Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SOLSC Day 31

Thank you to ThinkingAloud for recognizing me and Walking the Dog with a Splash Award.

The Splash Award is given to "alluring, amusing, bewitching, impressive and inspiring blogs." (I'm so flattered!- especially looking at the other blogs on the list.)

But there are rules... upon receipt of the award, one must:

1) Put the logo on your blog/post.

2) Nominate up to 9 blogs which allure, amuse, bewitch, impress or inspire you.

3) Be sure to link to your nominees within your post.

4) Let them know that they have been splashed by commenting on their blog.

5) Remember to link to the person from whom your received your Splash award.

And my first splash-worthy blog nomination goes to...

drum roll please...

Pictures and Such

Mary has an awesome photo-a-day blog. I hope you'll check it out.

As for the 2009 SOLSC Challenge, thanks to everyone involved. What a trip.

Monday, March 30, 2009

SOLSC Day 30

I s'pose, with only one more day to go in the SOLSC, it would be a good time to write about the experience of regular writing. Right before I began this challenge, I was trying to write at least a paragraph a day on the novel, and that was going pretty well—I wasn't going to finish in a month, but I was making some progress. Then, when I started this exercise (on a whim, I tell you!), I was sure that I could keep up with both, but that only lasted for, like, four days. Beano and LB went by the wayside. (Fortunately, I had already written enough to bring to the beach with me for my writing group, so that worked out.) Now, here we are, nearly finished with the month of March, and I am contemplating the changes in myself as a writer.

I’m definitely more fluent (why, I typed that paragraph up there in no time, and there are a lot of words in it), but I’m not sure where I’m headed as a blogger. Sure, I like going on about myself and my ideas (who doesn’t?), and I like the discovery that comes along with that type of writing, but I don’t know if I can maintain such a pace without the challenge aspect. I’m also afraid that there may be a difference between like to and ought to— this daily writing thing has taken up a ton of time.

I know from experience that a routine is helpful for me, though, and I do want to write regularly. My blog is named for something I do daily, and the time I spend outside with my dog sustains me. Besides caring for my pet, it gives me the opportunity to reflect and observe, and many of my writing ideas are germinated then. And so, one way or another, I’ll definitely continue Walking the Dog.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

SOLSC Day 29

I’m thinking about assessment:

My thoughts were triggered by an English assignment my 8th grade nephew shared with me. He had to create eight different response products to the novel Animal Farm. The teacher actually gave them nine options, and they had to choose eight, all to be completed outside of class for homework. They had 2 weeks to do them, but this assignment was in addition to their other English homework. This morning, he only had three of the eight done. He had found a working windmill and researched its history and then written a one-page summary of it. He’d chosen a political speech to summarize and analyzed it for effectiveness of message, and he’d chosen a person who sought leadership and had written a one page essay on the impact this person had on the world. Five more to go by Monday, but he’ll get it done; he’s a smart guy and a capable student.

The quarter ends on Friday, though, and I have a feeling that the teacher’s never going to get all those things graded by the time grades are due. I also wonder what the objectives of the assignment are; they don’t seem immediately clear to me, an experienced educator in the same discipline, in the same district. I note the lack of any formative assessment or guidance of any kind in the way of process, and I find it frustrating to see my nephew have to spend so much time on something that will never be properly assessed or even appreciated. I asked him, jokingly, if he wanted me to do one or two of the assignments—I would have been interested to see what grade I got.

I’ve been grappling with the issue of assessment for a while, now. I want to figure out a way to use it more effectively in my program, so that I may better instruct the students, but I also want to convince other teachers that mine is a sound approach. It all comes down to product versus process, which is a false dichotomy, of course. The other key distinction is the difference between grading and assessing. Right now, I grade the process and assess the product, but I admit that I spend more time on the grading part. I think that is upside-down, but I want to emphasize the process over the product. At the same time, I want to use the assessment to drive my instruction, but logistically, that piece often gets lost in the time I spend on the paperwork of grading.

I’m doing a mini “Take a Stand” unit with my students where they identify an issue of concern to them, describe it carefully, and then create an action plan to address the problem. One of the things I am emphasizing with them is to examine the issue thoroughly before rushing to solutions. That almost seems counter to human nature—most of us want to rush in and offer answers, to fix things quickly and move on—but I’m trying to convince my students to take their time, so that’s what I’m doing with my assessment issue, too.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

SOLSC Day 28

Last July my writing group agreed to do our own novel writing month. For those who aren't familiar, there's actually an official NaNoWriMo (wait for it), but it takes place in November, and as teachers, it seemed silly to try to write a novel in a month in the middle of the school year when we had the whole summer to try it.

In retrospect, I'm not sure if that was a good call or not-- the old adage that if you want something done, give it to a busy person, might have had some bearing here. Each of the four of us started a novel, but early on we abandoned the basic concept of the challenge, that "Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly." I like to think that we thought too highly of our ideas to relegate them to such fast and furious crap production, but who knows?

By the end of the month we had roughly 20% of the required word count, but we all had the beginning of, well, a novel. I've worked on mine on and off since then, and I feel like I'm making some progress. There have been unexpected benefits, too. In a beginning-of-the-year-introduce-yourself exercise with my students, I mentioned that I was working on a novel, and I was amazed at the level of interest and engagement that they showed. It gave me some serious writing cred with the sixth graders. As the year has gone on, I've used bits and pieces of my work-in-progress to discuss leads, hooks, and character development, and it's been really fun; the kids have offered some constructive advice, too.

