him,
always a team player—
he did what he had to do.

Two years later
he came home
an outcast
disdained by the town
that once loved him.

No thanks
No welcome home
No ticker tape parade
All he had left were
scars so deep
no one could see—
permanent reminders
of what he lost
in Vietnam.

Wishing all of us peace on earth.

Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gifts From the Heart Not the Store

I don't usually blog during the week, but an email arrived today that I just had to share from

I'm always looking for ideas to help my students give the gift of their poetry. We've done chapbooks, posters, cards, poetry cubes, poetry mobiles, pictures using items from nature, etc., but I never thought of a poetry snowglobe or poetry ornaments.

If you're looking for some great ideas for last minute gifts that come from the heart, take a look at the "Do-It-Yourself: Holiday Poetry Activities for Kids."

What other ideas do you have for sharing gifts of poetry?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

POETRY FRIDAY:Poetry Stretch and Word of the Month

This week I participated in the The Miss Rumphius Monday Poetry Stretch. The challenge was to write a poem about time. I've been thinking about time a lot lately. You see, my first grandchild is due in May. I can't believe my son is going to be a dad. Not so long ago, he was a just baby himself. Okay, that was 31 yrs. ago, but it sure doesn't seem that long. He and his brother grew up much too fast. Now they are starting families of their own. What fantastic dads they're going be! This poem is for my son, Tim and his little one.

To My Unborn Grandchild

It wasn’t so long ago
that your daddy
was a baby—

my baby

Even before he was born
I knew I would love him

From the first time
the nurse placed
your daddy in my arms
I wished he would stay little,

I wanted to watch him sleep
and read him stories,
touch his tiny toes,
and listen to his first words

But only love lasts
babies grow up
much too fast
and soon your daddy
became a young man,
a young man
who dreamed of a baby
of his own.

Now he’s waiting
for you to arrive—
so he can watch you sleep
and read you stories,
touch your tiny toes
and listen to your first words.

He already knows
he’ll love you

so will I.

Love, Grandma

You can read more of the "time" poems here.

I also wrote a poem for David L Harrison's Word of the Month challenge. The word this month is bone. There's still time to play. Check it out here.

I never knew my father, but I used to imagine the things we'd do together if he ever came back home. Somehow, even in my dreams, he never stayed.


After dinner
Mom asked if I
wanted to break the
wishbone with her.

When I said, “No.”
She didn’t say anything
but I could tell
she was hurting.

I was hurting too
remembering how
you and I shared the wish-
bone every Thanksgiving.

You’d always laugh,
wrap your fingers tight
around your half
and pretend to snap it
before I was ready.

But then you’d
let me win
so I could make
my own special wish.

Well, I’m older now,
and since you left
have lost their magic.

So what good are they?
Wishes don’t come true,
do they,

Thursday, November 26, 2009


We have a little stray cat in our neighborhood that stops by now and then hoping for a handout. I was glad she came by tonight. I can't imagine how hard daily life must be for her. I wanted to take her picture, but I was afraid the flash would frighten her, so instead I just sat with her while she ate. I wish I could give her a home, but two cats are all I can handle.

Thanksgiving Night

Stray cat and I sit
on the back porch sharing
leftover turkey.
Her purr tells me she’s thankful
she won’t go hungry— tonight.

My kitties, Butterscotch and Daisy enjoyed their holiday meal. They ate with gusto but didn't seem quite as thankful as the little stray.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

POETRY FRIDAY: Heaven Looks a Lot Like Mall

Heaven Looks A Lot Like the Mall

Wendy Mass

When sixteen-year old Tessa suffers a shocking accident in gym class, she finds herself in heaven (or what she thinks is heaven), which happens to bear a striking resemblance to her hometown mall. In the tradition of It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, Tessa starts reliving her life up until that moment. She sees some things she'd rather forget, learns some things about herself she'd rather not know, and ultimately must find the answer to one burning question--if only she knew what the question was.

When I heard that author Wendy Mass would be visiting our school next spring, I wasn't familiar with her work so I decided to read some of her books. I'm so glad I did. I started with Heaven Looks A Lot Like the Mall because I love verse novels. After reading the back cover (quoted above) I was expecting an entertaining story, but I wasn't expecting just how much of myself I'd see in the story.

Tessa, with the help of her guide, a boy she refers to as Nail Boy, has the opportunity to find out who she really is. She realizes that she's done many things in the past she isn't proud of. She also realizes that although her focus has been on the negative parts of her life, there have been many positive times too. I think readers will see a little of themselves in Tessa because we've all done things we wish we could take back, and often forget to enjoy the good things. I also think that many of us go through times in our life when we wonder who we really are. One poem I especially like asks the question that many teens (and adults) have. It begins:

Speaking of college,
why are my parents making me
write my college application essay
when there's still two years of junior year left?

And why does the essay question have to be so hard?
Who are you?
They have the nerve to ask me this,
and then tell me I can attach extra paper,
if I need it.

