Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Help Wanted

A big chunk of of my day yesterday was spent in a conference room as part of a committee interviewing for a teaching vacancy on my team. There were several candidates, and I would have been happy to work with any of them, but obviously the whole idea was to pick the best one. With that in mind, we asked a series of questions about planning, assessment, differentiation, philosophy, discipline, technology, teaming, inter-disciplinary units, and what the students should take with them at the end of the course. After a while, it all ran together, and if you asked me to described the people we interviewed without referring to my notes, I might say:

energetic undisciplined creative inexperienced polished rambling well-versed uninspiring knowledgeable clueless thoughtful unprepared student-centered short intense-eye-contact tall young firm-handshake thirsty

All four of us on the committee were women, as were four of the six applicants for the job. Three of the people we spoke to were applying for their very first teaching job, two straight out of school, and one as a "career-switcher." The others had between 3-11 years of experience.

The interviews were informative, but the conversations we had in between were way more interesting. So often it seems that a person will have an advantage in teaching because he is male. This was true with at least one member of our interview team: "If we can get a qualified man, we should," she said. There was discussion about our professional responsibility to encourage and support new teachers, and the time it takes to do that. We talked about the programs that expedite certification for career-switchers and whether or not they properly prepare their participants for the classroom, and what made a new colleague a "project" versus somebody who might fit right in.

In the end, I think we made a sound choice, but only time will tell. I'm in no hurry to apply for a job, though, of that I am very certain.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me

I spent my eighteenth birthday at Heathrow Airport. I was working as a counselor at a summer school outside of London, and it was my job that day to collect the students flying in from some forty different countries and direct them to the school van circling outside. We had names and flight numbers, of course, and there I was, that person holding that sign when you exit customs.

In between flights, I was on my own at the airport, which wasn't an unfamiliar place at all for an airline brat like me. I browsed the bookshops and kiosks, and made myself comfortable in hard orange plastic chairs nibbling chocolate and reading magazines. The weirdest thing about the day was that no one but me knew it was my birthday. I wasn't sure what to do with the information: I hadn't known anyone I was working with for longer than a couple of days, and it didn't seem like it was relevant, so as I wandered the airport shepherding nervous kids, every now and then I'd startle myself with the reminder that this day was my birthday-- I was 18. It was like wiggling a loose tooth-- I would forget all about it when I was occupied with something else, but once I remembered it, I couldn't leave it be. Alone, doing my job in the middle of thousands of strangers from all over the world, I wondered if this was what it was like to be an adult.

That night after all the new students were checked in with lights out, I sat in one of the other counselor's room playing cards and drinking warm ale that someone had fetched from the pub down the road and feeling pretty grown up having made it through my first solo bithday. There came a merry knock at the Tudor diamond glass window we had pushed open to the cool night air, and there was my mom and dad and brother and sister! They had re-routed their flight home from vacation in Portugal to stop overnight in London and surprise me. We spent a happy ninety minutes celebrating with my new colleagues-- "Why didn't you tell us it was your birthday?" they scolded me-- and then at midnight, my family left to get a few hours of sleep at the hotel before their flight, and I went off to bed, too, still feeling pretty grown up, but also really glad that I hadn't been alone on my birthday.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Back from a week away, the dog and I took a walk around the neighborhood to see what's new. I noticed right away that the Golden Rain trees are a bit past their bloom and dropping their tiny flowers in bright yellow puddles beneath their boughs. This is another tree that reminds me of my grandmother-- they grew tall and shady in her backyard, and when she died, my aunt pulled a seedling from a crack in the patio and planted it in her own garden. Years later, when they were reviled as "trash trees" by the person I loved, my eyes fell, and I felt my face go stony with disloyalty when I did not speak up to defend them.

One of my neighbors has a sweet little gardenia flowering by her door. I stopped earlier today to smell one of the fragrant blossoms and was sad to see that it was gone when I went by again this afternoon. That's the thing about common landscaping: some people act as if it's theirs alone. Another of our neighbors regularly cuts luxurious bouquets of day lilies from their beds. That doesn't seem right to me.

