The Sacred Walls

A Classroom Dripping with Print

by Jill Eggleton
September 2021

When I was a young teacher, an educator I highly respected once told me, “If you want your students to catch language, then your classroom must drip with print.”

It was advice that resonated with me and which I adhered to passionately in every classroom where I was privileged to teach. I determined to have my classroom walls dripping with rich language and student-produced illustrations or original and unique art. To me, those walls were sacred—to be regarded with reverence.

A bare canvas and blank book

The purpose of classroom walls, as I see it, is not just to define a space, but an opportunity to create a warm and inviting environment where all students have a sense of belonging.

At the beginning of every school year, the classroom walls are like a bare canvas and a blank book—yearning to be splashed in student-created work and filled with language in all its variety.

We know that if we want students to grow as readers and writers, then we must saturate, surround, and immerse them in language, using rich and varied sources. The classroom walls to me, became another opportunity to do just that.

Preserving student creativity

So gradually over the year, the blank canvas came alive with students’ precious art responses, motivated by any whole-class activity—shared book, poem, or theme work.

I say ‘whole class’ because any work on the wall needs to be relevant to all students.

I say ‘precious’ because original, student-created work is a precious reflection of what each individual student sees. As Henry David Thoreau said, “It is not what you look at that matters, but what you see.”

I had a real aversion to teacher-created templates and cookie-cutter art with a boring sameness that reduced student’s confidence in their own uniqueness and limited their expression. 

Language—a reading model

However, students’ artwork alone was not enough. In order to have my classroom walls drip with print, this work needed to be accompanied with language. 

My opinion regarding the ‘language’ on these sacred walls may meet with controversy, but I saw this space as an opportunity to provide another literacy resource, mainly providing further reading practice. Therefore, any word on my classroom walls needed to be correct. If it was student’s written language, it was the published version. If it was language created by me to accompany the student’s creative responses, then it was always correct, visible, and clearly written, providing a correct model for the students to read. 

I believe it is vitally important that anything presented for others to read must be correct—this is a courtesy we owe the reader. When we pick up a book, imagine if it was littered with spelling errors and incorrect punctuation, and the font was so small it needed a magnifying glass to decipher. Surely the book would be abandoned, no matter how captivating the story may have been.

For beginning readers

Here is a piece of artwork that Lewis, a kindergarten student, created in response to the shared book, Grumpy Rhino. When Lewis finished his artwork, I asked him to tell me something about his picture. This I wrote on the back and later typed and attached to his work. 

I also used an idea from Lewis’s published piece to write a sentence of my own that the whole class could read out loud together. This short, teacher-written sentence is an opportunity to create a quick reading practice that reinforces language and high-frequency words. The words can also be chanted and clapped—reinforcing phonemic awareness skills.

For young students at an early stage of their reading journey, the language I created from their art responses was always in a full sentence, it included words they needed to commit to memory such as some non-decodable high-frequency words and one or two enriching words to extend vocabulary, and it was in a font that was similar to the font in the books they were learning to read on. 

Here is another example from the same activity. 

For higher levels

For students farther along on their reading journey, I would ask them to create a piece of artwork and then to write a short piece inspired by their work. I would publish this piece of student writing in the same way and post it with their artwork. 

I would also use this opportunity to highlight some element of language, such as imagery, strong verbs, similes, personification, or selective adjectives. I added these words to the display along with the student’s published writing.

In this example, I used Mick’s response about the Beeman to call out the synonyms humorous and funny and to expand students’ vocabulary by listing additional synonyms. 

Here is another example, where I used Tyler’s response about the Color Robber to focus on other adjectives students could use to describe the character.

Using the walls

However, words just languishing on the walls had no purpose. They needed to be used, brought to life. So every day I allotted five minutes to ‘reading the walls’ aloud together. This provided engaging reading practice in a meaningful context. 

It was not only reading practice, however. Chanting and clapping the words reinforced phonemic awareness. The wall art and language created opportunities to spark oral language. They were also a rich resource for motivating writers. The walls were a free resource, easily accessible, and where students had input and ownership.

The banned, banished, and outlawed

I became fascinated with classroom walls and displays, having opportunities in my role as Assistant Principal to observe in many classrooms. I established what worked well and what didn’t. And so, these were the banned, the banished, the outlawed from holding any precious space on my sacred walls:

No doubt some reading this article could be reacting in horror to my mention of banishing word walls or alphabet friezes!

This is just my opinion, but in defense of this I am not suggesting the learning reinforced by word walls or alphabet friezes should be banished, but rather giving place to them on my sacred walls. 

In his blog, Shanahan on Literacy, professor Timothy Shanahan had this to say about word walls: 

“During writing the kids could look up words they weren’t sure how to spell. In K-2 . . . that’s not the best kind of spelling support. I’d much rather have kids try to spell words as they think they are spelled. That gives them a lot of practice with phonemic sensitivity and decoding/encoding and provides the teacher with diagnostic information. Copying spellings does little for building word knowledge.”

–Timothy Shanahan

I echo this opinion entirely, and it is the exact reason I didn’t use word walls to haunt this sacred space.

Commercially produced charts such as alphabet friezes, rules, and lists I housed in a tub and used as teaching tools when the need arose for them. Rarely have I seen students refer with any interest to teacher-centered charts fighting for attention on a classroom wall.

Likewise, the information provided by sound walls—letters and graphemes that represent that sound—is very useful, but I found these to be more effective when used as teacher tools and as small charts on student desks.

A burial ground of language

The classroom walls were not just my walls, but a student and teacher collaboration to generate an inexpensive, additional, independent literacy resource. And the daily reading aloud of these walls provided a purposeful, meaningful activity. 

