Friday, March 26, 2021

Saving the Heart of a School Year With the Power of Story


On March 13th of last year, I said “so long for now” to my transitional kindergarteners/kindergarteners in Los Angeles.  It was supposed to be for two weeks, but doubt tugged at the edges of my mind.  I stayed late that day and collected everything that meant anything to me and packed it into my car.  I really wasn’t sure when we were coming back.

Even the thought of two weeks online without any preparation or direction was daunting.  How would I preserve the heart of my little community that we had worked so hard to nurture? 

My wide-eyed, five-year-olds had spent six months  learning to connect, communicate, and create together.  Stories kept them bound to each other. Braided together by three-quarters of a year,  they had learned that their stories were valuable and listening to each other’s stories was equally so.  We had created an artery from which those stories flowed straight to the heart of our class, keeping us alive and nourished.

The expectations for teachers on that first Monday of virtual class, March 16, 2020 were high but undefined, ambiguous, and undetermined. There was no roadmap. No guideposts. No precedence that we knew of (a year later it turns out that this is not the first time in history that schools were shuttered because of a pandemic.)  I didn’t even have the proper technology to switch to virtual teaching. 

But, when it comes to children, it’s often very simple.  As long as you speak to their hearts and can hear their hearts beat back,  you can’t go wrong.  Those last three months were painful for all of us. The  simple answer at the time was to hold onto storytelling.  It was our life raft that we rode to the other side.

I began the new school year in August with the same intent, creating a new artery with a different set of young storytellers.  Beginning with four and five-year-olds who had never been in formal school was like the clichรฉ, “building the plane while flying it.” 

I did not have the advantage of beginning with a group of students in-person and finishing up online.  This was a whole new frontier. How could I bring this group together and create cohesion amongst young children who were still at the beginning of their development in terms of social skills? Most importantly, could I save the school year with the power of story? Could we build that artery like I had the year before? I was unsure.

I am a big believer in the power of story and so my lack of direction led me to my most basic core value as both a teacher and an author.  Stories are the only thing we leave behind when our time on this earth has been completed.  The stories other people tell about us and the life we led is our only true legacy after we are long gone.  Learning to tell our stories and to recognize the stories of others is the essence of humanity.

Stories define us and dare us to dream.  They simultaneously connect us to each other and allow us to shine individually as we explore our own narratives.  Stories are perhaps the most powerful thing that humans create.  They are what set us apart from other species.  They are how we communicate to each other, to our young, and across generations and centuries.  They defy time and space.

 I believe that the art of storytelling is the most basic skill that children need.  Most academic subjects flow from story and narrative. And so, I travelled deep down to the memory of the lifeblood that flowed through that artery that  I had created the year before under much different circumstances. When faced with the dilemma of what I would teach my young students  virtually, my path led me back to keeping our humanity.  Preserving our humanity with stories that flowed through the artery would sustain us and learning lessons that reached beyond, writing, and arithmetic would save the heart of our education. 

The media says that we have lost a year of learning,  but I disagree.    

The students in my class this year have learned to tell their stories to each other. We have not lost.  We have gained. I believe we have gained  back our heart in education. I believe we have  preserved our humanity. What really makes us human? Standards and tests? Data and criteria? Or stories that create a rich tapestry of existence.

 My students paused and observed things around them that they would never have noticed in the hustle and bustle of their typical lives. Our community has been able to notice the details of their personal stories that they usually don’t have time for, as life rushes by.  More importantly, we have grown our relationships and have created rich narratives.  

We have not lost. Perhaps we have shed the things that have cluttered the “being” part of human being and travelled down to our true heart where stories keep us alive and will for generations to come . . . and then some.

Stories are the lifeblood that flow through the artery. They feed the heart of education which is our humanity. Isn’t that the true purpose of education?  I’d like to think so.

Posted by Zeena M. Pliska

For more information about my picture books and teaching experiences click

If the videos don't play for you above.  You can click on them below.

And if the picture book trailer for Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story from my previous post didn't play, you can click on the link below.

Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story 

Written by Zeena M. Pliska and illustrated by Fiona Halliday

Published by Page Street Kids

Video created by  Kyle Ragsdale

Friday, March 19, 2021

1 Day, 2 shots, 3 teachers: So Grateful!

Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (The link to PF are below)

This round, we’re sharing “Matters of the Heart”๐Ÿ’•. Esther starts us off in her characteristically generous, loving manner, offering three books that keep her heart beating;: Of, By and For Our Reader’s,Writer’s and Teacher’s Hearts; as she takes time off from this blog (I miss her already), Bobbi shares a song I’ve fallen in love with, Baba Yetu, in her very short post, Song of the Week: Here’s to You!;  Mary Ann, who always writes honestly from her heart, shares old family photos as she chronicles her process of returning to writing in Welcoming Home the Prodigal Heart; and Carmela shares two original haiku inspired by a prompt on Storystorm in her post, #TwoHaikuFromTwo.

