Create Space

A while back I was experimenting with ideas from Joanne Fink’s book about zenspiration dangle design.

I’m not quite sure if Joanne suggested dangling a circle or if I came up with the idea. But it enjoyed playing with it. After finishing the exterior side of the circle, I decided to dangle the interior portion as well. Even now I’m intrigued by the different sense of the design on either side of the circle.

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For some reason the outer design maintains its outward flow. When I look at it, it doesn’t change. It is strong, steady, open, and ever reaching. I am attracted to the balance between white space and color, between lines, shapes, and openness, between straight lines and curved.

My relationship to the inner circle work feels much different. I am at one and the same time attracted and somewhat disturbed by it. The structures do not maintain a particular direction, but seem to move depending on where my gaze lands. I notice the same elements of line, color, and open space. But, I feel a sense of conflict as the various elements converge on the center.

As I wondered what to do, I remembered a henna design the awesome Catherine Lent did for me. In the midst of her beautifully intricate design, she had an empty circle. We chuckled about it as she worked around it. After checking with me to be sure I was ok with it, she left it empty. She said something like, “Sometimes it’s good to leave a bit of space.”

Hmmmm. Space. Yes, leave a bit of space, or create a bit of space.

I went back to my drawing and covered the tightness of the center with a small circular piece of white paper.

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I love it! I am intrigued by the space I created in the center. It is at one and the same time empty and yet full of stillness, openness, wonder, and possibility.

This speaks to me for my life as much as it does for my art.

In art, and in life it’s good to have space. Space for possibility. Space for stillness. Space for breath and being.

Space.

Sometimes it’s hard to find.

But, just like with this piece of art, I can step back, make a choice, and create space in my life, my heart, my mind.

Breath, prayer, times of sitting, a walk, are some of the small white circles that I place upon my life to create calm, still, open moments.

Sometimes it’s nice to leave a little space … or to create it.

Creative Spark!

Yesterday, I picked up my copy of Journal Sparks: Fire up Your Creativity with Spontaneous Art, Wild Writing, and Inventive Thinking. I was hoping for a creative spark from Emily Neuburger. She did not disappoint.

Flipping through the first few pages I came upon suggestions of what my journal might be. I’d used that list before to great results. This time I was struck by this possibility:

This journal is a small, handmade, accordion journal (see page 132) that is meant to be completely filled in one day.

Hmmm. I know how to make accordion journals. They’re simple and fun. I flipped to page 132. But, it was page 133 that caught my eye. I’d made these books before as well. I even taught them at a book-making workshop I led for educators. It’s a quirky little cut which allows for many possibilities as you use the book.

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When I presented it to my fellow educators, they were a bit unsure of its quirkiness. The ambiguity of the way the pages progress was a bit disconcerting. I encouraged them to just give it a go and see what their students did with it.

At the time I was thinking book, not journal, so I could understand their discomfort. We typically think of books as progressing in a particular manner. But, now, approaching it as a journal, I absolutely love it! The concept of a journal, filled in one day, on an unconventionally folded piece of paper is fantabulous! The ambiguity actually adds to its fantabulousness. (Note: Perhaps we need to be open to ambiguity in our books as well! It may turn out to be an equally remarkable twist.)

At first I was a bit unsure how I would fill the journal in one day. Would I just sit and fill it? Didn’t know. Didn’t care. Just wanted to do it.

I folded, cut, and folded again to create the journal. I played around with it for a bit before I did any writing/drawing. It’s super interesting the different ways you can open and turn the pages. After a considerable amount of folding, refolding, opening, looking, wondering, I chose the way I wanted to proceed. I put my first entry on the cover. I had places to go and things to do, so I put the journal down and set about the next part of my day.

In my car, I noticed an old tea bag tag I’ve had in there for what seems like forever. Perfect! When I got back in the house, I glued it to the next page. Later in the day I was feeling the need for some stretching so I did a bit of yoga. Awesome. I added it to my journal with simple stick figures and words. Still later I noticed my impatience (I’m working on that) so I added a quote about gratitude versus complaining.