In her book Radical Reflections, children’s book author and educator Mem Fox said:

“I realized with grief that purposeless activities in language arts are probably the burial grounds of language development and that coffins can be found in most classrooms, including mine.”

–Mem Fox

In addition to this I could add, purposeless displays, devoid of personality and meaning for the students, added to the literacy burial ground.

A positive impact

And so, the sacred classroom walls—reflecting the students’ individuality and dripping with print—I know for sure added not only to the literacy growth of my learners, but inspired them, motivated them, and had a positive impact on their self-confidence and sense of classroom community.

Related content:

Share this article

Order + Organization = Confident Kids

by Jill Eggleton
August 2021

I have always loved the character Winnie-the-Pooh, created by A.A. Milne. He provided readers young and old with wise maxims to live by.

“Organization,” declared Winnie-the-Pooh, “is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.”

So, following the advice of Winnie-the-Pooh, before any attempt to teach, I organized my classroom environment, realizing that organization and the establishment of routines were invaluable and the essential keys to successful teaching. 

If students have organized spaces to work independently, and clearly know what to do and what is required of them, this will help their confidence and comfort levels, creating a positive environment conducive to learning. 

The physical environment

As a classroom teacher, prior to the start of the school year, I spent much time establishing a variety of learning centers. These were mostly placed around the periphery of the classroom, as space allowed. 

I liked to use dividers to create more intimate spaces that could accommodate two to four students, sometimes resorting to large cardboard boxes I painted in vibrant colors. Limiting the number of students that could be in each space assisted with management and discipline. 

If space was limited, I housed activities and ideas in boxes called Mobile Motivators, which could be used at a student’s desk, a group table or any space on the floor.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Enriching, engaging independent activities

“Learning centers need to be used for meaningful, authentic independent learning.”

Whole-class, small-group, and independent learning are the structures that exist in an elementary classroom. Learning centers need to be used for meaningful, authentic, independent learning. They need to be enriching spaces with engaging activities that support the student’s learning independent of the teacher. This is vital to free the teacher for group, individual teaching, or gathering data. 

It is vital too, for students to be able to direct their own learning and feel the satisfaction of involving themselves in meaningful learning tasks. The word I highlight is meaningful. 

I was very careful to ensure that these centers only housed those activities that required creativity, critical thinking, appropriate consolidation of learning, and opportunities for collaboration with peers. I was never a believer in worksheet activities that didn’t encourage divergent thinking but rather relied on students regurgitating information with no critical thinking necessary. 

It was so energizing and motivational for me to see my students excited and engaged in these learning centers, taking control of their own learning.

As Maria Montessori said,

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”

Rigorous routines

In my experience, students are more confident learners when routines, expectations, and boundaries are clearly and firmly established.

I found it was essential to take time in the first few weeks of school to introduce the learning centers, practice strict routines, and model expectations. 

I created a learning center task board with pockets representing the different centers.

Whatever number of students the center could accommodate at one time, I created that number of color-coded pockets, labeling these with the name of the center and, for students at early reading stages, pictures or icons to help students identify the center. 

Each student drew an illustraton of themselves on a card, which I could place in the pocket of the learning center. I rotated the names to a new center each day.

After the students had completed their set independent reading, they went to their assigned learning center, where they stayed for the duration of the reading block. Moving students as individuals and not in a group helped with control and management. 

I also provided students with a learning center scrapbook where they recorded the centers they visited each day and could paste (if appropriate) activities they may have done there. 

Follow-up and feedback

At the conclusion of the reading block of time, I chose two or three students each day to share what they had done in their learning center. This gave me as a teacher valuable ‘raw‘ data—an insight into what the child was able to do independently and an opportunity to provide immediate and effective feedback.

As well, this sharing motivated other students, providing them with examples of what they could do in that particular center.

Teacher time

Organization and management was essential to my success as a teacher. It took self-discipline on my part, but the results far outweighed the effort. 

“Organization and management was essential to my success as a teacher.”

I became determined not to leave my classroom on a Friday until the organization, planning, and resources were in place for the entire next week. This generally allowed me a free weekend, and I know that I was a better teacher on Monday because of it. 

Winnie-the-Pooh was definitely right, organization is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it’s not all mixed up.

Motivated learners

I think back to my days as a classroom teacher, and I clearly recall a classroom buzzing with excited and motivated learners, actively and enthusiastically engaged in independent learning activities, made possible because of sound organization, appropriate resources, and strict routine. 

Harry Wong, author, educator and educational speaker, put it this way:

“The number one problem in the classroom is not discipline; it is the lack of procedures and routines.”

My experience has proved to me that organization is crucial to classroom success, and I know that without a strict adherence to it, I would have found teaching to be an extremely stressful challenge. 

Order plus organization does indeed equal confident kids, but also calm, controlled, and contented teachers.

Related content:

The Battle for Books

Stimulating Summer Reading

by Jill Eggleton
June 2021

As summer looms and that long extensive break from the formality of school stretches out before students like an endless highway, I feel a sense of anxiety for parents and teachers. 

How do you entice students to read every day?

How do you lure them from the grip of devices they seem to prize above all else? 

We are living in a different world—a world where our students are surrounded by digital technology and many probably view reading a book during vacation time as outdated as writing with a feather quill. 

So, in these digitally fueled times, I ache for the the book that sits unopened on the shelf. And while I absolutely know that we could never regress to a world not driven by technology, I still mourn the absence of a book in a child’s hands. 

I am driven with a passion to battle for books.

