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Category: Teach Our Children Well

Teaching Compassion

I just learned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be at Emory University this week for talks, teachings, and discussions that will be webcasted live and presumably available to view afterwards, as well. My family and I went to hear him speak at Cornell University in October 2007, and last October I watched webcasts of his speaking engagements throughout New England and Virginia. It was a really uplifting week, and I look forward to more of the same this week!

October is a great time to be inspired by the Dalai Lama. One of his favorite topics is educating the heart, or “secular ethics in education.” Now that the school year is well underway and the idealism I dusted off over the summer has been shattered by the rigorous realities of the Common Core and more new curricula, it’s time to work with the pieces that are in front of me on the table and try to make the best of them. Their sharp, jagged edges pierce my heart and soul, but I remain hopeful that they will become smoother in time. How exactly that will happen, I don’t know, but they simply must. Right now, I need some inspiration, big-time.

I always appreciate hearing what the Dalai Lama has to say about education. It reminds me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. Sometimes I imagine myself asking him how I can reconcile what I know in my heart to be right and true with the way things are in public education now. His answer (in my mind) always conveys hope.

There has got to be something you can do right now to be part of a solution.

But first, I will provide a little context for my question.

For a couple years, I attempted to implement the Hawn Foundation’s (as in Goldie Hawn) MindUP Curriculum in my kindergarten classroom. It was a personal initiative; nobody else in my school was doing it, but it touched on virtually everything I felt was most important in social-emotional learning and supported my belief that educating the heart must go hand in hand with educating the mind. In a nutshell, the curriculum focuses on improving concentration, reducing stress and anxiety, managing emotions and interpersonal conflicts, choosing optimism and kindness, and developing empathy and resilience. It’s a really beautiful, well researched curriculum. I tried in earnest to implement it until this year. This year, I abandoned it (sadly) because I realize I do not have the resources or time to do it justice. But while still struggling with how to fit social-emotional learning into the curriculum, I was inspired by a panel discussion on “Educating the Heart and Mind” from the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. This was a nearly hour-long discussion between Eckhart Tolle, Sir Ken Robinson, Matt Goldman and Chris Wink from the Blue Man Group, Dan Siegel, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and H.H. the Dalai Lama, moderated by Matthieu Ricard.

During the course of the panel discussion (at the 38:00 mark), Matt Goldman offered:

“Creativity has to be sewn into every single part of the educational process. Social and emotional learning – not a separate subject but part of everything – so that the skills of empathy, the skills of compassion – are all sewn into your literacy and your math and your social studies as strongly as anything.”

This became my new approach: Weave social-emotional learning throughout the curriculum rather than try to fit it into its own block.

But now we have a new obstacle. Teachers all across the state and country are being given new curricula. Tightly scripted curricula. And the curriculum packages seem to be constantly changing as more and “better” options become available from year to year. Even if we are given permission to adapt lessons to some extent, it is very time-consuming to learn a new curriculum. Adapting it takes even more time. After a couple years of implementation, it becomes easier to insert some degree of creativity and personal style into a curriculum. But not the first time around. The first time around, you learn it as you go along and just try to keep your head above water.

So it is within this context that, in my mind, I ask the Dalai Lama how to proceed. Here is the answer that came to me:

The least we can do despite it all – even if there is no time for anything else in the school day and the children won’t get it from the tight, mandated curriculum – is to model kindness and compassion. Every encounter and interaction with students or any other members of the school community is an opportunity to do just that. We can give the gift of compassionate listening and communicating – or a warm smile – to one another.

People handle stress differently, and some handle it better than others. Sometimes we reach our breaking point – the straw that broke the camel’s back – when yet another responsibility or demand is added to our already overflowing plate. And under all that pressure, sometimes we forget to smile and to be kind. To listen. To remember that we are all in this together. Sometimes we need to vent. Sometimes others need to vent to us. And if it comes out looking like anger, remember that it is rarely, if ever, personal. None of us made up these new rules. Everyone is doing his or her best to stay afloat, especially when everything we do is being evaluated and we are all under the microscope – when all we wanted in the first place was to make a positive difference in children’s lives.

It doesn’t take long to help someone who is in a state of anxiety or overwhelm. You don’t need to go immediately into problem-solving or avoid them because you don’t know how to help. Sometimes all people need to bring them back to a state of balance is to know that their feelings are being heard and that someone cares. Even if you can’t solve the problem right then and there, just pausing within an energy field of presence to reflect sincerely and compassionately, “Wow, you’re feeling really overwhelmed,” and “I’m so sorry,” can go a long way. When I feel stressed out and share my feelings with a particular colleague, she often asks (with eye contact and presence), “What can I do to help?” Even if I don’t have an answer to that question, I feel that my feelings are being acknowledged, and that makes a difference.

Oftentimes when a student is having a conflict or is telling me a story about something that happened at home, reflecting his or her feelings simply and sincerely – for instance, with a “You must have felt so…” sentence and an appropriate facial expression – is all s/he needs to carry on. The true communication is often much more about feelings than content, and it only takes a couple seconds for a child (or colleague, for that matter) to feel heard and cared for. And that builds relationship. As I have written before, teaching is fundamentally about the relationship between the teacher and the student. That relationship is the vehicle through which education occurs.

We need to remember to listen. It is such a gift! At the most basic level, that means not interrupting.

We need to remember to smile. Not because everything is wonderful and right in our school, but because smiling – despite it all – is an act of kindness and compassion. It also feels good to smile.

