Silent Song


160512_summer_in_the_park_desktop_primaryIt was a lovely evening. The day’s heat had eased to a comfortable level and the crowd gathered around the stage was relaxed, enjoying a free concert and time with friends and/or family. Those with foresight sat comfortably in a sea of lawn chairs. Others sprawled on the lawn and we sat on a nearby curb. The musicians pumped their “alternative folk”‘ music through the air, making casual conversation impossible.

It was a perfect opportunity to people watch. My eyes wandered through the crowd, watching people interact, imagining their comments and relationships. The audience swayed to the music, tapping time with their sandaled feet, smiling, laughing. Young children swirled and twirled safe in the circle of their families, delighting in the music and movement. To the side of the stage a sign language interpreter fluidly signed the lyrics to a small group before her. Her hands were poetry in motion, language made visible, a silent song in the air.

Across the way a splash of color drew my eye. A young boy, perhaps 7 years old, with a bright red shirt and neon green and yellow shoes knelt on the grass. In his arms he held a young child, maybe 2 or 3, whose head rested on his shoulder. The boy was kneeling tall, struggling to hold the child, as he was large enough that he overfilled the boy’s lap. With one hand he clasped the child to him and with the other, over and over again, he gently stroked the younger child’s back. Comforting, soothing.  His hands were poetry in motion, language made visible, a silent love song in the air.

Some time later, I looked back and the red-shirted boy no longer held the child. Instead, the boy was kneeling on the grass with his arms wide and welcoming, laughing and beckoning. The grinning child faced him across the expanse of grass then ran toward him and threw himself in his arms. They both toppled backward, a tangle of limbs, love and simple joy in a summer evening filled with music.

Look, please, look to the children
The children they know
In their eyes are the answers we seek
And their hearts feel the way to go

Look, please look to the children
They know more than we
How it feels in this world to be free
Free to love and be loved by all…

(Words and Music by Chuck Mangione
Copyright © 1971 Gates Music, Inc.)



DSCN3053Mornings are summer’s gift and I rise early and treasure the sights and sounds and the limpid joy of slipping into the day easily and quietly. Already I feel the slow pulse of morning slipping away, pulled inexorably into the rush of day as summer fades and the school year wakens, revving throatily like a giant engine warming up for a long journey.

Recently, I’ve turned to Mary Oliver’s Why I Wake Early, seeking to linger longer in the serenity of slow, easy mornings and the wonders of our world. While excitement and anticipation build at the coming year and the return to school and students, within me there is a quiet pool of fear that stirs–Fear that I will lose or forget to take the time to notice, to cherish, to simply be in the world around me. Mary Oliver’s poems speak to me and this one reminds me to be mindful to open myself to the glory around me and find each day something “that more or less kills me with delight.”

By Mary Oliver

Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for—
to look, to listen,…

Click to enjoy the Poetry Friday Roundup at Dori Reads. You’re sure to find wonders there as well.

Getting started

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hI’ve always been a straight A student. As a child, a big part of my self worth derived from that and to be honest, to some extent, probably still does. For the record,  I’m not totally proud of that. There are times that that status and the perceived necessity to be “excellent” stopped me from taking risks or opening new doors. Now that I’m older, I’m recognizing some lost opportunities, for I’ve taken the safer road a lot. I’m working on recognizing that thoughtful risk-taking can offer enormous benefits and that being perfect isn’t possible, isn’t always fun, and isn’t necessarily desirable. If I try something new and the outcome is messy and less than perfect, that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. In fact, it can be a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. I know this, intellectually, and I recognize the value of making mistakes and learning from them, but there is still part of me that shies away from that vulnerability. With school beginning in mere weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I’ve chosen to move from teaching first grade to teaching fourth grade.

imgresI recently read an essay in How to Be The Teacher You Want to Be. In this essay,”The Journey of a Single Hour: Exploring the Rich Promise of an Immediate Release of Responsibility”, Katie Wood Ray writes about the skillful work of teacher Lisa Cleaveland. This teacher positions her kindergarten students to be decision makers on their first day of school and to build their identity as bookmakers. In a nutshell Ms. Cleaveland spends some time reading a book with her students and then shows them 6-page booklets and tells them they’ll be making books. She does not list step-by-step instructions detailing how they will do this. After a moment one student asks, “Well, how do you make books?” She responds, “What else do you think we’ll need?”, turning the question right back to them.