The power of print

While students can of course read on screens, digital reading is different from reading printed text. According to science, reading printed text has advantages over digital in that readers generally can comprehend better and remember more. 

My desire is to encourage all who have the responsibility of educating the mind of a child to do everything within your power to keep books alive. How can we ensure they don’t languish on shelves leaving silverfish to devour the pages, that every day on this long summer break, a book is opened, read, and above all—enjoyed? 

A book must be engaging—far more engaging than a device—and here lies the challenge. 

It makes me sad to acknowledge this, but given the option, I believe that most students today would choose the device over a book. So, the task for teachers and parents is enormous—how can you win the battle for books?

Daily independent reading

As teachers, you will naturally be cognizant of the importance of knowing your readers—knowing what stories they like, knowing that they will enjoy the story, and knowing for absolute certain they can read it without stress or struggle. 

In order for students to find reading enjoyable, they have to be able to do it with confidence, and reading independently is of little value unless students can read the text at 98% accuracy. 

It is essential for teachers, prior to the summer break, to have established a daily independent reading program, so that when the long vacation arrives, students are familiar with expectations of reading independently. 

In the classroom, I would expect every student from kindergarten and beyond to be reading some printed text every day. 

For students who are emerging readers, this would be a book or a poem they have been introduced to—a familiar text. They would have a set time of 5-10 minutes daily to read and reread these texts. As the texts are short, they should be practicing at least five every day. 

For the more fluent readers, the same daily reading time needs to be established. Now however, the texts can be unseen, and the length of reading increased to at least 20 minutes. Again, students must be able to read the text at 98% accuracy—and crucial to winning the battle is a book that will engage them.

How can this work however in the summer break? 

Partnering with families

Providing parents with a list of suitable books they could find in the local library, or providing the books themselves, is one of the best ways to make daily summer reading an actuality. 

If teachers don’t supply the list, many students will opt for books that are beyond their reading level, and this can create anxiety and frustration—the very thing we need to avoid if we want to lure them from devices. 

I would also provide every parent with some uncomplicated, practical suggestions for ensuring that summer reading is given the same importance as leisure time, eating, and brushing teeth!

Summer Reading Tips for Families

Make it a plan

  • Choose a regular time each day for independent reading time. This will provide a routine that establishes expectations.

  • For beginning readers, daily independent reading time can be 5-10 minutes. For older children, it should be at least 20 minutes.

  • Keep a log to record the day’s reading and set a reward for completing a week.

  • Help your child to choose and create a comfortable, cozy reading space.

  • Above all, make daily reading a special, enjoyable time.

Make it together time

  • While your child is reading, read yourself—a book, magazine, any printed material—but not on a device.

  • Talk to your child about what they read, ensuring it is a lighthearted discussion.

  • Always show an interest in your child’s reading and give genuine and positive feedback for the smallest milestones.

  • Read to your child daily—even older children. Reading aloud is essential at every age.

  • Encourage a younger child to read to a pet, stuffed toy, or older sibling.

Make it fun

  • Visit the library on a regular basis and encourage your child to select books that are of interest to them.

  • Ask your child to read a page to you. If they stumble over more than one in twenty words, the book is too hard for independent reading—but it might be a great book for you to read aloud.

  • Get your child to record themselves reading and listen to it back.

  • To encourage pace and fluency, ask more able readers to time how long it takes them to read one page. Repeat this every day for a week, with the aim of becoming faster each day.

There is no place for struggle, pain, or boredom in reading!

While the long summer break brings with it both benefits and drawbacks, I believe that the absence of a school routine and the lure of devices and video gaming make it a very challenging time for both educators and parents. 

The battle for books is a collective battle requiring both teachers and parents to be determined soldiers. It requires the weaponry of magical stories that will defeat, if but for a short time each day, the lure of the device. 

It is a collective battle not easily won, but a battle we must never surrender.

Related content:

Tools for Educating the Heart

by Jill Eggleton
May 2021

The day after my mother’s funeral, I went to school, a baffled and bewildered five-year-old. Everything was the same, yet everything was different. If social-emotional learning had been of critical importance in those days, the teacher would surely have recognized the need for showing empathy or acknowledged my feelings and emotions. Except it wasn’t, and she greeted me as if the common cold had been the reason for my absence.

If social-emotional learning had been understood then, my teacher would not have instructed the class to avoid speaking to me about my mother. I am confident she was a kind and caring teacher, endeavoring to handle this situation in the best way she knew, for in those days, it wasn’t considered beneficial to express emotions. Suppress, subdue, silence—that was the approach then for handling emotional trauma.

At the break I joined my friends on the monkey bars. However, one by one they vanished as if they were afraid of ‘catching’ whatever they perceived I had. And so, they left me alone, struggling to understand why I deserved abandonment, not only from my mother but my friends as well. Feelings of emptiness, confusion, insecurity, and desertion began to take root in my being.

If social-emotional learning had been given the same status as academic learning in those days, this would have been a perfect authentic situation for my teacher to help me identify my feelings and use the appropriate tools to cope with my emotions. My classmates would have had the opportunity to practice empathy and to think about the loss from my perspective. If this had been their experience, what would it have been like for them, and what feelings might they have had?

The power of social-emotional learning

We now know that social-emotional skills need to be developed in the early years and practiced continually. These emotional skills, such as managing emotions or how to get along with others, are not prewired in a child—they need to be taught.

Our emotions need to be as educated as our intellect. It is important to know how to feel, how to respond, and how to let life in so that it can touch you.

