Saturday, July 28, 2012

Variations of Voice Part I

A friend of mine recommended I read a book called, When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams. There were many reasons she thought I might enjoy it, one of which was the author’s telling about her time spent with a speech therapist. You see, Terry had a lisp and so, when she was in fourth grade she went to therapy while other students played tag at recess. A couple of months back I mentioned David Sedaris’ trips to see his speech therapist; he didn’t paint a pretty picture. That made it especially pleasant to read of Ms. Williams’ experiences. After teaching proper tongue placement, the therapist had Terry practice “s” sounds by reading poetry, like this stanza of Emily Dickinson’s:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church:
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

In the process of perfecting her “s”, Terry learned “how to hear the sounds of words and find delight in the rhythm and musicality of certain combinations.” In addition, Terry developed her own voice.

Now I want to back up a moment because the term “voice” has many different meanings. As a speech therapist, I sometimes work with students with voice disorders. That might mean their voice is raspy because of vocal polyps or nodules and they need to see an ear, nose and throat specialist in addition to a speech therapist. Obviously, that is not the sort of “voice problem” Ms. Williams was referring to when she said,

A speech impediment is an excellent way to lose your voice, especially
in fourth grade.

She went on to describe being teased and then stated,

But the sure remedy to criticism and ridicule was a simple one:
keep quiet.

I’m afraid this sort of “lost voice” is common among children (and adults for that matter) and it comes not just from speech impediments, but from a variety of differences or perceived differences. We can help those in our care find their voices or as Terry Tempest Williams experienced,

I did not find my voice – my voice found me through the compassion
of a teacher who understood how poetry transforms us through the
elegance and lyricism of language.

That certainly inspires me to use more poetry and a variety of other great literature with my students. And it makes me wonder – perhaps all effective teachers, parents and writers are actually providing voice therapy.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Imitation – Igniting Language and Inspiration

Imitation is one of the ways young children learn to speak. They hear sounds and echo them back. Of course, it is a lot more complicated than that, but without a model to follow, they won’t start talking. And it’s not just words they imitate – they imitate our actions too. Which reminds me of a story of my children as preschoolers. A good friend had been watching them for me while I ran to the grocery store. When I came to pick them up, she told me, “They played house while you were gone.”

My four-year-old had said to his brother, “You can be Dad and go to work. I’ll be Mom.” He then grabbed a book, sat on the couch and pretended to read.”

I was a little embarrassed by that story (but not much). It wasn’t my habit to sit on the couch all day with a good book in hand. I kept the house fairly clean and played with my kids regularly; but I also spent a lot of time reading with them. Maybe that’s what he was imitating.

It is not just children who learn by imitation, many artists have learned new skills by copying the masters and I’m sure there are writers who have done the same. In Mary Oliver’s, A Poetry Handbook, she devotes a whole chapter to imitation. She said,

“Every child is encouraged to imitate. But in the world of writing it is originality that is sought out, and praised, while imitation is the sin of sins.
Too bad. I think if imitation were encouraged much would be learned well that is now learned partially and haphazardly.”

I like her advice (and love her poetry.) I heard something similar in a writing class so I went to an old master, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and used his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a pattern to follow. I started with a couple of stanzas and modeled mine after his. Here are Coleridge’s verses:

And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -
The ice was all between.

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

And here are my stanza’s following his structure and tone:

But in the cloud, the misty shroud,
there grew a mournful sound;
a wind that breathed through wings to weave
a wailing all around.

The wind was on, the wind was in,
the wind was all between.
It whipped and crashed, and blew and lashed,
as scythe upon the green.

Once I wrote those stanzas a story started forming in my mind and so I wrote a whole poem based on Coleridge’s albatross. I won’t share the entire ballad because it is rather long, but this gives you an idea of the exercise.

Imitation is a good beginning for writing and for language development but I don’t want to stop there with my own creations. And I don’t want my students to stop there. When children rely only on verbal imitation they are using echolalia – an automatic response with very little meaning. I need to help them move past imitation so they can communicate their own thoughts, ideas and desires.

And if they imitate my actions, I’m thinking, sitting on the couch (or at my desk) reading a good book isn’t such a bad idea.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Imagination - A Key to the Door of Knowledge

A couple months ago, I heard a knock at my speech room door. Normally, kids don’t knock; they just charge up my ramp and burst in at their scheduled time. When I answered the door, one of my first-grade students was standing there, “Hello, I’m Jordan “two”, Jordan “one” had to stay home today. I’m new to this school.”