Who am I?
I have no idea.

I won't give away the ending, but I will say I've been thinking about it since I finished the book. I have some questions I can't wait to ask Wendy Mass about Heaven Looks A Lot Like the Mall.

Three of her other books, Every Soul a Star, A Mango-Shaped Space and Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life are on my Christmas Wish List. They aren't verse novels, but I like the author's voice and style so I'm certain I'll enjoy reading them.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

POETRY FRIDAY: Poetry Stretch

The Miss Rumphius Monday Poetry Stretch this week was to write a poem around a prefix. This is a second version of my poem. I'm still not happy with the rhythm, but it's getting there. As always, suggestions are welcome and appreciated.

to hurt Mom again
I decide to lie—
Allergies caused
my red swollen eyes.

every promise
every I love you—
the devoted father
I thought I knew.

the way you left
without good-bye
without a hug
without telling me—

you abandoned me
you broke Mom’s heart

you tore our family—
tree apart.

what to say
what to do—
Please come home
I still love you.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

POETRY FRIDAY: Splitting an Order

Ted Kooser is one of my all time favorite poets. His poems capture everyday life and remind us of what's really important. This poem arrived in my email earlier this week, and I thought you might enjoy it as much as I did. It comes from his Valentines collection.

Splitting an Order
Ted Kooser

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

Read the rest of the poem here.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Poetry Friday: Inspired to Write

Kids love riddles and so do I. Spot the Plot written by J Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger is a collection of 13 riddle poems that every reading/language arts teacher should own. It is fantastic for teaching plot!

The recommended age group is K-4, but I never pay attention to that sort of thing. A good book works for all ages. I teach grades 6-8 . My students love humor, and they love figuring out puzzles so I knew Spot the Plot would be a hit.

On Monday, I read the first poem that begins with:

The sky shook,
the wind tossed
me in the air.
Toto-ly lost.

That’s all it took, and my 7th. graders to stretched their hands in the air hoping to be the one chosen to solve the riddle.

The bell rang before I could read anymore. Middle school kids have many important things on their minds so I thought they’d forget all about the riddles. No chance. Tuesday came, and they wanted to hear more “plot riddles.” Not one of them knew what “plot” meant before I introduced the poems

A great book inspires writers, and my middle school writers were certainly inspired. On Thursday, they came to class with their own plot riddle poems (and it wasn't even an assignment)! See if you can guess the stories.

Awaiting a kiss,
from her Prince Charming,
her three fairy friends
were trying to be alarming.

Cursed in a coma,
she had to await,
her true love’s kiss
for her to awake.

After this was done,
there was lots of laughter,
the new princess and prince,
lived Happily Ever After.


A girl with locks of gold
was in a hungry mood.
Despite what she was told,
she went to find some food.

Then she smelled something yummy
which came from inside a home.
Food soon filled her tummy
and throughout the home she roamed.

A bed she found
and took a rest.
Then she heard a sound
and discovered she’s a guest.

Sitting downstairs
were three bears
waiting in chairs.


They know what plot means now thanks to Spot the Plot.

Tricia wrote a wonderful review and shared some of the poems from the Spot the Plot on her blog, The Miss Rumphius Effect. Be sure to check it out here.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Recently, I realized my mother has never told me much about what I was like as a baby. The only thing she ever told me was that my father would put me in the closet when I cried until I eventually fell asleep. The other night on the phone, I asked her to tell me more, but it's been over fifty years and many babies came after me. She said she really couldn't remember anything. Funny how after all this time, I just now started wondering about it.

Today, I wrote this in my journal. Is it the start of a poem or just random thoughts? I'm not sure. Whatever it is, it still needs work. Suggestions and comments are welcome and appreciated. : )


My mother never talks about
what I was like as a baby.
Anytime I ask she says
I don’t remember.

The only story she tells
is how when I was little
my father used to put me
in a dark closet until
I cried myself to sleep.
She says he hated hearing
me cry but when I ask her

she just says
I don’t remember.

My father wouldn’t
have to worry now
(If he were around)


I wonder
if it's because
somewhere deep down


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: Trooper

Earlier this month, our local news reported on a pit bull found in a D.C. city dumpster, apparently a victim of dog fighting. She was taped inside a plastic trash bag and discarded.

I haven't been able to stop thinking about her and what a horrific existence she must have had. My heart aches to know that there are many animals abused everyday. I can't understand how someone could put an animal through so much pain.

I needed to do something, so I sent a donation in her honor to a fund for abused animals. That just didn't seem like enough so as I thought about what to share this week for Poetry Friday, I decided to share her story. She fought so hard to survive, the police officer who rescued her named her Trooper.

I couldn't get the lines to indent the way I wanted them to so I hope it still makes sense.

for Trooper

You weren’t willing
to die that day—
when they taped
your bruised and battered
body inside a plastic bag
and tossed you
into a city dumpster.