–Jim Rohn

Research shows that when social-emotional skills are embedded in a school pedagogy, not only does it result in more positive behavior but higher academic achievement. Helping students understand their feelings and the how and why of their behavior gives them confidence and therefore a greater chance to live a more accomplished and rewarding life.

When I first walked through that classroom door as motherless five-year-old, I didn’t hang all I brought inside me on the bag hook. It came with me, into the classroom like a dark shadow. It came with me every day, unresolved and repressed.

Some research says that 60% of children today have had an adverse childhood experience. To me this seems an extreme number, but if this is indeed the case then social-emotional learning certainly is of vital importance.

Teachers making a difference

As I research the effort teachers today are making to implement social-emotional learning in their classrooms, I am filled with admiration and awe and a huge sense of gratitude that this generation of students will be better equipped to handle situations that will inevitably arise as they journey through life.

Glimpsing into some classrooms online, I see a multitude of strategies that teachers are using to develop social-emotional learning. I see these skills being embedded in much of the curriculum in contextual and authentic situations, and I am impressed by this natural integration. Positive and social connections make the greatest impact I believe when they are integrated with all school learning programs.

My five-year-old grandson George kept talking about ‘filling someone’s bucket.’ When asked by his mother what this meant, he replied, “When you fill someone’s bucket, you are kind. Not to fill someone’s bucket makes them feel sad.“ And then he added, “You don’t fill my bucket when you growl at me.”

This method used in many schools, called ‘Filling Someone’s Bucket,’ is a simple but practical way to nurture the culture of kindness and caring in young students.

Learning through stories

One way to promote social-emotional learning that I particular love is to use stories.

Research suggests that the human brain responds to fictional stories in much the same way that it responds to real-life experiences. This makes stories a wonderful way to explore social-emotional learning as we empathize with fictional characters in challenging situations.

Stories give children the opportunity to learn from experiences they have never had—including those that arouse strong or difficult emotions—within the safety of a contained fictional world.

Life does not give us dress rehearsals to deal with difficult times, but through books and discussion, children get that opportunity.

–Sherron Roberts and Patricia Crawford

When writing stories for children, I felt it vital to create characters that students could identify with—characters that could help them clarify and name feelings. I endeavored to have storylines that provided opportunities for children to feel appropriate emotions, to empathize, to connect, to walk in the shoes of another.

Through the imaginative process that reading involves, children have the opportunity to do what they often cannot do in real life—become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others, better understand them, and eventually become more aware of themselves.

–Zipora Shechtman

I wrote Change Happens with the motive of providing a platform for children who, like me, may have experienced the loss of a mother or have faced some traumatic change in their lives. I wanted them to identify with the story and be encouraged to express feelings and emotions they may have repressed, in a safe, classroom environment.

Extract from Change Happens:

There are some days in your life that become etched in your memory forever. The day my mother never returned home from a shopping trip was one of those days. It was a car accident, a fatal one.

That early spring morning, the sun had burst into the sky with happy promises, but then a black cloud blanket wrapped it up and dragged it away.

In one day my world had tumbled, and I had suddenly become different from all the kids in my class. I was the only one with no mother. Other kids wanted to know what it was like. My friends thought it might be cool. I could be like the kids in those adventure stories—wild and free.

But I didn’t feel like being wild and free. The blanket that had blotted out the sun had wrapped me in a black cocoon.

I wanted this to activate discussion—what were the challenges, emotions, reactions—the ‘black cloud’ days? Had they ever experienced such days, and how did they feel? If they hadn’t, what words of comfort could they offer to someone who had?

I continued the story on a lighter note, providing an insight into the nannies who came to look after us and how my brother and I deviously plotted to eliminate them from our household.

Nannies came and went. My brother and I discovered ways to help them go. Putting spiders on their bed was a brilliant idea. Most nannies seemed to be terrified of spiders, especially the ones with long, wavy legs.

I hoped my readers would relate to the attempt at problem-solving and explore different ways of resolving these. Could they view the conflict from the different character perspectives?

This story based on fact concluded with the one Nanny, Aggie, who was impossible to eliminate. She showed resilience, kindness, humor, understanding—despite the way she was insensitively treated. This was the Nanny who became my stepmother.

The concluding paragraph reads . . .

In bed that night, I thought about my mother. I could see her face really clearly. Her blue eyes and the way she bit on her bottom lip when she had something important to say. I felt I could hear her say, “Change happens. That’s just the way it is. I will always be your mother, but Aggie will be a great friend.”

That’s when I squeezed right out of my black cocoon.

I wanted students to recognize that change happens—it is part of life and even from traumatic change can come positive experiences—experiences that will help them grow into more resilient human beings with strategies to cope in life’s ‘black cloud’ days.

I am grateful to have been able to write stories interwoven with opportunities to promote and foster social-emotional skills. Many of today’s students are overwhelmed with conflicting values, and stories have the power to balance these influences.

Nurturing young hearts and minds

One day I was invited to a school as an author to read to children. I opened the book Change Happens and began to read.

A little hand shot up, and trembling lips blurted out, “My mother died.” Images of a distant past flashed into my mind, except now I was the adult, not the emotional child. I knew I had to reach into my tool bag of social-emotional learning built up from years of living and choose that tool of empathy and understanding. I had to acknowledge, not repress. I knew I had to listen to his story.

I gave him my book to keep, and as he went off clutching it tightly, I saw him chatting confidently with his teacher. I know she was acknowledging and accepting his feelings and allowing him to find the words to express them.

The story had served its purpose in providing a platform to help that five-year-old express his feelings, and an opportunity for his peers and teacher to communicate with empathy.

When awareness is brought to an emotion, power is brought to your life.