My novel is about two 12-year-old boys who are geocaching and find a clue to a real treasure. The kids in the story are based on two boys whom I adore-- my nephew and my godson. When I'm writing, I like imagining what one or the other of them might do in the situations that I am making up. I also think that they think it is pretty cool to be characters in a novel. They both happen to be here in the room with me at this very moment; that only happens a few times a year, and we're going to do a little novel reading in a few minutes. I hope they like it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

SOLSC Day 27

"But if you do not find an intelligent companion, a wise and well-behaved person going the same way as yourself, then go on your way alone, like a king abandoning a conquered kingdom, or like a great elephant in the deep forest." ~Buddha

Sometimes, when I'm teaching away in my little corner of the school, I feel like that elephant in the deep forest. Unlike the other English teachers in my building, I'm commited to a process-based workshop approach where my students choose their own reading material and their writing topics, and I do my best to plan instruction based on their needs and interests. My class is as individualized as I can make it.

Fortunately, I do have a wise and intelligent collaborator, she just happens to be at another school in our district. We both teach sixth grade English, and we have worked pretty closely over the last three years-- not in lock step by any means, but doing many of the same things. Besides the writing workshop, we created an online community for our students where they can share their ideas and writing, and we do some joint assignments that way. Whether or not we're working on the same thing, it's great to have somebody to talk with and throw around ideas, troubleshoot problems, vent frustrations, and celebrate successes. We laugh a lot, too-- teaching seems much funnier when we work together.

Whenever the topic of professional development or professional learning communities comes up, my friend always says, "Find people you like and work with them. It's as simple as that."

She's right. I'm glad I found her.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

SOLSC Day 26

Today at the swim meet, I overheard a couple of eighth girls talking. "Well, if she's dead, we won't have to do all those assignments."

"What on earth are you talking about?" I asked them, my eyes wide as a lemur's.

They shrugged, barely embarrassed, but my mind churned. So it's come to this, has it? The students planning our demise so that they can save themselves from some insipid assignment.

Noticing my slack jaw and furrowed brow, one of them explained, "We have two vocabulary worksheets, some dialog worksheets, a vocabulary test, a project and a scary story all due before next Friday."

I nodded and considered for a moment who I was talking to. You might be wondering what sort of heinous students wish their teacher ill to get out of an assignment, but I knew from experience that these girls were neither lazy nor non-compliant, and that they were referring to an intensified English class.

So, what advice for these young ones?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SOLSC Day 25

Well, I'm hitting the slice of life wall. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, "I'm just tired and bored with myself." My students are wrapping up some fiction writing, and as some have finished their pieces, they seem at a loss for what to write next. "Check your writing territories," I've advised, but it's been a while since we've revisited them, and I can tell by their glum looks that the ideas don't seem as fresh and exciting as they once did. So this week, I've done a series of mini-lessons and activities to re-introduce the students not only to their writing territories, but to their whole writers notebooks, too. I love my notebook-- it's a combination diary, scrapbook, research journal, writing exercise book, personal word list, sketch book, and laboratory-- and I want my students to have something like it for themselves, because it's so awesome and so helpful. Except right now, it's not really helping me come up with anything for my slice. I just can't find the common thread to connect the shark's tooth, Mrs. Dalloway, odes versus rants, and that crazy black squirrel I saw this morning (she flung herself from the bare branches of one tree into the flowering boughs of the next with utter abandon).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SOLSC Day 24

We had a big meeting at school today about grading policies. I guess we're lucky, because our district gives individual schools (and even teachers) a lot of autonomy, but it makes for a difficult conversation when it comes to building consensus and consistency. Across grades 6-8 there are a variety of policies about accepting late work, whether zeros are ever appropriate grades, and what to do with students who don't demonstrate responsibility but somehow seem to master the standards.

I heard a lot of frustration and blame from my colleagues. Many believe strongly that kids who aren't doing what they "should" be doing ought to have consequences, but there is a punitive element to this argument that worries me. I think we must be careful not to frame the consequences for being unsuccessful in school as negative, but rather use assessment and feedback to support the students in becoming more successful-- not because they're afraid to fail, but rather because they want to succeed.

A teacher on my team recently expressed the opinion that part of our job is to teach the students that not everything in life will be to their preference, and when it's not, they "just have to suck it up". We all have to do things we don't want to, right?

Is that really the message we want our students to internalize? I couldn't disagree more. I think we have to help students find the value in whatever they are doing, and if one or more of them is disengaged, then it is up to us to discover why and address the cause, rather than trying to punish them into compliance by piling on the consequences.

Monday, March 23, 2009

SOLSC Day 23

Today at lunch another teacher mentioned that old Seinfeld routine about Night Guy, Morning Guy, and Daytime Guy. I'm sure I found it funny when I first saw it, but I'm not laughing anymore: I'm a little too busy trying to mediate the conflict between Night Tracey and Morning Tracey.

Morning Tracey drags herself out of bed each morning at 5:30, swearing that she'll call it an early night tonight. She yawns through the first part of the day promising herself that she'll leave work on time, exercise, and eat a light, healthy dinner, before retiring at a reasonable hour.

Daytime Tracey takes over around 12:45, when the sixth graders go to PE and electives, and the teachers have planning and meeting time. As the team meeting wraps up, and the clock shows a limited amount of time left in the day for planning and grading, Daytime Tracey sighs and puts off her workout until tomorrow. When school is over, Daytime Tracey usually has a meeting, or study hall, or coaching which keeps her from her desk until about 4 PM. Preferring to work at school rather than bring stuff home, Daytime Tracey stays later than she hoped.