Of course I invited him in, and he invited me into his imaginary world and into his current internal story. He informed me that Jordan “one” had to stay home to take care of a visiting elephant – it had escaped from a zoo. Since the others in his speech group were away on a field trip, I had time to hear the whole story, help Jordan write it down, and introduce vocabulary such as “pretend” and “imagination.”

I think Jordan has a future in writing fiction but he struggles in school. He has a very difficult time listening and following directions. Once he told me his mind was “all buzzy” so he couldn’t pay attention in class, but I’ve noticed, when he begins to actually hear a story, or create one of his own, he focuses. Tapping into his imagination seems to help him become more receptive to new information.

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” That gives me hope for Jordan and others like him.

And speaking of imagination, one of the imaginative books Jordan loved this year was, Creepy Monsters, Sleepy Monsters, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Kelly Murphy. He wasn’t alone - all of my speech students loved this story. It is written in verse and creates possibilities for vocabulary growth, rhyming, phonemic awareness and speech practice. The illustrations are adorable. When I read this one to my students, they inspected every monster on every page, counting monster eyes and legs. They laughed when they spotted items they could relate to – like backpacks, swing sets, and monster beds that were not much different from their own. The worms in the salad and sandwiches grossed them out but they wouldn’t let me turn the page – they were so engrossed!

When school is back in session in the fall, I hope I’ll hear another knock at my door, and when it opens, I hope it will open to a world of new stories.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Relatives and Road-trips

The word “relatives” came up in a story during one of my speech sessions and I asked my students if they knew what it meant. They didn’t so we discussed aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins . . .

A student interrupted me, “Don’t talk about cousins – my cousin moved away.” She buried her face in her folded arms.

Another child jumped in and said, “My six chickens’ birthday is August 7 – all of them. I don’t know why.”

Now I’m not sure where this came from. It was stretching the topic of “relatives” and one of the things we work on in speech is staying on topic, but I couldn’t resist asking, “So did they all hatch on the same day?” and he said, “no – they hatcheded on different days in June. I don’t know why their birthday is August 7. Do you know when mine is?”

He was disappointed I didn’t because he didn’t know either. I assured him I’d find out before I saw him next and then tried to rein this conversation in and return to the subject of relatives.

I had the perfect book for the topic, The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Stephen Gammell. It doesn’t use the words “cousin,” “aunt,” or “uncle” but there are a multitude of them and they fill most pages so it was easy to introduce the vocabulary. This charming story tells of a rural family leaving their Virginia farm to visit relatives. 

The story begins,

“It was the summer of the year the relatives came. They came up from Virginia.”
     . . .
“They left at 4:00 in the morning when it was still dark, before even the birds were awake.”
They drove all day and into the night . . .”

When they arrived, “it was hugging time.”  And the hugs seemed to go on forever as the family passed each other around from one set of arms to the next. When bedtime came there weren’t enough to go around, so beds were shared and floor-space filled. Arms and legs draped neighboring bodies as they squeezed together to sleep.

The illustrations in this book are color pencil drawing with personality. They have warmth, humor, and joy – even the car looks exuberant about the trip.

I understand the feeling. I just returned from a fabulous road-trip to see my family and many of my students are doing the same. Some are traveling all the way to Mexico and others have relatives visiting them. I imagine we’ll have a wide variety of stories to share in the fall. And speaking of stories, if I ever find out why those chickens celebrate their birthday on August 7, I’ll let you know. (I’m hoping I’ll be invited to their birthday party.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I’m away on vacation and will return to my regularly scheduled posting next weekend. But until then, I hope you'll enjoy a few quotes and photographs.

"The human soul needs beauty even more than it needs bread."
-D.H. Lawrence

From our garden to our kitchen table.

"A writer's brain is like a magician's hat. If you're going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first."
-Louis L'Amour

Bluff trail in Northern California

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”
- Samuel Johnson

Reading by the river.

"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge."
-Albert Einstein

An evening view.

I hope you are able to surround yourself with beauty and a tall stack of engaging books. I also hope that we can all “awaken joy in creative expression” within our children, students, friends and selves.