–Tara Meyer-Robson

In days past, as I experienced, students left behind their feelings and emotions when they entered the classroom door. Fortunately, those days are gone, and teachers are now embracing social-emotional learning and giving students the tools to help them.

I am grateful to the teachers who are showing little George how to ‘fill someone’s bucket.’ I am hopeful that this little five-year-old will have the social-emotional tools to cope with the challenges and be able to navigate through all he will inevitably experience in this journey of life.

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.


Related content:

A Passion for Poetry

by Jill Eggleton
April 2021

I am passionate about poetry. 

I am passionate because of its influence on my personal life and how it has sparked the imagination and enriched the language skills of the children I have taught.

The seeds of this passion for poetry were sown by my father and paternal grandmother. I was brought up in a home without television and certainly no devices of any sort. These were gadgets only in the imaginations of science-fiction writers. After dinner, my father would recite poetry that he had memorized from his own school days. Poems like “Leisure” by W.H. Davies . . . 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare. 

Or “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes . . . 

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas . . .

As a young child, I had no idea what a ghostly galleon was, but I loved the sound of it. I loved the rhythm, the rich language, and the pictures the words painted in my head. I was obliviously catching the rhythm of language and the power of words.

My grandmother had a vast repertoire of poems, and she was persistent in reciting these whenever we visited her. Mostly her poems gave lighthearted and humorous moralistic messages, but these messages of selflessness, caring, not giving up, were hugely effective reminders through childhood of what was acceptable behavior—today it would be recognized as social and emotional learning. Such was the power of my grandmother’s poems, that when she was 90 years old, we recorded her reciting them. How special it is to still have her voice engaging future generations with her passion for poetry.

Poetry magic

The love of poetry never left me through my school days. I began to write my own, reaching out to it because I discovered it was a vehicle for expressing my thoughts in times of traumatic change. In my teenage years, the enormity of the loss of my mother and maternal grandmother in a car accident when I was five began to engulf me, and poetry became an outlet to express these bubbling emotions that had become so overwhelming. 

In his book Poetry as Insurgent Art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti uses poetic language to express his thoughts on what poetry is. 

It is the humming of moths as they circle the flame. 

It is the moon weeping because it must fade away in the day. . . .

A poem is a window through which everything that passes can be seen anew. 

He also tells what poetry can do. 

Poems fulfill longings and put lives back together again. . . .

Poems are lifesavers when your boat capsizes. 

Over the years my boat capsized on several occasions, but I doubt whether any of us go through life without a storm or two. However, writing my own or reading and reflecting on the poems of others has been a wonderful comfort in the stormy days.

Poetry can be light and breezy as well, and I have used it during many family functions to help create a joyful occasion. 

I discovered that poetry, if we truly allow our senses to take flight, is everywhere around us. This thought inspired me to write the poem “Poetry Magic.”

Poetry magic is in the song
the sparrow sings.
It’s in the night owl’s mournful cry
and the beating of an eagle’s wings.
It’s in the moon and in the stars
and the wild wind that blows.
It’s in the burbling, babbling brook
that to the ocean flows.
It’s in the taste of crunchy crisps
or chocolate velvet sweet.
It’s in the smell of grass and flower
or flames of fiery heat.
It’s in the froth and in the foam
of rolling waves on sand.
It’s in a creased and crinkled face
and clasp of friendly hand.
It’s in a smile, it’s in a tear.
It’s floating in the air.
Its magic, like the moistly mist,
surrounds us everywhere.

–Jill Eggleton

Nurturing the flame

As a parent, I was determined to ignite this passion of poetry for my own children—and I know that I did this because today they are both poetry writers. In fact, my son sprinkled his Ph.D. thesis with poetic reflections that transcended mundane explanations, the norm for academic writing.

However, keeping his poetry passion alive was a tenuous task. 

One day I was preparing a poetry presentation for teachers in the U.S. My son was in high school at the time, and I wanted to gain some insight into what he thought about poetry now. So I asked him if he still enjoyed it. His response shocked me. 

“No!” he replied vehemently. “I hate it!” He then proceeded to explain how at high school, he was made to dissect poetry, analyze it, pull it to bits until there was nothing left to enjoy. Sadly, I believe that over the years, this is exactly what has happened to many students. Some of those students have become teachers, repeating what happened to them—and in so doing unwittingly creating negative feelings about poetry. 

It is my hope that all teachers, of every grade level, will light the fire of a love of poetry with their students and that they cause this love to burn so brightly it would take a tsunami to extinguish the flame.

The over-analyzing of a poem is a sure way to discourage a passion. A poem should speak for itself—sometimes nothing more is needed.

In his book Embracing Poetry, Donald Graves explains that when teachers read poetry aloud, they model phrasing, rhythm, and nuance, as well as demonstrating for students that print holds a richness of meaning. 

When I became a teacher, I took my passion for poetry with me into the classroom. I was determined to help my students catch the rhythm of language and the power of words through daily exposure and saturation in poetry.

I chose a poem for the week, and in the ten-minute daily lesson, we used the poem as practice in a variety of literacy skills—critical and creative thinking, enriching vocabulary, reading with fluency, alphabetic code knowledge and creative responses. 

DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II

This poem then became a familiar poem, and as we progressed through the weeks, we built up a huge repertoire of familiar poems, which we read over and over again. Every day we read familiar poems first, before focusing on the poem of the week. This simple repeated reading of a familiar text had enormous value—strengthening reading skills and building fluency. Students began to recognize words that were far beyond their instructional level of reading, but more important was the simple enjoyment of words and language.