The strangest thing I noticed today, though, was that scattered all over the complex in odd beds here and there are some huge squash vines. They are flowering but no fruit has set, so it's hard to say exactly what they are. My theory as to how they got here involves free mulch from the county that probably never got hot enough to kill any stray seeds, but I also favor the notion of some kind of modern-day Johnny Squashseed hijacking our well-manicured condo gardens to cultivate some seasonal local produce. Such an act of renegade sowing might provide a nice counterbalance to those who reap without regard for the rest of us.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

On the Road (Again)

Saturdays are never a good day to travel, especially if you're trying to use anything close to the I-95 corridor in the mid-Atlantic states, and, if your route involves a tunnel? Forget about it. Last Saturday it took us 5 1/2 hours to make a trip to the beach that used to take a little under 4 when we lived there. Today was even worse.

My brother, who was about a half an hour ahead of us sitting in stop and go traffic, told me that my nearly 17-year-old nephew asked him when we were going to get hover cars. "Haven't they been promising them your whole life?" he asked, and my brother had to admit it was true-- starting with the Jetsons on forward, flying cars have definitely been one of the glaring unkept pledges of those white-coated technocrats with their horn-rimmed glasses who starred in all the science movies we saw in school. Beyond that wild dream though, my brother also observed that this was evidence that the infrastructure we have now can't really support the population who uses it regularly.

Back in our aging station wagon, the threat of overheating encouraged us to try various alternate routes. On those less-traveled roads, my eye landed on the likes of Two Frogs on a Bike Antiques, plenty of Queen Anne's Lace and escaped orange day lilies decorating the side of the road, three or four of those long and low old-fashioned motels whose single doors lead to tidy little cubes of rooms, so organized and space-efficient (how are they still open so far from the interstate?), and a hundred mimosa trees in full bloom-- their flowers always remind me of my grandmother's pink slippers.

By far, our two biggest mistakes today were the times we decided to get back on the interstate in the hopes that it was clearer, and we made those choices because we were so focused on our destination-- home-- but the journey was spoiled, and we didn't get there any quicker.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Seaside 7: Sunset, Sunrise

On the east coast, the sun does not set over the ocean. There are lovely sunrises for those who get up early enough, but for a sunset over water, you have to be on a mighty big lake or bay. Tonight, as the sunset washed the sky behind a bunch of houses and trees to our west a faded pink, we bid the first farewell of our vacation. My mom has a 6 AM flight in the morning, and so she left to stay with some friends who live closer to the airport. After yet another perfect day at the beach, some late afternoon Wii Karaoke, and a great dinner of crab cakes, homemade slaw, and salads (it pays to have high-end leftovers), there were tears-- as there always are when our family parts-- and the gray light of the dusky evening seemed to reinforce the undeniable fact that all that was left of our vacation was the packing up and getting out of the rental place by 10 AM.

A week ago I mourned the passing of another school year, despite the happy prospect of summer vacation, and tonight I'm sorry to see this time with my family end, although I look forward to the pleasures of summer at home. How lucky I am to have so much of value in my life that I can't even choose what I would love best.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Seaside 6: Death Does Not Take a Holiday

I remember the day that Elvis died. Our neighbor, Lisa Marie, who had been named for his daughter, cut through the hedge that separated our yards and appeared at the back door all dressed in black. Even aside from that spectacle, at 15, I was aware enough to get it that something big had happened, but honestly? The guy was my dad's age, and that seemed old enough to die at the time.

Ten years later, when my father did indeed die, here at the beach, after a long illness, 52 years seemed like an awfully short life, and any doubt I may have ever had about that steadily erodes with every passing year that brings me closer to that age.