It's still Daytime Tracey who stops at the store or runs other errands on the way home. Night Tracey doesn't usually put in an appearance until dinner is cooking. Wearing comfortable clothes and catching up on personal e-mail or friends on facebook, Night Tracey pours a glass of wine and starts to wind down. After a relaxing dinner, she watches a little TV, reads, writes, e-mails and facebooks some more, and before you know it, it's long after Morning Tracey's bedtime. Night Tracey knows it, too, but it just doesn't matter. Too bad for you, Morning Tracey.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

SOLSC Day 22

The sun rose at exactly 7 AM this morning. I know because I stood on a windswept balcony watching it float up and out of the ocean, burning temporary white circles into my vision, so intent was I on observing the break of day. I tried to appreciate the experience in the moment, but I was also wondering how I could describe it without using any cliches. (Hmm...What color would you say the sky is over there? More of a cerulean or a wedgewood? And the sun itself? Orange-red or red-orange?) I was further distracted by the fact that I had set aside the novel, Breaking Dawn, before sliding open the glass door to greet the day.

I'm stuck on page 490 and haven't read more than 15 pages, all told, this week. We were talking about the series last night at dinner, and I realized that my desire to continue reading diminished considerably when Bella became a vampire. I guess I just find immortality boring. What's the point of living forever? Where is the dramatic tension in that and WHAT are they ever going to do with all that time on their hands? No sleeping, no waking, no reason to appreciate another day.

Obviously, there was a little too much going on in that brain of mine to enjoy a simple sunrise, and then I saw the fox...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

SOLSC Day 21

I'm at the beach with my writing group. It's sunny, but it's cold-- what you can only expect from Ocean City, MD in March. We've been meeting once a month since October 2006. There are four of us, all teachers, all women. We take turns hosting the meetings, usually on Thursday nights, and everyone contributes one share of a nice dinner-- hors-d'oeuvres, entree, wine, and dessert. After the meal, we linger at the table or sometimes move to the living room for dessert and workshopping our writing pieces. We usually stay up way too late for a school night, because there's so much to talk about: work, family, writing.

We started out with personal narratives, short memoirs or slice-of-life pieces, but, over time, we've written essays, poetry, and fiction, too. We've experimented with assigned topics, This I Believe and Being Catholic at one time or another. There were some interesting pieces, but since then we've stuck to self-selected topics. Last July we agreed to do our own NoWriMo, but nobody got past 10,000 words. We're still working on those novels, though, and other things, too.

I honestly believe that writing myself makes me a better teacher. It gives me credibility, empathy, and practical problem-solving know-how when I talk to my students about writing. I know personally how hard and messy and rewarding writing is. My writing group is a velvet deadline for me, forcing me to write, because I get to share it with them. Our exchanges have improved my conference skills; listening and responding to my students' writing comes a little easier now. I've learned a lot from their great writing, too.

I came to the beach this weekend because sometimes, three or four hours once a month just isn't quite enough time to spend with these friends. I'll take it when it's all there is, but I'm really happy to have the luxury of an extended conversation.

Friday, March 20, 2009

SOLSC Day 20

Sometimes I wonder.

My school is a very culturally and ethnically diverse place. We are a small, affluent district, but there are many disparities in our schools, and that’s another post altogether. My question has to do with engagement versus compliance. This is what I see: those kids that are “trouble”? They aren’t engaged, and they aren’t hiding it.

What makes them different than the others— the level of engagement or the level of deception?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SOLSC Day 19

Has anyone else noticed how crazy the robins are this year?

Where I live, robins are so common that, honestly, they're kind of boring. In fact, when they leave for the winter, I don't even miss them. As robins are a classic sign of spring, however, I do usually notice when they return: around here, it was about two weeks ago. In the past, spring has always brought the stereotypical one or two robins hopping around on the bright, new grass, with here and there the quick beak-bob for some tasty insect morsel. Hop and bob, hop and bob, with their tiny round eyes ringed by the finest of white lines, their rusty orange chests, their dreary grayish-brown feathers, hop and bob, that's all they do.

This year, though, the first anomaly I noticed was an entire flock of robins, over twenty of them, gathered together on the median strip. They were-- what else?-- hopping and bobbing. Maybe it was just the number of them, but they looked a little frantic. A few days later, I saw a pair of robins race-walking, transversing the grassy hill across from my house. No hopping. No bobbing.

Then, just this morning, as I sleepily set out on my daily dog walk in the dim pre-dawn, I heard, more than saw, a lot of avian activity. Oh, I recognized the cardinals calling, burdee, burdee, burdee, and there were mockingbirds mimicking three or four other bird's songs, but above it all, I heard a raucous racket. It was the robins. My dog and I continued on our way through all the whistling, and chirping, and carrying-on, when, out of nowhere, whoosh, whoosh, the air churned turbulently past my jaw, and feathers brushed my ear, lifting my hair up and away from my cheek. They were gone before I ducked, two robins chasing toward the daybreak.

"Did you see that?" I asked the dog, but she was busy sniffing and had missed the whole thing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

SOLSC Day 18

Once I cooked squirrel. It happened like this: I was visiting the friend of a friend at her family's home in southwestern Virginia. The girl I was visiting was a recent graduate of UVa, but she was the first in her family to ever go to college. They lived in a house that was the daylight cellar of place that had never been finished. It was dug into a hill on their land and had a flat, leaky roof cobbled together on the floor joists of the non-existent main level. The bedrooms of the house were damp and cold like most basements, but the main room was a kitchen/living room combination with a wood stove that was still going in May, so it was toasty and dry.

