Poetry by the Sea

IMG_6310I signed up for poetry and left the coast of Florida with more than poems in my pocket.   Invited to attend Poetry by the Sea, a retreat for poets taught by Georgia Heard and Rebecca Dotlich, I knew it was a chance of a lifetime.   Georgia has been my poetry teacher for three decades and I’ve followed Rebecca’s work in recent years.  That said, I haven’t written much poetry lately, so I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be for my current interests.  I didn’t know specifically why I wanted to go, yet trusted the answer would be revealed.  It came to me through a shell and a poem.

The retreat was in Jupiter, Florida, a few miles north of West Palm Beach.  We were right on the beach, so I seized every free moment to walk and explore.  It was a place of stunning sunrises, worn-smooth shells, and warm, humid air.  The beach is a nesting ground for loggerhead turtles and was covered with eggshells, some cracked open and others still intact.  At first it was disturbing to see so many until I read that “sea turtles deposit an average of about 100 eggs in each nest and lay between 3 and 7 nests during the nesting season… The unhatched nests, eggs and trapped hatchlings are good sources of nutrients for the dune vegetation, even the left over egg shells from hatched eggs provide some nutrients.” (http://www.conserveturtles.org/seaturtleinformation.php?page=seaturtle-faq)

In addition to the turtle egg shells, there was a disturbing amount of plastic all along the shoreline.  The truth of articles about the crisis level of ocean plastic pollution hit home. (http://fortune.com/2015/10/01/ocean-plastic-pollution/) There were small plastic bits, lost toys and flip flops, and even a plastic water bottle packed full of styrofoam.  It was encouraging to see people collecting plastic from the beach, but sad they had to collect plastic instead of lovely shells.

The super moon event created quite a backdrop for the retreat.  The connection between the moon and tides felt especially strong.  However, it was a small shell, a moon snail, that ended up being the most significant part of the whole experience. Recently I’ve been thinking about my life stage and how it feels sometimes like everything is getting smaller.  When I found the little moon snail (http://barnegatshellfish.org/images/snails/atlantic_moon_snail_01wl.PNG), I realized that its spiral actually began tiny and grew more expansive in time.  It was a perfect metaphor for life, which I ended up using for one of my poems:

Moon Snail

You are a spiral, soft eggshell
brown with a tint of rose.

Wave-dropped at my feet,
I hold you in my hand as
you teach me about life.

I think of my own, spinning
faster than I can believe
to its outer edges.

Until I found you, I thought
the spiral closed in, diminished.
I can see now it’s quite the
opposite, that what’s left
is the expansive part.

Widening into open space,
I notice near your final curve
a well-placed opening–
a portal, perhaps,
to somewhere else.

It was a blessing to go to such a beautiful “somewhere else,” which in the end brought me home to myself.


A Colorful Rite of Passage

Mallory tie dyeIt’s a well known fact that, over the years, the Seed has gained a reputation as being a “hippie” school.  Our roots as an alternative school in the 70s have certainly fueled this perception.  The school’s emphasis on gardening and saving the earth have also been contributing factors.  Early on we had three- and four-year olds writing letters to senators asking them to clean up the air.  Being listed on Buzzfeed’s list of ten most bizarre schools in the country (http://www.buzzfeed.com/hillaryreinsberg/10-bizarre-schools-from-around-the-country#.vtwrp6aA5) for believing in world peace got more than a few people’s attention. And yes, I’ll admit that during the years I taught 4th and 5th grade, I did my best to make sure my students knew as many Bob Dylan songs as possible.  The Seed has come by its reputation honestly.

Perhaps the most visible and long-lasting remnants of the hippie era are the tie dye t-shirts we make every year.  Although tie dyed shirts have been around the Seed since our first days in the late 70s, we got serious about the process around the turn of the century.  Fifteen years later, dyeing the shirts (and painting tiles) is a well-oiled machine.  Each year is a refinement of the previous one.  Team Tie Dye is a formidable crew.

