9 Ideas for Challenge classes during National Poetry Month

My students in the Challenge III program of Classical Conversations study five Shakespeare plays, and work on poetry through the year. But because they are so busy, poetry gets put aside, and we sip a thin broth on poetry sharing days. Each week I read aloud a poem or I present a poem form with some models to imitate, giving them some guidance and inspiration for writing during the week.

April is National Poetry Month and I have found fantastic ideas to use with my students. I share a few ideas here:

  1. The first week in April, have the students choose a poem to memorize. Tell them to be prepared to recite the last week in April, close to Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 27 in 2017). It can be short. One of my favorites is Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost. Robert Louis Stevenson is another good source.
  2. Assemble sandwich bag collections of Magnetic Poetry magnets with a variety of parts of speech,  30-50 words. Hand one out to each student. Tell them to scatter the words around, play with them and see what happens.* Give them 10 minutes or so to create something using what they have, employing images to say more than the words themselves. Perhaps they can create a haiku. Share. Vote on one or two to post in the hallway on the magnetic board (see below). If you don’t have magnet words, type up a list of words and cut them out for your student packets. I have seen word lists on Pinterest.
  3. Have students create a Reversal Poem using this template. This is based on a Jonathan Reed poem, which was in turn inspired by a campaign commercial in Argentina. Very, very clever. Even my hard-bitten students got excited about this one. It took all of ten minutes in class.
  4. Put out in the hall a magnetic board with a lot of Magnetic Poetry word magnets. Encourage students to play during lunch break. Acknowledge truly outstanding art.
  5. You and your students post a poem on your Facebook page every day of April.
  6. Do you know how to add a “signature” to your email? Encourage your students to change it to a poem or a quotation about poetry for the month of April. Some ideas:
    • “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Carl Sandburg
    • “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” Dylan Thomas
    • “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” G.K. Chesterton (For the joker in your class)
  7. Collect student poems (or student-choice master poems) to be printed up in a booklet to hand out at the end of the year. Include author photos and space for classmates to sign. This could be your class yearbook.
  8. For Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 27 in 2017) have your Challenge students prepare, a couple of weeks ahead, a page of poems for children, so that in total you have enough for every Foundations child on campus. Duplicates are okay. Make sure you count the babies and toddlers too. Cut these out and fold them into envelopes, one per child. Get help from the Foundations Director so that you know what names to write. On the campus day nearest Poem in a Your Pocket Day, give them out. On my campus, we will tape these on a wall for the classes to find when they come downstairs after Opening (with the knowledge of the Director and tutors!) If I have time, I will make card stock pockets, with names, for the envelopes and tape those up instead. You might include the parents too, and the other Challenge classes, so every single person gets a poem.
  9. Also on this day, all Challenge III students will carry in their pockets the poems they have memorized this month. Children (and adults!) will be encouraged to go up to a Challenge student to ask for the poem to be recited.

It is important for students to understand that writing poetry is like playing baseball or painting with oils; it is an art that takes years to mature but gives pleasure early. Take the pressure off. Let them know this is about playing with words.

My hope is that every student will see the power of succinct and compressed language to color and flavor all their persuasive communication. Happy Poetry Month!


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It’s Back!

Those of my readers who love real olive oil will be glad to hear of the fantastic deal available at local grocery stores! I found last fall’s pressing of olive oil from California Olive Ranch is available at my local grocery store (Shaw’s). Haven’t seen it at Wal-Mart yet but I keep checking; it’ll come.


Harvest date Oct-Nov 2016

Last year I wrote about discovering California Olive Ranch at Wal-Mart, valuable because of its (relatively) recent harvest date. I found it about nine months after harvest. While purists stick to olive oil harvested within three to six months of consumption,  I have found the fresh flavor and peppery aftertaste are still present, though faded, at closer to a year. Every time I go to Wal-Mart or a grocery store I check the California Olive Ranch bottles to see if the new harvest is out yet. It finally is, in March 2017.

The 2016 Rich & Robust, pictured above, has the flavor of fresh plants, a lot of pepper afterbite, and a slight bitterness. Sometimes I need a pungent olive oil, such as when I marinate chicken breast or make a salad with strong flavors.

The 2016 Everyday has less peppery afterburn than the Rich & Robust and a neutral flavor. It is a good one for oiling a pan. I have even used it in baking to replace corn oil, such as in my carrot cake recipe.

My Mild & Buttery is from the 2015 harvest but still has a tickle of pepper. It has the faded taste of real leaves. I like to cook my breakfast eggs in it. It is my favorite and I can’t wait to get a fresh bottle.

My family has switched to the Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) foodway. You probably already know this means replacing the missing carb calories with good fats, such as olive oil and coconut. I always keep some olive oil on hand for my salads; I never use canned salad dressing anymore.

My local olive oil store, InfuseMe, has top-notch olive oils all within three months of harvest but I can treat myself only a few times a year. It is also about an hour away. I am thankful to have a vein of good quality olive oil available to me when I shop monthly at my local grocery store.

Does your local store have it yet? Comment below when you are able to find the latest harvest on your store shelves.


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A free poetry course

Inspired by the Gotham Writers Workshop courses I am setting up a poetry group to explore writing poetry. This is for anyone who wants to break into more freedom with poetic language or to just become more creative at problem-solving. It is less about creating Art and more about training our souls to make connections between things. Poetry is about finding meaning in surprising places and communicating it through the succinct language of imagery and the apt word.

A group of up to a dozen will meet online every two weeks for about an hour. Between times we will read a chapter of our fabulous college textbook, Writing Poems sixth edition * by Michelle Boisseau and Robert Wallace. At the end of every chapter are some exercises for experimenting with the chapter’s concept, and each student will respond by writing. That original work will get posted to some private place we each can access and we will read and respond to our classmates’ work with helpful assessment. We will also share poetry we find by the masters.

Five activities: Read the chapter, do the exercise, write responses to our classmates’ work; share master poetry for our collection, and discuss the chapter and our poetry when we meet online. We will meet even if we haven’t read or done the homework, because there will be plenty to talk about. We will review.

There are twelve good chapters. At two weeks for a chapter, that is about six months. Summer seems to be a rotten time for online classes, so this puts us into next fall: April, May, June; September, October, November. Done before Christmas.

Personally, it wouldn’t be comfortable for me to pull off a chapter and writing assignment every week, though this is the pace of the Gotham Writers Workshop classes. If the group favors an intense run through, a chapter a week I would consider it! We would reduce the writing assignments and work on fewer poems. The Gotham Writers Workshop Poetry course syllabus is enlightening here. The blurb says students work on one or two poems.

My goal is to take their poetry course next winter, after doing a year of mental poetry-yoga to loosen up my stiff sinews. I would love to have others join me for this.

For supplies you need the Writing Poems book, a headset with microphone, and a binder in which to collect poetry you print (opt).

Google Hangouts or some other venue will allow people who have never met face to face to take this “class” together. Is it a class?  A book club? A discussion group? As a life-long learner and teacher I feel comfortable leading this group and letting the book teach us, so that we are all learners together.

I will figure out the best (free) venue for us to use for posting our creative work and another for our online conversation.

You decide if you would like to commit to this discussion group.

We’ll start in early April. Date and time to be determined. Day of the week? Probably a Monday or Thursay evening, but Saturday is possible. Please email me at rutheholleran at yahoo dot com if you are interested in becoming a part of this group.

* Because it is older this outrageously expensive textbook will cost less than $10.


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The Daily Poet

On a blog named “Letters from Heart’s Content”, surely the reader expects to read something new from time to time. Fresh out of the oven, slathered with butter, here it is.

Gotham Writers Workshop offers some dynamite writing courses online. My dream is to take a class in poetry next winter. But fearful that I won’t be able to write on a timetable, I am building writer’s muscle by daily practice, learning the craft and discovering the questions. I watched my friends Katy Noelle and Obe Lisai commit to a photograph a day and develop into productive artists with unique style. With their example, I aim to do the same.

Poetry appeals to me for its economy of words. The waste is chiseled away until the statue stands free. It allows me to play with words, to make them rattle like a train on a track or weave like dancers at a Greek wedding.

This month I ordered, from a local Indie Bookstore of course, The Daily Poet; Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice, by Kelli Russell Agodon & Martha Silano. They prepared a prompt for every day of the year. Since I can’t truly write every morning, I choose something intriguing from the most recent couple of days. I never read ahead.

The poem below was inspired by the prompt for January 27 entitled “Journalistic Inspiration”. It tells me,

“Find an interesting newspaper article and circle all of the words that interest you. Write a poem about a topic that has nothing to do with the article….”

The article I found in The Vermont Journal was about tax incentives available for alternative energy and I ended up using only three words from it: possibility, energy, and fossil [fuels]. I finished up today. I give you:

Tilling the Tell

So much energy it takes to keep
the fossils buried in the heart’s barren acres.
They rise, clattering; I shove them down,
drown them out with sound, or try to sort
them in my fumbling inexperience, surmising
an evolution trail from these remains
to the cringing creature looking through my eyes.

O Lord, arrange a dig in the ancient land
and gently handle every broken bone;
fit them together and name them “Always Mine”,
and lay them to rest forever in a Christian burial,
that they might rise no more to haunt me.

And from the loosened soil grow fruitful vines,
green with sap and tender leaf, that swell
to fragrant blossoms, wet with dew; a dew
that catches light before it drops to drench
the ground alive with fertile possibility.

Ruth E Holleran
January 29, 2017


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Koselig: Not Just for Christmas #TBT

Well, this goes down as the winter I discovered koselig, a name both for something I already experience and for something I want to cultivate. In December I read a range of articles on koselig (and its sister hygge) to understand it. This one seems to be the one that started it all: The Norwegian Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter. Norwegian koselig is a kind of coziness, but this definition of the Danish hygge helped me understand:

hygge (n.) a complete absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things. 1

Other northern European cultures cultivate their version of koselig (in Dutch gezelligheid and in German gemütlichkeit) especially through the winter. Canada doesn’t seem to have a corresponding concept but most of us in North America have experienced it at some time associated with Thanksgiving or Christmas. It is the name for that mysterious sense of community-wide bonhomie, and that desire for comfort foods, good company, and a crackling fire.  We especially feel it when “the weather outside is frightful but inside it’s so delightful.”

When I moved to Vermont from Maryland I immediately gained about two months of non-summer. Winter is on my mind from late August to the beginning of May. From first withering frost to the golden lace of the hillsides bursting into leaf, winter is arriving or lingering for eight months. Yikes! To paraphrase that song of barely hidden panic, “We need a little koselig, right this very minute…”

When I read this article, In Defense of Domesticity, I realized I already had some of these practices. We eat together and tell stories. We listen to good music. We keep the woodstoves going, and last winter I specifically sought a woodstove with glass doors so we could see the fire. I orient the couch to face it, creating a comfortable place to read and to watch the wildlife at the birdfeeders. I always light an oil lamp when we gather for a meal and I light candles when I first rise in the dark. Candle light is so much easier on the soul first thing on a dark morning, is it not?

This winter I am experimenting with this new (to me) idea in five ways:

  • lighting candles more than just for dinner
  • inviting people over for a casual dinner frequently
  • getting the family to play games (not so easy when we are all so entrenched in front of our screens)
  • getting the family together to continue learning how to sight-read [On a tangent, I learned this Christmas that I have five basses, and two sopranos. Three, if you count me but don’t, because I’d rather supply the alto line. One bass, thanks to his ongoing education at St. Johns College, can sing the tenor part if it doesn’t swing in the rafters too long. But still. Five.]
  • making sure I alternate long hard work with moments of comfort and withdrawal; this is a lot like the rhythm of six days of labor and a sabbath rest

That last point reminds me of what I want to say about the dark side of koselig. We can’t always be comfortable and we shouldn’t want to be. Loving people in our home and beyond takes pains. We should be comfortable going outside our comfort zone. We should work and work hard with all our gifts and skills. We should have the mindset of servants, even if we are called to serve by leading. Sitting by the fire all day isn’t koselig; it’s just lazy.

Also, if koselig is the absence of unpleasantness, there is a temptation not to deal with the truth. Lovingkindness and truth are always matched in the wisest literature. “Speak the truth [but do it] in love,” says Paul in Ephesians. Come on, do we really want Nice? All the time? Not a fan. I like messy people, and I’m grounded enough to handle messy situations. To the extent doing koselig means permanently suppressing the expression of pain, it is unhealthy. I am, however, perfectly fine with a ban on politics at a koselig event. Just…balance, is all I am saying. It can’t be Christmas every day.

And to close, let me share some of the best youtube explanations of hygge, Denmark’s version.


  1. This definition of hygge was found at: http://other-wordly.tumblr.com/post/17457303359/hygge
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Whoosh! Wasabi mad.

So, a few days after Christmas I was found myself wasabi mad. Wasabi mad: angry in an instant, flaming way, going instantly from calm to raging and quickly subsiding. Someone is rude to you and you flare into anger.

Suddenly I am yelling and sarcastic to the woman staying with us for two weeks, and it horrified me. Shortly afterward I went to talk with her about what happened and to apologize. Even in that calm conversation I flared again when she called me, unreasonably, a control freak. (My friends could fault me for being an indulgent mother but they never for control issues.) I had enough courage to tell her in no uncertain terms that she may not call me names, but I have a hard time navigating this weird relationship. It is fraught with misunderstanding and unreasonable expectations. I desperately want to understand why I blew up, how I can set limits on her expectations, and give her what God has for me to give.

Today a psychologist recommended Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend. I had just put it on my Amazon wishlist two weeks ago. I am ordering it (from my favorite Indy bookstore, of course!)

I wonder how common it is to obsess over people who criticize you. I admire strong people who keep their sense of proportion and brush it off. It is so weird: if someone honks at me for no good reason–I am going the speed limit; I used my signal– I stew on it for days. The bullies have power over me. Why? Why does it matter so much what people think?

Over the years God has been my counselor. I can honestly say, looking back over 57 years, that God has creatively worked in my psyche to get me over some deep wounds. Psalm 103 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who heals all your diseases.” Yes, my soul, praise Him!

In an ideal world, counselors gifted to understand the inner landscape would be available to us through the years as we need them, but even in their absence God is able to give us the counsel we need. We hear Isaiah’s words in Handel’s Messiah: “He shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Isn’t it true? Hasn’t He mended the broken and in His wisdom used quirky imperfection to do His marvelous work?

I love that He makes something out those who have been hurt in childhood. Really, haven’t we all? The vulnerable child has always suffered some hurt to some degree by parents who are grown up vulnerable children. I take comfort that my adult children will become more and more whole as they cultivate a relationship with their heavenly Father, who heals all their soul’s diseases.

And I will learn to set and keep boundaries so I am never again wasabi mad.




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In the News

I just got off the phone with a woman I’ve never met who told me a story.

Sheila Hagar knew my birthmother when they both lived in Walla Walla, and she has been storing some Anziano family china for a few years. Well, more like a couple of decades… Some of it had been shipped to me years ago, and I’ve been holding it in my dining room cabinet. But there is more. Sheila called to tell me the last box is on its way. She tells her personal story about it in her newspaper column.

Sheila Hagar tells how the china ended up temporarily in her house long ago, and the journey it took many times around the sun before it became the subject of her article. But she also passes on the family history of the plates as my mother told her. These plates tell the story of my Italian ancestors. She includes a closeup of the unusual china pattern.

I post it here for you to read.

Dinner-ware storer has too much on her plate to return china


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Making a tiny splash in the Internet

I think I can safely say there is not yet a villanelle on the theme of hygge, the Danish art of living through the winter with comforting coziness. So, plip, here is my unique drop in the vast sea of the Internet.

Welcome Home

The northern winter situation’s dire:
The dark and bitter cold bring on the blues;
Fight the dark with candlelight and fire.

The cold outdoors will sap the strength and tire
Those who work the woods to pay their dues;
The northern winter situation’s dire.

When day is done to home we each retire
To curl up on the couch without our shoes;
Fight the dark with candlelight and fire.

A bowl of something steaming we require,
The scent of thyme and bay leaf in our stews;
The northern winter situation’s dire.

The doldrums steal ambition and desire;
When winter kicks our gut we have to choose:
Fight the dark with candlelight and fire.

Lay the Christmas tree upon a pyre;
Gather friends for games; ignore the news;
The northern winter situation’s dire;
Fight the dark with candlelight and fire.


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Overdosed on Hamilton

Students in my Challenge III class wouldn’t stop talking about Hamilton; something said in discussion would trigger them and they would start chanting and moving in syncopated rhythm while the rest of us looked on in bewilderment. After a couple of weeks of school I had had enough and I bought the soundtrack on Amazon. I listened to it through earplugs while I scrubbed a particularly not nice bathroom (not in my house), and rejoiced when I was left alone so I could remain rudely plugged in. In the empty house I wept during the second act.

The songs from the first act have been running through my mind for an entire month and I have finally reached saturation. This week when I woke to find myself rhyming in verses, various characters stepping forward to continue the story, I knew it was time to feed my imagination on other food.

It’s not that I mind a rhyme or find that I’m writing lines in my mind all the time.

It’s that Hamilton inspires me to get to work on music compositions I started a few years ago and have neglected since. I opened my notation program (Finale) and listened to a few. Some of them are actually pretty good, I think, and need attention! One made me laugh. All of it appeals to me the way I imagine oil painting did Winston Churchill. He wrote a book once recommending painting as a pastime, especially for those who work with words and ideas. I am really, really ready for a mental break.

Challenge III has me reading a US History book, Chemistry, Philosophy, five Shakespeare plays, poetry, and working my mental muscle in Advanced Math and Latin III. I don’t write the papers or memorize 30 lines, nor do I prepare for debate. I don’t teach; we discuss. The students facilitate some of the conversation. Still. It is a lot.

A used copy of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville came in the mail this week and I want to read that too, especially since we’re about to read the about those years in A Patriot’s Guide to US History.

So, instead of Hamilton I play one of my unfinished pieces on repeat until it cuts a deep groove in my mind. I’m looking for a good text to fit.

Thanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for capturing that quintessential American restlessness that keeps pressing on. You have me going!

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The Mediterranean Diet

I came across this image today as I was following up on my recent post about fresh olive oil. The older I get, the more my Mediterranean genes are expressing; on my mother’s side I am all Sicilian, while my father gave me strictly northern European ancestry. I crave fresh vegetables, salmon, and Greek yogurt. My Viking/Irish husband can’t get by without potatoes, which bore me. I am becoming Epicurean in my menu planning, making sure I have a variety of colors, textures, flavors, and herbs. I try to have flowers on the table and candle light. A small glass of wine if we have it.

Did you ever wonder what the Mediterranean diet is? It is more than a list of foods.


Published with permission from www.olivetomato.com.


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