I was struck by the awesomeness of this simply, small, out of the ordinary journal as a opportunity for mindfulness and reflection. Since each page is so small it’s really simple to fill them. You can make a really quick jot, or you can be more involved if time allows, and it makes you happy.

The idea of filling the book in a day was key for me as it forced me to create small moments in my day. The last pages were done right before my night prayers. It was a lovely way to wrap up my day. It gave me an opportunity to record the things I wanted to remember as I closed my day and my eyes.

I shared the finished journal with my brother. As I talked to him, I opened the journal in several different ways. As I did, I realized you could do two days if you wanted. The folds allow the blank pages to be accessed easily, so I could fill in another day if I wished. I also noticed I hadn’t stayed on the same side with all my entries. It might be interesting to do that. He remarked “Perhaps you could watercolor each side and then follow that. It’d be an easy way to maintain each side.” True! And it would be pretty!

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I’m in the process of making this ridiculously simple journal for my friends. It has profound possibility and potential. I love it for the opportunity to be curious, to flip back and forth between possibilities, make choices, reflect, have fun, breathe, be mindful, and do some writing and drawing. I may do several of my own. They’d be great to have to return to, reflect, remember and be inspired.

I kind of want to send one to each of my colleagues — to encourage stopping, breathing, reflecting, creating, and mindfulness. I definitely want to use them with my Kindergartners — and not just as a book (though books are spectacular) but as an opportunity to be, and experience all those lovely fantabulous things.

 


Make your own:

If you use a rectangular sheet of paper (as Emily does) you end up with rectangular pages. You can use a square piece of paper if you prefer square pages.

Fold the paper in half long ways and short ways. Then, fold each half in half. This should get you 16 rectangles/squares.

Following the folds, begin on one of the outer folds and cut to just before your final rectangle (if you don’t stop, you cut the piece off). Turn your paper and continue cutting along the fold to just before the last rectangle. You continue in a spiral-like manner until any cuts would result in cutting a piece off the paper.

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Then re-fold, explore, and enjoy.

How Fascinating!

Have you ever heard of Benjamin Zander? No? Until about a week ago, neither had I.

I’m happy to finally be in the know. I enjoy his quirky positivity and joie de vivre, and his commitment to possibility.  I’ve been exploring the many resources on his website and the net, and am interested to notice how many of his thoughts and actions are similar to mine.

He has a saying — “How fascinating!” — which is only fully expressed by proclaiming it with raised arms, and a gleefully smiling face. Take a look at a clip from his Poptech 2018 presentation.

“Now, don’t make a face. (Raising his arms …) How fascinating!”

That cracks me up each time I watch it — and I’ve watched it quite a few times!

Benjamin suggests the movement counteracts the tendency to contract our body when we make a mistake. I think — and bet he would agree — that it also counteracts our tendency to contract our brains. “How fascinating!” signals to our brain that something interesting — something positive rather than negative — is occurring. It encourages us to view the moment, and the mistake, as an opportunity to explore and examine, rather than a problem to fret over, hide, and regret.

I fence. I’m taking lessons from my brother (a rather brainy, fantabulous coach). Lots of  times our lessons are filled with ambiguity. Hence, being frustrated and making a mistake are quite probable. I know mistakes aren’t a big deal. But boy, do I hate making them!

I’ve been trying to reprogram myself and change my reactions when I make a mistake. My goal is to be a bit more alright with my mistakes, and most importantly, to learn from them. I’ve been doing ok, but it’s still a struggle.

When I heard, and saw, Benjamin’s “How fascinating!” I decided to give it a go in my next lesson — mostly, I think, I found it so amusing. Turns out, that exact fact — that it makes me laugh — may be a large part of the effectiveness of “How fascinating!”

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson — University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor, and Director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab — has researched and written a lot about positive emotions and how they affect us.