The way it works is we sell white shirts at the beginning of the school year and families sign up to dye their shirts on the big day.  The most fanatic tie dye fans (many of them members of Team Tie Dye) have been known to purchase a large number of additional white items to enhance their current wardrobes.  Dyes are carefully measured and prepared in handy squirt bottles.  Instructions for how to tie fancy designs are handed out and individual consultations are not uncommon throughout the day of tie dye.  After shirts have had a good soaking in soda ash solution, the floodgate of tie dye enthusiasts is released and the colorful event begins.

This rite of passage for new Seed families, as well as returnees who can’t live without a new tie dye each year, is like no other Seed event.  Families who are new to the process glean tips and advice from seasoned folks.  Some parents like to keep things neat and tidy (as much as you can with tie dye) and end up doing most of their child’s shirt.  Others, especially those who have just come from work, stay out of the way as much as possible and let their kid loose with the squirt bottle.  Some children pool up the dye so heavily that there’s more on the  table than the shirt.  A few take their time, intentionally applying the dye to their shirts.  I’d say the majority love the process of squirting the colors around with little regard for the outcome.  Tall tales from tie dye days past are on the rise as the sun sinks in the west, bringing the day to a close.  The only thing better than this colorful camaraderie is the kids sporting their new shirts on Monday morning, their smiling faces announcing, “Look!  I’m a Seed!”

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IMG_0259Last Friday I was standing in the hallway by the K-1 when a flurry of caped superheroes burst out of the Preschool 4s room.  Each superhero was sporting a brand new cape with the first letter of his or her first name boldly imprinted on the back.  Enthusiasm was so high I was surprised they didn’t literally fly down the hall.  As the children passed by me, each one spontaneously declared his or her superpowers.  Their powers were coming at me so fast, I had to ask their teacher Deb to clarify.  Here were a few of them:

  • rescuing people and safety
  • giving hugs to Mom and Dad
  • superpowers in my hands to make things fall down
  • hiding and turning invisible
  • mud and when I use all of my mud, I fill it back up
  • lightning, it comes out of my hands
  • a drill finger, it makes super hot holes

The superpower that affected me the most was spoken by a girl who proudly exclaimed, “My superpowers are ice and fire.”

For several days now I’ve thought of ice and fire.  Ice is solid, cold, dense, and mostly unmoving (until it starts melting and becomes a liquid).  It represents life in a fixed condition, held in one place.  Fire is hot, constantly moving, consuming, and always seeking fuel to survive.  Fire is passion and creativity, with the ability to both nurture through warmth and cooking, and destroy in out-of-control  blazes.  Although not exactly opposites, fire and ice balance each other.

Superhero week, according to the preschoolers’ teacher, “was meant to reinforce ‘superhero’ behavior in daily life. It was inspired by a prevailing interest in superheroes from the kids and was a way for me to connect with new students, many with a keen interest in Superman, Batman, etc.  We read a range of books about ordinary kids who act in superhero-like ways.  Books like Ladybug Girl and The Amazing Adventures of Bumblebee Boy by David Soman celebrate the power of (a child’s) imagination to create adventure and excitement and are a worthwhile alternative to comic book superheroes and fairy tale princesses. We talked about the qualities that make someone a superhero and considered the heroes in our own lives.”  One of the children said, “Moms and dads are heroes because they take care of me!” Another child explained that a hero is someone who…”saves the day.”

The week that led up to their caped march down the hallway included superhero self-portraits and making the actual capes.  Their future holds the possibility of making masks to finish up their costumes.  Additionally, they’ll plan superhero play days and continue to explore the superhero theme in various ways.  Although I don’t have a superhero cape with my initial on the back, I, too, will be reflecting on my own superpowers.  Like ice, I will do my best to remain cool and solid, particularly when others around me are melting.  At the same time, I’ll also keep the fires of creativity and passion for my work steadily burning.  It’s what happens when you spend your days among superheroes.