And me? As a spring breeze of hope blows across my face, three things come to mind when I hear the word "heart"...

1. Heartbreak: March 7, 2020 ~ the last time I taught in person at UCLA.๐Ÿ’”

I thought I was so clever putting up this sign to keep our classroom safe that day     :

Pl                                                Please read the exciting tale of
                                   ALCOHOL AND KLEENEX ~ A LOVE STORY 
· Pour a small amount of alcohol in your palm.
· Wash" your hands the same way you would with soap and water (the classic love story you may be more familiar with). 
· Let your hands air dry completely.  Do not rub them on your clothes to dry. 
                                          Thank you.

(We live and learn: I quickly stopped using alcohol. Anyone need a bottle? I have extra.)

There are many markers for when, exactly, the pandemic began in the US. The consensus is March 11, 2020. I was haunted recently, thinking felt as if it had been at least two years. Or ten. I wrote this poem March 11, 2021:


by April Halprin Wayland

This day.

This day a year ago

(or maybe more? Am I remiss?)

We stood upon a precipice

and knew not this:

this day the route was stayed, dismissed.

We thought it was the way but no—

it was the cliff.

2. ๐Ÿ’•Take Heart: Two shots!๐Ÿ’•

Now, thanks to the policies of a human, humane POSTUS, I’m double-vaccinated, as is my husband. And though we know democracy is not and has never been a spectator sport, still, my heart beats with hope for our country. Soon we may have a big, warm hug with our son and his beloved (he's an ER doc in Albuquerque, we live in Southern California)!

3. ๐Ÿ‘ชFrom Heart Burn to Open Hearted: Three Musketeers teach a three-hour class๐Ÿ‘ช

In the writing/teaching realm, my heart is filled with affection and appreciation for... 

Alexis O'Neill ~ photo by Sonya Sones



...two dear friends with whom I've been teaching intro to picture book class for absolute beginners each spring for many years. This quarter, UCLA Extension Writers' Program asked us to condense our one-day eight hour class into a one-day, three hour class.

Did you catch that? From eight hours down to three.

How were we going to teach everything a beginning picture book writer wants to know but is afraid to ask in THREE hours?

ACK! There's so much students won't be getting. 

But as every seasoned teacher knows, that's nothing new, right? Learning what to leave out is part of teaching. It's just that remote classes gobble up time like bears gobbling blueberries

Once we agreed that stuffing eight hours into three was like stuffing a dictionary into a thimble, we ripped up our syllabus and our carefully paced 8-hour schedule, created a tear in the space-time continuum,

...and crawled through.

And now it feels as if we've birthed something new. It's exciting!  So...if you know someone who doesn't know ANYTHING about picture books but is curious, please tell them about our class ~ just $30 for 3 hours. It'll be an adventure. Tell them to join us!  

Here's our flyer with Barney's fabulous illustration:



Saturday, April 3, 2021, 12-3pm PST

You have the dream~ I've always wanted to write a children's picture book. 
But how? This inspiring class offers you practical tools to help you realize that dream. It includes writing exercises, examples of current picture books and behind-the-scenes stories and advice from award-winning authors. By the end of this class you'll have tools to guide you in this vibrant field.

Seasoned teachers and award-winning children's picture book creators
Alexis O'NeillBarney Saltzberg and April Halprin Wayland 

Please understand that learning to write a picture book in three hours
is like speed-dating a cheetah on roller skates. Downhill. 
Still, the chase will be quite exciting!

Enrollment is limited.

Many thanks to RhymeZone and its "find phrases with the word heart in it" option.

Now it's your turn: if you were to list 3 things that changed your heart this past year, what would they be?

Thank you to Linda for hosting Poetry Friday at TeacherDance this week!

posted by April Halprin Wayland with the help of Sheldon, our 20-year-old tortoise, who came out of hibernation today to assist with all his heart.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Two #HaikuFromTwo--from the Heart

Happy Poetry Friday! Today I share two original haiku as I continue our series on "matters of the heart." Esther kicked off this topic the week of Valentine's Day by discussing three books that have recently touched her reader's heart. I'm taking a slightly different view, talking instead about my writer's heart, as Mary Ann did in her post.

