Walt Whitman and His Support for Wounded Soldiers

Walt Whitman was born in the early 1800s on Long Island. During the Civil War, Walt Whitman’s brother was hospitalized in Washington DC. When Whitman came from New York to see him, he was already passionate about the Union’s cause. Seeing wounded soldiers in DC, he decided to become a volunteer nurse for the hospital. During his time there, he visited many soldiers, helped them compose letters home, and brought them little gifts. His dedication and kindness brought joy and peace to soldiers who were far from home and had no relatives or friends nearby.

His support for wounded soldiers and his need to write about their cause can be see in Not Youth Pertains to Me: “I have nourish’d the wounded and sooth’d many a dying soldier,/ And at intervals waiting on in the midst of camp,/ Composed these songs.”

Check out Poetry for Young People – Walt Whitman for more facts about this amazing writer and his support and compassion for soldiers and their families. This book is idea for children 9 and up.

Activities for Parents and Teachers

Learn about the branches of the military and ways we can help soldiers and veterans through various nonprofits.

We hear a lot about what bystanders can do when they see bullying. Some effective ways are simple: 1) ask someone if they want to hang out or 2) change the subject when gossip starts. Whitman’s poems and his time as a volunteer nurse are great examples of the power that simple acts of kindness can have on others. He wanted wounded soldiers to know that they were appreciated and had a friend to help them.

Questions for Journaling or Discussion

What is one small act of kindness you can do to help others in your community today?

Has anyone in your family served in the military? What do you know about their service and those that helped them, if they were injured?

Walt Whitman

How Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Poetry Can Inspire Today’s Children To Write

Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most important American poets of the first half of the 20th century. Her poetry is filled with carefully measured rhymes and imaginative themes that can inspire children today to write creatively.

Millay published many books of poetry throughout her life and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her life was filled with exciting trips and good friends. At the same time, she dealt with serious health problems as an adult and her family had very little money when she was a child. Despite the lack of resources, her mother always encouraged her to write. Her poetry caught the attention of several supporters early in her life who helped her get published. One supporter even paid for her education at Vassar College.

Her poetry reveals her deep passion for life and her imaginative spirit. She wrote about her love of the ocean, romance, and the New England landscape of her childhood. She also wrote poems with magical elements as well as poems where she just lets her imagination about ordinary items run wild.

Some of her poems are accessible to children and are in the book Poetry for Young People – Edna St. Vincent Millay. In this volume, they include part of a longer poem called A Very Little Spinx:

Wonder Where This Horseshoe Went

Wonder where this horseshoe went. 
Up and down, up and down, 
Up and past the monument, 
Maybe into town. 

Wait a minute. “Horseshoe, 
How far have you been? ” 
Says it’s been to Salem 
And halfway to Lynn. 

Wonder who was in the team. 
Wonder what they saw. 
Wonder if they passed a bridge — 
Bridge with a draw. 

Says it went from one bridge 
Straight upon another. 
Says it took a little girl 
Driving with her mother.

I love this imaginative conversation with a horseshoe about its travels. Sharing this with children gives them permission to be imaginative and to write adventures that ordinary items around them might have taken.

Millay kept many journals throughout her life where she would work on her poems. In the Respect Program, all children get to decorate a journal. Each child then uses it create their own poetry and to help them process their own life experiences through writing. Here are some ideas to inspire the children in your life, with a little help from Millay’s poetry.

Activities for Parents and Teachers

In today’s world, a similar theme could be, “I wonder where these tires went.” Write a poem about where a set of tires could have gone. Use your imagination to create any scenario that interests you, just as Millay does with the horseshoe.

Millay was was born in 1892. Talk with children about the fact that many people at that time traveled by horse or a horse and cart. Visit a horse farm and learn about how and why they put horseshoes on horses. While there, give the children a chance to take a riding lesson. Ask the children to write about the experience when they get home.

Questions for Journaling or Discussion

What do you think riding in a horse-drawn carriage would be like?

Where is a place you would like to visit? Write about what you want to do there.

Is there a friend or family member you would like to travel with? What makes them a good travel companion?