As I read this, I considered how I feel, even now,  when faced with an undefined task before me. Even as an adult, the inner-I-want-to-be perfect part of me squirms with discomfort. “But tell me what to do!” I want to cry.  I want the blueprint. I want the step by step instructions. They’re safer. I feel a lot like Heidi, the little girl in this essay who finally says, “But I don’t know how to.” Then her wonderful teacher says, “Well, you’ll get started.” And after a bit Heidi says, “But I can write my name.” She figures out an entry point. So as I head into teaching a new grade, I’m thinking about Heidi and about what I already do know about teaching. What I have learned and can do. How do I build off that foundation to move into new areas?  As I prepare, I’m striving to become comfortable working amidst a field of questions and recognizing that they won’t all be answered. Not even by the end of the year.

This past spring I read  Julie Falatko’s blog post on Two Writing Teachers. I was struck by this line: “Because you can’t be proud of something you got handed. You can’t be proud of it if your final finished product didn’t take any work or skill on your part.” A big part of me does want all the answers now. I want my new colleague to say, “Here, this is exactly how we do it, step by step.” But while there’s safety in that, there’s limited opportunity for growth. I opted to change because I  knew it was time for some growth. I need to dive in and do what I can do, use what I do know to get started. I’m sure it will be tangled and confusing and convoluted and there will be times when I regret making the change and am overwhelmed by the challenges. But I know that if I work through problems, over and around obstacles, I will persevere to achieve something worthwhile, even though it may not be perfect, and I can take pride in the struggle, change and growth, as much as in that finished product.

Despite my best efforts this summer, I can’t read every middle grade novel and relevant picture book. I can’t know the curriculum inside and out. But I can work from the base of what I do know and learn to revel in the unknown aspects–to walk the walk that I expect my students to every year. To make mistakes, to learn from them. To ask for help, to open myself up to criticism, trusting that it will be constructive and will help me move forward. So, I’m taking a deep breath and preparing as best as I can, knowing this could get messy but stepping forward anyway.  In the words of Ms. Cleaveland, I’m getting started. Wish me luck!

An apology poem

poetry+friday+button-e1341309970195After writing a rather unfriendly poem about blue jays recently (here), I did some research and realized that I may have misjudged them.  I thought it might be fun to write an apology poem, but I needed to explore a few examples first. So, I looked to the ultimate mentor apology poem:

This Is Just to Say.
I have eaten 
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which 
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

–William Carlos Williams

And can we just sit with that sweet perfection for a moment? Ahhhhh…

Next, I read through some of the poems in the wonderful Joyce Sidman’s This Is Just to Say- Poems of Apology and Forgiveness. Due to some time constraints, I wanted to skim through, but I found myself pulled in headfirst, going back to the beginning and reading each wonderful poem, the apologies and then the responses, again and again. What a treat! The characters shine through their poems and it’s amazing how much comes through about their struggles, their emotional truths, and their connections. I can’t wait to share these poems with my students.

One of these poems, Fashion Sense , begins with the line “I am so sorry for my rude words,” and later continues
“all the next day, I wished I could take those words back.
I kept thinking of what you always say to us:
words can help or hurt, the choice is ours.”

Isn’t that last line wonderful? I know I’m going to add it to my repertoire of classroom mantras. While there are so many other poems that moved me (like Secret Message  and I’m Telling You Now), Fashion Sense seemed like the best mentor poem for my type of apology. I lifted the first line from it to begin.


to the blue jays

I am so sorry for my rude words.
I spoke hastily,
judging you from what I’d heard-
your grating, raucous cries-
and also the rumors that said….
well, you know what they said.
I’m sorry for ignoring your beauty,
your glorious burst of color
in winter’s weary landscape,
for calling you names
and for telling you to go away,
like the bully I said you were.
Forgive me.
I promise now I’ll watch you closer,
let your behavior speak for itself.
I won’t judge all of you
based on one or two bad eggs.
I’ll notice when your crests are up or down
and whether you sneak away
with foraged food to cache.
I’ll imagine your forgotten acorns
sprouting into forests of oak trees.
I’ll admire you,
with your multi-hued blue plumage,
settling like patches of sky
framed in circles of birch leaves.
I still wish you had better manners
and you could tone down the squawking.
But you’re welcome at my feeders.
Forgive me.