I would conclude my ten-minute poetry time by simply reading a poem aloud. This was not a time to question or teach—this was just to leave a poem in their heads and on their hearts, something to hopefully think about in their own place or space. 

Nothing brought home the richness of language and the power of poetry more than listening to Amanda Gorman’s recitation of “The Hill We Climb” during the 2021 presidential inauguration. This touched the souls of many and relit an enthusiastic worldwide interest in poetry.

What I learned 

Like a spider uses threads of silk to entice an unsuspecting fly into the heart of a web, I used the threads of poetry to entice my students into the very heart of language without their really knowing how much their literacy skills were developing. 

Through this process I learned a great deal about what was important in engaging my students in poetry and passing on to them this passion that I had inherited.

I learned that the choice of the poem was vital. It didn’t work to choose a poem simply because it fit the theme. The emphasis in using poetry was not on giving knowledge, but rather giving a love of language. Making the theme central to the poem gave the poem secondary importance and sometimes resulted in a contrived rhyme. 

The wrong choice of poem could interfere with a student’s literary appreciation and a severing of that fragile thread. A poem, I discovered, should be chosen because I knew my students would love it and be engaged by it. Creating a love of poetry needed to be the focus, and I was determined to only use poems that touched the heart of the child. 

I learned that struggling readers responded to poetry because of its brevity compared to prose. Those white spaces on the page made them sigh with relief. The repeated reading of the poems helped them with fluency, allowing them to recognize and read words they never believed they could. 

Bill Martin, Jr., an American writer who wrote more than 300 books for children, was a struggling reader until finally at high school a teacher exposed him to the power of poetry, and a passion was born. He improved his literacy skills by memorizing poems, and this helped him pick out the words on the page. In his words, “Children will only learn to read when they have language inside of themselves.”

This is also my belief. The daily exposure to the richness of poetry is a simple, effective way to fill a child’s mind with language.

I learned that the poetry session needed to be short, sharp, fun, and pacey. It wasn’t a teaching time, but a time for enjoying language and incidentally practicing skills. It wasn’t a time for lengthy discussions or in-depth questioning, but a time to motivate and encourage thinking to go beyond the poetry session. A time to just let a poem be, for a poem can weave its own magic.

I learned that all the students I taught, regardless of age, culture, or socio-economic background, non-English speakers and students with special needs alike—all loved poetry and by careful choice and careful teaching could be easily caught in its magical web.

As Walter McVitty says in the book Word Magic: Poetry as Shared Adventure,

One of the most pleasurable and long-lasting gifts any adult can give to a child is the love of poetry—a love which comes through the joyful sharing of the rich experience which poetry can offer.

So, while I motivated my students with wonderful poems crafted by poets like Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Roald Dahl, and many others, I was inspired myself to write poetry for students.

It has been discovered that in order to engage students, especially younger ones, a poem needs to have three elements—brevity, rhyme, and humor or surprise. These were the elements I endeavored to capture in the poems I wrote for young readers.

Poetry for life

Our past experiences with poetry could have been poor and empty or, like mine was privileged to be, rich and full. Whatever it was for you, I hope that if you are parents, grandparents, or teachers you will be encouraged to build a poetry future with the children in your lives. And that you will empower them to embrace this special art form, for it is one of the richest sources of language and one of the greatest gifts you can give them. 

Whether you have children in your lives or not, however, I would encourage you to reach out to poetry, for in this journey of life it helps us develop new insights and new ways of understanding ourselves and our world—and it can be a comforting solace in times of overwhelming emotion. As May Hill Arbuthnot said, “Like music, poetry comes with healing in its wings; it carries its own therapy.”

Personally, I am eternally grateful for my early exposure to the magic of poetry and that its power created a lasting passion.

Related content:

Pandemic Learning Loss

Is Summer School the Solution?

by Jill Eggleton
March 2021

COVID-19 came, an invisible thief. Silently and stealthily it infiltrated every corner of the globe, and it stole. It stole lives, it stole freedoms, it stole friendships, and it stole ‘learning time,’ a precious treasure of the young. 

A new meaning to ‘learning loss’

The theft of learning time translates to ‘learning loss,’ and while ‘learning loss’ is not a new buzzword in education, the COVID-19 thief has given it a new meaning. 

This invisible thief ignited fear, forcing school closures and disrupting the education of students worldwide. Students lost time—time to consolidate and practice skills learned and time to build new competencies. While this time loss affected most students, it has been especially detrimental to those of lowest overall achievement.

The social-emotional impact

The COVID-19 thief not only stole time; it stole teachers’ and students’ passion, motivation, and engagement—losses not so easily measured but of serious concern to learning growth.

Instead, it stirred up anxiety. Anxiety among parents who fear their child is below grade level. Anxiety for teachers who worry how to ‘bridge the gap,’ and anxiety for students who constantly hear they have lost something but are not sure what.

Are there positive gains?

Concerns are indeed a reality. However, putting aside the negatives, I think we should also consider what has been gained. What have students learned in their absence from school as they have known it? 

“I am confident they have learned a great deal—skills that can’t be measured by a test score.”

I am confident they have learned a great deal—skills that can’t be measured by a test score. Values, like resilience and contentment, gratitude, empathy, kindness, patience, and an appreciation of all that it means to be in a physical classroom environment with a teacher and their peers. 

These qualities are treasures of enormous value for students as this educational crisis begins to dissipate and educators search for ways to regain the effects of time lost in learning. 

Is summer school an antidote?

There is no definitive answer to this question, as I believe there are many and varied ideas. However, I do believe summer school can be a very real solution to the problem of learning stolen by COVID-19.

