Chalk-a-bration — Poems on the Sidewalk

To celebrate the beginning of the end of the year (snow days this winter made the end last a good, long time!), our school had a celebration of poetry (dubbed a chalk-a-bration by teacher Betsy Hubbard). Our building principal contacted business owners who agreed to allow children to write poems on the sidewalk in front of their businesses.

It was a lot of fun!

Several business owners came out to greet us, smile, and take photos of the children at work. The children had a wonderful time, too.

As you can see, it was a beautiful, sunny day.

We decided that the children could either write poems themselves, or find some in books that I showed them this year. These poems really reflect their varied interests, but all show just a little part of their heart.

Many, many chose to write poems of their own creation.











What fun.

Poem: A Pebble at Sunset

Summer Time
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: {Zack} via Compfight

I’ve been playing with images, trying to see where they will take me. I have several reasons. First, I’m finding the desire to slow down and notice stuff. The busier I get, the faster I see, the less I notice. I’ve heard teachers talking about the Slow Learner movement in the same way people talk about the Slow Food movement. I’m intrigued. Why not learn slowly and let stuff sink in more deeply? Savor more? I’m a learner, too. Second, I think children might like to write poems that begin as a small, perhaps insignificant, image, to See Slowly and describe richly, to discover where that practice might take them. So these poems are an experiment to see what I can learn so I can teach better. Third, I like the prose poetry of Louis Jenkins, the way, like a loon, he dives deeply into an image, swims underwater for awhile, and then pops up in some unexpected place far from where he entered. I am playing with that form.

Finally, this poem in particular is written for (ahem) a certain teacher who inhabits the same skin I do. Towards the end of the school year, I sometimes have to look up at him on his high horse and read him the serenity prayer.

A Pebble at Sunset

A pebble at sunset stands tall in the road like one of those cowboys on a horse from the old movies, squinting into the sun and facing down the bad guys who have just now ridden into town and will stop by the saloon and swing open the squeaky doors. Its shadow stretches down the road, thin and sharp, like maybe an over-sized Stetson propped atop its head has increased its size, a six-shooter at its side, ready to softly growl, “‘Bout time to be leaving town, pard’ner.”

Daylight dims and shadow edges blur, become indistinct, and the stone settles into a familiar, more pebbly existence. Mostly round. Low to the ground. Pale. A small part of the road that leads over the creek.

Steve Peterson, 2014

From Clay, back to Clay

This weekend I had a chance to go back in time, to reacquaint myself with my past life as a potter and also with some old, old friends. To return to clay. Elemental. Clay work was a passion I had for more than a decade. A serious passion. But work and other life events caused me to gradually leave. I don’t remember a day I decided not to make pots anymore; but one day I looked back and saw that I hadn’t made any.

Can it be that’s the way some important things leave a life, not with a bang, but a whimper?

Clay people, especially wood-fire clay people, are a special breed. Maybe it’s the fact that no wood-fired potter can make stuff by himself. Scrounging fire-brick, building kilns, gathering wood, loading and firing the kiln, the unloading and clean-up often require a community of support. There’s no way for a wood-fired potter to be an island. There’s a sense of community, and a shared sense of all for one, one for all. Maybe, also, it’s the connectedness to the Earth: fire, water, air, earth. Clay people have always welcomed me.

So, when my friend, Ken (who is a brother from a different mother), asked that I attend a clay workshop taught by him and a couple of his old friends, I decided to do it even though my hands haven’t been covered in clay for over three years.

It was great to spend time with Ken out near the fire, which was contained by a monster anagama dragon kiln. If you’ve never been near a big dragon kiln and have a chance, take it. The old Japanese potters talk about the kiln as alive. Late at night, the fire gleams through the portals and the kiln slowly inhales and exhales thick smoke. It’s easy to feel as if you have entered a sacred place where the inanimate animates. And there’s a brotherhood in that.


Ken (L) and me (R)

Ken was right, it was wonderful to meet his friend, Joy Brown. Her spirit was quiet and full.


Joy demonstrated a paddle form technique.

And there were other potters, too. We who like to get our hands dirty spent the weekend together talking, laughing, bs’ing, and quietly pushing clay around.


Over 400 lbs of clay and many hands.

As we fed the fire last night, standing quietly under a nearly full moon, Ken said something that stuck with me: Isn’t it strange, he said, that potters spend so much time trying to reverse the processes of the Earth. That’s all we’re doing, the same thing the Earth does constantly. Time and water and wind break rocks down into clay. Potters melt clay to make rocks. It’s a cycle. Which lead to this haiku that I carved into the mural:

hands and flame change mountains worn small by water-- the Earth's heart, reborn

hands and flame change
mountains worn small by water–
the Earth’s heart, reborn

Poem: 14 March

Well, I hope you are not too tired of these poems. But if you are, just click through! Forget them! I’m having too much fun to stop. More about the classroom later. Something about math.