You weren’t willing
to die that day—
when you bravely chewed
your way through the darkness—

a hole just big enough
to be seen

your face layered
with blood and flies

barely alive—

You weren’t willing
to die that day
when your savior
freed your tortured limbs

too weak to stand alone
too strong to give up

You weren’t willing
to die that day—
neglected, abused
forced to be a fighter

but still

to forgive—

You can see a picture of Trooper and read more about her progress here.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Poetry Friday: Last Year's Sneakers

Tricia's poetry stretch this week at The Miss Rumphius Effect was to write a poem about an article of clothing. Be sure to visit her site to read the great poems folks wrote in response to the challenge.

Like most kids, when my sons were younger, getting just the right sneakers was always high on their back to school shopping list. As soon as we got home from the store, off went the old sneakers, on with the new. The old sneakers abandoned and forgotten. This is my tribute to all the old sneakers still lying on some kid's bedroom floor.

Last Year’s Sneakers

Lie on the bedroom floor
their smooth white skin
now scuffed by time
their laces once neon tangerine
now thread-bare apricot
their soles once full of bounce
now worn and weary

Last year’s sneakers
lie on the bedroom floor
their replacements
unboxed, laced up
and admired


Last year’s sneakers
lie on the bedroom floor
ready to rest

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Poetry Friday: Embarrassing Then, Funny Now

Yesterday, we got a post card in the mail announcing monthly bulk trash pick-up. As I thought about the items I might set out, a childhood experience came back to me.. I remembered the embarrassment and horror that my friends would find out our family secret, but now it's just plain funny. I couldn't get the formatting to work the way I wanted it to, but here's what I wrote in my journal:


Tuesday nights after supper,
our family went shopping—
cruising rich neighborhoods
scanning garbage heaps like pirates
searching for trash night treasures.

There! Mom would squeal,
That vinyl chair is perfect!

We’d coast along the curb
so Dad could get a better look,
Yep! Looks ALMOST new!

In a breath,
he was out of the car,
our prize hoisted into the trunk
the lid battened down with rope—
we were ready to sail

(so embarrassing)
Dad knocked on the door requesting
permission to pick through
a pile full possibilities.

Dad could fix anything
worn out washers
broken bikes
toasters, TVs—

Our house a bounty
of other people’s

I worried my friends
would spot

And wished
just once—

We could shop
in a store
like they did.

Friday, July 31, 2009


With only two weeks before school starts, there's so much to do to get ready! I'm always looking for time savers, and I just found a great one in J Patrick Lewis' new collection, COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER: A Poem for Every Day of the School Year. It is an excellent choice for teachers who want to bring more poetry into their classroom.

My first thought was that this would be a wonderful gift for new teachers who don't yet have files of resources. What a fun way to encourage them to share daily poems with their students!

But new teachers shouldn't have all the fun. This collection is an excellent resource for all teachers. The poems in COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER are perfect for daily warm-ups. Kids will love watching the days decrease with each daily poem.

The 180 poems are short and contain lots of teaching points. For example poem 172 begins:

Eid ul-Fitr

The new moon is rising.
Ramadan has passed,
Holiest of holy months
When true believers fast.

Gathering at the mosque,
Borne on wings of prayer,
Quitting fast to feast,
A festival affair

I teach in a school where many religions and cultures are represented. Wouldn’t this poem make a great discussion starter or writing prompt for students to share some of their own customs and traditions? In addition, kids are learning about a culture they probably aren’t very familiar with. Other poems about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Easter, St. Patrick, etc., will also provide students with cultural mini-lessons.

Another time-saving feature of the collection is the poems are written in many different forms: concrete poems, epitaphs, quatrains, acrostics, riddles, limericks, haikus, and even an abecedarian. I teach many of these forms so I’m always looking for examples kids will understand and relate to. For example, I think poem 175, “Reading Harry Potter Under the Sheets” is perfect teaching quatrains and rhyme scheme. The first three stanzas:

I’m quarter-past Chapter One
Of the last of Harry’s feats.
This flashlight’s my midnight sun.
I burrow under the sheets.

Book Seven’s supposed to be
The last of the Rowling run.
Gazillions can’t wait to see
Who’s defeated and who’s won.

Will Voldemort get his due?
Will Ron or Hermione die?
Or Hagrid? Is Hagrid through?
Now who will it be and why?

This poem will definitely get my middle school students’ attention!

An abecedarian isn’t a form I’ve taught in the past, but with this example, I think my students would be able to write one of their own. Poem 174 begins:

The Librarian

After school one day I was talking to Mr.
Butterwinkle, the school librarian.
Can you
“Easy,” he said. “But
First I think you should
Go to the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and…

Note: (You can read more abecedarian poems from a Miss Rumphius’ poetry challenge here.)