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Playing with Their Food

play dough chefsThis week children of all ages are playing with their food.  In keeping with our school-wide nutrition study, food is the hot topic around the Seed.  Preschoolers are matching the colors of laminated pictures and plastic foods with large hoops or pieces of colored paper.  The same pictures help them find their matching circle spots.  Many classrooms have large MyPlate (http://www.choosemyplate.gov) diagrams on their walls or floors, also to be used for sorting and matching.  Sensory bins are full of food-related items for playful exploration.  Raw peeled beets, cranberry sauce, beans and dry noodles are just a few of the items in which small hands are immersed.  When a teacher brings in pulp from her juicer (containing apples, carrots, lemon and ginger), students have to guess the ingredients.  When ginger remains the mystery ingredient, it leads into the next day’s lesson.

Cooking projects also provide sensory input as four-year-olds participate in the important work of peeling carrots with authentic peelers.  Toddlers squirt food coloring on tortillas, examine oatmeal, and tear kale leaves with their tiny hands.  Olive oil is measured and poured into a bowl for sautéing onions.  Kid chefs concoct quesadillas.  Play dough “cookies,” and all the equipment that goes into making them, inspire intense conversation.  Sliced bananas are prepped for both dehydrating and freezing.  By the end of the week, hallways will be filled with the scent of basil and simmering carrot soup.

Books are an added ingredient, with titles such as Compost Stew, The Honeybee and the Robber, and Eating the Alphabet.  I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly has springboarded PreK students into authorship of their own food variation of the story.   K-1 artists are busily at work on their own version of Today Is Monday, based on the traditional children’s rhyme.

While younger children are tasting and touching their way through food adventures, older Seeds talk about bees and flowers, discuss compost, and cut out food pictures for their individual MyPlate collages.  Third and fourth graders, equipped with iPads, work in teams to photograph lunches of students in other classes.  Photos will be used to gather data about the contents of each lunch, which will be graphed, compared, and contrasted with a partner’s data, then discussed with the whole class.

As all this is going on, the usual sand concoctions will be dished up daily in the outdoor kitchen of our playground.  Additionally, we are making a giant salad for a wall display, with each class contributing an “ingredient.”  With articles like this (https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/09/01/the-decline-of-play-in-preschoolers-and-the-rise-in-sensory-issues/) floating around the internet, it’s gratifying to know that Seed kids are playing and learning their way through content that will profoundly influence their lives–content they’re unlikely to fully appreciate until many years down the road.

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Plant Flowers, Help the Bees

honey beeTwo weeks ago it was snakes, now it’s bees.  On Saturday, Bill received a notice from the Smiley Honey Company in the Florida panhandle. It’s the company where he’s bought tupelo honey for years.  The notice said their 2015 supply was wiped out due to bad weather (http://www.mypanhandle.com/news/tupelo-honey-supply-diminished-due-to-weather).  When he first mentioned it, my first thought was that it was caused by collapsing colony disorder (CCD) or the growing number of pesticides, viruses, and parasites affecting bees.  The next morning while driving, I heard the tail end of Marla Spivak’s inspiring TED talk about bees, which confirmed many of the concerns I’ve had for some time (http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing?language=en).  Although there were grim facts and stories, her talk also left me with a feeling of hope.  Marla suggested one way we could help the bees is to plant flowers.

I perked up when I heard this.  Being the eternal optimist and always on the lookout for tangible ways to show children how they can directly help the planet, it seemed like a perfect idea for the Seed.   Additionally, it ties in with our approaching all-school nutrition study.  Marla reminded us that a third of our foods are dependent on pollinators and included a visual of how empty our produce sections would be minus these foods.  Who better than the Seed family to accept this invitation to help the bees?

While I was on the Smiley Honey website, I noticed another blog post that caught my eye.  It was about the surprising increase in the number of honey bees (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonkblog/wp/2015/07/23/call-off-the-bee-pocalypse-u-s-honeybee-colonies-hit-a-20-year-high/).  I researched this further and discovered that a primary reason for the increase is innovative practices of beekeepers globally to protect and multiply their colonies.