It was beautiful there. Late spring blanketed the mountains with nature's first green-- bright and luminous. They had a pack of dogs that followed us everywhere we went, a couple dashing off in chase of this or that, but always coming home. One morning, we were out in the yard talking to her dad. A soft-spoken man with a thick country accent, he looked the part of a classic mountain man-- big beard, muddy boots, flannel shirt unbuttoned over his long johns, and suspenders holding up his dungarees. As we chatted, there was a whistle from the road, and he whistled back. Two boys with a .22 rifle trotted up the driveway swinging a couple of dead squirrels by their tails.

"Garsh," he greeted them, "those are some fine-sized critters y'all got." The boys were obviously pleased, and as they drew closer, I could see their BSA kerchiefs. It turned out that he was their scout master, and they were here to showoff their marksmanship. "What'll your mama say when you bring those home?" he wondered.

They exchanged a look that let us all know that their mother was never going to see the dead squirrels. "Shame to waste them," he said. "Why don't you leave 'em with us." The boys were only too happy to turn over their kill, and a little while later, they were on their way home. He chuckled as they left.

"What are you going to do with those?" I asked.

"Feed 'em to the dogs most likely," he answered. "Unless you want them?"

This was during my cooking days, and I recognized a challenge when I heard it. "Sure," I answered. "Why not?"

He pulled his pen knife from his pocket, and skinned, beheaded and gutted the tiny animals. The dogs snapped the pieces out of the air as he tossed them.

I browned the squirrel quarters in a cast iron skillet, added some onion, celery, and carrots and simmered it for the rest of the day. When it was time to eat, I made gravy from the pan juice, and we ate it with boiled potatoes and green beans. Can't say I've ever made that dish again, though.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

SOLSC Day 17

We have a student this year who is way different than any other child I've ever taught. It was noticeable from the earliest weeks of school. "What's with that guy?" someone asked at one of our first team meetings. "If he wasn't a sixth grader, I'd swear he was stoned." It really does seem like he's doing a spot-on impression of Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. His eye lids are half-mast, his speech is slow and deliberate until it fades off into silence in the middle of an answer or a question. He's spacey and confused, and even now, in March, he shows up to my class at the wrong time.

In September, he was new to our district, and it was months before we got any records on him. His parents weren't that helpful-- they were a little surprised at our concern. Over time, his frustration has mounted, because he's having a tough time being successful. He's unfocused, disorganized, and lately extremely impulsive. He's been acting out in our classes. The principal came into my room yesterday to deliver a message. "Excuse me," she said, as she entered. Behind her back, he stood, and wagging his head in mockery, repeated her words under his breath. My eyes widened; my jaw dropped. She didn't realize what was going on, and he stopped when I caught his eye.

As you might expect, we're going through the special education referral process with him, but every day there is another tale of his antics. Despite his outrageous conduct (or let's be honest, because of it), we LOVE this kid. A couple of months ago, we found out what is probably the underlying cause of his behavior. He was exposed to lead when he was a toddler, and after doing some research, it turns out that his actions and affect are all in line with lead poisoning. Wow, I simply had no idea what a profound effect lead could have on a kid, and now I wonder how many teachers do.

Monday, March 16, 2009

SOLSC: Day 16


(This prompt is courtesy of Corbett Harrison and The Daily Topic for Writers.)

If I had to pick strictly from the spice rack, I would have to say I'm ginger, because it can go in both sweet and savory dishes, and it has a little bite to it. But if I could choose from herbs, too, then I might be rosemary, because it's one of my favorites, but, then again, it symbolizes fidelity, and so I might be closer to marjoram, because it's good in turnip soup.

This topic reminds me of a story I once heard. A king asked his daughter how much she loved him, and she replied, "I love you like the salt in my bread." He was very offended by this answer and banished her. Before she left, she bribed the royal baker to prepare the next batch of bread without salt, and when it was served to the king that night, he was most displeased and demanded to see the baker right away. Of course, when the baker explained that the bread was simply missing the salt, the king understood his daughter's love and called her home.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

SOLSC Day 15

Dear Cory Annita, Ina Eldridge, Cecile Sharice, Florine Cheryll, Amina Luvenia, Donetta Ryann, Melba Caryn, Alisia Estela, Yanira Lovella, Glayds Karine, Tatum Linette, Fredricka Rene, Bev Willia, Susie Wava, Anjanette Cordie, Deb Neta, Chantel Shala, Verdell Janetta, Glinda Pearly, Cassidy Camilla, Tarra Willow, Karlyn Bok, Chassidy Cassie, Agnus Beverly, Josie Brandon, Lawanna Agustina, Jennie Vanna, Georgetta Fatima, Rashida Samella, Margo Elma, Corey Dallas, Teena Nikita, Antonia Denise, Alesia Karie, Kittie Lucina, Adelle Glayds, Isis Mikki, Dorie Joanie, Francie Alayna, Hellen Jaquelyn, Juliette Hyun, Bari Erminia, Luci Lahoma, Casandra Laureen, and Elsy Larissa,

Ladies, please! I must request that you stop e-mailing me. I'm sorry, but I just think that 115 messages in one week is over-zealous. Thank you so much for your concern, but at this time, I don't really need cheap pills online, replica watches, cialis or viagra, and while I could certainly stand to drop a few pounds, I think I should probably do so on my own. I'm afraid I'm going to have to delete your messages without reading them.

I do love your names, though, ladies, and I hope you won't mind if someday you find yourself on the scrap of a draft of some unpublished short story or novel, especially you, Kittie Lucina, or perhaps, you, Corey Dallas. I suppose it might be considered one of the hazards of making your living on the internet, but don't worry, it's not your identity I'm after, just your memorable monikers. Until then, Luci Lahoma, Cassie Camilla, Amina Luvenia, and all the rest of you, please take care and delete me from your address books.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

SOLSC Day 14

It's rainy and cold here. Last weekend we had unseasonably springy temps in the 70's, but when I woke up this morning, this gray Saturday reminded me a little bit of those endless weekends when I was a kid. My gosh, back then it seemed like the raw, wet, late-winter weather went on forever, and come March, my brother and sister and I ran out of things to do in the house by early Saturday afternoon. My parents had plenty to keep them busy, however, and so I have memories of a lot of wandering through the house, sighing. I probably threw myself on the couch or my bed a few times, too.

I have no children of my own, but I am aunt, by blood and friendship, to more than a dozen kids, aged 1 to 16. They are fun to have around any time-- an afternoon, overnight, weekend, or even for a week or three in the summer. In fact, we have a couple of god-daughters here for the weekend right now.

We had a great day today. We made waffles for breakfast, caught a super-corny magician/comedian at the local cinema and drafthouse, hiked a national park with the dog, watched a couple of movies, and then spent some more kitchen time on homemade pasta, meatballs and sauce. Up next? Roasting marshmallows in the fireplace for s'mores-- cause that's what aunties are for.

Friday, March 13, 2009

SOLSC Day 13

We're running a writing contest here at school, and one of the students suggested this deceptively simple challenge: Write the best sentence you can. It's genius, because everyone can write a sentence, and the kids are pretty enthusiastic. The teachable moments are many... all of a sudden, sixth graders want to know how to use a semi-colon, just to stretch that baby out a little. Or, how about a dash? What do you do with those things, anyway? Active voice? Parallel construction? Subordinate clauses? These have all become secret weapons in the quest to write that great sentence.

The judges will look for a clear and memorable meaning, strong and/or beautiful words, and careful compositon, well-edited. To advertise the contest, I've been running a great-sentence-a-day on the morning announcements. So far, my two favorite examples have been from SE Hinton: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. and Alice Walker: Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.

This is where you come in-- I'd really appreciate some suggestions for the next couple of weeks. Will you post a sentence that you love (or at least one that have a crush on?)

Many thanks.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

SOLSC Day 12

As an introvert, I do not trust small talk. It is not something I engage in willingly, not something that comes naturally, not something that I value. And yet, as a person in the world, I am often confronted with the need for small talk, no matter how studiously I try to avoid it. Somewhere along the line, I decided to accept myself as I am, and that meant that I was not a small talker, and that was ok by me. Unfortunately, reality can be a nag, and I still found myself feeling awkwardly silent from time to time. Oh, I tried to busy myself with a magazine or book at the break in a meeting, or I diligently re-read the handouts while others chatted. I was not comfortable, though, and that made me wonder if perhaps my strategy was not the right one.

Things came to a bit of a watershed when we got a dog. Living in a rather urban area, part of dog owning is visiting dog parks. At first I was fascinated by this sub-culture of dog park going dog owners of which I had been until now, unaware. There were many unwritten rules and social cues for both dogs and owners. I liked to think of myself then as an objective observer, a kind of anthropologist. I noticed that the dogs were much more able to negotiate the complex hierarchy of the pack than were the owners. Some humans pretended to be unaware that there was any kind of pecking order at all- they were the equivalent of the gamma girls, like in War Games, they knew the only way to win is not to play at all. The others, though, the others were in a pitched battle for dominance at the dog park. Really, at first it was a hoot to watch them jockey for position: greeting new dogs, “And who is this?”, dispensing advice, and gossiping about the other regulars behind their backs. But then one day, WE were regulars, and that gamma girl act wasn’t cutting it anymore. We were going to have choose sides in the feuds, and step up to our rung on the dog park social ladder.

This is where the small talk comes in. In the dog park world, it takes a long time before you have to reveal your personality-- before that you’re just “Isabel’s mom,” and people greet your dog, not you. It took a while, but the day finally came when one of the other regulars introduced herself, by name, and just like that, no longer was it acceptable to drift into the park with our puppy and watch the fireworks; now we were recognizable, and we had to decide who to talk to, where to stand, how to greet other people. I began to dread going to the park. My days as an anonymous researcher planning my treatise on these people were over; now, I was expected to join them.

I expressed my loathing to go to the dog park one afternoon to the 13-year-old girl I mentored after school. She wanted a ride home, but a quick look at my watch showed that I was overdue at the dog park. I told her so morosely. “What’s wrong with the dog park?” she asked. “It sounds fun.”

“I hate it!” I exclaimed, with uncharacteristic zeal.

“Why?” she asked, somewhat taken aback by this show of emotion, and somewhat intrigued by the weakness she sensed.

“Because you have to make conversation with strangers! I don’t like that.”

Here was a child who came to me weekly and shared her successes, but more often, her failures. I was always patient and full of advice for her. I knew that if only she listened to the wisdom I generously dispensed, she would surely be on the path to a better academic career. She looked at me with what I recognized as the look I so often gave her.