14 March, 2014
10:08 PM. Clear sky. Dog breathes heavily nearby.

Redolent is an interesting word.
It reminds me of something indescribable,
on the tip of my tongue, like the
day’s last warmth wafting from cooling mud,
or the sound of melt water
rushing in the creek. Why? I can’t really
say, but somewhere in that word lies an
early spring evening under the turning stars
as the eastern sky relinquishes its last
cerulean, a slab of oak freshly opened,
the ting of the axe, the low hoot
of a barred owl across the valley.

–Steve Peterson

UPDATE: Just playing around with the podcast version of this poem to see what it sounds like.


Poem: 12 March

I’ve been writing a poem a day using Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks as a mentor. This is connected to an experiment to use my daily life as a source for regular writing. Here’s an image, in poetry form, from this morning.

I’m not sure yet how I’ll use this practice for my teaching, but, I suppose, to the extent that the teacher’s soul is important to the teaching, maybe I’m already using it.

12 March
6:50 AM. Clearing skies. North wind.

Corn stubble soldiers
guard the hilltop from
the retreating snow. Rows
march downward growing
taller, bolder with each victory.
The high ground, reclaimed overnight,
shows dark, while in the valleys,
still deep with blizzard drifts,
winter gathers, holds firm.

–Steve Peterson

Poem: 9 March

Photo Credit: Chrismatos ♥Too busy, sorry via Compfight

I love Ted Kooser’s book of short poems, Winter Morning Walks. He wrote them on the back of postcards and sent them to his friend, Jim Harrison. After treatment for cancer, Kooser lost track of the source of his poetry. He found it again on the road, in the morning, by opening his eyes and his heart. I’m struck by how these poems all contain a strong image and, as is Kooser’s style, they reach to touch something beyond and deep inside.

Kooser has inspired me to write a poem a day; I’ll use his book as a mentor for my writing. I’m hoping to see where the images of my day bring me, and I’ll share a few poems as the weeks go by.

9 March

7:20 AM
14° F. Rising sun peeks under clouds. SW wind, 10mph.

In a brush pile
cleared last year,
left to dry then burn,
a flash of scarlet
at the tip of a branch
bobbing. Balanced.

A song pierces then floats,
lifts, plunges,

stitching this morning —
still filled with old snow,
the remains of a
winter’s ice and wind —
to the day that
opens above.

– Steve Peterson

Playing with My Mind: Opening a Space for Intellectual Play

 “A photograph is not created by a photographer…”
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Sam Antonio Photography via Compfight

Off and on this year, we’ve been thinking about figurative language, in particular metaphor. Metaphor is often at the heart of themes in fiction, as this discussion we had about The One and Only Ivan revealed. I’ve written about our struggle with a particular image in the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, as well.

I’m aware that some children in the class are very adept at seeing metaphor and are beginning to think metaphorically, which is an exciting development. But I’m also aware that some children have a more difficult time with metaphor, with understanding how to begin to unpack a metaphor.

I often struggle with talking about metaphors with the kids. I don’t want the discussion to come across too “academic.” Like explaining a joke to someone, explaining a metaphor can be pretty one-sided with the end result being a mumbled, “Oh” from the one who didn’t see the metaphor and probably still doesn’t really feel it.

Last week I decided to present to the kids Valerie Worth’s poem, “Fence”, from her book all the small poems and fourteen more.

from Valerie Worth, all the small poems and fourteen more

from Valerie Worth, all the small poems and fourteen more

For our Poetry Friday celebration, I copy a poem and place it at each child’s table space before she arrives in the room in the morning. The kids know to read the poem, talk about it with others, annotate it, and then bring the poem to the carpet area for our morning meeting, which starts after our morning chores are done.

This time, to help the kids who might have a more difficult time seeing that a concrete image like a fence might also contain a metaphor, I asked them to consider this question: If the fence in this poem were not just a fence but a metaphor for something else, then what might that be? Simple enough.

I was pleasantly surprised with how this simple question opened up the thinking of some of the kids. I found that students who were usually quiet during our discussions had something more to say. Here were some of the ideas. Other ideas got built on top of the ones presented at first. I’ve tried to represent some of that building upon in the way I wrote the comments by grouping them sequentially.

“Maybe the fence was like a cage that kept the cows in. Now they are free.”
“It’s kind of like Ivan. He was in a cage but he broke out of it to freedom.”
“It’s also kind of like some of the ‘stories within a story’ we saw in The Arrival, (the ones that are told to the father as he meets people in the new world.) It’s like the immigrants we are studying. They had to break out of their old life, too.”

“Maybe the fence stands for all of the things that hold you back.”
Me: Like what?
“Like other people who might not want you to be a certain way.”
“Or maybe like even you can hold yourself back by telling yourself you can’t do something.”

And that’s about all we could explore right then.

After I had time to process what the children had said, I wanted to ask them more. For instance, what did they think of these first lines?

The old fence
has fallen down,
A pile of gray
Rails resting
in the grass

Their interpretation of the poem was one that emphasized freedom. I suspect they had identified with the cows; I certainly did, too. Yet, these lines gave me a sense of age, a sense of melancholy. Maybe at least part of me was also identifying with that “pile of gray/Rails resting/in the grass”, which was something that might have been very difficult for them to feel. If I had the chance to do this over, I would ask them what these lines made them feel. Ah well.