In a 2004 article, she states that “positive emotions broaden peoples’ momentary thought–action repertoires, widening the array of the thoughts and actions that come to mind.” And in a 2011 article published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, she credits positive emotions with increased creativity,  idea generation, and resilience.

That’s how I experience “How fascinating!” It makes me chuckle, and injects a moment of positive emotion into an otherwise frustration-inducing moment. It suggests there is something valuable in my mistake. It helps me change my frame of mind from judgement to curiosity.  “This is fascinating. It’s not an indication that I suck! My mistake — the process — is fascinating! Find out how/why.” I’ve noticed when I use it, I’m more able to think, consider new ideas, see nuances in the process, problem solve, and try again.

My students are a lot like me as a fencer. They really want to do well. Often times they are pretty driven. Mistakes are rarely fascinating. Usually they see mistakes as a reason for negative self judgement or negative emotions, rather than opportunities for positivity and learning.

They need “How fascinating!” So, how do I incorporate it into my classroom culture? How might I increase positive emotions, and curiosity in my student’s learning, and as a response to mistakes ? 

I think it will need to be a multi-pronged approach:

  • My language and behavior has to suggest and affirm the fascination and possibility inherent in our mistakes.
  • My response to mistakes must include curiosity, wonder, and conversation. And, I must share my own “How fascinating!” moments — including how I felt, what I did, what I learned, and how I changed.
  • Exploration of our mistakes must become the norm.
  • Including “How fascinating!” in a lesson, read aloud, activity might help us begin to embrace it in the classroom.
  • A “How fascinating!” partnership with parents will be key.  Sharing research that backs it up might help.

It’s funny, I know in some ways it’s a mindset, and “How fascinating!” isn’t completely necessary. And yet, in another way I think there is something very necessary about it. I can remember moments when “How fascinating!” would have really helped my learners by inducing laugher, breath, enhanced posture, and a bit more conversation.

The silliness of “How fascinating!” may really grab my young students. While I want them to fully embrace and use it, I think I must also teach them prudence. Discussing when might or might not be the best time to use it will be helpful. Also, exploring ways to modify it so as to be able to always use it are key.

We shall see. “How fascinating!” is in my toolbox, and will definitely be pulled out this coming school year.

Looking forward to it!

 

 

 

 

 

Be creative … and other things.

Just read an NPR author interview with Mo Willems. He’s working as the  first ever Education Artist-in-Residence at the Kennedy Center.  How super cool is that?!?!!!

Mo said he hoped to entertain and inspire — adults and children — to create. Love that! Me too.

He goes on to suggest that if you want your kids to create, you’ve got to create. You don’t have to be good at whatever you choose, you just need to do it.

I laughed out loud when I read this:

I think sometimes the greatest thing you can say to a kid if a kid says, “Hey Mom, will you do this for me?” or “Make me a sandwich,” or something — say, “Not now, I’m drawing.” (Mo Willems, NPR Author Interview, July 2, 2019, 5:07AM)

Can you imagine saying that, or hearing it? Such a simple sentence with a ton of meaning. Mom draws, and is into it!

LOVE!

What if we, as educators, took Mo’s advice to heart about all the subjects we teach? How might we share our love for all the things we are teaching — even if we’re not super good at some of them?

It’s interesting to consider, isn’t it? I do math — sudoku, cooking, dice games, building, art, measuring, dominos, counting, figuring stuff out, playing instruments. I read — books, magazines, blogs, knitting patterns, prayers, journal articles, art books, music. I write — letters, poems, journals, blog posts, affirmations, lists. I experiment — cooking, building, art, gardening, finding new ways to get places. I’m passionate about all these things and do them all the time. I know this, but I’m not sure all my students know it.

These are important skills, loves, and activities, for me, and for my kiddos. Sharing that with my kids in real, touchable, seeable, experiential ways would be super! I think the power is in being a fellow learner and lover of all these things, not just doing these things as their teacher.