“You can do that!” she encouraged me. “It’s easy.” She knew the shoe was on the other foot, but I was still putting on my socks.

“I can, but I don’t WANT to.”

“Start like this,” she said patiently. “So, what do you do for a living?”

I laughed. “That’s pretty good advice.”

“Then say, ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ They’ll say country, or hip-hop, or rap. You say, ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’”

I laughed again. It was funny to hear those words coming from her. It was also a sound strategy, but I knew I’d never do it. “Thanks, Raynia,” I told her. “Lets get going.”

That afternoon, I spent a silent 45 minutes at the dog park.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

SOLSC Day 11

I was lucky enough to have a guest poet in my room today. Our school district has a partnership with our county humanities project, and they sponsored his visit. It was awesome! He had some fresh poetry activities that the students found really engaging. In a couple of my classes, we had a Lune (11 word poem) competition, which he mc-ed. Other classes composed rant poems based on lists of fifty things that drive them crazy, and some classes did simile poems modeled on Renegades by Tim Seibles. He introduced the basic elements of poetry slam performance, too.

Yesterday was the deadline for the school newsletter, and I was trying to write a quick blurb about this poet's upcoming visit, but I couldn't put my hands on the materials that came from the humanities office, so I figured I'd give him a quick google. The first item was a link to a site with three of his poems, each containing some pretty sexually explicit details. A couple of links down was a youtube video-- turns out my guy has been on HBO Def Poetry Jam. I watched the clip, and it was funny, but pretty raunchy. It was also apparent that this poet was an openly gay man.

Our community is pretty liberal, and I like to think that I am, too, but I confess that I thought carefully about this turn of events. What if my students or their parents performed the same easy search that I had? Would they be offended? And what if they were? Would it matter? Should publishing or performing a certain kind of material preclude someone from being a visiting artist in schools?

Of course, as it turned out, in addition to being awesome, his presentation was strictly age-appropriate. Over the course of the day, we had the gifted teacher, the counselor, the special ed teacher on my team, and the humanities coordinator in the room with us, and they all agreed that he was wonderful. I honestly don't anticipate any complaints, but I wouldn't have any trouble defending his presence in my classroom, should anyone raise a concern.

I'm still wrestling with the question of moral standards for those who teach. It seems like there are some unwritten rules and expectations out there; I felt them yesterday. Maybe it's time for them to be out in the open.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

SOLSC Day 10

I've taught sixth grade English my entire career, and in our district that's the first year of middle school. We know that the transition from elementary school can be rocky for students and parents alike, and I think we try hard to make it as smooth as possible. The most common bump in the road is when a student has difficulty negotiating the organizational demands of seven subjects with seven different teachers. It's only to be expected.

A parent-teacher conference that includes the student is usually one of the interventions we use, and so, I've been in a lot those over the last 15 years. They can be emotional. Some parents are very defensive; they feel like they are in trouble. Others have been openly hostile toward us; some are furious at their children, and make a show of scolding and yelling; most are disappointed, but some are surprised, or frustrated, or all the way at their rope's end. Sometimes there are tears, usually from the student, but every now and then, the parents cry, too.

We had a marathon parent conference today: five teachers, one dad, 90 minutes. His son was present for the second half. This one started out with Dad pretty sure that the D's on the progress report were our fault or our error, but then it followed a narrative arc where his son's inattentativeness, irresponsiblity, and miscommunication were revealed. It ended with the student setting three goals for himself and the promise of a weekly phone report from school to Dad. We were all on the same side, working together to support the student and help him to be more successful. Nobody cried, and on the way out, the father turned to his son and, placing his huge hands on either side of the boy's head, pulled him close. They were forehead to forehead and eye to eye.

"You're still a good boy," he told him. It was impossible to disagree.

Monday, March 9, 2009


A year ago last January, I did an internship at Nancie Atwell's school, The Center for Teaching and Learning, in Edgecomb, Maine. Despite a big nor'easter snow storm that canceled school on the first day, it was one of the top professional development experiences of my career (the other one was the Northern Virginia Writing Project summer institute). I've always been drawn to the workshop approach to teaching reading and writing, and I've always used some form of it in my 6th grade English class, so having the opportunity to spend a week at Atwell's school was inspirational.

I hoped to come away with a much more practical understanding of how to implement an Atwell-style workshop in my class, and I was not disappointed, but an unexpected benefit of the week was in how they structured the internship for us. A couple of months before going, we received a reading packet that gave us an overview of the philosophy and program of the school. Once on site at CTL, our role was to observe and take notes on Nancie and Glenn Powers, the grade 5-6 teacher, at work with their students. At the end of each day, we spent 45 minutes with them going over what we saw and heard and asking any questions we had.

By the second day, I realized what a powerful professional development model this was. Why don't more school systems do this? A master teacher provides a general explanation of and the research behind a particular teaching technique, unit, or activity; other teachers actually come into the classroom to see it implemented, making observations and taking notes, and then time is set aside at the end to debrief. Later on, there would be follow-up support for teachers as they implemented the ideas and strategies in their own classrooms.

Or, I guess we could just go with another powerpoint presentation.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει

Yeah, it's Greek to me, too, but I know it's from Heraclitus, and I think it expresses his well-known maxim that the only constant is change.