J Patrick Lewis has provided busy teachers with a time-saving resource. Like the poems, the illustrations by Ethan Long are lively and fun. I can’t wait to share COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER with my students. This collection will be a delightful addition to any classroom and especially enjoyed by children in grades 3 and up.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Poetry Friday: SOLD

I finished reading SOLD by Patricia McCormick last week, and I still can't stop thinking about it. This book was painful yet riveting to read. At one point, I put it away determined not to finish it because the story just too horrifying, but then I had to know the ending.

Written in free verse, the story is told from the point of view of 13 yr. old Lakshmi who lives in Nepal with her mother, little brother and negligent step-father. Her family lives in poverty, food is scarce and daily survival is increasingly difficult.

Lakshmi spends her days tending to her small garden, caring for her goat, going to school and dreaming of a brighter future. Then, something happens that changes her life forever; she is sold. Believing she is going to work as a maid for a wealthy family, she soon finds herself living a nightmare.

This book took an emotional toll on me. As I read, I couldn't comprehend how something this monsterous could happen and continues to go on. Each year 12,ooo Nepali girls are sold into sexual slavery. Patricia McCormick did extensive research traveling to Nepal and India to interview the women who suvived to tell their story. The book is written in their honor.

This is an important book that brings awareness to a generally unknown human crisis.

SOLD is YA novel and is recommended for readers high school age and beyond.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

While I Was Away...

Wow, it's been quite a while since my last post! I've had a very busy month: writing curriculum, attending a week-long children's lit conference, taking gradutate classes, planning for next year, household chores, and spending time with family. You know, all those things teachers do while they have the summer "off."

One of the hightlights of the summer was attending the Shenandoah University Children's Lit Conference. The theme was "Getting Boys Hooked on Books." I got to hear some terrific authors: Jon Scieszka, Ralph Fletcher, Jack Gantos, Jerry Pinkney, Gordon Korman, Chris Crutcher, David Macaulay, among others. It was great fun to hear how some of their books came about and their thoughts on motivating boys to read.

One author suggested having a "Guys Only" section of reading material in the class. I like that idea very much, and it got me to thinking that I might try a "Recommended by Guys" section. Middle schoolers love to share their opinions and having their peers recommend a book might be the encouragement my boys need to do more reading.

I returned home with some fresh ideas and fantastic new books to share in August. I'll be writing more about the conference in future posts.

So, how's your summer going so far?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Poetry Friday

I love taking writing classes. I've taken many, and I've learned something from each of them. In this economy, I hadn't planned on taking any classes this year. It was a luxury I didn't think I could afford.

Then, I heard about Laura Salas' new class, a rhyming poetry workshop. Poetry writing classes for children's writers are rare so I really wanted to take this one. When I saw how affordable the price was, I immediately signed up! I'm so glad I did.

Anyone who has ever taken one of Laura's online classes will tell you that she is an excellent teacher. Her lessons are clearly written with helpful links and tons of examples. I'm not much of a techie, but with Laura's instructions I was able to navigate the site and take advantage of the multi-media resources.

Technology is great, but nothing takes the place of personal one-on-one feedback. Laura gave detailed critiques with honest yet encouraging suggestions. In all the classes I've taken, I've never had an instructor give such an indepth line-by-line critique. I could tell that Laura put a lot of time and thought into her responses.

I took the class with a wonderful group of folks. I enjoyed reading their poems, and the suggestions they gave me to improve my poems were so helpful. Everyone worked to encourage and support each other.

It's tough to put yourself out there and share your work with others. The instructor sets the tone for the class, and Laura's warm personality always puts everyone at ease. She gives her students a safe environment to take risks in their writing.

Another personal touch in Laura's classes is that she is generous with her time. She tirelessly answers every question and shares her personal experiences and knowledge of the publishing world.

My only regret is that I didn't have as much time to put into the class as I had hoped. The last month of school is one of the busiest times for teachers. I would have loved to have participated more in the book discussions and revising my poems, but I am printing all the critiques so I'll have plenty to work on this summer.

The class has ended, but the lessons I've learned will help me to continue improving as a writer.

We're very fortunate to have Laura, a talented poet and teacher, offering poetry classes. I plan to take as many of her poetry classes that I can while she is still offering them. I hope some of our other Poetry Friday folks will join me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Poetry Friday: Love Poems

I am crazy busy teaching full time, taking two graduate classes and doing my homework for Laura Salas' wonderful new rhyming poetry class (more about that next week). I hadn't planned on posting, but I just finished Gary Soto's newest collection of love poems: Partly Cloudy: Poems of Love and Longing and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to let you know about it. Sylvia has an excellent review of the collection over at Poetry for Children. Gary Soto is a multi-talented writer of picture books, novels, short stories, and poetry collections for all ages. If he's not an author you're familiar with, you don't know what you're missing! You can read more about Gary Soto and his work here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Poetry Friday: Classroom Connection

I read so many wonderful reviews of J Patrick Lewis’ new book, The Underwear Salesman: And Other Jobs for Better or Verse I couldn’t wait to read it, and of course I loved it! As I read, the poems seemed perfect for teaching two very difficult literary elements, tone and mood. My middle school students frequently get them confused and have a hard time understanding the difference in the two so I try to review them several times each school year.