This experience caused me to think about a couple things related to the question that I asked them. First, asking the question in an if/then format offered the kids a mental challenge to put pieces together and stretch their thinking. Some readers do that kind of thinking all the time, but for readers who haven’t started thinking metaphorically, who enter the concrete and stay there, this question offered them an entry into the process. Second, I think the if/then question might have created a space for intellectual “play,” for batting around ideas for the simple joy of playing with them. Maybe by opening up that space, children could enter it more easily.

Finally, I suspect that it is precisely this joy of intellectual (and emotional) play that keeps me coming back to reading poems like “Fence.” I suspect, too, that this play is at the heart of my desire to explore the apparent difference in readings (hopeful or slightly melancholy) that never really surfaced in our discussion that day, but lingered in my heart after our talk was over. Could it be that they experienced a bit of this joy, too?  Can we come to appreciate and value intellectual play? As an end itself?

Poem: Some Paths Return

I live in a rural area now. I love being outside, so a lot of the imagery that I use for my poetry comes from observations about nature. However, I do love the urban landscape, too, the way many lives twine and collide within a confined space.

I’ve been thinking about the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, watching the snow fall, and remembering my time living in the city. I once had a friend, Joe, who spoke as if he were a poet. One day we remarked on how winter in Minneapolis revealed a whole new vision of time. Paths appeared in the snow tracing the passage of people across the landscape. Suddenly a person could see where he had been, as if he were a dog who could sniff the scent of yesterday on today’s ground.

Which got me thinking about how some paths are created by lots of feet traveling away from one place toward some future held out there on a stick just beyond reach, and some paths are created by one person whose leaving is always followed by a return through the back lots of a life. There’s a dignity in that.


Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard via Compfight

Some Paths Return

From thirty years and the
third floor window a man leans forward,
squints, eyes following

a path in the snow that winds
past the dumpsters and metal pipe in the
back lot of the Hydraulic Jack and Lift Company,

through the strewn green-copper fins
behind Karl’s Radiator Repair and on,
snaking over the railroad tracks that

slice between the black-ice roar of
I-35 and the brick-clad bars that line
Riverside Drive, where the

yellow-light of blues and
beer spills through wavy plate glass
onto winter’s old snow.

Angry men slug it
out the back door, sanctified
by the night.

Elsewhere, ruts still line the old Oregon Trail,
monument to the multitudes
whose hoped for West,

whose dreamed departure
dragged each through the mud and prairie grass,
under sun and over mountains. Yet

solitude, too, assembles some paths,
a single set of feet applied over and over to
the same spot of ground, a

visible history of persistence,
eroded by time and the return trip.

© Steve Peterson, 2014

Here’s me reading:


Poetry and Photos — An Icicle Hangs (#WalkMyWorld)

With the cold and snow we’ve had some days off school lately, which means that I have a bit more time to write and take some photographs.  Here’s a couple photos from yesterday’s AM trip to gather wood for the wood stove and ash pail emptying.

I’m happy to be trying to tell some kind of story about my daily world for the #WalkMyWorld project. It’s been fun to see what others do and it’s been great to make it one of my “jobs” to slow down enough to see where I’m placing my feet on this journey. On a related note, I’ve also taken a tentative step into the wonderful world that is the National Writing Project iAnthology. So far, that has extended only as far as the Photo Fridays Challenge.

Here are some photos from yesterday morning. The poem these images inspired follows them.

This strange structure was formed by sheets of snow sliding partway off the roof, then refreezing and melting over a series of very cold, but sunny, days.

This strange structure was formed by sheets of snow sliding partway off the roof, then refreezing and melting over a series of very cold, but sunny, days.

I was struck by how the light tails down the length of the icicle far into the darkness.

I was struck by how the light tails down the length of the icicle far into the darkness.


An Icicle Hangs

An icicle hangs from the eaves,
a witness this silent morning
to the amber dawn
gathered in its glassy surface,
a luminescent vessel contains
the tentative warmth
of this new day.

What luck to have glanced

from the near chore
of gathering firewood
to catch amidst the far dark
this flash of liquid light,
frozen for a moment,
caught between solid
earth and an opening sky.

–Steve Peterson, 2014



Poetry: Two Tanka for Thanksgiving

Do you ever get so caught up in the moment(s) that you forget how to listen? How to see? A couple days off have been good for my soul. The way out of myself has often been through praise, through giving thanks, so this is an appropriate time to stick my head out of my clam shell and look around.

Here are a couple kinda-sorta tanka written in the spirit of thanksgiving for having been there to notice. You might call them danke tanka, if you were a little bit corny. 🙂

Winter Mist
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Evan Leeson via Compfight

near the river’s bend
bare willows kneel, supple
under the azure sky —
a poem squeaks quietly
on rusty hinges.


cold gray morning fog —
through the frosted branches
a crow chortles
exhorting his sagging heart
to sing along.