Molly Hogan (c) 2016

This week’s Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Julieanne at To Read To Write To Be. Head on over to enjoy some more poetry!

Mirrors and Windows

IMG_0538I’ve been thinking a lot about mirrors and windows recently. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the books in our classrooms should serve as both mirrors and windows for our students. I’m not sure who coined these terms or when their use originated and I suspect I’m late to the discussion. Regardless, I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the role of diverse books in my library and to the reasons why deliberate cultivation of a diverse library is important. I’m sharing my evolving thoughts here, hoping for feedback from others who may have insight I am lacking, or alternative viewpoints I may not have considered.

When we select books and put them into the hands of children, we are doing more than teaching them to read. We are, intended or not, sending messages about the world. It is crucial that we offer books that are both windows and mirrors to our students and that we experience these books with them. When books act as mirrors, they offer children the chance to see themselves in a story, in a world they readily understand. These books are a scaffolded step into literacy. Children can relate to protagonists, understand settings and problems and have their worlds validated. Members of majority populations have many, many books that serve as mirrors. Minority students? Not so many. They have far more window books. When books act as windows, they share a view into a different world for students. Within the pages of that book, children can experience a foreign culture and/or setting with protagonists who may look different from them and who inhabit different landscapes. When we hand majority students mirror books over and over, we are limiting them, doing them and society a disservice and missing an opportunity to broaden their horizons.  Is there also an unintended subliminal message– That your world is the only one of value, the only one worthy of portraying in the pages of a book?  When minority students don’t see their world in a book, they may not readily identify with what they are reading and their world is not validated. Their scaffolded step into literacy is missing. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke eloquently about this in her TED Talk and identified another danger as well.

In her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her childhood in Nigeria  with her literary experiences centered around British and American literature. She talks about writing her first stories about white children with blue eyes who drank ginger beer, ate apples and played in the snow.“What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.” Our book selection in the classroom sends many messages to our students and we need to be keenly aware of them. Later in her speech Ms. Adichie acknowledges another risk, that of providing only one vision or story within a mirror or a window book. “The single story creates stereotypes,and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

So, not only do we need to provide stories rich in diversity, we must ensure that they offer multiple views into different cultures and ways of life. Offering the same window or mirror into the world perpetuates stereotypes–like all those white blue-eyed children drinking ginger beer and playing in the snow. Considering some of my favorite multicultural books  (Those Shoes , The Day of Ahmed’s Secret, Ezra Jack Keat’s books, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin ), I realize, with a start, that though they are wonderful, rich books, they offer a limited view of minorities and foreign cultures, one rooted primarily in urban and poor settings. I also realize that within my library, there are few books that offer windows into differences based in  religion, ability, sexuality. Clearly I have some work to do to ensure that my classroom library represents many differences and does not perpetuate any one stereotypical story for my insulated students.

I live and work in rural Maine. Until recently, multicultural issues have felt remote. The student population at our K-8 school is 98-99% Caucasian.  In my classroom I teach my students to empathize with each other, to speak and act respectfully, to persevere, to be friendly even if you can’t be friends. But they are a highly homogenous group. I now recognize that I have missed literacy-based opportunities to help them understand that respect, courtesy and empathy need to stretch across lines of culture, race, religion, etc. I’ve done some work to introduce diverse books to my students, but to be honest, I’m ashamed to say this hasn’t been a priority. In my ignorance I thought these aren’t issues that are relevant to my students right now. They aren’t issues that are in their daily lives. So, I’ve paid lip service to this need and I’m not proud of this. Given recent world events and my growing understanding, I now know that my rural Maine students need these experiences more than others, not less.

At ILA16 Pernille Ripp shared data from a PEW Research Center survey that found that 28% of adults had not read a book in the past 12 months.  She went on to say, “When we talk about creating empathetic human beings and wonder why our world is broken…I think it has something to do with that 28%.” Then she added the zinger. “Our literacy decisions create those adults.”  The responsibilities of being a teacher have never felt weightier.  Yet with that responsibility comes a glimmer of hope. Maybe there is something I can do to light up the dark corners of this world. Perhaps my battlefield is in the classroom and my weapons are books.

So, I look into my own mirror and ask myself, if not now, when? And if not me, who? As a teacher, I can and should provide students with windows to the world around them. (In general, mirror books are readily available for my students.) I have a heightened obligation to put diverse books into my students’ hands–to show them other perspectives, other cultures, and to teach them to value all human life and experience–and to ensure that these window books show multiple views and don’t tell a single story. Because for the most part my students aren’t going to encounter these differences in their daily lives. It’s easy to fear that which is unknown and too often these days we see and hear people using violent and frightening language and suggesting closing the doors (and our hearts and minds) against those who are “other.”

I want to arm my students with the tools they need to thrive in this world and to spread seeds of kindness, not hatred. To seek empathy even when the distance and differences seem overwhelming. To use the tools of literacy to stretch their minds and learn about others. To embrace differences and to recognize that if we focus only on the differences, we miss the opportunities to connect at a more fundamental level. For underneath it all, isn’t a critical outcome of celebrating and exploring multiple worlds and world views the recognition of how similar we all really are?





Oh, no!


search“Excuse me, can you tell me where the restrooms are?” I ask the man at the counter.

“Oh, they’re on the third floor in the Children’s Department,” he replies with a smile.

“The third floor?” I repeat in dismay, jaw dropping. Oh, dear. I should NOT have waited so long. I had met a colleague in the coffee shop on the ground floor of the LL Bean store to plan a PD session. I’d ignored my need to use the bathroom until we finished working. Considering I’d spent the morning consuming vast quantities of coffee, this wasn’t a grand plan. I had just assumed there’d be a bathroom nearby. Did you ever drink a giant soda at the movie theater and then ignore your need to pee because the movie is so good and you don’t want to miss any of it and when the lights finally come up, you stand up and realize you really can’t stand straight and you’re in pain and you might not make it all the way to the bathroom and there’s a crowd between you and the bathroom anyway and if there’s a line in there–which there will be because you’re a woman and there’s always a line–you are in serious trouble? Well, this is a moment like that, but now I have to throw in three flights of stairs. Oh, dear.

My colleague and I walk up the first flight of stairs together to the main lobby. I’m leading at a brisk pace. She says goodbye and I barely acknowledge her departure, intent on getting upstairs– fast! I generally take the stairs but my heart leaps when I spy an elevator nearby. Yes!  I dash to the door, raise my finger to push the button and only then notice the prominent sign: “This elevator only goes to the ground floor.” What!?  I glance around but there is no other elevator in sight and there’s no time to hunt for one now.

Girding my loins, I quickly walk through the store toward the stairs, weaving through the crowds of dawdling tourists and shoppers. If you’ve ever been in LL Bean’s flagship store in Maine you know that it’s very large and that stairways are scattered through the store. You can’t just zoom up three flights of stairs. (Not that I was sure I could zoom anywhere at this point!) You move from one side of a floor to the other to access the next flight of stairs. I imagine this is rooted in marketing–move the crowds through the merchandise to tempt them to make purchases. Right now it is undiluted torture. I speed up, trying to think dry thoughts.

imagesFinally, after great focus and effort and a couple of near collisions with lollygagging shoppers, I climb the last dreaded flight of stairs and step onto the floor of the children’s section. Where are those bathrooms? Looking around frantically, I see the signs tucked in a nearby corner. Hallelujah!  Never has anyone been so happy to see those two icons! With no one between me and my goal, I zoom into the bathroom and into the first open stall, shutting the door and locking it in one quick, desperate move. I drop my tote bag on the floor with one hand and reach for my belt with the other.