The poems in The Underwear Salesman work great because they’re short, fun to read, and each poem has a personality of its own. Middle school students love to role play so the unusual careers in the collection such as: “Bathroom Attendant” and “Cuckoo-Clock Repairman” gave them lots of room to get into character.

Here's what I did:

First, I modeled by reading the poem “Librarian” using a very uppity boastful tone of voice.

No one has more fun than I!
I’ve met Harriet the Spy,
Ferdinand the Bull, and Pooh.
(Eeyore says, “How do you do?”)

You can read the rest of the poem here: Poetry for Children.

After the laughter stopped, students identified the tone I used, and then they identified the mood they felt as they listened to the poem.

Next, pairs of students selected a poem from The Underwear Salesman and wrote it down in their journal. I gave each pair an index card with a “secret” tone word on it. After practicing reading their poem using the assigned tone, they read their poem aloud to the class.

I divided the class in half. One group focused on tone, the other focused on mood. Using a resource list of tone and mood words, the groups identified the tone and mood of the poem. When students began pointing out that someone speaking in a boastful tone could make listeners feel hurt or angry, I knew they got it!

We had a lot of fun with this lesson. Next time, I think I’ll try having students read the poem then choose the tone they think the person who does that job might use instead of assigning a tone.

If you’re looking for a fun way to teach tone and mood, give The Underwear Salesman a try!

Want to know more about J Patrick Lewis?
Read an interview with him over at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

Check out J Patrick Lewis' website here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Poetry Friday

As a kid, I loved amusement parks. The Merry-Go-Round was one of my favorite rides, but there was something mysterious about those horses that made me wonder what they might be thinking. Today a student told me she got a carousel music box for her birthday, and I started thinking about those horses again. So, I wanted to write her a poem. This is what I have so far.

All day long
carousel ponies sleep
dreaming of wild open ranges
grazing green meadows
galloping across mesas
until dark—

and then the music begins...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Poetry Friday: Happy Birthday, Lee Bennett Hopkins!

In honor of Lee's upcoming birthday, April 13, I'm sharing a review of a collection of autobiographical poems, BEEN TO YESTERDAYS. This collection was first published in 1995, and continues to be one I use in my classroom.

The emotion packed poems follow young Lee through his eventful and often painful adolescence. The very first poem in the collection is my favorite because it is a reminder that a picture might be worth a thousand words, but a picture doesn't always tell the truth.

from "Smile

for the camera."
the photographer
as we posed.
all dressed up
in our best
Sunday clothes.

"Smile big now.
Smile wide.
The five of you
look like
birds of a feather

How many of us have appeared "like birds of a feather" for a photograph when things were actually falling apart?

I especially love the conversational tone of the poems, perfect for reminding us that some conversations are never forgotten such as when your parents tell you they're getting divorced. My mother was very angry when my father left us. I wish she would've softened the blow a little the way Lee's mother did in "Since."

But he's still
your Daddy.
He always will be.
He's still a good man.
Still part of me.

It's important to know
that he'll always
love you,
your sister,
your brother,
and Grandma too.

BEEN TO YESTERDAYS is always popular with my middle school students because they can identify with the topics Lee writes about. They have experienced: divorce, trying to figure out who they are, missing an absent parent, and the death of a loved one.The poems reach out to young people, even boys who claim they don't like poetry.

This is also an excellent collection to teach students about using voice in their writing. I use the poem,"Another" about overhearing parents argue and "the/dreaded/word—/divorce" as a prompt for my eighth graders to write about an overheard conversation. Kids overhear much more than we're ever aware of. Their poems retelling conversations range from hiliarious to deeply moving.

About writing the collection, Lee says, "I still marvel at my creating BEEN TO YESTERDAYS: POEMS OF A LIFE (BoydsMills Press) published over fourteen years ago…so long I almost forget writing it.The book received great national attention including being an SCBWI Golden KiteHonor Book and winning the Christopher Medal which was presented to me by James Earl Jones! But – I couldn’t attend the affair in NYC due to a prior commitment to a friend who had asked me a long time prior to speak at a dinner meeting in South Carolina! As I was eating spaghetti all I could think of was Mr. Jones. My agent, the great-late Marilyn E. Marlow accepted the award for me…and never let me forget the moment!

…YESTERDAYS continues to be read and read and used in all kinds of programs from youth groups to Al-Anon groups. The small book has touched so many; I never knew the power of the words could have gone on so long."

If you've read BEEN TO YESTERDAYS, read it again. I discover something new every time I read it. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on a great one!

The final stanzas in the poem, "To" make a perfect ending for the collection.

this world
a whole lot

I grow up,

You sure have, made the world a whole lot brighter,Lee! Happy Birthday!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Poetry Friday

Yesterday, Elaine over at Wild Rose Reader, shared an article called, "Astronomers catch a shooting star for the 1st time."

