In memory of the children

We all ache and feel helpless when someone is taken from us. We want to help at any time of loss – especially when it involves innocent children.  We often cannot think of the right thing to do to honor the memory of the one or ones who were lost.

When we lost our daughter, Christy, we asked people to do acts of kindness and call them “Christys” in her honor as she lived her life performing random acts of kindness. This would keep her spirit alive. As long as one person remembers her she still exists. Having many people do good deeds in her honor keeps her spirit alive. Even though it has now been 14 years since her loss, I still get folks emailing and writing me about the “Christy” they performed. These emails make her present for just a moment and warm the space in my heart where she resides.child statue

This year, we have so many lost children to honor. A friend sent me a link where one can donate a book to a children’s library at a school or public library in honor of one of the lost children. The idea is to donate a book that connects with one of the passions of a particular child. The book is inscribed to a particular child who was lost.

I love this idea as it performs a good in the name of the child and connects to the life of that child. This idea brings a child to life as their favorite literature is shared in their honor with children who read the book.


Writing Can Heal

In times of sadness, writing can heal. I experienced this first hand when my own daughter died at 26 in a caving accident in Mexico. After the initial shock, as they days slowly passed waiting for her funeral, I found myself isolated in the backyard just writing about her. Through this healing process, I found a connection to her that I could share to help heal others.

I found the same to be true with my students after 9-11 when everyone was in shock. I led my fourth grade students in writing odes to America. By connecting with everything that America gives to us, we were able to help each other heal from this terrible tragedy. americaAs it turned out, we framed the students poems on patriotic paper, mounted them all on a bulletin board, and sold them at  a school event.

The parents were so moved to see the passion that each student poured out about this country that they just moved from poem to poem in silence. Many told me that these poems helped them to heal and were taken home and hung in places of honor. I know I still keep my teacher’s anthology in a place of honor.

Now we are faced with another senseless national tragedy. The villains who perpetuate these crimes steal more than lives – they steal our children’s sense of security. Writing can help restore the power of personal safety if we just let our children talk and write about their fears and them about the positives in their lives.

Here’s a sample Ode to America:

Ode to the Heroes

By Kelsey French, fourth grader in 2001

Over 300 hundred of you sacrificed your lives for others

Like angels radiantly praising God.

Your good deeds

Spread across our nation

Challenging us to follow your examples.

That night

You still kept your

Heads high and became

As rough as proud elephant.

Do you know

How much the children

Of the world relish you?

How much do you think you

Accomplished by your great deeds?

Everybody said you increased

In strength as powerfully

As David’s saving the world

From Goliath.

You’ve risen as swiftly

As eagles to shield your fledglings

In the Twin Towers.

So we pledge to you,

Heroes, for all the deeds you’ve done,

Let us be one America

With liberty

And justice

For all.

The Excitement of Losing those Baby Teeth

Losing baby teeth is not as easy as it looks. Usually it takes days of pushing and prodding with one’s tongue and jiggling it back and forth with one’s fingers to finally get it out. Even when it’s just dangling by what seems like a thread, it doesn’t want to let go. This is the experience I tried to recreate in the beginning of Santa Claus Meets the Tooth Fairy. The experience of losing those baby teeth remains with both parents and children

In fact, on the first day that Michael Strahan co-hosted on the Live with Kelly and Michael  show, Sept 4, 2012, they discussed this same topic. It was so poignant and humorous to hear of their own children’s experiences with those dangling teeth. One of them even related a time when a child attached a string to a loose tooth and the other end of the string to an electronic airplane to get the tooth to pop out.

2 lost uppers


Do you remember using unconventional means to get those baby teeth out? I just remember getting a clean handkerchief from my Dad’s drawer and wrapping it around the loose tooth to get a good enough grip to yank it out. I still remember the fresh smell of that hankie.  A favorite memory is of my Dad trying to gently help me pull the tooth, but me asking him to stop as I was scared. He always stopped when I asked him to. I don’t remember it hurting so much as the dreaded “pop” when it would let go.

What are your memories of pulling those first teeth?

Story Starters for Children

Reading stories written by professionals can be a good springboard for children to create their own pieces of writing. Santa Claus Meets the Tooth Fairy opens the door to many writing ideas.

