Through the Curriculum with The Black Alabaster Box

I’ve been working on this resource guide, now available for free download on http://www.fschoonmaker.com As you can see from this first page, it focuses on how to create a curriculum or curriculum experiences with children and young people. I hope you’ll visit the website. Click on Teachers and Parents in the menu and you’ll see Curriculum Resource listed. I’ll welcome ideas and feedback. Use my blog comment space for your suggestions. If you have experiences you’d like to share, I’ll be collecting them and post on my webpage for everyone to see, attributing your ideas to you, of course.

A Purple Iris for Teachers

When I finished my Master of Arts in Early Childhood Education at George Peabody College for Teachers, now part of Vanderbilt University, I was given an iris along with my diploma. Campus had been a riot of iris blooms the weeks before graduation. As we gathered on campus in our caps and gowns, we stood by iris beds, freshly dug up. Hundreds of bare roots with a bit of green leaf were separated, waiting for us to take one. It is a beautiful tradition and the iris is an appropriate symbol for teachers.

In Victorian times, the purple iris was associated with wisdom and compliments. How appropriate for it to be the symbol of our thanks for teachers!

I can think of so many teachers who have made a difference in my life. It wasn’t always easy for me–and probably not for them. For example, there was that time in first grade when I couldn’t remember whether Frances was spelled F-R- A- N- C- E- S or F-A-R-N-C-E-S. Mrs. Mars was not pleased. She had a way of pulling your hair at the base of your neck when she was displeased. But she was the one who taught me how to make the numbers 1-10 walking over a rainbow bridge. How could I not forgive her?

Mrs. Mars was the first of many teachers in my school experience. There were also teachers in Sunday School, in my family, and in the community–the caring adults who helped me along the way. Perhaps that is why Lawrence Cremin talked about the ecology of schools as institutions that educate. Wherever they are–in or out of school–THANK YOU TEACHERS! A purple iris to you!

Happy National Poetry Month: Thoughts on the Joy of Learning Poetry

I suspect that my love of poetry is from my Grandpa Shannon. Grandpa loved poetry. I don’t know how many poems he knew by heart. I remember seeing him close his eyes, lean back in his rocking chair and begin Snow-Bound, by John Greenleaf Whittier: “The sun that brief December day  Rose cheerless over hills of gray,  And, darkly circled, gave at noon  A sadder light than waning moon.”

Grandpa knew all 345 lines of James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfaland long passages from both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. I have no idea how many poems he could recite by heart.

From the start of my teaching career, poetry was part of my classroom whether I taught first grade or fifth. We read poems, recited them, and wrote poetry. I never told children to memorize, I’d simply invite them to join me in saying a poem. I gave them a written copy of a poem after they knew it by heart. 

I remember a great moment on the way home from a field trip with first graders. A parent started, “Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?” Everybody joined in. When it ended, Cindy piped up immediately, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evenng, by Robert Frost.” We said it with her. Then somebody called, Beautiful Soup, by Lewis Carroll, and then, Sing Hey! For the Bath at the Close of Day, by J.R.R. Tolkien,” and Someone, by Walter de la Mare.” (I don’t actually remember the order; I just remember Cindy’s voice calling out, and what followed.) By the time we pulled up to the school, forty minutes later, we had been through our whole reperitoire.  As I was getting off of the bus, the driver said, “Lady, I don’t know what you’ve done with these children, but I’ve never seen anything like it. They can ride my bus any time!”  

Camp songs and rhymes like “Who Stole the Cookies,” are lots of fun, but children can enjoy so much more. These children did. I hope that poetry is still a part of them, as it is a part of me, and was a part of my Grandpa. Read a poem aloud until you know it by heart to celebrate National Poetry Month!

Girl Protagonists?


With a field near the Santa Fe Trail in the background, Grace Willis, protagonist, tips her hat. She is dressed as a boy in a white shirt with braces, typical of the late 1850s.
Grace Willis, girl protagonist in THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX doesn’t want to go West on the Santa Fe Trail. She’d much prefer her safe, comfortable life at home. She is no invincible super-girl. But when faced with a crisis, Grace does what needs to be done. Like most of us–girls and boys incuded–Grace doesn’t always get it right. She’s what I call an everyday hero.