Anything abour astronomy always "catches" my eye. As a little girl, I dreamed of being the first woman astronaut (way,way before Sally Ride). When I was old enough, I joined the Air Force just so I could be around airplanes and hang out with the pilots.

So, when my sons were very young, they were a captive audience. I read them tons of books about the universe and space travel. My older son became especially interested and got his first telescope when he was still in elementary school. Almost every evening, no matter how hot or how cold, he'd take his telescope out, and he and his little brother looked at the constellations, and when they found something extra special, they'd call me to come take a look too.

Years ago, I wrote a poem about them, and Lee Bennett Hopkins liked it enough to include it in one of his anthologies. Later, it was made into a poster by a publisher of educational materials. Although the poem's written from the perspecitive of a younger brother admiring his older brother, I can hear both of my sons saying the last line about his brother.


Clear winter evenings
my brother sets up
his telescope in
the middle of the yard
and shows me the stars—

He says someday
he’ll discover a new one
and be famous—

But, I wonder
if he knows
he’s already a star—
to me.

It's no secret, they're both stars to me. My older son is now a physics professor who has also taught astronomy. He often writes about the universe on his blog:
My younger son is a writer and an IT specialist who is totally immersed in the world of technology. If you want to keep up on the latest, you can find his blog at:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Poetry Friday

I had been reading Sylvia Vardell’s blog, Poetry for Children, for several months when I found out that she also writes a column for Book Links. I loved her blog, so I immediately subscribed to the journal, and I’m so glad I did. What I discovered is that her column (along with the rest of the journal) is a fantastic resource for teachers and a great way for writers to keep up with what’s being published.

For example, in the March issue, Sylvia’s column is titled “Audiovisual Poetry.” She lists a variety of multimedia resources and ideas for classroom application. (For more ideas on using multimedia methods to share poetry, check out Poetry For Children.)

Each issue also includes a poem and tips for sharing it with children. This month the poem is “Onion Snow” by one of my favorite poets, Bobbi Katz. Sylvia explains how teachers can turn the poem into a multimedia and multisensory experience for children.
For some reason, I couldn't get the poem to line up quite the way it's supposed. I tried and tried.
The two shorter lines should be indented. My apology.

Onion Snow
I wake to heavy quiet this April morning:
a special weighted sound.
Outside my window snowflakes fall
softly, softly feathering the ground—
softly, softly bearding the daffodils.
Grandma always called it onion snow.
Arriving when wild onions have
started to grow,
those foolish fat flakes don’t
seem to know,
they are too late for winter
and misfits in spring.
“Come listen to that onion snow!”
she would have said.
“Have you ever heard
such a silence??”

"Onion Snow" Copyright c 2009 by Bobbi Katz

The rest of the journal is a gem too. Each issue has a theme, this month it’s science. There is an interview with Joyce Sidman (another fav) talking about “the challenges of portraying science and the natural world.” Teacher, Dean Schneider’s column is on “Finding the Best Novels in Verse.” Also included in this issue: the “Best New Books for Classrooms”, an interview with Sally Ride, “Science as Biography,” and so much more. Book Links covers all genres and has something for anyone interested in children’s literature.

Money is tight for most of us right now, so I’ve given up all subscriptions except for the three I enjoy most: Book Links, SCBWI Bulletin, and Children’s Writer. Each of these are worth every penny.

“Onion Snow”, Bobbi Katz, Book Links, March 2009.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Poetry Friday

A while back I read a study that said up to 93 percent of communication is nonverbal. It got me thinking about the ways men and women communicate and from that came the following tanka.

when the TV is on
you listen intently
to what it has to say
I ask if we can talk—

you turn the volume up

she stands by the pool
showing off long slender legs
in string bikini…

when your stare drops to my thighs
I pretend not to notice

in this king-sized bed
you sleep facing north, I face south
the void between us
proof opposites don’t attract
you need your space, I need mine

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Poetry Friday

One of my favorite love poems is by Nikki Giovanni.

The World Is Not A Pleasant Place to Be

the world is not a pleasant place
to be without
someone to hold and be held by

a river would stop
its flow if only
a stream were there
to recieve it

an ocean would never laugh

if clouds weren't there
to kiss her tears

Read the rest of the poem here.
Read more about Nikki Giovanni here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Poetry Friday: Thinking About Poetry

One of my goals this year was to read more poetry written for adults. I finished Jane Kenyon's Constance today. What I liked most about this collection is that I connected with the poems about losing loved ones. There were also many poems about her depression. I've been there many times so I could feel her words.

I'm also a little concerned that I didn't "get" some of the poems. That happens to me sometimes.
Maybe my mind isn't deep enough to understand. It always reminds me of how it was in school. I never seemed to get the meaning right, at least not the meaning the teacher/professor said was right. I guess I'm not someone who likes to pick a poem apart and try to analyze it like it's some scientific theory that needs to be debated and proven.