Summer school provides opportunities for students to bridge the gap of learning loss simply by providing extra time. And time is especially important for the vulnerable, disproportionately affected students who have been robbed of gains they could have and should have made.

What matters in summer school?

I’m not an expert in this area, having never experienced summer school as either a teacher or a student. But because of our current situation, I have given a great deal of thought to what really matters and what would be my focus, if I were to teach summer school.

“I believe most importantly, I would endeavor to ignite or reignite a passion for learning.”

I believe most importantly, I would endeavor to ignite or reignite a passion for learning.

A passion is something that can truly be lost and if it is lost, it will have an extremely detrimental effect on learning. I therefore would focus on learning that taps into the emotional part of the brain that motivates and engages students in the learning experience. 

Reading magic

And so, I would read aloud to my students every single day without fail—a huge variety of rich literature—weird and wild and wacky stories! Stories that whisper, stories that shout. Stories that reach out and grab the heart of the listener. 

As best-selling children’s author, Mem Fox, says, “There’s no doubt that reading aloud teaches. And there’s no doubt that little kids—and big ones—love being read aloud to.” In her book, Reading Magic, she goes on to relate this story about beloved Australian children’s author, Colin Thiele:

On flood days, when half the children couldn’t make it to school, the teacher—not wanting to “waste” her curriculum on so few children—would spend the day reading aloud. Flood days were magical for Colin. He claims he learned more about reading and writing by accident on those days than he did during the entire rest of the year.

I would read aloud with my students every single day without fail, the shared reading of rhythmical texts, and I would fill their heads with poetry—rhythmic gems, chosen wisely. 

I know without a shadow of a doubt that this shared reading will provide my students with a great deal of information about reading. They will build a storehouse of language, words, phrases, structures and grammar. And most importantly, it will tap into the emotional part of the brain to ignite their passion for reading. 

To not read daily to all children is to deny them one of the most basic and continuing motivations to literacy.

-Don Holdaway

If I were to teach summer school, I would model what a writer does. I would craft my own story in front of them—always short—that is the golden rule. I would motivate my students to write every day from their own life experiences, not on contrived, teacher-devised topics that make no connection to them. 

“It is not the quantity but the quality that makes writing burn.”

When students have the freedom to write from their own experiences, they are tapping into the emotional part of the brain. I would not expect or desire long, rambling writing, but rather short, succinct pieces. It is not the quantity but the quality that makes writing burn. 

These are but three of the learning experiences I believe matter, and I would be focusing on these consistently and persistently every day for the three, four, or six weeks of summer school. 

What about skills instruction?

Naturally, skills instruction would be important. However, always in the context of engaging learning experiences that connect to the emotional part of the brain, the part that is responsible for motivation and enhancing learning and memory.

And if any lessons did not connect emotionally, did not spark a passion for learning, I would ask, how can I creatively adapt them to do so? As Dr. Thomas Armstrong says, 

If teachers want their students to remember what they’re teaching them, the answer isn’t ‘just give them more hours, days, and weeks of skin-deep learning.’ The knowledge has to be connected with emotion, with their personal lives, with their memories, feelings, and experiences.

If I were teaching summer school, I would ask myself:

If I could achieve these things, then I believe summer school is a solution. My students would have a learning loss vaccine—an antidote against the invisible thief, COVID-19.

Related content:

Group of school students

My Awakening to Equity

by Jill Eggleton
February 2021

As I contemplate writing this article with 2021 barely above the horizon, I am deeply moved to think about the enormity of the challenges teachers have encountered and continue to do so. I am in awe of your resilience in the face of change.

I know teachers, and I know that you are passionate, compassionate, kind and caring—and that you desire, above all else, to improve the learning outcomes of every one of your students, regardless of race or background. I am confident that in this year of 2021, you are striving for equity among diversity.

The world was a different place when I began my teaching journey. While I know I had a huge desire to do my best for each child in my classroom, I think I was ignorant of the word equity and what this actually meant. It wasn’t a word mentioned in those days. Today, however, we are aware of the increasing diversity among students in our classrooms. We are aware of the challenge for educators to ensure that every student has the support to be successful—simply put, ‘every student, regardless of cultural background, deserves an equal chance for success.’

Seeds of awareness

When I look back to my struggling beginnings as a classroom teacher, while I was ignorant of equity and what it involved, I am thankful for a seed of something in my soul that caused me to reflect on what and how I was teaching students whose cultural background was very different to my own.

Jill Eggleton and her class at Waima school
My class at Waima. I am seated with the children, and standing behind me is a parent, grandparent, my teacher assistant and respected elder. The baby in the photo is my son, Kyle, who was part of our classroom from the age of one. He was so touched by the people in this district that many years later he returned as a doctor, and in 2020, he completed his Ph.D. based on unconscious bias in the field of medicine.

As young teachers, my husband and I taught in a two-teacher school in the very North of New Zealand. The students here were all Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. My husband and I are white New Zealanders of European descent. I look back to those teaching days as one of the most profound teaching experiences in my career.

“It was here in this school that I felt the stirrings of something in my soul—a realization of the need to make my teaching practice reflect the needs, passions and cultural backgrounds of the children who bounced eagerly through my classroom door, trusting me to teach them.”

In reflection, I probably began this teaching job with an unconscious bias, but these students taught me so much. I learned I needed to adapt and change my teaching practice to align with their cultural background. It was here, I believe, that the first seed of awareness was sown of the need to know my learners—really know my learners, not just in the classroom, but beyond the classroom walls. I discovered it was impossible to teach children whose cultural backgrounds are different to your own if you don’t really know them and their world. This is what helps to erode unconscious bias.