Small gestures of kindness and creating an energy field of presence go a long way in improving the atmosphere of a school. Little eyes are always watching, even when we don’t think they are. And little ears are always listening. Children learn so much from who the teacher is and how s/he acts. During a retreat at Omega Institute in June 2012, Eckhart Tolle asserted, “The child observes the parents’ [teacher’s] behavior and absorbs that, and also absorbs their state of consciousness. The child models your state of consciousness so that if you embody presence, then something of that will be absorbed by the child.” That is the unwritten curriculum. And that is the part over which we have some control.

So that is where I will start. Yes, a compassionate curriculum would be even better. But embodying a curriculum of compassion and awareness, to the best of my abilities, is how I will go about educating the heart right now, without waiting for anything else to change.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

 © Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Camping In!

Camping In!

My friend, Chandi, is doing a link-up on her wonderful holistic education blog, Inside Out, and asked me to link up a summer activity. The first thing that came to mind is something I’ve done at the end of the school year three years in a row: a Camp-In Day, or faux indoor campfire. It’s awesome – and worth a post of its own! It’s a great activity to do if you work with kids or have kids at home and would like something new and fun to do on a rainy day. The idea is inspired by my son’s fifth grade teacher who ran a summer camp and treated his students to a modified camp experience for the final week or two of the school year. It’s all about atmosphere and imagination!

I transformed my large carpet space into a campground, complete with a small tent that the children took turns using. This is what the completed setup looks like (with enough light for a proper picture):  

Here are the steps I took to assemble the faux campfire:

  1. Mount a small box fan (I used a 10-inch red fan) on top of a few rocks (to elevate it from the floor).
  2. Surround the fan with three layers of real firewood. 
  3. Create cellophane “flames” (cut from red, yellow, and/or orange cellophane in the shape of flames up to about 15 inches high), and attach them to sticks (small tree branches). I cut the flames twice as long as I needed them, folded them in half, put a stick over the center fold, and taped the cellophane just above the stick to create two flames from each piece of cellophane. (See photo below.) I used a total of three sticks with two pieces of cellophane (making four flames) each. The sticks need to be about the same length as the diameter of the firewood structure you built so they will stay in place.
  4. Position the sticks (with flames attached) an inch or more above the fan, securing them between the top two layers of firewood. 
  5. For light, I arranged five LCD (battery operated) tea lights on the corners and very center of the box fan. 
  6. An optional and very realistic finishing touch is to surround the campfire with a circle of clean river or garden rocks.
  7. To prevent children from tripping over the fan’s electrical cord, I covered the cord with duct tape where it ran along the floor.

Here is a closer view that shows more detail:


With the lights off, shades down, and the fan turned on low, it looked so real! 

I also sprayed a touch of woodsy-scented room spray and played a CD of cricket sounds. The room spray I used was “Marshmallow Fireside” by Slatkin & Co. (from Bath and Body Works). It was a rather dense, heavy fragrance, and a little went a long way. Lanterns lit dimly with LCD tea lights would have been another nice touch.

I gave the children glow sticks to play with, and we listened to stories on CD. They especially enjoyed Bill Harley’s stories, “The Eeny Weeny Beeny Ghost” (which they asked to hear again) and “Mrs. Lunchroom Lady.” We played circle games like “telephone,” and  children took turns telling their own stories or jokes around the “fire.” My husband, who is a professional musician, came in with his guitar and sang songs with us. Any adult or child who entered our room wanted to stay!

Another idea is to play a video on the SMART Board (via YouTube) of a fireworks display or a camping-themed storybook being read aloud. 

I put carpet squares around the faux campfire so each child had a designated space. (They pretended they were sitting on top of a sleeping bag.) The first couple years, I didn’t think to make a ring of rocks and instead put down a circle of tape around the campfire as a boundary. Rule number one was that no part of their bodies was allowed to go past the tape. They ate their morning snack around the faux fire, and during play time, we kept the lights off, only raised the shades a crack, and children were invited to play with Lite-Brite or flashlights, which gave off a realistic campground glow. Some children made hand shadows on a wall. It was dark in our room all day long.

For a special camp-themed afternoon snack, we made s’mores using a pizza box solar cooker that I set up just outside of our classroom. But first, I talked about the science behind it and how the pizza box oven would trap the heat from the sun to melt the chocolate and marshmallows. The chocolate melted more quickly than the marshmallows, but it all worked out just fine. However, we did need to do this on a sunny day!


For instructions to make a pizza box solar cooker, click HERE.

Our Camp-In Day is always great, relaxed fun. The children’s energy is appropriately mellow, and many of them tell me it’s their favorite day of the entire school year!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Giving the Gift of Wisdom

Giving the Gift of Wisdom

My daughter graduates from high school this week! My, how time flies! When she was a baby, older folks (almost always, women) would approach me with a sparkle in their eyes and tell me to savor this time because children grow up so fast.

I found that difficult to believe back when she was a baby and a good night’s sleep was an elusive dream, or later when I spent my days chasing after an energetic, mischievous little runner-climber. I remember how difficult it was while pregnant with my second child to take a nap in the presence of my daughter who, at 2 1/2, had long since given up napping. My bright idea was to babyproof a room completely, with barely more than a futon mattress on the floor and a variety of toys to keep her occupied while I attempted to nap. But after a few minutes, when I was just starting to fall asleep, she’d tell me she needed to use the toilet. So I put her training potty in the room with us. And then, rather than use it for its intended purpose, she employed it as a step stool and attempted to climb over the baby gate and jailbreak when I was nearly asleep. Her timing was impeccable.