Have you ever thought, wondered, hoped about this? Have you ever considered being that mom/teacher who says “Not now, I’m doing math … reading a story … building a castle.” Or maybe even the one who says “Not now, I’m doing math … reading a story … building a castle … wanna come join me?”

Hmmmm! LOVE IT!!!

Now to ask questions, use my imagination, imagine possibilities, and try new things. Now to find the things as yet unseen — time and opportunity!

If you feel like it, join me!

Here are some of my beginning questions:

  • How might I find the time in my day to share my passions with my students?
  • How might I be a mathematician, scientist, artist, reader, writer, builder, maker, side by side with my students?
  • How might I rethink our schedule to find time?
  • How might I use independent work as a time for me to be a learner/worker alongside my kids?
  • How might I tweak/use my language to share more about what I’m doing?
  • How might we all share things we’re doing outside of school as mathematicians, scientists, artists, readers, writers, builders, and/or makers?

Love to have you join in this wondering-questioning-problem-finding-and-solving conversation!

 

 

 

 

 

What if?

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I bought this the other day, framed it, and placed it in my classroom. It’s not always this noticeable. There are usually two sweet potato plants, and a pencil sharpener the girls love, next to it. Still, I was a bit surprised no one asked me what it said, or why I put it there. Maybe it was because it was spring break, maybe we were just busy, maybe they thought I’d mention it to them. Who knows.

I’ll be sure to mention it to them when we return. There are so many great What if? questions we can ask ourselves. To name just a few: What if I choose to be kind instead of less than kind? What if I just give it a go? What if I believe I can? What if I let others help me? What if I help others? What if we do it this way? What if I don’t know? What if I do?

Maybe my girls didn’t ask me about it, so that I could ask myself about it. So, until I mention it to them, I’m mentioning it to myself.

What if? 

It’s such an amazingly awesome, and at the same time, frustrating question. Say it to yourself.

What if? 

The awesomeness is the possibilities that are held in that question. The things that might become if we ask What if?

And yet, I think the frustrating part of What if? might be the exact same thing. What if? has the potential to open so many doors, windows, opportunities. But, what shall we ask? What will happen if a door or window opens? What will change? What will be challenged? How will I respond?

What if? is a remarkably powerful question when we are thinking, considering, designing, inventing, and/or creating. It’s a gigantic part of the creative process. “What if we do this? What if we do this instead? Let’s try.” Then it comes back again. “Now, what if???

Lately though I’ve been asking myself What if? in a very different regard. I’ve got to have some tests done to see what is going on with my cancer. What if? rears it’s somewhat ugly head in my mind. What if? What if it’s the cancer? What if I have to do treatment? What if it’s not the cancer? What is it then? What if … What if … What if? 

At some point in my mental conversation I shook my head, and let out a strong, loud breath. It was as if, in some way, I embraced all my what ifs? and let them be, just for a moment. Kind of like in the creative process, you can’t allow yourself to get lost in the what ifs. At some point you have to let out a strong breath, take a look at the situation, the problem, the idea, and the what if? answers. Then you need to choose one, or start a new path.

Unable to choose one of the what ifs I imagined, or feared. I chose a new tack.

What if they find the cancer is more active? That’s ok. They are brilliant. I am brave, and, to quote a friend, a bad ass (cracks me up every time). And perhaps more importantly I am supported by God and all the awesome people I am blessed to have in my life. It will, somehow, be ok.  And, hey, if I have to do treatment, I’ll also have to take time off from work, and while I love my job, that will be nice.

What if I have to change some things in my life? That’s ok, too. Miracles happen. Life is good. Perhaps there is a beautiful surprise right around the corner. Everything is going to be alright.

What if it’s not the cancer? Hallelujah! Now we have more information and will be better prepared if it ever is the cancer. It’s not like I ordered these tests. Those brilliant doctors I mentioned did.