I'm not a person who likes change, but I can't say I've ever met anyone who does. I know some people who cope with change better than others, but I've certainly had a lot of late-night, heart-to-heart conversations with friends who were facing uncomfortable changes in their lives and needed to talk. I wonder if it's not so much the change we dislike, as the lack of control over what's going to change and when. There are times when people embrace change, for example, in the form of self-improvement, especially when it's self-initiated. And there's that slow and steady kind of change that takes time, sometimes years, to perceive. That's usually not as traumatic when it's happening, but it can be hard when you finally see what's happened.

All of this is on my mind today, because a friend of mine posted a picture of me, taken in high school, on facebook. I remember when it was taken, but I haven't seen it in 30 years. It was a bit of a shock to be confronted with my younger self that way. I realized that, in some ways, I still imagine myself as that girl; despite the fact that so much has changed since then, something elemental has also remained constant.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


I'm facing a challenge. It's not the Slice-of-Life thing-- that seems to be going all right, so far-- it's the turnips.

I have a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription, and I LOVE it. I've been receiving weekly deliveries from Farmer Brett for over three years now. His farm, Even'star Farm on Far Cry Road (I am not making that up), is about 70 miles from here, well within the hundred mile locavore limit. For the record, I am not a true locavore, but I am definitely a wannabe. I'm finding my way to buying and eating more food produced in small quanities near my home. The movement makes sense to me, or at least it did until the turnips started.

With a CSA, you take what you get, which is part of the fun for me. It makes me cook out of my comfort zone, and as corny as it sounds, getting what's in season makes me feel more connected to the earth-- the temperature, the weather, the length of day-- when I open my veggie box each week, all these have a little more significance for this city girl. In our climate, winter means a lot of greens, sweet potatoes and turnips.

I like turnips. I'm a grown-up, and that bitter taste only bothers me a little. When I was a child, yellow turnips were a tradition at my family's Thanksgiving table, but we cousins used to dare each other to eat them, or play games where the loser got a gigantic serving of rutabegas. As we got older and the responsibility for the Thanksgiving meal was handed down to our generation, the turnips stayed, and one year I realized that I like 'em, I really like 'em (preferably with lots of butter and salt and some gravy if it's available).

But for some reason, this winter I have too many turnips. Fortunately (?), they are very hardy and they keep well in the refrigerator, but I am not exaggerating when I tell you I have 20 pounds of turnips on ice right now, and I need help!

I cook at home almost every single night, and they go into every soup or stew I make; I have pickled them (2 ways), pureed them, stir-fried them, and added them to mashed AND home-fried potatoes. We eat them raw in salads; I've made pot pies and pancakes, too, but I'm still awash with turnips. What else can I do?

Friday, March 6, 2009


I like my days to have 24 hours-- is that so wrong? For a long time, I believed that most people felt that way, too, and that daylight savings time was just a necessary evil imposed on us by bureaucrats hoping to squeeze a few extra pennies out of the nation's energy account. Once I said so to a group of teachers.

"Who, in their right mind, wants a shorter weekend with the result of having to get up an hour earlier on Monday? The mornings are just getting light by the time my alarm rings at 5:30, and now I'll be forced to go back to rising in total darkness," I grumbled, looking around for the nods of agreement I was sure were coming.

Oh, my gosh, the uproar! You'd have thought I was in favor of calling off spring itself. "What! You don't like daylight savings time? But it stays light so much longer in the afternoon."

"Oh, it does not," I argued. "That's all in your head! Listen, if you want some extra daylight, get up an hour earlier and do a little work in the dark, but leave me out of it." Of course I couldn't win. They called me "wacky" and changed the subject.

I know it's only an hour. I know I'll forget all about my lost hour in a few weeks when the sun rises earlier and my sleep patterns adjust. But my hour will be out there waiting, just waiting, for some far-off weekend in November when DST will go down in a glorious 25 hour day.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Before I became a teacher, I was a chef. Well, to be exact, I worked as a cook, although one of my job titles actually was "Executive Chef". I had a fledgling catering business, too.

The thing I liked best about cooking was the immediate gratification: you cook something, and there it is. You can see it, taste it, smell it. It sizzles or simmers or snaps or murmurs. It has texture, temperature, and mouth-feel. There were other pluses, too. My biceps were cut from all that lifting, whisking, scooping, and chopping, and there was never any work to take home at the end of the day. After seven years in the kitchen, though, I reached a point in that career where I realized that I either needed a plan, or I needed a change.

Around that time, a guy I’d cooked with at the beach moved to D.C., and he and I decided to open up our own place. We were working with a realtor to find a commercial space, and we had already purchased a 500 pound, six-burner gas range for a hundred bucks and put in my shed. One evening, after an all-day SBA seminar on writing business plans, he dropped me off at home. "I'll call you tomorrow," I said.

"Sounds good," he answered.

I didn't speak to him again for six months— there were no hard feelings, though— we had both just realized that we were not heading in the right direction. By the next time I talked to him, I'd already finished the first semester of a graduate program, on my way to an M.Ed. and teacher certification.

I once read a description of the difference between formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment is when the cook tastes the soup in the kitchen, and summative assessment is when the guests eat the soup in the dining room. That’s a clever comparison, but it’s too easy. The work I do today is nowhere near as tangible as cooking. No matter how much I assess and document and despite all the high-stakes testing, it is impossible to know what the true product of my labor is. Teaching is an act of faith, but I work hard, because I know that whatever the end result of my effort, it will last a lot longer than even the finest meal.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


See? This is what happens:

Half my life ago, I was sitting across a small table from a psychic. We were as close as two diners in a Paris brasserie, and there was even a candle between us. "This means my spirit guide, Bartholomew, is with us," she had said as she lit it. I nodded, knowingly. She was remarkably accurate in her reading; I even have the cassette tape to prove it. She was the type of medium who mixed the spirits' guidance with her own catchy catch-phrases: "If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail-- don't ya think?" or "The way I see it, we have two choices-- stinkin' thinkin' or an attitude of gratitude, don't ya think?"

About 20 minutes into the half-hour, she says to me, "You have an addictive personality; can you see that about yourself?"

"Oh, yeah," I shrugged, pushing the corners of my mouth down, "I see that." At 23, I thought I knew everything, especially about me. At that moment, the tone of my voice, my posture, and my facial expression was dismissive, communicating that this was no problem. Who can't handle a little addiction?

Well, flash forward... it's been a bit of a struggle over the past couple of decades. There's no such thing as a "touch" of addiction, not in my experience, anyhow. Along with prosaic compulsions, my obsessions take the most unexpected forms, too. When I started this SOLSC, I was all about the fluency: pure writing for writing's sake. I posted my first entry without fan fare; I didn't even mention it to my family or friends. This will be a good daily regimen for me, I thought. Day 2? I logged in to post my second entry, and was shocked (shocked! I tell you) to find comments. I read them with wonder. Did someone else REALLY take time to read and reply to my writing? How cool.

But now? Oh, wow. I must have checked five times after I posted yesterday. What do you mean my post is waiting to be moderated? How long could THAT possibly take? Get it up there! I find that I'm also disturbed by the diminishing comments. On Day 1, there were four, Day 2, three, yesterday, when I started writing this, just one. Ironically, if the trend continues, this post may not have a single comment.

And so it seems to be with my "addictive personality". I often lose touch with what's valuable in any given experience by over-valuing it.

Any comment?

SOLSC: Day 3

I'm reading the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers. Before you judge me, for good or for ill, understand that I started it because so many of my sixth grade students (mostly girls, but one or two boys, who are comfortable enough with their masculinity, such as it is at twelve) were in love with all 2,444 pages of it. My experience started disasterously; I listened to a recording of the first one while driving 16 hours from Virginia to Buffalo and back, through snowstorms both ways. It's hard to say which was worse, the weather, the PA Turnpike, or the excruciating pace of the audiobook.

After a couple of weeks, I had recovered sufficiently to begin New Moon, this time the old-fashioned way, just a girl and her paperback. My students were excited everytime they saw the book in my hands: eagerly asking me what part I was on, happy to proclaim that this was their least favorite of the series, shocked when I told them that I much preferred Jacob to Edward. These conversations kept me reading, and it was interesting how our roles were reversed. They were the experts on this text, encouraging a reluctant reader and defending the book from my (gentle) criticism. Today, I am exactly half-way through Eclipse, but I'm not reading nearly as quickly as the kids think I should be.

These events have made my class more of the reading-writing community that I want it to be. Allowing myself to switch places with the students has convinced them, in a way that my words alone cannot, that we really are fellow learners. I just happen to have age and experience on my side-- most of the time.

Monday, March 2, 2009


I live in a condo complex. There are 100+ units that are a mixture of town house-style and garden apartments. It's a nice community, designed for maximum privacy in a relatively densely populated space. Residents come and go; there are owners and renters, group houses and families, and in general we co-exist without too much conflict. Like many such complexes, we share common services--pool, landscaping, and garbage removal.

They pick up our garbage on week days, but for the in-between times, we have two trash enclosures on either end of the community. We're supposed to put regular refuse there, bagged up and placed in the big rolling containers within. There's a number to call for over-sized items, and an extra charge associated with those pick-ups. Even so, it's amazing what makes its way into that trash area every week. Mattresses and box springs are common, but so are gas grills, TV sets, computers, couches, tables and chairs. I've seen clothes on hangers hooked over the top edge of the fence. Right now, there are a half-dozen perfectly good plastic bins with tops and a five-drawer dresser.

We have Salvation Army and Goodwill drop-off locations less than two miles from here, and although the sheer amount of cast-off items at those places (my stuff included, that's why I'm there) always gives me a sick little feeling in the pit of my stomach, at least it's not going into a landfill where WALL*E will have to compact it 700 years from now. There have been occasions when I've loaded some things from the trash here into my car and taken them myself to Goodwill, but usually I don't. It seems like enabling, I guess, and even though the end result is better, I don't want to do it all the time.

I wonder if facing tougher economic times will curb our everything-is-disposable mentality, and encourage us to find ways to re-use. So far, I haven't seen it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Slice of Life Story Challenge-- Day 1

We're preparing for a big snow storm here. The timing and conditions seem perfect for a day or two off from school-- the snow is supposed to start this afternoon and accumulate 4-8 inches (or more!) throughout the night, the temperature is predicted to stay below freezing all day tomorrow-- not all that common in Virginia. The other teachers I've talked to today are making a point of not getting their hopes up, for fear of not only having to rise before dawn tomorrow, but of doing so with the extra burden of disappointment.

I won't mind going to school tomorrow, but I wouldn't mind an extra day off, either. When I was a little girl, my mother made sally lunn and spiced tea for us when it snowed. Sally lunn is a yeast bread, enriched with eggs and butter, and the tea was mixed with orange juice, sugar, and cinnamon. I have my sally lunn rising in the kitchen right now.