It was in my efforts to teach these students to read, that I first encountered inequity, although I was unaware of the terminology then. The Department of Education in New Zealand provided every school with free reading material, but this free reading material made no sense in the lives of these students. The characters in the stories were white, and middle class. The families were typically two parents in conventional roles, with two children—a Peter and a Sally. These children were prim and perfect, with smart clothes and shoes on their feet. They lived in a neat street in a neat house with their own perfect bedrooms and went on outings to the town or the beach in a ‘respectable’ car.

The brown-eyed children in my class had vastly different home lives. I remember them coming to school in winter, walking over the icy grass with no shoes. I remember their homes bursting with whanau (family)—grandparents, uncles, aunts and anyone who needed a place to shelter. I remember their mode of transport—sometimes a horse, tractor, or maybe a car in need of repair. Above all, I remember their huge smiles and their eagerness to come to school, their sense of humor, their caring and sharing. But seared in my memory is the anguish I felt when I couldn’t engage them or teach them to read with the material provided by the ignorance of an education system that did not then understand ‘equity.’

“If children don’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

– Ignacio Estrada

It was here in this school that I felt the stirrings of something in my soul—a realization of the need to make my teaching practice reflect the needs, passions and cultural backgrounds of the children who bounced eagerly through my classroom door, trusting me to teach them.

Ignacio Estrada said, “If children don’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” This is being mindful of equity.

Teaching the way they learn

Sounds of books by Bill Martin Jnr.
Sounds of Language books by Bill Martin, Jr.

I introduced the approach of shared reading using stories such as Bill Martin’s rhythmical, rhyming texts, which I laboriously enlarged into books they could all see. Every day we would chant the words together, moving to the rhythms of these excellently crafted stories. 

While I didn’t have the courage, being still an emerging teacher, to abandon entirely the boring, culturally insensitive supplied material, I spent a great deal of the reading time with my created texts. Why? Because my children were engaged, they were having success and I intrinsically knew that every child needs to know success. This is a hallmark of equity. 

It was about this time on my teaching journey that I began to read Teacher, by Sylvia Ashton Warner, and her beliefs resonated with me because the children she was teaching were from the same cultural backgrounds as the children in my class.

Her methods arose out of warmth and passion, rather than out of mere theory. She called her teaching, ‘Organic Teaching,’ believing it had to be particularly centered around the culture the children had sprung from, rather than being imposed from above in a kind of educational imperialism. 

I was greatly influenced by Sylvia Ashton Warner and her vision. This vision was to enable all children, regardless of culture or race, to take hold of the great joy of reading and writing. In an extract from her book, Teacher, she says,

Sylvia Ashston Warner's book, Teacher

What a dangerous activity reading is; teaching is. 

All this plastering on of foreign stuff. Why plaster on at all when there’s so much inside already. So much locked in? If only I could get it out and use it as working material. And not draw it out either. If I had a light enough touch it would just come out under its own volcanic power. 

The reaching out for a book needs to become an organic action. Deadly dull reading material, dead vocabulary. I’m so afraid of it. It’s like a frame over a young tree making it grow in an unnatural shape.

Sylvia Ashton Warner knew about how young children come to be writers. First and foremost, she believed that writing must come from the child’s own experience.

I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, whether it is good or bad stuff, violent or placid stuff.

You never want to say that it’s good or bad. That’s got nothing to do with it. You’ve got no right at all to criticize the content of another’s mind. A child doesn’t make his own mind. It’s just there. Your job is to see what’s in it.

The role of a teacher, striving for equity in 2021, hasn’t changed since Sylvia Ashton Warner wrote the words all those years ago—the job of the teacher is to discover what is in the mind of each individual child, and how best that child can be empowered to succeed in the classroom and beyond. 

It is only as we make that determined effort to understand all cultures different to or own, that we reach across the divides with deep understanding and respect. Our cognizance of equity ensures that the frame over the young trees in our classrooms will not make them grow in an unnatural shape, but rather support them in growing strong roots and branches that reach for the sky.

Reflections on equity

I am thankful that through my teaching journey I have gravitated towards teaching those children whose cultural backgrounds were different to my own. I am thankful, because these children have opened my eyes and opened my heart. They have given me a greater understanding that every child needs an equal chance for success. They have made me aware of the existence of unconscious bias and a determination to know—really know—my learners both inside and outside the classroom walls.

After teaching a few years I wrote this simple poem as a reflection, and although simplistic in its content, it reminded me each year of the brevity of time we have with our children and of how we need to remain focused on what is important to engage them in the learning process.

Three children give Jill a hug during her visit to their class in South Africa
What Did I Teach?

I scan the sea of faces
Different cultures,
Different races.
Like tiny grains of sand
upon a beach,
they slip quickly through
your fingers.
Only a memory lingers,
And I wonder,
Yes I wonder,
What did I teach?

Did I read to them enough?
Did we laugh at silly stuff?
Did I give them goals 
achievable to reach?
They’ve slipped quickly through
my fingers,
Only a memory lingers,
And I wonder,
Yes, I wonder,
What did I teach?

– Jill Eggleton, 1971

I am hoping that this simple question, What did I teach? might evoke reflection for you and that in the face of all your daily issues and challenges, you will be encouraged to focus on what it really means to teach. Believe in yourself and your amazing ability to meet the needs and touch the heart of every child, for when we touch the heart of a child, we leave handprints on their soul.

Related content:

Hey, there!

Like what you see?

Discover what JillE Literacy can bring to your classroom.