I never thought I actually liked poetry until I became a mother and teacher. That's when I first met Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Gary Soto, and all the poets I've come to love (too many to name here).

As I write this post, I realize that I love music (county, rock, pop, soul, etc.), but I don't like every song I hear on the radio. So maybe it's okay if I don't get or even like every poem. Maybe it's more important that I have found poems that I love and carry with me.

One of my favorite poems from Constance is also the title of the final collection Jane worked on before her death, Otherwise. It reminds me to enjoy and appreciate what we have because nothing is forever.


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Over at Miss Rumphius Effect , the Poetry Stretch this week was to write a love poem. My mother has been on mind so much recently. Her battle with cancer goes on, but she's beginnng to give up. Although she'll never see this poem, I hope she feels the love behind it.

Thinking About Her Life

Alone in her tiny apartment
she sits at the kitchen table,
stirring a cup of cold coffee—
daylight slowly fades.

Her friends are gone.
Beloved husband gone.
Children grown, gone.
Her soft dark hair— gone.

I visit on Saturdays,
we talk of the past
we talk of the present,
avoiding the future—

She says she’s afraid.
I’m afraid too—
but I don’t tell her
I can’t, not yet.

Instead I take her hand,
like she once took mine
helping me cross a busy street—
Now I must help her cross
over this wake of tears.

She looks to me for hope,
and I give it to her, a last gift
wrapped in a smile, a hug,
and a prayer
for my mother—

soon gone.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Poetry Friday

Singing Lessons

Every Sunday after supper, Grandpa
takes out his banjo.
A rush of music fills the empty air
like a flock of blackbirds—
and he asks me to sing.

Together, on the porch swing, we sing.
Sitting there with Grandpa,
our song calls out to the blackbirds
while his fingers fly across the banjo
sweetening the air
with family music.

As sunlight turns to starlight, the music,
the laughter, and the bright way we sing
warm the chilly air.
I slide closer to Grandpa,
one with him and his banjo:
"Bye, bye blackbirds."

We serenade the blackbirds.
The fluttering sound of music,
strumming the banjo,
and voices that need to sing
surround Grandpa
and me in ribbons of air.

Protecting us from the cool night air
like a nest wrapped around two blackbirds
covers me in music
teaching me to sing
even when there's no banjo.

A worn out old banjo,
the taste of words soaring through the air,
a chance to clap my hands and sing,
cherishing a gathering of blackbirds,
the freedom of music:
gifts from Grandpa.

Just an old banjo and some blackbirds
replenish the air with music
as I sing, still, for Grandpa.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry Friday

The Wise Woman and Her Secret

Schools were closed for two days this week due to snow and ice. I love these days because everything slows down. With the hectic schedules we all keep, it's a gift to have time to sit, look out the window and enjoy the view.

The brilliant poet, Eve Merriam, knew how important it is to take time to look closely at the world around us. In her book, The Wise Woman and Her Secret, she teaches us to do just that.

The story tells about a woman who was so wise, people from many villages to learn her secret. They believed that if the woman would reveal the secret of her wisdom, they would gain great fortunes. But, the wise woman tells them they must discover it for themselves. They begin their search but to no avail.

Little Jenny lags behind picking up pebbles, gazing at a spiderweb, and examining a tarnished penny. The others have no time for such things as they frantically continue their search. Only Jenny will find the wise woman's secret.

Eve Merriam's use of sensory language and literary elements (alliteration, simile, repetition, etc.) makes this book a great choice for teachers who use picture books to teach writing. There are so many wonderful images, a few of my favorite images include:
"Her eyes were bright as blackberries..."

"...dark hair that was streaked with white like patches of snow on the muddy spring ground."

"...they climbed and they clambered..."

"branches flowering and floating in summer..."

Linda Graves' enchanting illustrations paired with Eve Merriman's wonderful story makes Wise Woman and Her Secret a book readers of all ages will enjoy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Street Love: A Review

Street Love is an emotion-packed YA novel. One of the main characters, Damien seems to have it made. He makes good grades, has avoided the lure of joining a gang, and has been accepted to Brown University. His parents have high hopes for his future.

Junice isn't so lucky. Her mother has just been sent to prision for drug possession, and her father has been out of the picture for a long time. Junice is worried that she and her little sister, Melissa, will be separated by the system. She is determined to break free from the world of her mother and grandmother.

Damien finds Junice irresistible. She is unlike anyone he has ever known. Junice is much more guarded with her heart, but eventually allows herself to fall in love. Their love must overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, and each one of them will have to make sacrifices if they are to have a life together.

The story is left open-ended. Will their love survive, or will Damien and Junice have a change of heart?

Steet Love has a very Shakespearean feel about it. In an essay about the novel, Myers said he originally wrote the entire novel in iambic pentameter and later added some rap elements to emulate adolescent street language. One thing I especially liked was the way each character's distintive voice came through. Damien's intelligence is shown in his use of Latin phrases; his friend Kevin speaks in more of a rap. Junice's voice is tough and street-wise.

