Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Poet For the Ages, My Dad...

My dad was a writer. He loved the written word and he loved books. In his 88 years, he wrote two novels, poems, stories and articles. Many of which were published. He even wrote and published a few cartoons for The New Yorker.

My sister, Robin, found this poem tucked in a box my dad had sent to her before he moved to Florida. I want to share it with you.


In the moment of the moment of remembering

in the empty moon-bathed street.

And beneath the street-light's arc, the shadow

running long, then short, then long.

And behind the doors, the darkened windows

night shades drawn, the lovers.

Hushed and heavy hangs the bow, the night

bird's startled cry cut short, the rumble of

the late train's passing.

At the crossing the whistle echoes, and the river

bridge over the water far below, moving

slowly towards the sea.

Oh, remembered of the nights in the shadows by

the lakeside ... the closeness, the feeling,

the touch.

Softly crossed the flesh, the curve of the bough,

arm-limbs arched and fingers pointing to-

wards the sky.

For in the moment in the nightness and the

moonlight is the doorway to all things loved

and all things feared.

For in the moment, time stops, and quivers in

the shadows .... and is gone.

* * Wendell E. Smith

From "Driftwind: A Magazine of Verse"

December 1948

My dad wrote this poem when he was 25, before he met my mother. It wasn't long after, that he met my mom and began passing notes under her door, as she didn't have a phone at that time. She and her mom had just moved into an apartment next door to my dad and his brother in Morristown, NJ. She once told me that she fell head-over-heels for him on their first date. They had so much in common. They both loved to read and to write, and they were both teachers. They both were youthful and looked like they were in their teens when they married in their late 20's. I am so thankful that we have this poem, and other works that he wrote. I hope that as we clean out my dad's things, and pour through the dozens of boxes he left behind, we will find many more of his writings and musings. He was a true poet for the ages.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sweet Similes...

Similes are like tiny jewels in a summer night sky. They help create a poetic portrait of a character or paint a scenic landscape in a reader's mind. They help take your writing to the next level. I love similes and I love teaching my students to use them in their writing. During read aloud, the students give the thumbs-up sign when they hear one. It's like discovering a secret or finding a stone with rings, and the students always get excited when they catch one. Or when they write one. They rush up to me or wave their hands feverishly to share. "Listen to my simile!" It's the same when they find one while they're reading. "Look what I found, Ms. Murphy!" It's like they've found a hidden treasure. And they have.

One of my favorite things to teach my 5th graders is writing. I use Kimberly Newton Fusco's book, Tending to Grace, to teach about the use of language and, in particular, similes. I read it to them but they all have a copy so they can read along with me. When we hear how Cornelia, the main character, feels about her life, we stop and listen while I read a second time. Then we talk about how the author could have written how Cornelia feels lonely. But she doesn't, she writes, "I want to hide because my life, if it were a clothesline, would be the one with a sweater dangling by one sleeve, a blanket dragging in the mud, and a sock, unpaired and alone, tumbling to the road with the wind at its heel." What a lovely, haunting picture it paints of Cornelia's life.

One of the students' favorite similes discovered in Tending to Grace is the following: "The skin on her hand is thin, translucent, like china held up to the light." This compares Cornelia's mother's hand to china. Lenore is a fragile woman who leaves her daughter with her aunt because she is unable to take care for her herself. Another simile that describes Lenore is: "I want to tell her my whole life story in ten minutes, quicklike so the words tumble down fast and furious, like my mother's promises."

Give yourself, or your students, a path to more descriptive writing. Use similes. They are like tiny jewels in a summer night sky.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hostels - they aren't just for youth anymore...

I spent a few days at a beautiful, old hostel in Truro, MA, this summer. The view surrounding the hostel was breathtaking and the peace and serenity, inspiring. It was built in the 1930's and was originally a Coast Guard Station. It's a five minute walk to the ocean. Truro's beaches are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, a 40-mile (43,500 acres) stretch of unspoiled sandy beaches on the Outer Cape. The National Seashore spans Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown and parts of Orleans and Chatham. The beach we discovered was a vast stretch of white sand with large spectacular dunes and few people. It was the perfect place to get away from it all and write.

Years ago, hostels were filled with college students looking for a cheap way to see the world. Hostels are still an inexpensive and unique way to travel, but now it's not just for young people. This was my second trip to a hostel in two years and I am struck by how many retired folk and families vacation at hostels. It's a fun way to meet other travelers from all over the world from all sorts of vocations. I've met a family from England, a nonfiction writer, teachers, retired professors, young lovers, a German grandmother and on and on. In my experience, these people are quiet and respectful, intelligent and inquisitive, and open for adventure.

If you're expecting a luxury hotel, you won't find it here. But if you don't mind sharing a room or sleeping on a bunkbed. If you don't mind eating in a communal kitchen, or having a delightful breakfast (much better than most continentals you find at a hotel), then staying in a hostel might be something you want to explore. Think of it as part of the adventure of traveling. You'll meet lots of interesting people, find lots of nooks and crannies to explore, as most people love to share the places they have found, and it's cheap.

There are hostels all over the country from Maine to California. Try it, you might like it. For more information, go to

(The gorgeous photos were taken by my hostel cohort, Betsy Taylor Dever.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Philadelphia Freedom...

I just returned from a trip to Philadelphia to learn more about our history during the Revolutionary War. The trip was part of a History Grant for 5th-12th grade history teachers to help bring history alive in the classroom. What a trip it was! We toured The National Constitution Center, where we toured the Real George Washington exhibition and got to view his dentures made out of bone. We went on an archeological dig at The Independence Park Institute and gained hands-on experience with replica artifacts from a recent dig. We saw The Liberty Bell and where George Washington's house (as President) was located. We even saw part of the actual foundation. Very impressive.

The last day of our trip was devoted to Valley Forge, the place where the Revolutionary War took a turn for the Patriots. It is now a National Park where visitors can enjoy thousands of acres of beautiful rolling hills, reconstructed huts from the soldier encampment, General Washington's stone, resurrected and furnished head-quarters, and an educational facility filled with artifacts and books.

As part of this program, the teachers are creating educational units. I am creating a unit on slavery during this time period. I am fascinated by the fact that slavery in southern plantations is mentioned in our history books but slavery in the north is barely, if at all, written about. This past summer, I read Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson. These historical fiction books depict the lives of Isabel and Curzon, a slave girl and boy in the northern states during the Revolutionary War. The books, rich with sensory details, paints a compelling picture of this time period and the struggles of the slaves with such compassion and emotion that it's easy to want to jump in the pages and fight for their freedom.

I am using Chains as the starting point for my unit. I want my students to feel as the slaves did and how I do after reading these books. This is an example of how books can spark passion to learn and gain more knowledge, and this is exactly why I am involved in this project. To ignite and to explore and to learn how history is important to all of us. To bring history to life to my students.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Like Water Over Stones...

Summer is here and I'm working on my novel. Okay, summer is here and I should be working on my novel. No wait, summer is here and I'm slowly working on my novel. I'm trying to mesh two versions together and I'm finding I'm actually writing a whole new version. The new one sounds fresher and in Melody's tone of voice (pun intended) and just plain feels right.

It's a very tricky business, this writing of novels. Sometimes it flows like water over stones, and sometimes it's sticky like beach sand on salty toes. There are many writing strategies and techniques but whatever works for one may not work for all. I've read dozens of books on writing, taken numerous writing workshops, and heard many keynote speeches on writing, but the most important thing to remember is you need to write. People talk about writing, including me, but one must hone their craft, and keep on working at it until it works, until the work-in-progress is the best it can be. Sometimes it's hard to know when it's done, when the rewrite is polished to a brilliant shine. Read it out loud. How does it sound? Does it sound real? Does it flow like water over stones?

Here is another excerpt from my work-in-progress:

My legs are like cream cheese and jam on soft crackers and I need to sit before I fall. So I do, right next to my tree. And the boy stops and kneels down where he is, on a patch of dry leaves. It’s almost September now with a hint of fall coming and suddenly I am chilly with little bumps racing up and down my arms. I hug myself and consider what to say to this boy who is kneeling near me, fixing his hat every two seconds and looking all concerned; this boy who just dropped out of nowhere, or at least out of my beech tree, waiting for me to say something.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Another snippet...

I'm revising my story. Okay, I'm working on a completely new version with a completely new voice. I try and work on it a little everyday. Some days more than others. But I'm excited each day to see what will happen next. I love the new Melody. She is interacting more and bringing on a whole new perspective to the story. Here's another snippet:

I search up the beach to find our striped umbrella and see Mom and Dad sitting side by side with books in their hands. Mom’s hand is resting on Dad’s arm as she squints toward us, smiling. I wave. She nods and waves back.
They look so content, is what I’m thinking, when Mom’s face instantly looks like Suzanne’s with panic written on her forehead and her mouth open wide, ready to scream. I whip around to see why. Max is rolling under the water, spinning like a top, struggling to stand. Racing over to snatch him, I hear Mom and Dad’s frantic shouts as they rush down the sand toward us. “Max!”

I pull at his arm and bring him up, choking and sputtering. He lifts his matted head and I cradle it in my lap. “Oh, Max, I’m so sorry.” Mom and Dad charge over and Dad takes him and carries him to the blanket. I lay my chin on Mom’s arm as she puts her other arm around my shoulder. “It’s okay, Melody. These things happen. That big 'ole wave just swept him under in a second. How could you have known?”

I’m sniffling and feeling so tired like it was me under there, not Max. “I was right there but I didn’t see it. I’m sorry, Mommy.”

Mom looks me straight in the eye. “But you were there to pull him out. You reacted as quickly as you could. That's all you can do, honey." That makes me feel a whole lot better.

When we get to the blanket and there’s Max wrapped in a towel sitting all snug on Dad’s lap, looking out of breath but smiling with his chubby thumb in his mouth, which he knows he’s too big for now, and looking so safe and sweet, I can’t imagine life without him.

Saturday, April 30, 2011


A month ago, I attended my yearly writing retreat at Whispering Pines in W. Greenwich, RI. It's a weekend filled with presentations on children's writing, illustrating, and marketing from some of the industry's most influential editors, agents, authors, and illustrators. It's a time to network, meet up with old friends, make new ones, and have some plain old fun. This year was no different. As a matter of fact, I'd say it was one of the best ever.

I had a one-on-one critique with Ammi-Joan Paquette, an agent with the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, about my YA novel, Melody's Song. I sent in 25 pages of my manuscript for one of the mentors to read and critique, and I was fortunate to have Joan as my mentor. She was thoughtful, honest, and gave me some positive feedback. One of her suggestions, making my main character, Melody, 13 rather than 14 because she sounded innocent rather than edgy, was a good idea. Interestingly, when I began reworking the story, a new voice emerged, one I hadn't heard before. It was a slightly younger Melody and her words poured out onto the page.

Sometimes when life feels too good to be true and everything is lined up in a row like baby ducks following their mama, you can’t help but think that something’s about to go wrong. That’s exactly how I was feeling last summer. And, bang, did I turn out to be right.

The first time my theory started to take a shape was on a Monday, a beach day. Mondays in the summer are the only days we get to go to the beach together. The only day Mom closes the antique shop for the morning so we can hang together. Summer is her busy season and on the Cape you make the best of it when you can.

Mom’s packing a picnic lunch with egg salad sandwiches, juice boxes and grapes. She places them carefully in an old wicker basket from the shop, the one with handles, puts the checkered napkins on top and closes the two wooden flaps. “Let’s go! We’re leaving,” she shouts, twirling around, nearly bumping me. “Here, Mel, you take this. Tell Mia we’re ready and I’ll get Max and Dad.” I smile at Mom, happy to take orders now that she’s finally ready.

“Mia!” I shout, sprinting up the stairs, “The bus is leaving!”

Monday, March 21, 2011

What's next?

With all the uncertainties of late, I finally contacted the Fulbright Teacher Exchange team and told them of my plight. It was something I was dreading but knew was inevitable. They were very supportive and told me the best thing to do was withdraw my application and reapply next year. I'll just have to update my application. They certainly understand the climate of what's happening to schools and teachers around the country. My hope is that things will be better next year. Time will tell.

So for now, I continue to teach my 5th graders. I work on my new novel and wait for warm weather and dream of the ocean. I wonder what's next for me. I have a feeling something's just around the corner and I can't wait to find out what it is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Dashing Dreams...

2011 has been a roller coaster of a ride and it's only February. I found out at the beginning of this month that I've been accepted to participate in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program. As you can imagine, I was thrilled to hear the news. It's been my dream since college to go back to England and see the country and learn more about their educational system. With the Fulbright, I'd be teaching 5th grade for a semester next year, while another teacher would be teaching my classroom here. We'd even exchange houses. With the roof collapse at my school, I was worried. How could I accept the Fulbright if I don't even know the fate of my school? But it looks like they are rebuilding the school and that the students should be reporting back by next September.

But then, another blow. Twelve teachers at my school received pink slips. The budget is being cut and state funding could be cut by 20%. At the next School Committee meeting a week later, seven teachers got their notices rescinded but five did not. I am on the list of five who did not. It's all about money and seniority. Even though I've been teaching for 12 years, I am the fourth from the bottom of our seniority list. It feels like I've been rolling around under a huge wave and can't find my way up. I'm devastated! I'm not sure what to do or where to turn. One thing I've decided to do is appeal. It may not help my situation, but I know it can't hurt. I am willing to do just about anything to get my job back. I love my job! I love my students!

And what about the Fulbright? My dream of going to England and exchanging positions with another teacher are dashing. But maybe, just maybe, this door closing means another one will open. Maybe something even better will come through. I don't know the answers, and only time will tell. But one thing is for sure, I need to be patient. And patience can be hard to find.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wild Winter Woes

A week ago, I was in my classroom giving my 5th graders time to work on their persuasive essays. They had three choices to write about: 1.) why students need or don't need homework, 2.) why students need more than 15 minutes of recess, 3.) why it might be a good idea to have a four-day school week. I told them they would have more time to work on them, but to get their thoughts down and begin a rough draft. I hoped that the choices would be pertinent to them and that they could persuade someone to make a change.

The following day, my school world, and everything in it, collapsed along with the roof of my little country school. The day after giving my students this writing prompt, we had about 15 inches of snow and, no surprise, another snow day. While I was taking this reprieve from school to work on report cards, I got a call from a fellow teacher that the roof in the library had caved in. I thought that perhaps a little water was leaking from the ceiling and that it would be a nuisance, nothing to worry about. My teacher friend called back within 10 minutes and asked if I wanted to take a ride over to see the damage. Why not? I thought. It would be a nice break from report cards. When we got to school, it was immediately apparent that this was much more than a nuisance. This was a disaster!

In the past week, I've been to the school twice to take as much as I can in a short period of time. The first time, it was about five minutes. The second time, about 10 minutes. An engineer had to escort each teacher into their classroom for safety precautions. Needless to say, it was a nerve wracking experience. Did I take what I need? Am I taking everything the students will need?

When I begin a new phase at the Middle School tomorrow (the 4th and 5th graders have been moved to the regional Middle School) my first priority will be to hug my students and help them feel safe. This is what I need right now so I'm sure it's what they need, as well. We will write about our feelings about what has happened and how this has changed us. Perhaps in the days ahead, we will come up with a new writing prompt, one that will be more pertinent to what the students are going through right now. Or, perhaps, I will keep the ones we have as they might just be the things the students are thinking about, or want to think about. Perhaps we don't want to think about what has happened for too long, perhaps we want to get back to our safe routine. A new routine it will be, but as the word defines it, a routine will be just what we need.