She also infamously led other toddlers in a momentary breakout from the health club’s child care room into the parking lot while I was on the treadmill – an event the former owner and I laugh about to this day (although we weren’t laughing then).

It was always a gamble to leave my daughter alone in a room. Once I left her in the kitchen unattended for a minute or two, and in that time she managed to mastermind a way to climb onto the countertop to gain access to a bag of cheese puffs that were stored up in a cabinet. Her (premeditated?) route involved pulling out drawers and climbing on the washing machine to work her way around the kitchen on countertops. (In hindsight, maybe I should have kept a bag of cheese puffs in the babyproofed room where I tried to nap!)

By the time she was preschool age, we found it necessary to install a home security system and chain locks high up on the doors so Little Houdini couldn’t open the doors and escape. (Strategically placed chain locks alone were insufficient because she would stack pillows, sofa cushions, and whatever else she could find to attain her goal of freedom.)

The preteen and teen years were really rough, especially once I began teaching full-time and moved to the neighboring school district. Within months of moving and beginning my first year of teaching, she moved in with her dad full-time and was able to return to her former school district, spending summers and school vacations with me until this past year.

This is a soul that has always refused to be confined or hindered. Now that she has greater freedom, she seems so much happier, more motivated, and stable. She doesn’t seem to mind the responsibilities that go along with greater freedom – and even embraces them – because independence seems so necessary in order for her to thrive.

I was tired by the end of the day but never for a moment regretted staying home with her when she was little. Although we didn’t have a second paycheck, we were rich in golden moments, and I journaled and wrote lots of poetry about magical moments with my daughter. We spent rainy days reading books and watching birds feast from feeders mounted outside the large picture window. It was so amazing and life transforming to bond with her and to see the world through a child’s eyes that when I finally prepared to re-enter the working world after her little brother started kindergarten, I knew I needed to work with children and changed gears completely to pursue a career in teaching. But back in the early years, time passed in milestones: smiling, rolling, crawling, eating solid food, cruising, first steps, walking, weaning. Each day blended into the next, and it almost felt like time stood still. It was impossible to imagine that she would grow up as quickly as the older folks assured me she would. I think life really sped up once she began school.

Now that I’m on the other side, with an 18-year-old daughter who began taking college courses last fall, I realize how very true the words of the older folks were. Children grow up more quickly than any new parent could ever imagine. Now I’m one of the older moms who looks wistfully at new moms wearing their babies in slings or wraps, remembering how precious it all was. And knowing how fast it goes by – and that someday they, too, will wish they could hold their baby just one more time or read one more bedtime story. These small moments that seem so routine and eternal are the moments that matter most when you look back. You don’t remember how tired you were. You remember the splendor of ordinary moments. That ultimately eclipses all else.

My daughter’s path hasn’t been what I had envisioned for her, but it is her path, and I have learned the hard, roundabout way to honor and trust it. She has always been fiercely independent and unbridled, creative and compassionate. Although she is currently interested in business, she is also a talented writer, singer, and pianist. How she will weave together the strands of her personality, talents, passions, and choices into the fabric of her life remains to be seen. I surely hope to be around to watch it come together in a pattern that is uniquely hers.

I have been putting together a graduation gift for her and am excited to give it to her. It’s not money (which I’m sure any teenager would prefer) but comes from the depths of my heart. My desire is to pass along some life wisdom to her via a collection of books that have been particularly influential in my life. Some of the books are dear friends that I have turned to in times of sadness, confusion, and/or when I sought answers and guidance. Many of them have lifted my spirits and opened new doors of awareness and possibility. Every one of the books was a response to the questions: What do I want my daughter to know about life? What kind of wisdom would I like to pass along to her? What is most important for her to know? If someday I’m not around when she needs motherly advice, what resources can I give her to help her along her way?

Fast forward from my daughter’s napless toddlerhood to this afternoon, when I set out to acquire books for her graduation collection. While stopped at a red light in town, I noticed a woman in the car behind me and thought for a moment that she was trying to get my attention for some reason but couldn’t figure out why. Was there something wrong with my car that I didn’t know about? When I looked again in my rear view mirror, it didn’t appear that she was trying to get my attention after all; she was moving her hands in a curious way that my mind interpreted as perhaps smoking a cigarette with panache. I continued to drive along the road, and when I stopped at the next light, I thought once again that the same woman was trying to get my attention. This time, her arms were held out to her sides in a gesture that begged to know, “What is wrong with you?” I wondered what on earth I could have done to upset this woman. And then I realized that the woman was my daughter and waved exuberantly at her! In our separate cars, we shared a good laugh, and then I waved again as I turned and she continued on (not smoking, I might add). Never before have we followed each other on the road unintentionally. And the fact that it happened for the first time – and that she looked so grown up behind the wheel that I didn’t even recognize her – while I was on a mission to buy books for her graduation present was highly significant to me. How perfect!