My favorite verse is spoken by Ruby, Junice's grandmother who floats in and out of reality. Life hasn't been easy for Ruby. Hers' is the voice of the blues. Here's an excerpt

Ruby Ambers

Yeah, it's hard. baby
It's hard right down to the bone,
I said, Oh, it's hard baby
It's right down to the very bone
It's hard when you're a woman
and you find yourself all alone
I've been flapping and scrapping
And running from door to door
You know I've been flapping and scrapping, honey
Running from door to door
I ain't what I used to be, ain't really Miss Ruby

I recommend Street Love for high school and up.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poetry Friday: Two Great Reads

Grow: A Novel in Verse

The events are told from twelve year old Kate's point of view, but Berneetha's determination to turn a vacant city lot into a community garden drives the plot.

One spring morning, Berneetha arrives at Kate’s house “looking like the Fourth of July” with her blue bandana, red hair, and white T-shirt. She is a big woman with a big dream.

Everyone thinks Berneetha is just a crazy lady with a purple house and thirteen cats. Even Kate isn’t convinced the garden is a good idea, but she loves Berneetha and agrees to help. Then Harlan, “a Gangsta wannabe” decides to join them. Each day, people pass by and watch as two misfit kids and an eccentric middle-aged lady work together to grow something beautiful. As the garden grows, so does Kate.

“I read that weeds
can be anything,
even beautiful flowers,
or beans growing in cornfields.
A weed is anything growing
where you don’t want it to grow.”

I enjoyed reading this quiet little book. The plot is predictable, but the lively characterization, poetic language, strong voice, and emotional twists make it a worthy read.

This would be an excellent book for teaching students to write a character sketch.
Although Berneetha is the most developed character, Kate and Harlan are dynamic characters students can relate to.

GROW by Juanita Havill is a quick read that I recommend for upper elementary students through adult.

Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry

As a writing teacher, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my students say,” I don’t know what to write about.” Thanks to Jack Prelutsky’s new book, Pizza, Pigs, and Poetry, I have an answer.

If you haven’t read this book, you’re really missing out. Jack takes readers inside his head and shows how he uses ordinary, everyday experiences to create his poems. I loved reading his personal narratives about: his mother’s awful singing, the day he tacked his father’s underwear to the wall, finding a rat under his table at a restaurant, and many other hilarious experiences he has used to spark poems.

Another feature I like in the book, is that Jack explains how he often writes about the same topics (pigs, pizza, etc.) again and again. Many young writers feel that once they’ve written about a topic, they’re finished with it. Jack shows kids that many poems (or stories) can be written about the same topic.

Like Jack’s poetry, this book is light and fun. I plan to use it in my classroom to help kids discover that they really do have lots of good ideas waiting to be written.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Poetry Friday

We have been having a wintery mix here today. I stood outside looking at icicles hanging from the tree limbs, and there almost hidden among the branches was a tiny nest, empty and silent. Although the trees looked beautiful, I couldn't help wishing for spring.

this empty gray nest
once home to the sparrows' song
silently sleeps
cradled in winter's branches
awaits the music of spring

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Passing of the Year

I read poetry written for children every day. I want to read more poems aimed at an adult audience so I decided to make it one of my goals this year.

Until recently, the only Robert Service poem I knew was The Cremation of Sam McGee. As I searched for a poem for today's Poetry Friday, I found this one. I'm glad I did because it led me to read other fine poems by Service.

Do you see anyone you know in this poem?

The Passing of the Year
Robert W. Service

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
With much of blame, with little praise.

Old Year! upon the Stage of Time
You stand to bow your last adieu;
A moment, and the prompter's chime
Will ring the curtain down on you.
Your mien is sad, your step is slow;
You falter as a Sage in pain;
Yet turn, Old Year, before you go,
And face your audience again.

That sphinx-like face, remote, austere,
Let us all read, whate'er the cost:
O Maiden! why that bitter tear?
Is it for dear one you have lost?
Is it for fond illusion gone?
For trusted lover proved untrue?
O sweet girl-face, so sad, so wan
What hath the Old Year meant to you?

And you, O neighbour on my right
So sleek, so prosperously clad!
What see you in that aged wight
That makes your smile so gay and glad?
What opportunity unmissed?
What golden gain, what pride of place?
What splendid hope? O Optimist!
What read you in that withered face?

And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?

Read the rest of the poem here.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Explore. Dream. Discover.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Having a birthday at the same time a new year begins has its advantages. It's the perfect time to reflect on who I am and what I want my life to be. I'm not much of a risk taker, and change doesn't come easy for me. But life is all about change, and we have to take risks in order to stretch and grow. So as I hang the new calendar, make a wish and blow out the candles, I'm ready for another chance to do better than I did the year before. Another chance to find a balance between the things I must do and the things I dream of doing.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain