"Under a mushroom, on a cushion of moss. . . ."
It's a typical opening line for poet-in-residence Mary Leister, as she challenges her elementary school proteges to complete the verse.
"Every child writes a poem every time I visit," she said. "No oneknows that they are really working."
Leister is one of 20 Maryland poets chosen each year by a Maryland Arts Council review committee to teach poetry in schools. The poets are selected based on publishedwork they submit to the committee.
Leister, of Cooksville, has been at the job for five years, visiting Howard, Carroll and Frederick schools for two-week stints.
"The children really love her," said Ann Dubois, a fifth-grade teacher at Bushy Park Elementary. "They relate to her because she allows them to have lots of freedom of expression.
"My class has had a lot of success writing poems," said Gen Allocco, a fifth-grade teacher at Swansfield Elementary. "She will read their poems out loud and comment on their strengths. The children are very attentive."
Leister aims to fuel the imaginations of the pupils she instructs.
"They go wild and have a wonderful time," shesaid.
Her visits to each school usually begin with an introduction to poetry in which Leister talks about structure and rhythm. She also encourages children to have fun with words by getting them to think about their favorites, like "whispering" and "murmuring", which shewrites on the board, followed by "power words" like "thunder" and "roar."
"We don't necessarily rhyme," she tells students, enticing them to write freely about their fondest fantasies.
After one class, Leister said, "One of the kids went home and told his mother that he had had the best day in school ever."
And she is particularly pleased about a student who had not done well academically, but who haddemonstrated his ability to write beautiful poems.
When asked whyshe believes the children respond to her, Leister shrugged her shoulders, saying "I don't know why. . . . I guess it's because I love them."
Apparently the grandmotherly-type teacher, who is divorced, enjoys a good rapport with children, though she has none of her own. She said that since 1955, when she moved to the county, her home has been a place where youngsters are welcome.
"They used to come in andplay or have cookies," she said. "The preschool kids would call me 'Mary-Leister.' It was a one-word term and was not used out of disrespect even though parents would correct them."
Leister's own creativity is spurred by the successes she sees in class and learns about from parents and teachers.
Since 1969, she has donned a long dress and told stories to children and adults at various community events such as a Halloween party sponsored by the Department of Recreation andParks, and holiday gatherings at the Cider Mill Farm in Ellicott City. She has been a storyteller at several county schools including Northfield, Lisbon and Bushy Park elementary schools.
She also has published five books -- two story books for children, two non-fiction nature books and a wildlife reference book.
Her most recent publication, "North American Birds," published by Reader's Digest General Books in 1990, contains 450 articles about birds, 105 of them written by Leister. She also is a contributing editor for the magazine Bird Watcher's Digest, and she writes articles for Ranger Rick, a nature magazine for children ages 6 to 10.
Leister has also been a nature lecturer and storyteller at Piney Run Park in Carroll County. Leister uses her expertise to its best advantage in stirring up children's creativity in writing. One example is a story about stars, which she tells to her young students. Leister asks them to "pick" the stars from an imaginary sky.
"We put the stars in our pockets and then write about them," she said.