I mentioned back in December that one of the things I was looking forward to in 2021 was "becoming even more steeped in poetry, both reading and writing it." I'm happy to say I've been following through on that intention. So I was especially pleased when I read a Storystorm 2021 post by Amanda Davis in which she described her #HaikuFromTwo challenge as a way to find story ideas. Here's the graphic she shared in her post:

I loved the idea! At the time, I was reading From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Katherine Tegen Books) by Janae Marks The two random words my finger landed on were lemonade (page 77) and play (page 155). I came up with the following #HaikuFromTwo and Tweeted it on Feb. 3:

Next, I read the novel-in-verse Reenie’s Turn (Regal House Publishing) by my friend and fellow SCBWI-IL author Carol Coven Grannick. The random words I fell upon in that novel were mysterious (page 31) and window (page 150. On March 2, I Tweeted the following #HaikuFromTwo:

I really enjoyed writing these #HaikuFromTwo--they're a quick way to nourish my writer's heart. So I plan to keep writing them. You can follow me on Twitter if you'd like to see what I come up with next. (I also Tweet links to our latest TeachingAuthors posts there.)

Meanwhile, make sure to check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup by Heidi Mordhorst at my juicy little universe.

Happy writing!

Friday, March 5, 2021

Welcoming Home the Prodigal Heart

 What keeps my writer's heart going?

Here is what I almost wrote:

Nothing keeps my writer's heart going. My writer's heart flatlined last March, the day the CDC announced that I was officially elderly and at risk.  Before last March, I thought of myself as a ten-year-old heart in a body of indeterminate age. Overnight, I became an old person who could die. My ten-year-old writer's heart curled up in a closet somewhere. Except for blog posts, I've written almost nothing since this time last year. 

Me, Carmela and April at a long ago conference

All the things that normally keep my "kid's heart" going...are gone. Young Writer's Camp. Didn't happen last summer, haven't heard about this year. Writer's group and conferences?  Gone or gone virtual. (I have difficulty hearing on Zoom.) Eavesdropping on random people. There are no random people because I don't leave the house unless it's a dire emergency. Talking to friends, over a glass of wine, meandering from subject to subject. (I mentioned my problems with Zoom, right?)

The world was so hateful and judgmental and scary...writing was the last thing I wanted to do. Not writing was the scariest thing of all, because writing is how I make sense of life. Now, the more I journaled, the less sense anything made.  Words not only failed me...I couldn't find words. I was using a thesaurus just to have a conversation with my husband. I couldn't remember why I ever thought I could write.

Maybe I couldn't write any more. 

Then something happened.

Yesterday morning, I started out on dire emergency errands...picking up prescriptions from various pharmacies. I left the house in cords and a flannel shirt. By the time I got home, the temperature was in the 70's and I was hot. So I changed into shorts and a t-shirt, and took my dog for a walk.

I wear shorts around the house in winter, because my husband insists on keeping the thermostat set to "The Tropics in July."  I walk my dog several times a day. Neither of these things are unusual. However, for the first time in months and months...I walked the dog while wearing shorts. A warm breeze tickled my knees. Boing! In an instant, I was ten years old again, wearing shorts after a winter of wool tights and storm boots. Free of slogging through slush and toe-freezing winds, I was barelegged and skipping along in my new Keds. (OK, yesterday I was wearing Vans.)

Mom and I brave another Chicago winter

My cousins and I (I'm the one shorts.)

My child's heart had returned. My inner ten-year-old is who writes my stories. Life was fascinating when I was ten, full of possibility and  hope, both sadly lacking this past year. Kids are all about hope. That's why I write for them and not their parents.

My family has been spared sickness this year, and for that I am truly thankful. But COVID and all the accompanying chaos did a number on my heart and soul. I thought my ten-year-old heart had packed her bags and hit the road, never to be seen again. 

My writer's heart has come out from wherever she was hiding, ready to hope again. And write. However, she needs time to recover. She might blow bubbles on the back porch.  Or dance around the den to her old Monkees albums.  She will most definitely re-read her favorite childhood books. And of course, dog walks in shorts and Keds. 

Some day, in-person writing conferences and long talks over wine will return. I've had vaccine shot number one, with number two scheduled for St. Patrick's Day. Until it's safe for me to re-enter the world, there is time to re-read the two best books ever written--Charlotte's Web and Harriet the Spy.  E.B. White and Louise Fitzhugh certainly knew how to keep their child hearts beating.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman