Saturday, June 29, 2013

River of Poetry

The river always sets me straight.

When I feel anxious, confused, or full of sorrow, I go on the river and find peace. Everything else slips away, almost instantly. Despite our stretch of the river being a work zone this year, it is still my sanctuary. Everybody needs a sanctuary.

Earlier this week after a night of fitful sleep, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. knowing that I needed to go on the river right away because there was something waiting for me in the stillness out there. Wanting to combine solitude with exercise, I paddled fairly vigorously most of the time. But the interesting thing is that it felt as if I was paddling through invisible filaments of poetry that were moving around like morning mist on the river. It almost felt as if strings of words were being whispered from the trees themselves, and if I was aware enough, I could catch them with my pencil and notebook.

Did I hear the subtle energy of the trees or flowing water? The collective mind? Or did the stillness and scenery awaken a level of consciousness in me that speaks in nature metaphors? Whatever it was, it seemed to completely bypass my thinking mind and arrive in the rhythm of haiku. I collected seven that day in the early morning air before the rain began. The words are very simple. They convey an impression that I inhabited fully for a moment in time - something that captured my attention.


1.

clarity at dawn - 
it is time to relinquish
everything but Love



2.

invisible fish
leave zigzag trails of bubbles
like footprints on snow



3.

beating bulky wings
blue heron crosses river
rises into trees



4.

five waterlily
buds have stretched to the surface - 
it's opening day!



5.

you see my paddle
I see your bubbles - but we
don't see each other


6.

this body, this life,
this solitude, this river - 
all one big blessing



7.

rooted so deeply
river cottonwoods forgive
our disharmony



Certainly plenty more bits of poetry are out there right now, although the water is too high today to go in the kayak and catch them. So I'll just let them linger there or do whatever they do when nobody is around to notice. If they are meant for me, perhaps they will find me as I take a walk with my husband or clean the flat of strawberries I picked this morning.

But I imagine them out there swirling and waiting to delight an aware passerby, hopefully lingering longer than the fish bubbles I saw that early morning, and longer than the mist that rises with the sun some mornings. 

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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.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

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.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Summer Quest: Beginning at Yaddo

Hallelujah! I just completed the most physically, mentally, and emotionally draining year of my teaching career. It was a year stacked with personal challenges, as sometimes happens. However, at the same time, changes in public education this year were so dramatic that it feels as if the career to which I had intended to devote my life no longer exists. The switchover to the Common Core curriculum at the kindergarten level, combined with New York State's new teacher evaluation system and lack of funding to adequately support these new mandates seemed to increase my workload - including testing, paperwork, and stress - threefold. I am not exaggerating. It feels as if the career for which I trained and invested so much money and time is a rug that has been yanked out from underneath me this year. No, actually it's more like the whole floor has caved in, and I'm falling like Alice down the rabbit hole wondering where I will land. And how long it will last.

The bottom line is that I survived. And now it's time to rebuild, recharge, and recreate. My summer goals are to make fitness and relaxation top priorities. I am also on a mission to steep my spirit in inspiration, beauty, and peace. One of the ways I intend to accomplish this is by visiting beautiful, inspiring places. Plans to visit Ithaca, the ocean, Lechtworth State Park, and Omega Institute are in the works. Since there is so much work being done on the river this year, it's a good year to explore.

Today, I began this pilgrimage close to home, in my native Saratoga Springs at Yaddo, a private retreat for artists, writers, and composers, with gardens that are open for free to the public. 


It's probably been 20 years since I've visited Yaddo to sit by a quiet pond and write. Today, I went with camera and tripod in hand and spent at least two hours meditating on beauty, stopping literally to smell the flowers, along with many others who had the same idea. Everyone strolled around smiling and emanating peace. The energy and aesthetics of Yaddo have that effect on you. They uplift the spirit.

At first, I was drawn to the 180-foot pergola in the Rose Garden. I adore its geometry and Italianate elegance.


It must have taken me an hour to walk the entire length, stopping to photograph blooms and buds that caught my attention.


There were lots of pale pink and red roses in bloom.








Then I meandered through the pine-shaded Rock Garden.


The lush ferns and deep turquoise pond give this area a tropical, otherworldly feel. The colors are vivid and breathtaking.


This view (below) - so shimmering and colorful - felt magical, like a scene from the movie, Avatar. (Click to enlarge!)


Following the Rock Garden trail, I wandered upon some beautiful doors separating the public gardens from the private grounds where artists are in residence.


And then back to the terraced Rose Garden, with its four beds, central fountain, and marble statues representing the four seasons. A fifth statue set back amidst the pines memorializes the four children of founders Spencer and Katrina Trask - all of whom died in childhood.



An elaborately engraved sundial graces a balcony between the lower garden and the pergola.


Heading back to my car, I stopped to photograph the Yaddo Mansion (former second home of the Trasks, located in the private section of the estate) and large fountain.




The energy at Yaddo is legendary. It is believed to be a visionary place of "mystical creative power." (For a more paranormal treatment of Yaddo, click HERE. They even offer docent guided ghost tours in the fall.) According to Yaddo's website, artists in residence collectively have garnered "68 Pulitzer Prizes, 27 MacArthur Fellowships, 68 National Book Awards, 41 National Book Critics Circle Awards, 108 Rome Prizes, 52 Whiting Writers' Awards, a Nobel Prize (Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976), and countless other honors." It must be incredible to spend time in residence on the other side of the signs and gates. 

But for me today, returning to Yaddo was a spiritual homecoming of sorts, a place to connect with creative energies and begin again. And so begins my summer quest for inspiration, renewal, and direction.
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  -T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
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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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

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.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dance of the Daisies

The subject of enchantment this week is daisies. The most familiar of the flowers - the poor daisies whose petals I plucked one at a time as a child to discover the answer to a question I wouldn't care about for many years to come: Does he love me? And after removing all the petals, I went for what I thought were the seeds. I can still remember the silky feel of hundreds of them rubbing against my fingers. And the smell. The fresh, earthy, daisy scent.


Although I couldn't bear to do that now, as a child, dismembering the defenseless daisies must have been a way to explore what they were made of. To explore a living thing.


Daisies seem so animate to me. I am convinced that they love to dance in the wind - tall, slender stalks moving back and forth and in circles with faces turned skyward. It doesn't require much imagination to look at a patch of daisies and perceive distinct family clusters.


While photographing daisies this week, I became aware of something I'd never noticed before: The outer rows of what becomes the seed head looked like minuscule flowers that had opened - just as the floral seed heads of sunflowers do. (In botanical terms, it's referred to as a flower head or floral head.) When a detail like that reveals itself all of a sudden, I never cease to be amazed that it took me so long to notice something that was right in front of my face all along. How could I have missed it when it is so obvious?


Honestly, I'm often glad that I never took a botany course because I enjoy the childlike sense of wonder I experience when I notice something on my own and become fueled with desire to learn more about it. That's the kind of learner I (and many others) am. My deepest motivation to learn stems from having a personal connection with something and a sense of curiosity about it - when something is personally relevant and meaningful to me. Ideally - and when given the freedom to do so - that's how I like to teach, as well. When I was homeschooling my daughter, we named our home school "Seeds of Wonder." I feel that wonder is a cornerstone of early childhood education - for wonder is a precursor to inquiry, understanding, and love, and an antidote to arrogance and apathy.


I have been fascinated by so many plants, trees, and forms of wildlife in recent years. Each one offers its own wonders and charms to those who have eyes to truly see. By this I mean seeing something with fresh eyes as if for the first time - a perception free from labels and academic knowledge. I think you could pick pretty much anything in the natural world to focus on and be astonished by - and then be inspired to learn how it is connected to everything else. Every flower, animal, tree, bird, insect, etc. is a window to the mysteries and interdependent nature of our universe. You could choose any one thing as a means to learn about the cycles, processes, and relationships of the world-at-large.

I suppose it makes sense to have such thoughts in response to observing daisies. A dream of daisies was perhaps the first unitive experience I had, back in my late twenties. Before I learned I was pregnant with my firstborn child, I had a powerful and intensely peaceful dream in which I was dancing in a circle with others who heard music I couldn't hear. It was the music of all that simultaneously creates and is created. Then I lowered my head to the ground and heard for myself the symphony of the dancing flowers (daisies), and my heart beat in time with the rhythm of all life. Daisies are symbols of childlike innocence, and no wonder I learned about the universal rhythm of life from them in my dream. Unbeknown to me at the time, I was taking on a more intimate role in the dance of creation, the circle of life. Six months shy of twenty years later, I remain drawn to daisies and their wildflower wisdom!


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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.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

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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