Children decorate notebooks in the Respect
Program for writing poetry and journaling

The Meaning of Life According to Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is known for her great poetry and her shyness. While she rarely left her home, especially later in life, she adored her nieces and nephews and wrote often to family and friends. Her poetry includes timeless topics such as nature, death, hope, and kindness. One of her poems I share with elementary school children in the Respect Program is:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

There are two themes here to discuss with children. First, that acts of kindness are important. Second, that kindness makes life meaningful. We all want things to happen that don’t occur. Sometimes our team doesn’t win, we don’t place in a competition, or we don’t have as much money has we wish we did. While these are disappointments, they do not mean that our life is without meaning. There will be other competitions, new goals to strive for, and (no matter what) opportunities every day to do some small act of kindness that proves we “shall not live in vain.”

Small act of kindness in Emily Dickinson’s life were not just about helping others, but about giving her life purpose. For example, she baked cookies and prepared other goodies for her nieces, nephews, and the other neighborhood children. After cooking them, she would take the baked goods up to her bedroom, on the second story of her house. There, she would place them in a basket with a rope tied to it. Next, she would wave to the children playing outside and, as they came near the house, she would lower the basket with the rope so they could enjoy the food.

The poem above and this story are a part of the Respect Program because they provide an accessible introduction to a poetic genius, and a reminder that small acts of love leave a legacy all their own.

Activities for Parents and Teachers

Talk about the poem with your children and ask them to name small acts of kindness they can perform, like saying “Hi” to a shy student at school or listening to a friend talk about something they love to do. Ask them: “Does being kind improve your mood?” or “Does being kind to someone make you feel different about how your day is going?”

Read the book Poetry for Young People, Emily Dickinson with your children. This collection includes the poem above as well as some poems that describe various animals (without mentioning the animals’ names). Have your child or class guess what the animal is in each poem. The answers are upside down in the book (on each poem’s page). This activity can build children’s confidence as well as support reading comprehension skills.

Questions for Journaling or Discussion:

What are some small acts of kindness that you are glad to have done for other people?

What small acts of kindness can you do tomorrow to help others?

What gives your life meaning?

How can a kind act for another person improve your well-being?

Art made with wax sticks, crayons, and paper by a child in the Respect
Program. The picture is of two children holding a heart between them.

Being Confident Can Help a Child Be Bully Proof

When I work with children, each child decorates a box around the theme: “What is my talent?” I also have them write down their skills on pieces of paper to put in the box. That way, they take home a tangible reminder of the talents and hobbies they have. Some write about their love of playing guitar or dancing. Others write about being good at chess or sports.

I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting of a Little Self-Esteem by Jamie Lee Curtis is a great book to pair with this activity for children ages 4-8.

The more a child knows their worth, the less they will be bothered by those who bully them. After all, why listen to a bully when you know what they say is not true?

Strong self-esteem, hobbies, and talents help children relax and feel confident during times they are bullied. Making these boxes with classmates also helps children to have a shared joyful experience together, which supports a safe social environment.

If you are interested in bringing the Respect Program to your community, please let me know. I have brought the program to schools, after-school programs, summer camps, and houses of worship. In addition to children’s lessons, I also offer anti-bullying workshops for adults where I share various research-based strategies and an overview of the impact bullying has on children.

A child in the Respect Program decorates a box and includes a note that says “I’m good at piano.”

The Greatest Gift We Can Offer a Friend

In my darkest days I have struggled with chronic pain, bullying, workplace bullying, and divorce. During these times, my friends couldn’t change any of these situations. I was the person who had to pursue new medical treatments, find a new job, and grieve a past relationship. However, the simple act of a friend listening reminded me that I was still loved, that my feelings were valid, and that I did have skills to improve my situation.

How has a friend listening helped you heal? Please leave a reply below to share the blessings of listening.

In addition, to encourage conversation about listening with children and adults, share William Carlos Williams’ poem below. This poem beautifully describes the great gift of being present for a friend.

The Friend Who Just Stands

When trouble comes your soul to try, 
You love the friend who just “stands by.” 
Perhaps there’s nothing he can do- 
The thing is strictly up to you; 
For there are troubles all your own, 
And paths the soul must tread also alone; 
Times when love cannot smooth the road 
Nor friendship lift the heavy load, 
But just to know you have a friend 
Who will “stand by” until the end, 
Whose sympathy through all endures, 
Whose warm handclasp is always yours- 
It helps, someway, to pull you through, 
Although there’s nothing he can do. 
And so with fervent heart you cry, 
“God bless the friend who just ‘stands by’!”

