The Classroom Is by Jefna M. Cohen

The Classroom is

why I write, and why I cannot.

A paradox, like so much we know

Inspiring and motivating,
So many stories to tell

but the minutes move on. 

Questions, discussions, behavior, transitions, bandaids, recess,

Bathroom!

Teach them to write, 
Deepen their reading practices, 
Teach mathematical problem solving, 
Teach history,

from all perspectives

Teach them to spell, teach grammar, craft word choice. Teach drawing, and painting and collage. 
Printmaking? Ceramics? Weaving? Sewing? Beading? Oh, yes. Those, too.

Teach eye contact, how to do a proper handshake, and a quality high five.
Now teach NICE. 
I mean teach to the humanity in one another. Teach the "mean" out of children. Teach civility, citizenship, Teach love...
And "Yes, you can play."
Teach PEACE.

Now stop.

Take a mindful moment. 
Teach scientific thinking, hone curiosity, the value of questions. Ask some more.

Honor each other
Teach turn-taking, 
Teach "I'm sorry." 
Try harder, show up, about admit mistakes. 
Investigate the "I don't know."
Dig in--
What does that mean?

There is no end to this list. 

It is the world in a microcosm.

Now breathe.
Teach that.

<RING>

Time's up.
So, 
then,
Tomorrow-

(First draft on Twitter, tonight, 4/27/17)
 

What do the Ferns Know? by Jefna M. Cohen

What do the Ferns Know?

 

Waking, stretching

from winter’s loosening grasp 

the frost retreating 

 

What have the ferns seen?

 

The high tide come ashore

Foot prints of dinosaurs and 

A million meteor showers

 

Can they smell 

the briny marsh 

breath of the subterranean forest 

or the changing composition of the air?

 

Shall we thank the ferns for feeding our predecessors? 

 

Silent partners

in the business of building the atmosphere?

 

Their progeny ever drifting 

into the future

 

Floating

Unfurling

Outlasting us

 

Jefna M. Cohen

March 2017

 

This poem is for another collaborative art book project with my mom, Dorothy McCuistion. The book will be on display at the upcoming Puget Sound Book Arts Exhibit.

Chuck the Book by Jefna M. Cohen

I just wrote this for a company requesting poetry in lieu of a cover letter, which is totally rad.

Chuck the Book


What do you do

when you want to rewrite the story?

Not just add a new chapter, but chuck the whole book?

Okay, not the whole, whole thing.

But, a good bit of it?

Tear out the good sections and

keep those.

Stuff them in your pack.

Set one foot in front of the other. Move forward, even if you must plod.

Reach out in the hazy unknown—

Pluck some fresh, new pages. 

Empty,

except for those gorgeous, provocative, and astonishing words:

New Blank Document

Hidden in the watermark, just for you.

Go on,

Toss the old book.

Turn over that new leaf,

the one that has come to you

in the form of a piece of paper.

Start typing.

Back Yard, a Mother-Daughter Collaborative by Jefna M. Cohen

I am pleased to post about another collaborative work between my mom, Dorothy McCuistion, and me. Our book, Backyard, is currently on display in the Collins Memorial Library at the University of Puget Sound. I wrote the poem in the book, below, which contains images of growing up on a site that contained lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals, unbeknownst to my family.

The visuals in the book are paper lithographs of family photos, some showing the demolition of the ASARCO smelter stack in 1993. Also included are parts of the county health department questionnaire sent to affected neighborhoods a few years ago.

Dorothy has two books in the Puget Sound Book Artists annual exhibit, from June 2 – July 30, 2016, at the Collins Memorial Library. She is a print maker, painter, and is an all-around great gal and gold-star mom. We are having so much fun working together, and we have another work in progress.

*  *  *

Backyard

 

We had our hands in it, from the very beginning.

A new brother on the grass,

a shiny black beetle,

a rusty railroad spike.

We dig until we get to the end of the sand in the sand box, and then dig some more.

You can get to China, you know.

 

Fast food containers are filled with mud food to entice the neighborhood children, who refuse.

Parents are pulled outdoors for a puppet show, conceived and produced in a single afternoon.

The sprinkler is left on too long and we squish our toes in puddle marshes.

 

We pluck snap peas from stringy vines and pop them into our mouths.

The raspberries parade along the wooden fence, beneath the old pear tree.

See how the earth provides?

 

Dad pays us to weed beneath the rhodies, and I torment the cat until he attacks and flees.

Later, I pet him, his black fur mottled with dust.

My brother blindly mows the grass through allergic tears.

Fourth of July picnics repeat.

 

August nights bring that familiar ache as the light retreats

from our endless days of play,

theater curtains drawing shut as if by giant hands.

 

Spying,

dreaming,

this yard holding all of it,

the bittersweet wonders of childhood.

I read a book about a girl who saw something others did not, and wanted to be her.

Something was suspicious, after all,

but it was not what we thought.

Civilization, Also Known as Morning Meeting by Jefna M. Cohen

What does it matter if a child remembers the name of a parallelogram

If he cannot lend a hand to his neighbor,

and reach out when she has fallen on the black top

knee bloodied,

snot running free,

braids wild,

to offer her a Band-Aid,

or open the on the way to the school nurse,

who has the ice?

 

What does it mean if a child can decode the words VUP and MIN

If she cannot look her friend in the eye and say

I didn’t mean to hurt you,

are you ok?

 

And not always sorry,

necessarily,

just

 

I see you.

I see what I did to you,

and it was not right

but I want to make it so.

 

Can she shake a new hand and meet eyes

and say,

Nice to meet you,

What is your name?

 

Does he notice there is a food wrapper on the ground in the park,

that was not his in the first place?

Yet he stoops to pick it up,

reflexively

like breathing,

zooming to put it in the trash, hummingbird-like,

before bounding off to play.

In less than a heartbeat

he is not at all worse for it, no.

Slightly better,

in fact.

 

Friend,

Earth,

 

I see you,

I notice.

I’m sorry.

I’m listening.

 

Originally published June, 2016

I Resign by Jefna M. Cohen

Originally published March, 2016

To Whom It May Concern:

I’m writing to formally resign from my teaching position.

I will miss the many incredible colleagues I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching alongside a driven, thoughtful, intelligent and tenacious staff. They conduct their work with humor and heart. They regularly work overtime. The teachers push themselves for excellence, and ask that of their students.

But, the drive for student achievement, and the ways in which the district chooses to pursue this comes with costs. During my nine years here, a widening gap grew between what I was being asked to do, and what I believe is right for children. As I worked to fulfill the requirements of the curriculum and the obligation of the instructional minutes, it became more difficult to meet kids at their developmental place in life.

I got to the point where I did not feel good about much at all. I constantly worried about student reading data, even though I met with every child in a small group nearly every day. It was not enough. Most students were still not reaching grade level, an all too common story in high poverty schools.

I stressed about how tight my transitions were, and about the wasted time. I began to think of teaching citizenship and social problem solving as “extras,” when in fact, these skill sets make up the underpinnings of our society. The use of visual arts to express learning, and other thematic, project-based instruction was difficult to manage within the strict curricular framework. There was less and less time for me to give students what I feel they need, and fewer opportunities to teach in the ways I love.

I hated the guilty feeling that crept in each time I gave my kindergarteners or first graders a second recess. Principals would scold us if we took the kids out too frequently. The minutes to play weren’t allowed in the schedule, even though their bodies need it. After all, the CDC states that kids need 60 minutes of exercise per day. Other schools in North America are getting wise to the ways that fitness can be used to boost student performance and mood, as documented in the work of Sparkinglife.org.

Class sizes consistently hovered around 30. Parents were not able to come in and help. A one-to-thirty ratio wasn’t effective, and I felt it. This invisible weight sat on my shoulders all the time. I grew increasingly insecure about my teaching abilities, and thus, unhappy. I felt more and more like the square peg in the round hole.

I had been hoping to eventually return to the district, and was holding out hope that class sizes would come down, and daily physical activity would increase. But, this hasn’t happened. As I reflect on my work with the district, it comes down to the lack of those two essential elements that have made it difficult for me to feel good about my work with children. How this translates, on an everyday basis, is too many restless kids in one room who are not ready to learn. This was painfully obvious during the afternoons.