For younger children, the following ideas could prompt creativity:

  1. Write a letter to the Tooth Fairy.
  2. Write Santa a recipe for a healthy snack.
  3. Write about the time you lost your first tooth. If you have not yet lost a tooth, make up a believable story about what you think it would be like. Hint: Interview others who have lost a baby tooth to get details for your story.

For older children, the writing ideas can be more complex:  Student Writing

  1.  Research what children in other cultures do with lost baby teeth. The Tooth Fairy does not visit every house around the world. For example, in Japan, the first baby tooth is thrown on the roof and the second is thrown under the house to ensure prosperity. In another version from the Japanese culture, lost upper teeth are thrown straight down to the ground and the lost lowers are thrown straight up in the air to ensure that incoming teeth will grow in straight.
  2. What does the border in this book represent? Can you retell the story by touching the border? Create your own border, then write a story to go with it.
  3. Create a new fantasy character who will visit children in secret. Explain why this character visits children. Describe your character in detail. Does your character have any special powers. For example is there a character who visits children on their half birthday to reward them for good health habits? What about a character who visits children when they have completed other firsts in growing up like the first time they rode a bike, or the first time they used a cell phone, or the first time they ate an artichoke, or the first time they saw the beach?

Teaching writing to children vs adults

Childhood MemoriesTeaching writing to children and adults has many similarities and a few differences.

With both groups the joy and excitement of creating spews forth. With the proper support and inspiration, both groups create fresh, new perspectives that even they didn’t know they had within themselves.

This joy of discovery is contagious and exciting to both writer and reader. Both groups love to share and have others comment on their writing. Their eyes just sparkle once they get over the anxiety of opening up their lives to others.

I found this joy especially true when I used the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon to get both students and adults to investigate their younger days with a creative voice.

So many stories surfaced in the poems created by my fourth grade students as well as adult ESL students at City College in New York as both groups associated memories with objects and people of their past. (Of course lots of group brainstorming preceded anyone putting pencil to paper to compose their own poems to stimulate these memories.)

Sharing is where students are somewhat easier to sell than adult writers. Once initial trust is established within the writing group and students know that others comments will be offered with a sense of pride in what they are offering, students share readily.

Adults often have more to fear from the judgment of others and hesitate longer before they will share. One rule in a writers’ group that helps with this problem is that everyone will share at least once during the session.

The adult sessions that I taught for the School Writing Project usually lasted ten weeks. Knowing this rule up front allows folks the choice of what to share.

Another area where students and adults differ is the willingness to revise their piece of writing based on the feedback of their peers. Students often jump in too quickly to change their writing based on the criticism offered by others. Adults more readily understand this and hold on more tightly to creative control of their writing.

As a teacher, it’s my job to convince them of their ownership of the writing and how what others say is just a suggestion – that may not be right for this piece of writing. Changing even one word in a piece of writing can significantly change the meaning or tone of the piece.

As a teacher I found joy and challenges in teaching writing to both adults and students. It’s a joy I consider a privilege.

I am from… by 3rd grade writer Emily Luther

I am from Boxcar Children books and from Disney movies. From the soft blue couch, the soft blue chair and a colorful tile table.

I am from strawberry waffles, Mexican pizza, sour Starburst and an antique cabinet. From granola cereal and oatmeal, milky ways and chocolate ice cream.

I am from jitters in my closet, my cat Sharah meowing at the birds, Pokemon on TV and the cat’s fluffy fur. From an antique desk and news on the radio.

I am from mom saying, “STOP!” to my twin brothers who are fighting after Pokemon cards. From a safe feeling in the kitchen.

I am from a silver box with all my feelings.

I AM FROM by ESL adult City College of New York student Mariana Negrila of Romania

I am from the perfume of the roses, the sweet voices of the baby chickens, and savory organic food. I am from my father’s sweating and bleeding painful hands as he built our house, where my mother washed the carpets with a cold water hose and her soft hands.

I am from the land of Eminescu, whose words are “love is everything,” and people read to forget their hunger. I am from a friendly town where people used to say to an unmarried woman: “Don’t worry, who’s yours is safe somewhere and is coming.”

I am from a full stomach when my brother and I had to lie down because we were exhausted from the heavy, covering the table meals. I am from “mitten” — small sized, chipped, grilled meat–, “salata boeuf”–a mixture of vegetables, meat, and mayonnaise- that I always liked to ornament.

My memories live in my mind. They are precious to me.

The Power of Personal Writing

Good writing reveals our inner selves in a most personal way. It puts us out there for public scrutiny. Writing begins a most intimate conversation between the writer and reader.

Working as a Writers in the Schools (WITS) writer, taught me so much about how to open up my self to the personal details that making writing a better exchange between reader and writer. WITS pairs a professional writer in the classroom with a certified teacher.

Lessons are created that move students deeper into their response to a particular writing topic so that they become personal. After the introductory lesson, both the teacher and writer move around the class conferencing with individual students to ask more questions that prompt deeper thinking and more personal writing.

Colored pencilsOne lesson we did was “My Name.” This lesson is based on Sandra Cisneros’s piece by the same title found in her book The House on Mango Street.  The writer reads Cisneros’s piece to the class, and then with their help pinpoints what makes this piece personal, powerful, and fresh –  creating that personal conversation with the reader.

The writer and the teacher usually read their pieces to the class to generate further discussion. Word choices, introductions and conclusions are highlighted as strong points in each of the pieces.

Then the teacher and writer help the class to brainstorm other questions that might apply to the name of anyone in the class. As students generate ideas/questions, the list is posted on the board.  By this time, personal writing ideas have been born in the students are they are chomping at the bit to begin their own pieces.

Through this lesson process, students gain the desire to share the important details about their own names. Writing becomes more natural. Writers become eager to share because they feel that what they have to say is both personal and important.

Of course, many unique perspectives about each student’s name present themselves in the drafted pieces. The final step in all writing process lessons is either small or large group sharing. As these pieces are shared, student comments and feedback identify writing choices that they found particularly powerful and well chosen. Finally, students are given time to revise their pieces. When illustrated and published these pieces can turn into a keepsake of a class anthology.

Taking the time to make writing personal for students is a journey worth taking.

The “da” in fundamental

Now for the crowning jewel of reading: the ‘da’. If you missed my other two posts that explain fun-da-mental, be sure to read them here and here.

Finally, reading is da, and I’m going to add another da to that and say reading can be “Da, da!” with a drum roll because reading actually changed my life.

At 42, I applied for a scholarship to the University of St. Thomas (UST) in Houston, Texas. This is a small, private university that sits in the heart of downtown Houston. I had chosen to marry right out of high school instead of attend college – thinking I could go to college anytime. Well, three children later, I longed to be a teacher, but needed that degree to do so. As a teacher’s aide at an elementary school, I was encouraged by  fifth grade teacher, Barbara Evans, to apply for a scholarship to UST. I filled out the necessary documents and thought it would never happen.

One day, during cafeteria duty, I was called to the office for a phone call. It seems the scholarship committee at UST was due to meet that week and they needed me to complete some paperwork that very day. My principal insisted that I hurry down to the university. Upon arriving, I found that what they needed was an essay to accompany my application. They asked me to write it right there in the busy, noisy office minus a dictionary, scratch paper, or a computer (it was 1990).

Living, Learning, and Loving by Leo BuscagliaBecause this is a liberal arts institution with a heavy emphasis on theology and philosophy, it was no surprise that the essay topic was to compare something I had recently read to one of three philosophers’ statements listed on the essay. Wow! I had never heard of any of the philosophers, but I knew as an avid reader that I would be able to find a book that I could match with one of the statements I was given. I chose Living, Learning, and Loving by Leo Buscaglia: a collection of his essays about choosing to love in this life of ours.

Somehow I turned off my nerves and all of the noise in that busy office, turned over some papers that I had brought with me and used them as scratch paper, and began to write. If I couldn’t spell a word, I chose a synonym that I could spell. When I was done, I revised my work and copied it on to the essay form.

After I turned it in, I thought I would never hear back from them. However, a few days later, I got my letter of acceptance offering me a full scholarship to the university. My three girls were standing beside me as I read the letter out loud and began to cry. The youngest, about eight, hugged me and said it would be okay. The middle one, about 13, said, “Wow, mom you must be so smart.” The oldest, about 15, said, “And we always thought you were so stupid.” That made us all break into laughter.

I know they were each proud of me. I was proud of me, too, and credit my success to “da,da” a love of reading.