Anyway…

Here are the books I selected and why:

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: A friend whom I knew only for a summer and experienced as a kindred spirit loaned me his copy after we spent a day boating on Cayuga Lake with friends and engaging in philosophical conversation. This book awakened something in me and left my soul rejoicing. I bought a copy for myself that same week, and it has been like a bible to me ever since, offering advice about Love, Joy and Sorrow, Children, Pain, Marriage, Teaching, Work, and many other aspects of life. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I know many passages by heart, and I think it would be interesting to see what chapters would resonate most with me now. Probably many of the ones I found less compelling when I was younger. This book turned me on to the Lebanese-born poet, Kahlil Gibran, and I went on to read the rest of his published works and to think of him as a soulmate of sorts.

Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach: My dear, departed friend, David, gave me a copy of this book when I graduated from high school. It was a mind-blower that started me on my spiritual journey. It is the story of a spiritual mentorship (making it a perfect gift from my first spiritual mentor) that forms between the author (a writer and biplane pilot) and a former mechanic who teaches the author how to let go of the personal limitations that he passively allowed to define him and the world around him. Interspersed throughout the story are passages from the “Messiah’s Handbook and Reminders for the Advanced Soul,” and I memorized and was intrigued by nearly every one of these gems. I read several of Richard Bach’s books after this one and found them all to be illuminating and magical. Giving my daughter this book is like passing on the torch that David handed to me. It is an empowering book to read when you’re feeling stuck.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: Soon after we met, my husband insisted that I read this book, and I’ve never had a book recommended by so many kindred spirits. It is a fictional account of a quest to find a treasure and all of the helpers and circumstances the main character encounters on the journey that point him in the direction of the treasure. It is an inspirational story about listening to your heart and following your dreams. One of my favorite children’s picture books, The Treasure by Uri Shulevitz, has striking similarities to this novel. It was so enchanting that I ended up reading many more novels by Paulo Coelho, who has become my favorite novelist.

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle: Eckhart Tolle is one of my main gurus, and it all began with this illuminating non-fiction book about entering the present moment and transcending ego consciousness. I love his explanation of the pain body, which I think my daughter (a quintuple Scorpio) will relate to. I think she also will appreciate his lack of religious language. His teachings make sense, and so much of what he talks about I know to be true through personal experience. I practice “entering the now” every day of my life and have been transformed and enriched by doing so.

Oneness with All Life by Eckhart Tolle: This is a beautiful edition of inspirational passages from A New Earth. It is one of my favorite books to open to a random page and read whatever I find there when I seek guidance or inspiration.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl: This is the author’s personal account of being a prisoner in Nazi death camps and how the suffering endured by him and fellow prisoners became a path of renewed purpose and meaning. This book was assigned reading for a Death and Immortality course I took as an undergraduate. The author asserts, “It is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.” Survivors accomplished this through a sense of humor and noticing beauty in the natural world. Well, if people were able to practice the art of living under such deplorable conditions, we have no excuses! This is also a book that makes you count your blessings. I had trouble deciding between this book or Night by Elie Wiesl. I like the way Frankl’s book emphasizes the importance of having a sense of purpose and meaning that makes life worth living.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom: In this popular book, the author reconnects with a former college professor during the final months of the professor’s life and learns important lessons about life as his mentor approaches death. This is a book that puts life into perspective and highlights what really matters.

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch: One year on our professional development staff day at the beginning of the school year, the principal showed a video of Randy Pausch, a Carnegie-Mellon professor who had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, giving a lecture about living life to the fullest and pursuing our dreams. This book is an easy read based on the principles he presented in the lecture. It’s similar in theme to Tuesdays with Morrie – a book that looks at the Big Picture.

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver: Everyone needs a good collection of poetry. This is Mary Oliver’s most recent book, and I want my daughter to have it because it’s so lyrical and inspiring and focuses largely on the wonders of the natural world. It took a while to decide which volume of Mary Oliver’s poems to give my daughter. I plan to attach a couple of my favorite poems found in other volumes to the inside cover. It’s something she can read during a quiet moment when she needs a lift or is trying to make sense of her place in the world. I like this collection because it has fewer religious references than some of the author’s other works – something my daughter would appreciate.

Life’s Journeys According to Mister Rogers: Things to Remember Along the Way by Fred Rogers: Mister Rogers always had a way of making you feel good about yourself. This little book is a collection of nuggets and gentle advice that we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Golden Gelman: This is a personal account – kind of like a travelogue – written by a woman who gave up her house and possessions and became a nomad back in 1986. She remains a nomad today and continues to write about her adventures on her website and blog! How interesting – I just visited her blog so I could link to it and discovered that right now she is staying in the Berkshires, which is very close to where I live! And equally fascinating, her latest blog post discusses Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which I listed above! The book is filled with fascinating accounts of the author’s experiences with people in different cultures around the world. It reaffirms the goodness of people all over the world and the reality of serendipity and chance meetings that open one to a whole new world of possibility. What possibilities and blessings are we passing by because we are functioning as creatures of habit, not fully seeing or perceiving the living world around us? What possibilities might we discover by being truly present when we interact with others by listening, by speaking our truth and being honest about our needs, by lending a helping hand?

Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho: This is the author’s latest book, and it reads very much like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. It is loaded with wisdom that really resonates and inspires. I find myself quoting it frequently lately.

The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz: A colleague gave me this book a few years ago, and it contains a lot of practical wisdom around the “four agreements” for rising above self-limiting beliefs that compromise our quality of life: 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take anything personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, 4) Always do your best.

Women in the Material World by Faith D’Alusio and Peter Menzel: This book provides, through gorgeous photos and compelling commentary, an intimate look at the lives of 20 different women in different countries and cultures throughout the world. It underscores what women around the globe have in common and also how our lives are, in many cases, dramatically different. I have opened up this book countless times when I was feeling down, and it never failed to remind me that I am blessed beyond belief and share a connection with women around the globe, who experience the same feelings, frustrations, and joys that I do. At times when my energy is vulnerable and I think that my life situation doesn’t measure up to the standards our society seems to expect, this book sets me straight! I hope it will serve this purpose for my daughter, too. She and I have enjoyed exploring the companion book, Material World, together over the years, as well.

Warrior of the Light: A Manual by Paulo Coelho: Is it obvious that I love Paulo Coelho’s writing? This is a phenomenal companion to The Alchemist that offers wisdom for our life’s quests. I bought my copy of this book when I was pursuing a career in teaching, and it provided perspective that kept me fighting the good fight to attain my goal.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom: I have loved everything I have read by Mitch Albom and am convinced that his work is deeply inspired. I was in a college bookstore many years ago perusing the required and recommended books for various graduate teaching courses, and this book was on the list for one course. It speaks to the potential within each of us to change someone’s life. Although this book wasn’t originally on my list, it revealed itself in a way that convinced me it needed to be included in the collection. I could have included any of Mitch Albom’s other novels, as well.

Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard (not pictured): The title of this book says it all. I want my daughter to be happy on her life’s journey, and this is my favorite book about happiness, written by a biochemist turned Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition. It offers practical, sound advice synthesized with neuroscience.

I intend to present the books to my daughter in a wooden crate. I have had so much fun planning and putting together this present!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Seahorses Inspired by Eric Carle

Seahorses Inspired by Eric Carle

This is another teacherly post. I want to share a tutorial of my favorite art project of the year: Eric Carle-inspired seahorse collages. I got the idea from a lesson plan I purchased from Deep Space Sparkle a few years ago and have modified over the years for implementation with my kindergarten students. 


We haven’t done much painting this year due to our switchover to the rigorous Common Core curriculum. The paint bottles have been sitting on the shelf above the cubbies calling to me. I have been waiting all year for this opportunity.

Throughout the year, we have read a number of Eric Carle picture books, and one of the children’s favorite snack time videos is a collection of Eric Carle stories that includes The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me; and The Very Quiet Cricket. So they are quite familiar with his work. (And I love the calming nature of the video.)

Toward the beginning of our ocean life unit, I read Mister Seahorse to the children. This book features aquatic fathers that take a primary role in carrying for or protecting the eggs and babies. Seahorse fathers, rather than mothers, are the ones who become pregnant and give birth. So this is also a Father’s Day tie-in, and we create the seahorse collages as Father’s Day gifts. (Father’s Day can be a tricky celebration to acknowledge in the classroom since some children do not have a father present in their lives. In such cases, I encourage children to give their collage to an important male figure in their life or whomever they choose.)

Click HERE for a video of the Mister Seahorse story being read aloud.



We also watch a fabulous video, Eric Carle: Picture Writer, in which Eric Carle talks about early influences (including his kindergarten teacher) that nurtured his interest in art. He also reads from some of his books and demonstrates his process of creating collages in his studio. 

Here is the complete list of supplies I have on hand for the project. You can definitely improvise; not everything is essential!

Materials:

  • Two sheets of white 12″x18″ construction paper (per child)
  • Watercolor paint (blue, green, purple)
  • Smaller and larger paintbrushes 
  • Paint cups
  • Several different colors of tempera paint
  • Scrapers (or a plastic fork)
  • Textured “stamps” (i.e. backings from carpet samples, bubble wrap, anything with a textured pattern)
  • Sea sponges
  • An old toothbrush (for splatter painting)
  • Patterned sponge rollers and/or matchbox cars
  • Plastic trays (for applying paint to the sponge rollers; I use the large rectangular lids from store-bought salad mixes)
  • Newspapers or some kind of protective covering for tables
  • Scissors
  • Glue sticks
  • Glitter glue, or glitter and Elmer’s glue, or metallic paint pens
  • Black Sharpie marker
  • Smock
  • Wiggly eyes
  • Hot glue gun or tacky glue 
  • Poster board or cardstock (to make tracers)

Procedure:

Each child needs two white sheets of 12″x18″ construction paper for the seahorse project. (I have considered using a paper size that is easier to frame but haven’t done it since all my tracers are sized for 12″x18″, and the size really seems to “work.”) The first paper will become the ocean background, and the second paper will become “pretty paper” for the seahorse. Note: If you are doing this at home with one or two children, you will want to make a few sheets of “pretty paper” for the project; one won’t be enough.

 
1.   Create the Ocean Background

I start by having each child write his/her name in pencil on what will be the back side of one sheet of white paper. Then they turn it to the front and paint squiggly “waves” all the way across using the blue, green, and purple watercolors. After making the lines, they can splatter-paint or let their wet paintbrush drip color onto the paper to suggest “bubbles.” Set aside to dry.


This step goes quickly, and I did it with one child at a time. I was fortunate this year to have one student who volunteered (without being asked) to be the cleanup person. He was ready with a wet paper towel (see top photo) to clean up any paint that got on the table surface. (I didn’t put down newspaper.) Another student took it upon herself to be the teaching assistant. She explained directions to her classmates and showed them examples of the ocean backgrounds in the Mister Seahorse book. I had the next child write his/her name on the paper and sit at the table watching the child who was painting, to see how to do it. 