There is a light at the end of all of this, and that is the new teaching opportunity at my neighborhood school. Nineteen of the twenty students are grade-level readers. They get two lengthy recesses per day. I’ll be able to teach in ways that are more in line with what I believe. I hope to find the joy in teaching again, and maybe get more years out of this career, yet. I’m ready to find out.

The Muse by Jefna M. Cohen

Originally published November, 2015

It’s a rush when the muse visits, so hopeful and divine. She has been sitting on my shoulder a lot lately. Fortunately, the muse is not that heavy. That’s because she’s made out of rainbow sparkles and kitty whiskers! Usually I am out and about when she drops by, and often when I’m with my kids, so I quickly dictate the idea into my phone and then email it to myself. And that way I get personal correspondence! 

This week I was at the computer when it happened. Not surprisingly, the Muse came when I tried something new. I registered for a November writing challenge called Picture Book Idea Month, or PiBoIdMo. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? (Registration is closed, but you can check it out here.) It was started by author Tara Lazar as a companion to National Novel Writing Month, or Nanowrimo. During the 30 days, picture book writers push themselves to generate one book idea per day. Blog posts by other authors are put on the PiBoIdMo website to motivate participants to think and stretch in new ways.

The funny thing about taking part in it is that picture book writers are not supposed to put their ideas online. Rather, we are to keep track ourselves, using the honor system. At the end of November, writers sign a pledge stating that we did indeed do it, if we want the brownie points. All ideas are proprietary and must be protected, which is why there is no sharing. It reminds me of playing the game Password. I can tell you what my ideas are about but not verbalize them precisely. (Actually I can tell you. But then I would have to kill you*.)

I admit that the secrecy seems to run contrary to the “we’re in this together” aspect of the PiBoIdMo challenge. It reminds me of the parallel play of toddlers. I suppose that’s the writer’s life, in a nutshell. Writers are all alone doing their thing at the same time. Once in awhile we lift our heads up to make eye contact with one another to mutually acknowledge our shared activity, before looking down again. But, I can’t complain too much since I have a lovely writer’s group to talk to, and they are great at keeping secrets.

This is my first PiBoIdMo and I discovered inspiration very quickly during some of the great “pre-posts” prior to the official kick-off. I discovered Tara Lazar’s list of interesting words, which got me playing with humorous pairings and phrases, amusing sounds, and rhythm. I’ve never written that way before, and it was so much fun. Ideas were running around in my head and I was suddenly inspired to write an alphabet book.

When I was in graduate school studying to become a teacher, I attended a class on children’s books. The instructor said that many picture book authors attempt to write an alphabet book during their careers. I imagined that I’d like to try it out one day, but I never felt inspired. ABC books are an old concept, perhaps representing the most well worn path of all in children’s publishing. It is easy to think that all alphabet book ideas have been done before, because so many have.

However, I was surprised this month when it seemed to happen sort of magically. But it was not out of the blue, though, since I read something that inspired me. Trying something different often leads to something, well, different! Imagine that. (Note to self: Keep this in mind when confronted with writer’s block in the future.)

There is nothing quite like a good writing day. Sometimes I just laugh out loud and the hours spin by. Each new idea shows me that I am growing and developing my voice, and that there is always more to say. It is wonderful doing something I love so much. And, the only way to improve is to do more of it. Thanks, PiBoIdMo!

*Joke: not an actual threat.

Everyday Birds by Jefna M. Cohen

Originally published September, 2015

My parents are both artists. My dad has mainly worked in ceramics and my mom, Dorothy, has works in a variety of media. Lately she’s been drawn to printing and book making. She invited me to work with her on this pop-up book. It’s calledBirds Everyday.

She prepared, cut, and bound six books by hand. Two were purchased by art collectors at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts gallery when it was on display. The book was also shown at a Puget Sound Book Artists exhibit, in the Collins Library at the University of Puget Sound.

Here’s the complete text:

Birds Everyday

Rummaging, skittering, the towhees dart amidst the undergrowth.
Quarreling, contending, the hummingbirds meddle at the blossoms.
Inquiring, discerning, the Steller’s Jay spies our picnic.
Surveying, anticipating, the red-tailed hawk perches atop a pole.
Soaring, sailing, the seagull catches the wind effortlessly, like a kite.
Flirting, circulating, the swifts descend into their chimney for the
night.