Life in a Forest

I live in a forest.  At least that’s what the sign states on the road leading into my housing development.  Years ago the area was all forest.  Then when development began, the trees were left standing and the houses built among them.  Cul-de-sacs and loops are now surrounded by nature trails for hiking and cross-country skiing and more recently trails for bicycling.  It was an innovative living area at the time it was constructed with an association fee for upkeep and a park with a playground and picnic area.

Within the past few years, a technology park (a true oxymoron) was added to the area.  An enormous building is under construction within a few miles of my house where a chip manufacturing plant will soon open.  It will bring in jobs and contribute to the economy no doubt, but the impact on the nature that drew us to the area in the first place is unknown.

Last fall I looked out at the woods behind our house, something I do many times in the course of a day, to a wonderful sight.  A family of turkeys was strutting out of the woods toward the house.  In front was the female followed by three little ones and brought up in the rear by the male.  The adults were enormous, the offspring all in a line in the middle, and they seemed totally unaware of any danger at first.  Then the cat next door sprang to life out of the bushes and they turned around, steps now faster but not truly at a run, and made their way back into the woods.  Further along they slowed their steps and majestically continued their walk.

A few winters ago I was on medical leave from my job as a teacher.  I was in the process of completing daily radiation treatments for breast cancer and was coping with an overwhelming fatigue and a little dose of self-pity when a glance out the living room window into the back yard took my breath away.  Standing at the bird feeders about twenty feet from the window was a doe and two fawns.  It had been a particularly harsh winter, and I wondered if  bird seed was really part of their diet.  The doe’s white tail stood upright, such a bright contrast to the soft brown of her body. While she fed, her eyes darted around her, looking for danger.  Squirrels scampered around them as the fawns followed the actions of their mother.  They remained within my view for about ten minutes, then the mother turned, followed by the fawns, and  ran back into the woods.

I treasure  these connections to nature.  They heal in today’s challenging times of bad economic news, changing weather patterns, and increased violence, but I wonder if these changes have increased the danger to animals as they are forced to come closer to humans.

Construction on the tech park continues with the goal of changing this small community around us which we love into a small city.  Five-story buildings go up for retail and condos and small businesses to support the influx of workers for the chip plant.  Even though I know change is necessary, I wonder every day if I will continue to see wild turkeys walk into my back yard or be awed by deer wandering out of the woods looking for food.   These moments stop the hectic, often anxious pace of my life, slow me down, help me focus on the joy of living, and are all the more important to me as I fear that progress may take them out of my life.

The Kittiwake’s Cry

Every Sunday morning on CBS, the news segment ends with a nature video.  The video is not accompanied by music, so the viewer gets to hear the sounds of nature against a silent background.  It’s a little like a minute of meditation, offering the same sense of peace.  One morning Charles Osgood featured the kittiwake, an Arctic bird almost never seen by human beings.  The videographer captured a rare view of these birds in all their beauty and serenity.  I was haunted by their lonely cry and solitary existence.

The Kittiwake’s Cry

Arctic ice crumbles,
chunks fall into heaps
followed by silence.
Then comes the cry of the kittiwakes.

Pure white against the ice
with wings colorwashed blue,
black tail lifted toward the sky,
each bird is part of a solitary community.

Man does not inhabit this place,
rarely views this place,
intrudes now to capture the scene.

(How many other scenes like this are there?
How many spiritual, lonely places,
serene and peaceful, unseen by the human eye,
are invaded by man?)

The beautiful white and powder-blue kittiwake
can live without mankind,
in truth prefers it,
unaware of how this rare intrusion
has enriched our lives.

Enduring their harsh, brittle environment,
warmed by soft feathers,
the kittiwakes live out their existence in solitude
and peace.

© Barbara Flass 2002

Prelude

One Christmas I gave a snow globe with an angel inside to my niece.  The poem came to me in the early morning hours before I gave her the gift.  I turned the key, the music began, the snow swirled, the angel disappeared, and then reappeared as the music slowed.  Angels are like that.

Prelude

Enclosed within a crystal globe
An angel in a burgundy, gold-trimmed gown
Stands in peaceful silence, wings outstretched.

A vigorous shake
A few turns of the key
And a symphony of swirling snow begins.
A prediction of life.

The storm grows in intensity,
A crescendo of white
Obscuring the angel within.

Still,  troubled souls peering in
From the cold outside world
Feel the angel’s peace
As with grace she offers an interlude of serenity.

The music slows to largo
The snowflakes diminish, settling downward.
The angel reappears
And more gently now
Life resumes.

Pianissimo

© Barbara Flass 2006

Writing Workshop

One of  my favorite classes to teach has always been Writing Workshop.  Over the years I made changes to the set-up of the class, but the best part of the class was the informality and the relaxing atmosphere in the classroom.  The class met once a cycle (the school where I taught had an eight-day rotating schedule), and the best writing I read from my students always came out of this class.

It’s a real challenge to teach kids to write.  Within each class there are students who love to write, who are confident about their writing, and eager to share it with others.  Then there is a group of reluctant writers, who are also usually reluctant readers.  They often have the most wonderful ideas of all the students, but they just can’t access the words.  That’s where Writing Workshop can be a great class for them.

Here’s how I set up the class:

1.  In the  beginning of the course, students are assigned to create a writer’s notebook. I suggest they buy an artist’s sketchbook if they can afford it because I allow them to draw also in the notebook and then write about the drawing.  Sometimes just starting with a sketch frees up the mind to get down words describing the picture.  They can buy an inexpensive spiral notebook instead.  Students are also required to clip at least twenty pictures from magazines or download graphics from the computer that relate to them.  For example, a skier could find a picture of a snow-covered mountain and a basketball player could find a picture of a basketball.  Students could also bring in photos of family and friends and pets and vacations.  All these images provide a starting point for a writing topic.

2.  The Writing Workshop always began with a mini-lesson about some aspect of writing:  how to write a lead, choosing an effective title, writing conclusions, word choice, for example.  Students were then asked to work on incorporating that lesson into their writing that day.  I also put quotations on the board, inspiring or controversial words by authors or actors or athletes that students could respond to,   giving them an opportunity to write reflection or persuasion.  The pictures in their notebooks usually provided opportunities to write description or narration.

3.  After the mini-lesson came the music. I always chose classical or New Age or something relaxing without lyrics.  Students often complained about my choices, but they got exposure to a variety of music and they could focus more on writing than the words of a song.  It was important for me to write with my students.  No teacher should attempt to teach writing unless he or she also writes.  That is especially true for major writing assignments.  Writing along with the students enables a teacher to find those difficult parts of the assignment, the parts that can trip up students without the teacher’s knowledge of the problem.

4.  The best part came next–conferencing.   I would circulate the room offering suggestions and help, especially stopping at those desks where no writing was happening.  These students would insist they had nothing to write.  That was often because somewhere along the line they came to believe that perfection was expected,  no errors allowed, and that was paralyzing.    Once they realized they were not going to be graded on spelling or grammar or even completeness of ideas, writing became easier.  Sometimes I would even tell them to write down “I have nothing to write” until something came to them.  They could write an entire page of nonsense if they wanted because inevitably something would happen along the way, some seed of an idea would be planted and that seed could become the first sentence of another piece of writing.

5.  Next would come the sharing.  This was not the best part of the class for many students, but usually one very confident writer would raise his hand and read his piece for the day with the realization that we all knew it was not finished, not polished, not perfect.  No negative comments were ever allowed, just words of praise or support.  I did require each student on the last day of Writing Workshop to read something from their notebooks, even if just a paragraph or short poem.  All writers need an audience.

6.  Students were required to turn in two pieces of writing each quarter, usually a short piece such as a poem or descriptive paragraph and one a little longer, a narrative or persuasive essay.  The choice was up to them. The idea was to focus on the kind of writing each student did well.  Some students wrote long stories or the beginnings of a novel!

Teachers can and should develop writing workshops for their students that they have created entirely their own way.  I read dozens of book about teaching writing and attended many teacher conferences on how to teach students to write, but in the end the workshop needed to be something I created that fit my teaching style and the personalities and needs of my students.

More about teaching kids to write will come up frequently in my blog.  Keep checking in!

AngelDance

One impossible task as a teacher was always how to teach students to write poetry.  The best moments always came from the student who did not think he or she could write poetry and then by the end of class had a completed poem.  Sometimes the student would exclaim,  “I wrote a poem!  I never wrote a poem before.  I didn’t know I could write a poem!”

Students who struggle with writing poetry have a mistaken idea that there is a magic formula to writing a poem.  It has to rhyme.  It has to be about nature or something “girly”.  The key, I told them, is words on paper, images, a new way of looking at the world that no one else has ever seen. Never sacrifice meaning for the rhyme, I would tell them over and over because the rhyme is what they knew.  We would use rhyming dictionaries to search for just the right rhyme, and those dictionaries became the most used book in writing class.   I always wrote with my students, and inevitably I would end up with a poem.  The poems I liked the best were the ones I wrote in the middle of the night, and those poems from class filled notebooks over the years,  so no doubt some of those will appear here.

The following poem I wrote  on 9/11/2001.  On 9/11 teaching classes in any formal sense ended and shock filled our hearts as we turned on the television and watched events unfolding   This year 9/11 will mark the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack.  I have to admit that I have a slight obsession with angels.  I’ll write more about that later, but on 9/11 the image of angels became the focus of my poem  “AngelDance.”

AngelDance

Into the sinister silence of the night
A lone angel tiptoes above the ashes.
Lit by the ephemeral rays from above
She moves through the refuse
Stepping over black metal angled askew
Evil heavy upon the earth.

She rises gently with the wind
Touches sooty hands
Lifts drooping shoulders
Silences anguished cries
And fills hearts with hope
To soften a grief too great to name.

She dances in a rhythm
That is dirge-like, somber yet serene
Turning, arms uplifted in a pirouette of pain.
She never questions her task
As she moves gracefully through the rubble
In a world of a thousand cries.

The wind quickens to lift her up
Yet she lingers, reluctant to leave,
Uncertain of her success.
She gathers what she can in the circle of her arms,
Leaving behind God’s strength and his love.
Angel tears spilling into the arch of her body,
She finishes her dance of hope
and floats up between the silvery stars
Into the eternal blackness
To the expectant golden glow beyond.

–September 11, 2001

© Barbara Flass 2001.

Teachers and parents: Try this yourself or with your children/students:  Write a free-verse poem using present tense verbs.  Don’t rhyme it.  Tell a story of something in nature you have seen, a single, emotional moment in time.  Use a thesaurus to replace common, everyday words, especially the verbs.  Work on adding alliteration, words in a series that start with the same sound (for example, “sl” or “t”). 

Getting Words on Paper

I wrote my first story when I was eight years old.  I remember that it was about a family of bears, but I don’t remember the plot.  My mother was so proud of me that she took the story in to work to show her co-workers.  I think it was the fact that I had done something that made my mother proud that meant more to me than the idea that I had created a story at that age.

From that time on I continued to write—in high school and college, after marriage and kids, stories and poetry that I wrote and tucked into folders found only after retirement.  Most were incomplete, some were not very good, a few had potential if only I could remember where the plot was going.  By the time I was in my fifties, I had completed a young adult novel and then in my sixties a memoir about sisters, my sister and me, coping with the challenges of breast cancer, an experience that ended well for only one of us.

I have always had folders full of poetry. When I was a teacher, I wrote a poem every Christmas for colleagues who had become lifelong friends.  The poems came in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, and at first I did not keep a journal and pen next to the bed.  I soon learned how necessary that was.  The way the brain works fascinates me.  Why is it that thoughts come so easily sometimes but then can’t be transferred onto paper, even a few minutes after the thought has come?  I write entire lines of poetry and when I go to put them on paper, some words, some great rhymes, have already gone, disappeared somewhere, still within the brain?

Those Christmas poems I wrote would often be connected to an experience I had, and I would write a prose paragraph to go along with the poem.  Then the real problem began.  I needed a gift to match the poem.  The first poem I wrote rhymed and was about stars and the heavens and our mortality.  The gift was a star ornament, the easiest gift to get.  One year I wrote about a trip driving back to New York from Arizona at Christmas time, coming down the mountains in Las Cruces, New Mexico at night, the valley sparkling with lights, like diamonds falling from the sky.  I can be fairly certain the gift that year did not contain diamonds.  One year I wrote about a lighthouse at Christmas, explaining in the prose paragraph that went with the poem that my father loved lighthouses, my father who had just died that year, and the gift was a lighthouse ornament, not as easy to find as one might expect.  Some of my poems rhymed, some did not.  Sometimes I wrote both rhymed and unrhymed versions and then struggled to decide which was best.  I scoured the stores for wrapping paper that would match the poem and the gift, angels and lighthouses and stars.   All of these poems came to me in the middle of the night or early in the morning.  My husband soon got used to the light suddenly coming on, and the sound of my pen scratching words frantically on to paper, trying so hard to recapture what had just moments before sounded absolutely perfect but no longer was.

This early morning creativity does not happen every morning, a very good thing.  But when it does, I struggle to put on the light and write it all down.  I can convince myself that if I repeat the lines over and over again in my head, that when I do finally get up and maybe even after breakfast and some coffee, I will be able to write it down almost exactly the way it occurred within my brain.  I have noticed that when this happens, I am actually forming the words in my mouth, tongue moving against teeth and palate and speaking without speech.  Is that how it is for everyone, I wonder? Is that the way all thought becomes speech, and if we don’t actually speak the words, they melt into the mouth and go away?

I have a friend, a very intelligent math and science teacher I taught with for twenty-one years, who has lost her ability to speak clearly after a terrible fall that caused extreme head trauma.  One of her best and worst traits is a stubbornness that often gets her into trouble but which has also enabled her to survive some pretty challenging times in her life.  She did not think it was necessary to go the hospital after the fall, and it was a week later that a friend noticed she was unable to speak clearly.  She ended up in intensive care in the hospital, suffering from a slow bleed in the brain.  Weeks later she is still struggling to say the right words.   She has made great progress, but when I visit her, I wonder what is happening inside her brain.  I wonder if words are forming in correct order in the brain but she can’t organize them into speech or are the thoughts all jumbled inside even before she tries to speak?  She cries out, “I hate this!” and I am sad and terrified for her.  What if her intelligent thoughts stay inside of her forever?

I know only vaguely how my own brain functions or does not at times.  I try in those early morning hours to memorize the thoughts that come to me and later write them down.  Or I immediately grab a pen and paper and write frantically what I can retrieve, and it is never as good in written form as when it is still inside my head.   I can’t imagine what is locked inside the head of a patient with Alzheimer’s or someone who has had a stroke, like Dick Clark who years after his stroke still struggles to speak clearly.

I won’t complain about those words inside of my brain that never make it to the page.  I know that they could be retrieved in some form and make sense, although that’s not to say they will ever be considered great words in great writing.  But when I visit my friend, I am ever-so-grateful that I am capable of those scratchings on paper in the middle of the night, no matter how good or bad they are.