 
2.   Create the Pretty Collage Paper

This step takes at least two days to complete. On the first day, children paint their second sheet of white paper the color of their choosing (after writing their names on the back in pencil). For this, I like to mix tempera paint to make interesting colors, like tangerine, indigo, turquoise, chartreuse, fuchsia, dandelion, terracotta, etc. Then I dilute the paint with water so it covers the paper more easily and lasts longer. 

One year, I asked children to choose a color ahead of time and grouped them together according to the colors they chose so they could all paint at the same time. That worked well (as long as you have enough paintbrushes and space). Other years, I’ve set up a table during play centers time and worked with two children at a time, allowing them to select from a variety of mixed colors.

The children cover their entire paper with one color of paint. They use the thickest paintbrushes I have, to make it go faster. We let the papers dry overnight.

The next day is the messiest but also the most fun. Children need to wear smocks for this! I set aside one table as the painting table and put out numerous cups of mixed, diluted tempera paints, paintbrushes, plastic trays, textured stamps, kid-sized sponge rollers, sea sponges, etc. 

Then I call one or two children at a time and guide them to:

    • Paint or roll lines or dots across their paper (straight, zigzag, or squiggly) using a contrasting color.
    • Use a patterned scraper, plastic fork, or the handle end of a paintbrush to scrape through the painted lines, to create texture and color variations.
    • Use a sea sponge and/or patterned stamp to add even more texture. 

      Finally, I take the children outdoors to finish their papers by splatter-painting a contrasting color on top. They can use either a paintbrush or a toothbrush for this. If using a paintbrush, they flick the paintbrush (held several inches above the paper) to propel the paint from the brush to the paper. If using a toothbrush, they hold the toothbrush above the paper with one hand and rub the opposite thumb along the bristles to propel the paint to the paper.

      Let the “pretty papers” dry.


      3.   Trace and Cut the Seahorse


      I made tracers from poster board in the following shapes: seahorse, coral and/or seaweed, rock, starfish, and tiny fish. You can do a Google Images search for the shapes, print them out, and trace them on poster board or cardstock, etc. to make the tracers.

      I trace the shapes on the back of the “pretty papers” because children have a tendency to put the tracer smack dab in the middle of a paper. (They do this with cookie cutters and dough, as well.) I like to save the scraps for others to use in their collages, and there are more (and larger) scraps left over if I trace the shapes strategically close to the edge of the paper. I also write the child’s name in pencil in the middle of the seahorse shape.

      The pretty paper each child painted will be the paper used for his/her seahorse, which is the largest element of the collage. I give each child his/her paper with the seahorse shape traced on the back. The children cut out their seahorses, and I save each child’s seahorse in a separate ziplock bag that will be used to store the rest of his/her collage pieces. I have them put their scraps on a table.


      4.   Trace and Cut the Other Shapes


      I sort the paper scraps into piles according to whether they would make good coral, seaweed, rocks, starfish, or tiny fish. Then I trace the shapes on the back of the scrap papers. Hopefully I can trace a few of the same shape on the scrap paper. Then I cut around the traced shapes to make smaller pieces of pretty paper that the children can cut into the shapes. I put all of the paper with coral tracings on the back into one ziplock bag, all of the seaweed tracings in another, etc. 

      Then I have the children select the papers they want to use for the rest of their collage pieces. I’ve found that this works best as a small group activity, and I definitely recommend having another adult in the room to help manage this step.

      I did this during our work stations time. Some children read independently to themselves and others used the computers, while a third group selected their collage papers. I set up piles of the different pretty papers (with a certain traced shape on the back) on a table, and an adult volunteer supervised the children as they selected a paper for each object in the collage. For instance, one pile contains paper scraps with a starfish traced on the back, another pile has paper scraps with rocks traced on the back, etc. The children put their collage papers into their plastic bag along with the seahorse they cut out previously. (Note: I let the children choose either a seaweed or a coral paper, but not both.)

      Then this group of children goes to a table, writes their name inside the traced shapes, and cuts out all the shapes, saving the scraps in a bin (that will be dumped into the “scrap paper” drawer of our art center paper organizer for future use) and putting their cut-out shapes into their plastic ziplock bag.

      5. Assembling the Collage

      Meanwhile, I have been setting up a table for them to assemble their collages. I put each child’s ocean background paper on the table along with lots of glue sticks and some Sharpie markers. I talk the children through the process of assembling their collages in the following order:

      1. First, they glue and place their coral or seaweed toward a bottom corner of the paper. (The paper should be oriented so that it is tall, rather than wide.)
      2. Next, they glue and place their rock in front of (and slightly overlapping) the coral or seaweed.
      3. Next, they glue and place their starfish in the opposite bottom corner (on the ocean floor).
      4. Next, they glue and place their seahorse somewhere in the center of the page.
      5. Finally, they glue and place their two small fish anywhere they want.

      They finish by signing their name in black Sharpie. They also could draw tiny circles on the starfish and coral to create a more textured look.


      6. Applying the Finishing Touches

      I use a hot glue gun to affix a wiggly eye to the children’s seahorses and a very small wiggly eye to their tiny fish. (You could instead use a hole punch, white paper, and a black marker to create eyes.)

      An optional final step is to allow them to accent their collages with glitter glue, metallic (gold or silver) paint pens, or glitter and glue. The children LOVE this step, so I always try to make time to include it.

      They are so proud of the art they have created! 

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      © Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

      In Celebration of Earth Day

      In Celebration of Earth Day

      “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”  -Rachel Carson

      Happy Earth Day, everyone!

      Sharing nature with children is one of my most deeply held inspired values as an early childhood educator. I believe that:

      • If children are to care about and want to protect the Earth, they need to have a personal relationship with it
      • The sense of wonder children experience early in life will remain with them and bring a greater depth of understanding to their later studies and explorations
      • Nature can enrich our lives as a source of inspiration, creativity, and strength.

      Despite the recent, dramatic changes to the public school curriculum and the restricted freedom and time we now have for “enrichment,” I hold onto some goals that I strive to weave into my teaching however possible. They include:

      • Connecting children with the natural world through direct experiences and observations, stories, photographs, informational resources, and art projects
      • Putting children in contact with growing things to develop a greater awareness of the cycles of nature
      • Cultivating the child’s reverence and sense of wonder for the whole of creation (natural world)
      • Encouraging sensory awareness and mindfulness of nature
      • Sharing metaphors and cycles from nature that speak to the human experience
      • Using natural objects as manipulatives and play props.

      To accomplish these goals, there are certain activities throughout the year that I will do everything in my power to keep in my kindergarten curriculum despite it all. For example, I would continue to have an indoor butterfly pavilion in my classroom for children to observe the monarch butterfly life cycle. Even if (hypothetically) we were not taking time to officially learn about it, at least my students could observe it, be in awe of it, and ask questions. We could take a few minutes at the beginning of recess to release the butterflies outdoors. This is an example of one of my personal “non-negotiables.” Another is growing plants from seed. Both of these activities cultivate caring.

      I’ve thought long and hard about different ongoing activities and structures I can include in my classroom to support my goals of connecting children with nature no matter what. Here are some I came up with:

      • Having a seasonal “nature” table in the classroom
      • Naming each full moon based on what is happening in the natural world during that month
      • Celebrating each full moon by reading a story featuring the moon
      • Observing and discussing the weather and temperature on a regular basis
      • Pausing for a moment to honor and observe natural phenomena as they occur (i.e. leaves or snow falling, squirrels playing, wind gusting, butterfly hatching)
      • Setting up science investigation stations for free exploration
      • Offering magnifying glasses as tools for exploration during outdoor recess
      • Providing bags for children to pick up playground trash
      • Providing direct experiences when possible – and when not possible, alternatives include virtual experiences (on our SMART Board) and family “homework”
      • Taking monthly nature walks and focusing on sensory observations and signs of the season.
      Seasonal nature tables
      Science investigation stations

      I have yet to implement “family homework,” but here are some ideas:

      • Feel the bark of different trees, and do a leaf rubbing with paper and crayons.
      • Collect and press a few fallen autumn leaves, and send to school to share, compare, and use in an art project.
      • Go outdoors after dark, and notice (and make a list of) different night sounds.
      • Look for bird nests after the leaves have fallen from the trees; inspect with a magnifying glass, and perhaps bring to school for our bird nest display case (empty fish tank).
      • Make a snowman or snow sculpture, and take a picture of it.
      • Make a bird chart, and keep track of the birds you see in your yard during winter (or spring).
      • Look at the night sky, and identify constellations, or make up constellations of your own.
      • Take a walk, and notice signs of spring (or fall).
      • Listen to the sounds of spring.
      • Put out materials for birds to use in making their nests (such as hair from a hairbrush).
      • Full Moon Club: Step outside when the moon is full each month, and make a list in a small notebook of what you notice (sights, sounds, smells, temperature, etc.); notice how the sensory impressions change from month to month.

      Like delicate plants determined to push up through cracks in the pavement, there is always a way to facilitate children’s connection with the natural world. Sharing my nature and wildlife photography is one of my favorite ways to do this. It seems that my passion for what I have photographed and experienced on the river awakens something in my students. They engage and pay attention when I share my photos and anecdotes via the SMART Board, and it is among the highest quality, most insightful and observant discussion we have. I think that a teacher’s passion is infectious and ignites learners. I have a class website with a photo album in which families can upload pictures of nature and wildlife they observe outside of the classroom so children can do the same – a high tech version of show-and-tell.

      I also make room for some read aloud stories pertaining to Earth Day. Some of my favorites are:

      • Why the Sky is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson
      • The Gift: A Magical Story about Caring for the Earth by Isia Osuchowska (since I teach in a public school, I omit religious references)
      • Zinnia’s Flower Garden by Monica Wellington
      • Each Living Thing by Joanne Ryder
      • The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry


      Each year, I like to create something in celebration of Earth Day. One year I made a book from a paper bag that showed, through photos and text, 20 different ways we care for the Earth in our classroom.


      To raise awareness of what we already do – and to brainstorm more ideas – I included items like:

      • Sharpening crayons, using the shavings for art projects, and using the stubs for crayon rubbings and melting into block crayons (message: using all the parts instead of throwing them away)
      • Turning off the lights when we leave the classroom
      • Obtaining most of the books in our classroom library secondhand (message: buying used rather than new and passing things on to others after they have outlived their usefulness to us)
      • Having a system for reusing and recycling paper, and using both sides of paper for writing and drawing
      • Repurposing different kinds of food containers to make classroom materials (paint cups, pencil holders, mini greenhouses).

      For the second year in a row, I have created a video in celebration of Earth Day. Last year, I wanted to share Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World” and Tom Chapin’s “This Pretty Planet” with my students and thought it would be more powerful if I paired the songs with images. That is how the first video came into being. My students asked to see it repeatedly; I think it has a comforting effect. Since I didn’t have my blog going at that time, I’ll share last year’s video HERE. (Please be sure to watch it at the highest quality setting!)


       
      This year, I created a video based on one of my favorite songs, “The Garden Song” by David Mallett, in memory of my friend, David, who passed on in February. David was a faithful gardener of both land and spirit, and my last visit with him ended with a walk around our yard looking at our gardens. One of his last pieces of advice was about how to keep cauliflower heads protected as they grow. He planted so many seeds during his lifetime, some of which have been growing in me for decades. In a nutshell, I think life is about growing and blooming where we are planted, and offering the world our highest expression – and then leaving seeds for the next generation to do the same. “The Garden Song” is full of metaphors, and it reminds me so much of David.

       
      Email followers: Click HERE to play video.

      I hope you will enjoy the videos and find some way to plant a seed in honor of Earth Day! 

      With love and light,
      Susan

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      © Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

      Time to Bloom!

      Time to Bloom!

      Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.  -Ralph Waldo Emerson

      As usual, the flower parade has begun with the daffodils leading the way, to be followed closely by the tulips. Growing tired of winter, I was thrilled to notice the daffodil shoots pushing above ground outside my classroom during the last week of February – and I have been observing them with my students and photographing them ever since. They became a symbol of hope and spring, and I enjoyed watching the yellow tips mature and bulge.


      Yesterday was the first day back from spring vacation, and I hoped they hadn’t bloomed in my absence. I was not disappointed! They were just about ready.


      This morning, I arrived at school anticipating something wonderful – and here is what I found:


      The sight filled me with joy.

      I observed the daffodils obsessively throughout the day. And they couldn’t have picked a better day to bloom.

      It so happened that our big book read-aloud story for the day (as per our language arts core curriculum) was Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus. This is a story about a young tiger named Leo who couldn’t read, write, draw, or “eat neatly” like his friends. I introduced the story by talking about what it means to bloom – how flowers bloom and how people bloom, as well. I gave an example of my mother learning to play guitar in her mid-70s and talked about how beautiful it is to see someone bloom and how good it feels to bloom. I also mentioned that our daffodils were in the process of blooming today, and the children were eager to see for themselves since we’d been watching and waiting for so long.

      But first we read the story. Young Leo wore a sad expression on his face throughout most of the book as he tried unsuccessfully to do what his friends were doing. His dad was worried, too, and told Leo’s mom that he’s afraid Leo is not a bloomer. His mom, however, had faith in Leo’s natural developmental rhythm and assured his dad that Leo will bloom in his own time. The dad tried not to worry, but as Leo continued not to bloom, he couldn’t help but worry. Again, the mom reassured him that Leo will bloom when he is ready. And at last…Leo bloomed! He was able to read, write, draw, and eat neatly. And he was so proud.

      I love the message of this story. It saddens me that recent public education mandates have raised the academic bar so much higher for kindergartners, and as a result there is little tolerance for the natural developmental rhythms of diverse learners. I tell parents at the beginning of each school year that my primary goals for their children are for them to enjoy coming to school, to love learning, and to feel good about themselves. And yet, even in kindergarten, teachers are required to identify children who are not meeting grade level benchmarks and to provide them with intervention services designed to accelerate their learning so they will catch up and end the year where they are expected to be. Although I agree – and have seen for myself – that children are often capable of more than we may imagine – I worry that this approach may result in more young children feeling badly about themselves and feeling self-conscious about not measuring up. Some children are ready for the new, more demanding kindergarten curriculum, but others are not. I wish we had greater freedom to honor children’s developmental rhythms and to rely more on authentic assessment methods.

      I really enjoyed reading and discussing Leo the Late Bloomer with the children. We talked about how poor Leo felt bad about himself and how his dad was worried about him – but also about how his mom had faith that he would bloom in his own time. I really stressed his mother’s attitude, hoping to get across the message that children bloom in their own time – and not to worry if something is very difficult for you because eventually it will get easier. Don’t worry or compare yourself to others. You will arrive in your own time. I have faith in you. Despite all the report card testing, benchmark testing, and progress monitoring, I have faith in you, and I know there is something each one of you does really well. It might not be something we assess in school, but it is important and valuable nonetheless.

      After reading the story, we had snack time, and the children wanted to see the daffodils, so I took them outside one table group at a time. It was so beautiful to watch their faces light up when they saw the daffodils opening and beginning to bloom. 

      We noticed that some of the daffodils were blooming more quickly than others. Each of them was growing and opening their petals at a slightly different pace. And each will become a beautiful, fully formed flower in its own time. 

      We continued to observe the daffodils throughout the day, during recess and at dismissal.

      We have observed the daffodils since we noticed the first shoots and talked about how people and flowers are alike in the way they bloom. And it seems my students have developed reverence for the daffodils in our little garden. They are protective of the flowers and remind children in other classes to be gentle and to keep a safe distance.


      I hope that the ways in which our curriculum coincided with natural phenomena today deepened my students’ connection with the natural world. I hope they will grow to regard nature as a mirror of their own social, emotional, and spiritual selves and to find strength and hope in the metaphors offered so abundantly by the natural world.

      The first of our daffodils will be in full bloom tomorrow.


      And woe to any unsuspecting child who innocently attempts to pick one. I don’t think my students would stand for it!

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      © Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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