Then it hits me.  I freeze. I look down at my tote. I check my shoulder hopefully. No. I do not have my purse. Oh. No. I look again, disbelievingly. One tote bag. No purse. With a sinking heart I realize that my purse is three floors below me in the coffee shop. Or hopefully it still is. In my rush to get to the bathroom, I left it at the table. Was it hanging on the chair or on the floor? I can’t even remember. My mind says “Quick! Get back down there NOW! The longer you’re gone, the more chance your purse will be too!” My bladder says, “No way!  There is absolutely no way I can make it down three flights of stairs and back up again.” I stand frozen for a moment, my hand still at my belt. What should I do? Talk about pressure!

Really in the end, I have no choice. I yield to my bladder’s demands and hurry up the operation as much as I can, frantic the whole time, then dash my hands under water, skipping the soap. Daring right? As I rinse my hands, part of me is thinking–Why are you even taking the time to do this!?! You are so conditioned! Simultaneously, another part (that conditioned part) reassures me —Don’t worry about the soap, you have hand sanitizer in your purse. That is if I still have a purse!  I race out the door and back down the first flight of stairs and then across to another and descend again. My thoughts race along with me. Besides hand sanitizer, what’s in my purse anyway? How hard would it be to replace? Oh no–my new iPhone’s in there. Not much cash though. That’s good.

I know the general direction I need to head in the store, but one flight up from my destination, I find myself turned around in the camping gear section–Tents everywhere and no sign of the coffee shop. Where is that last da&* staircase!?!  Feeling increasingly panicked, I approach a sales clerk who is heading my way. The words fly out of my mouth. “Can you please tell me how to get back down to the coffee store? I left my purse there when I went to the bathroom and I can’t find my way back.”

The man takes in my desperation with one appraising look and jumps into action. “Right this way,” he says, turning back the way he came and leading me through the sea of tents and other paraphernalia, around a corner and then voila! The staircase! Throwing thank yous over my shoulder, I rush downstairs into the coffee shop, my eyes fixed on the table across the room where we’d been sitting. Would my bag still be there? Would someone have turned it in? I rush across the room. There’s a man sitting at our table. Did he find my purse?  And then I see it–On the floor by the empty chair across from the coffee-drinking stranger, tucked securely against the wall, is my purse. Untouched. I may be imagining it, but I think it has a bit of a glow about it and I may hear a faint chorus of angel song. I take a breath and it feels like the first one I’ve taken in ages.

“Excuse me, ” I say, rushing over, “I left my purse here.” I grab it and pull it to my chest. “I’m so relieved it’s still here.” He smiles. I smile. I leave the store, hugging my purse, feeling exhausted but doubly relieved.

Creatures by Billy Collins


Creatures by Billy Collins

Hamlet noticed them in the shapes of clouds,
but I saw them in the furniture of childhood,
creatures trapped under surfaces of wood,
one submerged in a polished sideboard,
one frowning from a chair-back,
another howling from my mother’s silent bureau,
locked in the grain of maple, frozen in oak.
This poem (click on the title to read the whole thing) captivates me but I can’t decide if it’s whimsical or disturbing. Perhaps it’s all of those things. The initial word choices (trapped, submerged, frowning, howling, locked) build a dark and ominous tone, but some of the lines are funny, in an exaggerated or overstated way, especially toward the end.

“taking the thing from you and flinging it out

over the sparkle of blue waves
so it could live out its freakish existence
on the dark bottom of the sea
and stop bothering innocent beachgoers like us,
stop ruining everyone’s summer.”

Whether it’s creepy or quirky, it has me looking for faces “trapped” around me. When I visited some interesting rock formations recently, I found myself thinking again of this poem and looking for those faces. I was mesmerized by the swirls and whirls and pits of these rocks. The more I looked, the more I felt like there must be faces there if only I looked in just the right way. Do you see any in this one?

Or in this one?
I confess, I didn’t ever see any in the top photo, but here’s what I saw in the second one:
DSCN7270 (1)
Did you see it? What do you think about Creatures–quirky or creepy?
For more poetry, go to Tara’s blog A Teaching Life for the Poetry Friday Roundup.
*Note–I apologize for the odd spacing. The only advice I could find on line about fixing it involved making code changes–That scared me much more than howling faces locked in rock and wood!