By: William Carlos Williams

An art project made out of wax sticks by a student in the Respect Program. The lesson theme that day was “Healthy Friendships.”

Stop Bullying Before it Starts with Compassionate Communication

When children or adults are rude to someone, there is a natural reaction to justify that behavior. Such as, “I told them their idea is terrible because it is!” Whether it was a terrible idea or not, telling someone how wrong they are will certainly not solve the problem. Why not ask the person some questions about her perspective on this “terrible idea”? I find that when I stop being judgmental and start understanding the person’s perspective my compassion increases, which opens up a healthy dialogue with that person and allows the two of us to find solutions. This dialogue also increases our ability to work together as a team in the future.

When children (or adults) are caught bullying others, be prepared for a list of reasons that they feel totally justified in their behavior. When we are angry and lashing out, we need to be reminded to:

  1. Learn to deal with anger in healthy ways, like journaling or talking with a trusted friend.
  2. Be open and honest about our role in conflicts with each other
  3. Apologize when we are acting like bullies, and
  4. Make amends. This is not just about saying “I’m sorry,” but rather about being more considerate and kind in the future. Even if most of a situation is not my fault, apologizing for my part in the conflict has led to peace and healing in several of my challenging relationships with friends and co-workers.

This is all easier said than done, but the more we work at these steps, the more productive and fun our time will be with others. Otherwise, one person’s bad attitude can justify repeated bullying attacks, which can escalate over time. Conflicts will always continue to arise in life, but with respect and clear communication, we can work together to resolve issues peacefully.

William Blake wrote about conflict escalating in his poem A Poison Tree. You can find this poem in many collections of his work, including Poetry for Young People – William Blake, which is ideal for children ages nine to twelve. This is a great poem to discuss with children to get them talking about how to deal with conflict and the consequences of letting problems escalate.

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end. 
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears, 
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles, 
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine, 
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

-William Blake

Remember We Do Everything Imperfectly

I was thinking about my issues with perfectionism today. I sometimes set an impossible standard for myself and then have to reevaluate what is feasible to do. I also have to often remind myself that we are all imperfect and that that is not only okay but wonderful that this imperfection gives us opportunities to grow, continue to improve, and to support those we love. Here is one of my poems where I played with this idea.

What We Are Is Enough

When we love, we love imperfect people,

Because they are the people available to love

When we help, we reach with imperfect hands

Because they are what we have to reach with

When we receive we take in the pain and joy of the world with an imperfect heart

Because it is the heart we are blessed to have.

By: Amanda Cook

Have a blessedly, lovely, imperfect day!

What can Langton Hughes teach us about Dreams for a Better World?

I Dream a World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!

By:Langton Hughes

This poem was taken from the opera Troubled Island which Langston Hughes wrote with the composer William Grant Still. I love this poem’s vision of how the world should be: filled with kindness, celebrated diversity, and peace. When I talk with children about this poem I ask them who else had a famous dream? They all say quickly, “Martin Luther King, Jr” with great enthusiasm! This then sparks conversation about the I Have a Dream speech as well. Both Hughes and King spoke of how the world should be. The good news is we call can help create that better world, one kind act at a time.

I love how the Introduction begins in the book Poetry for Young People – Langston Hughes. It starts, “From the 1920s until his death in 1967, Langston Hughes was probably the foremost poet among African Americans. His importance for later African-American literature has been immense, for he sought to not only ‘sing’ of Black America in his poems, but also to do so in its every day language.” I am grateful to have heard his experience and voice which brings to life the problems he faced and yet also great joy and hope for the future. The poems in this collection are accessible for children as young as nine. Also, the illustrations by Benny Andrews are spectacular.

From Langston Hughes I have learned to believe in the beauty and importance of having dreams for oneself and for the world. I have also learned more from him about the fight for equality, which he eloquently reveals through his verses. He is a joy to teach to children and his poems provide a great way to start a conversation about what we can do to make the world better.

Activities for Parents and Teachers:

Read the poem with children in your life and ask them what they think about his dream? What dream to they have for the future?

Provide a copy of Langston Hughes poem and the I Have a Dream speech to read to children. I recommend the I Have a Dream children’s book with the speech and beautiful illustrations by Kadir Nelson. Ask the children, “What similarities there are between the two and where are they different?”

Learn about the Harlem Renaissance and share some of the history with children in your life. New York City in the 1920s was home to incredible African -American writers and artists and there needs to be a lot more awareness in the United States of the great books, art, and plays they created.

Questions for the Day for Discussion or Journaling:

What is your dream for the world?

What can you do today to help that dream along?

What helps give you a new perspective on life when you need it?

Whenever I am overwhelmed by my daily challenges, I can look at pictures of our solar system, nebulas, and galaxies for a reminder of how vast the mysteries of the universe are and how I need to keep things in perspective. 

I also use poetry to think about the seen and unseen world and let my imagination flow. In addition to thinking about the size of the universe, I remember when I was in high school learning about the universe within each of us – tiny organisms that we cannot see without a powerful microscope. To those organisms we are the solar system, nebula or galaxy!

Years after the biology class, I wrote the following:

The Storm

What if, inside the eye of a needle, whole worlds existed?

People in little steel towns with silver soil that could not be cultivated

reaching for strands from the giant worm that periodically blacks out their sky.

What if, inside the binding of a book, a community lived?

People hunting dust mites for food and living in musty darkness, attributing the

movement of the book to an earthquake, living out their lives in the smell of ancient stories.

How would your perceptions change?

Creatures, scientists say, live on people’s eyelashes, and 

when we cry they experience a salty storm.  

They harm no one, and go on with life, content that what they see isn’t what they get,

not knowing the massive giant they rest upon, not knowing what the storms mean.

By: Amanda Cook

Always, I am humbled and amazed at the vastness of the universe and all the life that is around me that I cannot see. No matter what is bothering me today, I need to remember that there is beauty all around us.  

What can we learn from Robert Frost about opportunities to build friendships?

The Pasture

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring; 

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away 

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may): 

I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too. 

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 

That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young, 

It totters when she licks it with her tongue. 

I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too. 

-Robert Frost

At the age of 23 I started graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I had been through a lot of bullying in my life and didn’t trust many people. And here I was, in a new city were I didn’t know a soul. I slowly began to meet people and one day early in my time there, a woman I had met in my classes called me and said, “I free today, want to do something?” “Yes” I replied. At the time it struck me that I wouldn’t have had the courage to make that simple request of someone.  We became good friends and to this day I appreciate the fact that she reached out.

Sometimes all it takes is an invitation to open someone up and begin a great friendship. The simple act of invitation is why The Pasture is such an important poem for children and adult alike to ponder.  While most people do now live in cities and have different chores, the simple act of the speaker inviting someone into their daily experience is filled with serenity and kindness. Serenity in that there is no complaining about what the speaker has to do and kindness in wanting to share that peacefulness with someone else.

I read this poem for the first time with my parents as a child and I was struck by the gentleness of the speaker and the peacefulness of the world that child describes. In my 30s I taught children in Memphis about Robert Frost and used the Poetry for Young People – Robert Frost book as a reference. 

The book is ideal for 8-14 year olds and this poem in particular opens the door to discuss invitations we can make to grow and strengthen friendship. This poem doesn’t end with the other child saying “yes” although I would like to believe she did. However, even if she didn’t, it was well worth the effort of the child speaking in the poem to say, “You come too.” Because an invitation to spend time with someone is a great gift we all can give another human being. It allows us to communicate clearly to another person that they are important and valued.

Activities for Parents and Teachers:

In Poetry for Young People – Robert Frost, a couple of lines of commentary are included about this poem. The book’s editor explains that this poem is an invitation, but also that “Frost is…asking his reader to come into his world —a world of pastures, leaves, spring, and young calves newly born.” Ask children if they would say “yes” to the speaker of the poem and why.  

While most of us don’t have access to a farm, invite your children to a green space, a park or national wildlife refuge, to see a grassy area or stream for themselves. Talk about the fish and birds that use the area for habitat. Ask each child to invite a friend to attend, just like Robert Frost did.

Questions for the day for discussion or journalling:

When was a time that someone invited you somewhere fun?  How did you feel when they asked you?

Do you know someone who you could get to know better by inviting them to hang out with you?