What if I did a bit more breathing, and a bit more listening to the blessings, joy, miracles, and positivity that is all around me? What if I closed my eyes, and allowed myself to be held — by the Saints, angels, God, the Blessed Mother, and the fab people around me? It’s tough to imagine doing that at times, because, let’s review, I am a brave bad ass who really enjoys being in control!

But that, is the beauty of what if? Being able to see, and do, things in a different way.

I’m going to give it a try. What don’t you?

What if? 

 

It’s All in How You Look at It!

I read to my Kindergartners everyday at lunch. It’s always an adventure in listening, laughing, noticing, discussing, wondering, and, frankly, making proclamations.

Yesterday one of the reads was Happy Dog Sizzles by Lisa Grubb. Part way through the story, the characters begin creating. Lisa used the term “junk” to describe the things used by her characters. She did not misspeak. In many ways, the items being used could be characterized as junk — a broken instrument, a broken lamp, an old hat.

As I read the word junk, one of my girls proclaimed, “That’s not junk!”

Me: “It’s not?!?!

Her: “No!” she replied emphatically. “That’s maker-stuff!”

Her voice seemed to call more of her peers to the page. All about the room there were echoes of agreement. “Yeah, that’s not junk. That’s maker-stuff!”

Me: (heart glowing with love and pride in their fantabulousness) “You know what? You’re right! It is maker-stuff!”

I read the rest of the book substituting maker-stuff for junk.

My Kindergartners are right. It’s all about how we look at it.

As I considered a photo for this post, I gathered up some things forgotten in the back of drawers, or placed in the trash/recycling bin — contact lens containers, a pebble from a walk, a bottle top, the inside roll from tape, an old marker lid, part of a security envelope, the top of a canning jar, a bent paperclip, and an old hair tie.

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With my Kindergartners words and emotions fresh in my mind, I interacted with these items, not as junk, but as items with untold potential.

I purposefully staged the photo. I considered each piece, and placed it carefully on a gold-lined dish. I created pleasant ribbon swirls. I arranged and rearranged the items several times until I was satisfied. Then I photographed and processed the image to emphasize the feeling of importance, beauty, and art.

My kindergartners were right. In our awesome hands — animated by our big beautiful brains, fantabulous imagination, and spectacular hearts — it’s not junk, it’s maker-stuff.

 

 

The Currency of Hope and Beauty

Artist Ekua Holmes is planting 10,000 sunflowers, and changing her part of the world.

“Artists deal in the currency of hope,” Holmes said. “We deal in the currency of beauty, and our job is to reflect back to society what we see.” (Boston Globe, July 11, 2018)

Oh my gosh! YES!

As creatives — artists, thinkers, possibilitarians, musicians, writers, makers – we are about beauty.

We look for beauty. We find beauty. And when we cannot find it, we create it. We live in the realm of possibility — perhaps because of our belief in beauty and hope  — and we invite others join us there.

I love that idea! Beauty, hope, and possibility are my currency!

Then I thought: Isn’t this true of us as educators as well? Or, perhaps shouldn’t this be true of us as educators? Shouldn’t beauty, hope, and possibility be our currency as well?

Isn’t it our job to recognize the beauty, hope and possibility that exists in our students, our admins, our parents, and our selves? Don’t we, everyday, endeavor to find and illuminate the beauty, hope and possibility inherent in learning, struggling, wondering, failing, falling, persisting, discovering, collaborating, and simply being?

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Yes! Yes, we do.

Beauty, hope, and possibility. It’s part of us as educators. It’s our currency. It’s our strength.

Let’s embrace it, live it, and offer it to all those around us.

Cancer? Yes, and …

Each summer I head to Boston for my yearly Dana Farber visit. I’m happy and grateful to have these remarkable people on my healing team. At the same time, as my appointment approaches,  I experience a relatively serious amount of stress and anxiety. Even looking up the website to share as a link sent waves of nausea crashing over me!

The nausea isn’t about them — it’s about the cancer and my relationship to it. I’m relentlessly positive, and do  many really wonderful things to strengthen myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. But, my positivity, and all my other good work, is sometimes overshadowed by my angst.

I needed a bit of a jolt to amp up my game. So, I buzzed off to see Catherine — a beautifully creative and awesome human being — for some henna and positive vibes.

She knew I wanted something powerful that could speak to me, and others. She didn’t disappoint.

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How fantabulous is it?!! In case you’re not sure, the correct answer is “Awesomely fantabulous!!!”

Beyond the artistry, it’s fantabulous for the power it holds. It’s a philosophy of open acceptance of what is, and what can be.

Look …

Yes, I have to go to Dana Farber each summer, and frequently have blood drawn, and that is a great privilege and opportunity.

Yes, I am experiencing angst and stress, and I am happy and blessed.

Yes, I have cancer, and I have incredible health.

Yes

and, I am happy.

and, I am loved.

and, my body is working for optimal health, my mind is working for optimal learning, my spirit is working for optimal awesomeness.

and, there are untold possibilities. Possibilities that I know, and ones I have yet to discover or imagine.

As I write my yes, and thoughts, I realize there is a better, more creative way to look at my yes, and lists. I can be creative, re-think, re-cognize.

Often my and, is actually my yes. 

I have cancer. Yes.

It feels huge, overpowering and all encompassing. It is a yes in my life, but absolutely, positively, not the essential yes of my life.

The essential yesses of my life are:

Yes, I am blessed, and … 

Yes, I am happy, and … 

Yes, I am loved, and … 

Yes, I am healthy,  and … 

Yes, my body, mind, and spirit are working for optimal health, learning, and awesomeness, and … 

Yes, the world is full of possibility, and … 

Yes, I am, and am surrounded by, incredible abundance, and … 

I’m digging the space that surrounds the yes, and in Catherine’s design.  It speaks of the space we take as we hear, say and wonder about yes, and.  It is a space waiting to be filled with breath, thoughts, conversation, prayer, openness, insight, creativity, being, and possibility.

Yes, and.

I embrace the power and possibility, and wait with curious and hopeful joy.

 

Seized by Curiosity

I was just reading a great book, and laughed out loud — with surprise and delight — when I read this line:

… but then, curiosity seizes me: How is it possible ...”

Say it to yourself again. “But then, curiosity seizes me!” Isn’t that a remarkable thought — to be seized by curiosity? Lots of images of curiosity seizing me flooded my mind  — images of what it might look like in reality, and what it might look like with curiosity anthropomorphized! At first I just chuckled and thought, ” I love that!”

But then, struck by the power and pleasure that comes when one is seized by curiosity, I thought. “Geez, how often do I make space for curiosity in my life, and in my classroom?”

So much is wound up with curiosity:

  • surprise
  • wonder
  • dreaming
  • questioning
  • thinking
  • trying
  • searching
  • being immersed
  • intensity
  • freedom
  • agency
  • interest
  • desire
  • a beginner’s mind
  • possibility
  • joy
  • inspiration
  • awe
  • time
  • opportunity
  • learning
  • discovery

I like it all — curiosity and all of its richness, needs, characteristics, and possible outcomes.

I want more of it — in my life, and in my classroom!

 

New Blocks

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An educator friend was getting rid of her wooden Cuisenaire rods. She wondered if I might have any use for them.

Lovely colored, wooden blocks?!?!!! OF COURSE I can use them!

Happily, my students are as excited by new materials as I am! As I put them into containers yesterday, this conversation ensued:

Them: “What are they, Miss James?!!”

Me: “New blocks!”

Them: “New blocks?!?!!! For us?!!”

Me: “Yes!”

Them: “What are we going to make with them?”

Me: “I don’t know. What are you going to make with them?”

As others gathered — helping to put the blocks into the containers — conversations and gasps of delight erupted around me.

I love when excitement, joy, imagination, creativity, conversation, problem solving, and possibility surround me. And when it’s precipitated by wooden blocks saved from the trash bin, it’s extra special.