In the coming weeks, as we immerse ourselves fully in our study of food, part of our attention will turn to planting flowers that promote pollination.  We will talk about why it’s important to do so for our own nutrition and quality of life.  We’ll also plant flowers in support of the bees and beekeepers who, around the world, are holding onto something incredibly precious to all of us.  Wendell Berry once said, “It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered.   There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places. My belief is that the world and our life in it are conditional gifts.  We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.”  (http://billmoyers.com/segment/wendell-berry-on-his-hopes-for-humanity/)

It’s yet another way the Seed will help to heal the planet.

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Pajamas and Morning Clouds

August cloudsIt’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the idea that we’re in middle of our third week of school and it’s still August.  It seems like every year summer is cut shorter and shorter.  As a child, summers always meant freedom and time for wonder.  It seems like we all have less and less of that.  Still, I’ve learned to seize the tiny moments when freedom and wonder are available.  I have to thank the weather this time of year for a number of those moments.

The clouds early Tuesday morning provided one such experience.  Just as I was about to cross the small bridge to the other side of the canal, I glanced up and noticed these beauties.  I pulled out my camera, knowing I only had a minute or two before they’d take some other form or disappear.  The clouds were expansive flashes of wonder and all thoughts occupying my mind vanished as quickly as the clouds.  They felt like a gift, to help with the transition from summer to fall, and a way to shift my perspective on a few things.

I was reminded of a recent interview with Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist who studies the interplay of intelligence and creativity (http://www.onbeing.org/program/rex-jung-creativity-and-the-everyday-brain/1879).  He speaks of intelligence as a “superhighway in the brain that allows you to get from Point A to Point B.”  He continues by describing creativity as “a slower, more meandering process where you want to take the side roads and even the dirt roads to get there, to put the ideas together.”  Further into the interview he discusses “down time where your brain is not engaged in ongoing cognitive activity…[that] induces this work space for you to meander around and put ideas together.”  He explains that different people do different activities (e.g. running, playing sports, yoga, taking a shower, recess) to create down time, and creative people, in particular, know ways to make this space in their lives.  Then he adds this about children:  “For your children…that’s an important space to cultivate, that recess from knowledge acquisition. You have to have the raw materials in place to put together, but you also have to have the time to put them together.”

Last week I was talking with one of our preschool parents about this very thing as we discussed the upcoming weekend.  She said she was going to let her kids stay in their pajamas as long as they wanted and not worry about all of the everyday rushing around tasks they have to do on a school day.  Walking each morning, looking at clouds, making art, and practicing yoga all give my mind time and space to activate its creativity.  As grown-ups, we owe it to the children in our lives to give them more open, unscheduled time, to wonder and put their ideas together in new ways, too.  I vote for more mornings of pajamas, cloud watching, and meandering dirt roads.

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Three Snakes

IMG_5925I was a girl who liked snakes.  Growing up in rural Nebraska with fields of prairie grass at my fingertips, we had frequent specimens available.  It wasn’t unusual for me to walk in the house with a gopher snake wrapped around my shoulders.  My mother was remarkably calm, considering the number of legless reptiles that entered our home.  My sister once brought a small snake inside that was on the loose for about a week.  Snakes were a part of my childhood.

In my adulthood I’ve had a few snake encounters, two of them with rattlers.  The first one was when we were camping in the desert and our children were playing together in a wash.  When we heard the rattling sound, we initially thought it was one of their small toys.  It was a rattlesnake.  No harm was done and our friend with snake experience skillfully scooped it up and dropped it in the desert far from our campsite.  The second encounter was at Bryce Canyon one afternoon while hiking alone on the trail.  The rattler was in my direct path.  I paused, gently said, “I wouldn’t hurt you,” then watched it slither off into the bushes.  Once my heart rate returned to normal I gratefully continued on my way.

Except for finding an occasional snake skin, I haven’t thought much about snakes until lately.  In the last week, three snake encounters have appeared on my radar.  I pay attention to sets of three.  On the third day of our new school year, I was out for my morning walk along the canal.  Quite by surprise, I came upon another snake in my path, this one lying freshly dead in the dirt.  My first instinct was to check if it had rattles.  It didn’t.  Nevertheless, it was at least three feet long and the image of the lifeless snake with ants crawling all over its head made a lasting impression.  I wondered how it died and thought about that snake till the next morning when I walked by the same spot and it was gone.  The next snake story came from my daughter who was in the mountains with her family over the weekend.  She reported that our youngest granddaughter was playing in their back yard and let out a blood-curdling scream.  A baby rattler had paid them a visit.  Then on Monday, there were news reports about a teacher in Fountain Hills who was bitten by a rattlesnake as she tried to shoo it out of the cafeteria where there were children.

I’m not sure what it means that three snake incidents have happened within a week.  I always look for the metaphors.  Throughout my life, when I’ve come upon a snake there’s generally been an element of surprise.  I also associate snakes with wisdom.  Perhaps they come into our lives to keep us on our toes, to measure our responses to life’s ever present changes.  If we’re lucky and pay attention, we might gain some wisdom, too.

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A Mindful Beginning

mindful paintersOn Thursday I walked into the Toddler 2s to see how the new school year was  going.   A table with five artists caught my eye, so I sat down for a closer view. Each toddler/artist had a paint brush and container filled with a different color of paint.  Already there were beautiful splotches of paint on the paper and several of the children had shifted to painting their hands and arms.  It was mesmerizing to sit with them and experience their deep engagement with their work.  It was presence at its finest and continued for quite some time.  It took me back to our staff prep week, which this year focused on mindfulness.

Each day of the week before school started, our staff spent time talking about mindfulness.  Described by John Kabat-Zin as a process for “cultivating self-awareness and greater awareness of others and the world,” (from the foreword to Sitting Like A Frog) and another expert as a “technology for happiness” (http://wakeupschools.org/wake-up-schools-india-movie/), we explored how we currently practice mindfulness in our Seed lives and how we can expand it.  We experienced firsthand several practices we could use in our classrooms and in our personal lives.  We talked about an organization called wakeupschools.org that is working worldwide to establish mindfulness in schools using the idea that “happy teachers will change the world.”  Our staff has taken this idea to heart and already there is evidence in the classrooms.

Jenny, the same teacher who set up the toddler painting table, wrote in her blog to parents this week:   “As a teacher, [mindfulness]  means that we will strive to always be aware of each child’s needs. We will plan activities with specific goals and definitive steps along the way. We will take each moment and try to elevate it with their development and happiness in mind.”  She continued with:  “We also want to teach the children to be more mindful.  This week during circle time we took a couple minutes each day to sit quietly, close our eyes, and practice listening. Not only did they participate, but they embraced our quiet time. We are constantly in awe of what these toddlers are capable of. Many even asked to do it again. We’re learning that taking a quiet moment can calm a child and help them to re-focus.”

Bill and I have experienced rain on many of the significant days of our lives together.  If the downpour on our first day of school year is any indication of what’s ahead, 2015-2016 may be quite a year.  With a foundation of mindfulness setting the stage for the Seed’s 39th year, I have confidence it will be an extraordinary time for all of us.

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Living Whole-heartedly

pipeAt the end of yoga a week ago, I jokingly commented to our teacher about how hard she had worked us.  She asked if it was too hard and I said no.  Then she added something like, “It’s important not to hold back—we never know if it will be our last time to practice together.”  I have thought of those words all week, and not just regarding my yoga practice.  On Tuesday morning as I was getting into my car to drive to school, her words came up again.  In a moment of complete openness to possibility, I caught a glimpse of the day ahead as a big adventure and wondered what it would bring.  I felt a whole-heartedness about my life that let in gratitude and appreciation.  I would have liked that experience to last longer.  As with everything else, though, it was a fleeting awareness, subject to to change, that was carried along with the flow of life.