Women’s History Month is coming to an end. It has prompted me to think about how girls are treated in stories for children and young people. I came across this in an interesting essay about gender bias. “The current choices seem to be either being invincible or not existing at all. While one might wish for the arts to lead the way to a more egalitarian future, that mission has not yet been accomplished for children’s literature. While it’s great that adventure books are now routinely featuring smart, strong, dynamic girls, we’ll know girls have truly achieved parity with boys when they can be not only as strong but as wounded and vulnerable — and more to the point, when they are as numerous, when they abundantly populate books both as leaders and regular kids.” Judy Sobeloff “The Golden Ratio of Sexism in Children’s Literature”

Edible Plants and the Character Mr. Payne

Esther Kang Suh

Esther Suh’s guest blog reminds us that there are edible flowers that we can enjoy, provided that we learn about them and make knowledgeable choices.  She points out that as Mr. Payne mentors protagonist, Grace Willis, in The Black Alabaster Box he teaches her to identify edible wild plants. 

I like Mr. Payne a lot. When he first came into the story to help Grace along the way, there was something about him that I knew I wasn’t capturing. I kept asking myself, “Who is he?”  Grace, thinks he is a kind man, “never too busy to say hello, even to a young girl,” (p.18).  I knew he had been an army scout. Initially, I thought he was Wagon Captain. But one of the things I have learned–from my daughter’s background in theater–is that if you are going to deal with a character, you need to know/create their backstory. It may never enter into the script/story, but if it isn’t there, characterization will be shallow.

I kept searching for Jim Payne’s backstory. Then it came to me. He couldn’t have been Wagon Captain. “Before the wagon train set out from Kansas City, the men elected a Wagon Captain. Daddy thought Jim Payne would be good. But some of the men didn’t feel right voting for a Free Negro.” (p.18) Grace doesn’t understand. She asks her father why the men didn’t feel right about Mr. Payne when she likes and trusts him. “Daddy said some things were hard to understand, even for grown-ups, and he hoped it would be different in California” (p.18).  

Black Seminole Army Scouts, image in the public domain

Was Jim Payne’s backstory plausible? I knew it was pretty unlikely for a group of people from different parts of the Eastern U.S. going to California in 1856 to elect a black man their Wagon Captain. But might he have been an army scout?

There were black scouts who served the army with distinction. For example, a little later than Mr. Payne, in the 1870s, four Black Seminoles were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The Black Seminoles were descendents/children of slaves who escaped to Florida and married Seminole Indians. The U.S. proposed to relocate the Seminoles to Indian Territory in the mid-1800s. Passage of the Fugative Slave Law of 1850 made life dangerous for escaped slaves and their children, even in Indian Territory. If an enslaved mother escaped to a free state, she and any children she bore were considered slaves. They could be captured and returned to their “owners.” Many Black Seminoles moved on to Mexico to escape the possibility of being returned to slavery.  Read more about them at these two websites:  https://www.nps.gov/amis/learn/historyculture/seminole.htm https://www.blackpast.org/tree/U.S./Indian+Wars

            There were also the famous Buffalo Soldiers following the Civil War. An all black cavalry and infantry units, they made a name for themselves in the American West. Their role is surrounded by myth and legend. If you’re into unpacking myth and legend, you’ll find this article by military historian Frank N. Schubert a fascinating read: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/myth-buffalo-soldiers/. Another resource is https://www.history.com/topics/westward-expansion/buffalo-soldiers#section_1

            I was satisfied that Jim Payne was settled in his place in the story. Without his help, Grace Willis would never have survived in her break for freedom after she was kidnapped. I hope you’ll read the book. It isn’t just for kids! And I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Follow me on Instagram: @fgschoonmaker


Spice Up Your Diet With Edible Flowers: Guest Blog by Esther Suh

Reading The Black Alabaster Box by Frances Schoonmaker sparked a greater interest in me to learn more specific information about wildflowers. Her book makes specific references to wildflowers, like white anemone, purple phlox, and yellow primroses, blooming untamed along the Santa Fe Trail. Some wildflowers served to supplement the diet of travelers moving west in covered wagons. She ties it in beautifully by using Mr. Payne’s character, a retired Army scout, to teach the main character Grace Willis how to find, identify, and eat edible flowers. He tells her, “Mother nature can take good care of you, if you know what to look for” (p. 47). 


Personally, wildflowers top my list of favorite things next to chocolate and coffee. My first experience appreciating wildflowers started in middle school when I found a single bloom stretching out of a tiny crack in the walkway. Out of nowhere did it appear and flourish in that unlikely circumstance.

I’ve also come to admire wildflowers, in particular edible flowers, for the kinds of healthy and flavorful dishes you can make with them. Growing up in a traditional Korean home, eating edible flowers was the norm; I thought everyone ate like this too. Our diet mainly consisted of rice served with side dishes comprised of different kinds of roots, vegetables, and leaves: pickled mustard leaves, marinated Perilla leaves, marinated Bellflower roots, steamed squash leaves, blanched Fernbrakes (although there’s debate about its toxicity levels), and Chrysanthemums, etc. Others like ginseng, which boasts a plethora of health benefits, are rare and expensive. 

My parent’s harvest of Bellflower root in summer of 2018
The roots are marinated with garlic, chili pepper, scallions, and fish sauce.

Above is Fernbrake that is soaked in water, blanched, and/or sauteed to eat with rice.

My mother taught me that certain edible flowers, roots, stems, and leaves can also be useful to heal various ailments: stomach pains, skin irritations, bladder issues, muscular pain, coughs, or any other complaints. It is prepared several ways depending on its purpose: dried, steamed, boiled, or mashed into paste. She tried teaching me when I was a teenager, but as a cranky teenager, I usually rolled my eyes and wished that we didn’t have to cook up a remedy (no pun intended); couldn’t we just go to the medicine aisle at the store and pick something up instead? It seemed very old fashioned and embarrassing. However, as I matured over the years, I began to cultivate an appreciation for what I gleaned from watching and listening to her.

I’m familiar with the edible flowers I grew up eating, but it’s hard to fathom that some common flowers growing outside can be safely consumed for taste and/or nutritional benefits. Everyday flowers like roses, dandelions, and lavender can be eaten or used to enhance flavors. 

These are times I wish I could consult an expert about edible flowers: instead of guessing, this person could advise on how to locate, identify, learn its background and characteristics, and safely taste. I’m dreaming; those kinds of experiences and meeting an expert like that are far and few in between. 

I scoured the internet for answers and information. The search results, as expected, were substantial. Pictures usually accompanied the vast amount of information about these flowers, but to the unaccustomed eye, some are difficult to distinguish from similar looking ones. This makes me a little paranoid thinking that maybe I’ll eat something I’m not supposed to. But I realize that learning more about it and comparing what I see with pictures on websites and books nurtures confidence.   

The next step in my adventure is to venture out, learn more, and see what kinds of foods I can prepare using edible flowers. Once again, I’m amazed at nature’s bounty: it provides so much beauty to see and experience, as well as opening up new ways to cook and eat with flowers.      

You can find Esther’s blog at https://singlikewildflowers.com

Check out these informative websites about edible flowers: 

  • www.whatscookingAmerica.com
  • known as “America’s most trusted culinary resources since 1997” 
  • The website lists 36 kinds of edible flowers broken down into three categories: fruit flowers (4); herb flowers (24); vegetable flowers (11).
  • https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/edible-flowers
  • 11 Edible Flowers With Potential Health Benefits
  • I found this website to be straightforward and easy to read for beginners. It provides a picture, a brief description about it, and a short summary of how to eat it. 

One last thing: Be sure to check that the flower is free of pesticides and you know the specific flower is indeed edible. Esther Suh

When you’re having fun…

The expression is, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” It is one I’ve heard all my life. But where did it come from? That isn’t at all clear.

Its all a part of the The Game of Life–played at our house over the holidays.

For example, I found this at https://www.dictionary.com/browse/time-flies: Time passes quickly, as in It’s midnight already? Time flies when you’re having fun, or I guess it’s ten years since I last saw you—how time flies.  This idiom was first recorded about 1800 but Shakespeare used a similar phrase, “the swiftest hours, as they flew,” as did AlexanderPope, “swift fly the years.”

Others sources trace the expression to the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 BCE) and fugit irreparabile tempus. “Time irretrievably is flying. Another version is, ‘We cannot stop time in its tracks.’ The shorter Tempus fugit is taken from the longer Fugit irreparabile tempus itself a slightly shortened form of a line from Virgil’s Georgics.” See https://wordinfo.info/unit/4031/page:1

All that is to say that time has been flying past and lots of things happening. Most of them good, some of them challenging, not so great, and others sad. But time keeps moving forward. It was October when I last blogged.

In addition to completing the manuscript for Book 3 of The Last Crystal Trilogy I’ve been promoting The Black Alabaster Box. I’ve asked Esther Suh blogger, Mother, photographer, parent of a “heart child” and educator to write a guest blog about edible plants.

If you’ve read The Black Alabaster box, you know that edible wild plants play an important role in Grace’s survival. Esther’s photographs and knowledge of flowers are one of many features that have made hers a popular blog. Edible wild plants become important in Book 3 as well. I look forward to hearing from Esther soon–you’ll see why she is uniquely prepared to be a guest. .