It’s so easy to get distracted by to-do lists, lesson plans and piles of stuff needing to be sorted and passed along.  Thinking ahead to vacation time and the coming school year has been filling up a lot of my recent mental real estate.  Plus, I find that being anywhere but in the present moment frequently breeds impatience and non-productivity.  I notice it also keeps me from living whole-heartedly without holding back.

As I ruminated on this topic, I found these lines from the poem “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver:

“When it’s over, I want to say:  all my life
I was a bride married to amazement…

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Living whole-heartedly is on the other end of the spectrum from  “visiting the world.”  Being around children each day offers so many opportunities for this kind of living.  After lunch today, three hot and sweaty first grade girls came from the playground into Bill’s office.  They were there to report a small bunny they named Nibbles who crawled into a drain pipe.  They were concerned he might get stuck and not be able to get out.  They were worried that a hawk might get him and, in the same breath, wondered what he might eat because they noticed he was a picky eater.  Bill fully engaged with them, didn’t sugarcoat anything about the hawks, and assured them that Nibbles made a great choice using the pipe for a hideout.  As quickly as they descended on his office, they were drawn back to the fullness of the rest of their day, holding back not an ounce of passion or enthusiasm for the world around them.  I’m lucky to have such gifted teachers to keep me whole-heartedly in the moment.

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Inside the Box

boxersIt’s rare for my blog to have a sequel.  This one does.  After writing about the Seed’s mission to inspire kids to think outside the box, we now shift to inside the box.  The inspiration comes from our littlest Seeds, our Toddler 1s.  When I popped in for a visit Tuesday morning, boxes were everywhere.  Boxes just right for sitting upon, boxes for stacking and knocking over, boxes big enough for toddlers to climb inside of.  One resourceful toddler figured out a way to lift her big box by sliding her arms into the plastic packing slip sleeve.  It was a toddler version of a forklift picking up heavy warehouse crates.  Beside her, short-lived box skyscrapers were toppling over as fast as they were constructed.  Another child made a chair from her box and perched on it, facing away from the rest of the group, off in her own little world.  I left the room for two minutes and when I returned, the box area was abandoned and the toddlers were engaged elsewhere.  During our week 3 focus on skyscrapers and habitats, I thought I’d do a bit of investigating about “elsewhere.”  This is what I found out from our summer toddler teachers.

The Toddler 1s have been learning about the ocean and their teachers created an ocean habitat in the water table.  On Monday they talked about where land creatures live and played with their plastic animals in mud.  They found out that snails carry their homes on their backs!   They’ve enjoyed their new classroom playhouse because, after all, toddlers do live in houses.  One activity was making white play dough “eggs” that will later in the week be placed in nests, the place where birds live.  Their teacher is also planning to take them outside to look for birds.  They are sure to find one, nesting near the main entrance door.

Toddler 2s and 3s have been talking about houses, too.  Each child made a paper bag house, which helped develop their fine motor skills through crushing paper, grasping small items and gluing on house details.  Through books they are identifying parts of a house, such as the roof, doors and windows.  The older toddlers are recognizing the colors of doors other elements of a house and have added the word “construction” to their vocabularies.  “Habitat” will be another addition to their lexicon.  Like the Toddler 1s, identification of sea animals in their ocean habitat is part of their week.

What stands out from all of this is these are toddlers, children under three.  Their teachers aren’t holding back introducing them to the world just because they’re little.  In fact, they are holding the door wide open and inviting them to enter into as many new, yet developmentally appropriate, life adventures as they can.  Seed toddlers have daily opportunities to practice interacting with the world in infinite ways.  Through all their play with materials from everyday life, they are building strong minds and bodies that will serve them well—both inside and outside the box.

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