This week while we've been on vacation, we've received word of the deaths of three celebrities. These days, I'm not a person who pays a lot of attention to celebrity news, but the passing of Ed McMahon and the seriousness of Farrah Fawcett's illness made their way into our meal time conversations. The shock of Michael Jackson's death today at 50 is in another category altogether. The mostly 40-something adults in our group grew up with little Michael and the Jackson Five, Thriller, and moonwalking, and although we weren't really fans, he was an icon of our generation.

In later years, his unhappiness and the strange choices he made seemed to eclipse his accomplishments; in fact, his name was like a universal punchline to my students-- it never failed to elicit a snicker or a giggle-- but I guess it all contributed to the "legend." Even so, I have to wonder if my teenaged nephews will recall his passing at all.

I, on the other hand, would like to revise my own reaction to the death of the King as well as go on the record about the death of his son-in-law, the King of Pop: those guys were way too young to go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Seaside 5: Daily Devotion

Or... If You Lived Here, You'd be Home

What do you do every single day? My list is not extensive, but it was on my mind as I closed the door to my room in our vacation rental house so that I could write a blog entry. I brush my teeth and shower every day, too, and drink coffee in the morning, but that's about it.

When you're on vacation, it seems natural to think about what your life might be like if you lived in this place instead of just visiting for a week. You walk the beach or sit on the deck enjoying the view and think how wonderful it would be to do this every day. On the flip side, I'm notorious for packing too much whenever I travel, especially if it's a road trip. I just know I can fit all the comforts of home in the back of my station wagon, because you never know, I might need that.

This trip is a little different, because it involves trying to feel at home in a place that actually was my home once. (Minus the ocean view-- when I lived here before, I had to walk two blocks to get to the beach.) After twenty years, the waves and the wind seemed to have scrubbed the town clean for me-- no ghost crabs of the past have scuttled across my path. This week has helped me realize that whether I'm home or on vacation here or somewhere else, it's not the place that makes your life what it is, but rather the other way around.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Seaside 4: Sunscreen Gets in Your Eyes

When we lived down here before, we used to go chicken-neck crabbing all the time. A roll of twine, some stinky chicken, a bucket, and a net would provide an afternoon of entertainment and a good dinner, too. This area has been really built-up in the last twenty years, and even though we're staying way out of town, down the beach and well south of the tourist area, in only 15 minutes you can drive to a brand new Walmart where until recently there was only farm and field. That's where I went today to get the stuff I needed to go crabbing.

The place I live now is too urban for Walmart-- there's no space to build those gigantic stores, so when I walked into the Supercenter today it was like entering a kind of 21st century consumerista village. Tucked into one small corner was a full-sized grocery store; then there was a Subway, a nail salon, a bank, not to mention a huge store with anything else in the world. There was no denying that the gatherer in me was seduced by the bright white availability of so much stuff at such a reasonable price, and gleefully I filled my cart with a bubble wand, three pounds of bacon, and five dollar bath towels, in addition to the items on my list.

As I continued on through the place, though, I started feeling guilty about my feedlot pork and cheap imported goods, and I imagined myself putting everything back and then commandeering the PA system and speaking out against this consuming consumerism, but then I pictured the townsfolk heading over to the garden department and coming after me with pitchforks, and everything really was a good deal, so, shamefaced and silent, I pushed my cart of excess to the car.

And we didn't catch a single crab.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Seaside 3: I Love an Ocean

Today my nephew and I were sitting in the surf. He's almost four and has a healthy respect for the sea; in fact, he's terrified of it, so we were way up at the waterline where the waves could just reach us. I don't usually sit at all at the beach, and I'm not one to sunbathe or nap, either. I like to swim, or beach comb, or play frisbee or catch, or build things in the sand, but sitting still, not so much. Still, there we were, the outgoing tide carving little gullies beneath our heels and butts, and looking around, I noticed that we were surrounded by hundreds of tiny little clams about the size of a baby's fingernail. They were translucent shades of white, orange or blue with the finest of stripes and subtle variations in color. When the water left them temporarily high and dry, they would each extend a teeny, nearly transparent, fleshy foot to flip themselves vertical and then disappear beneath the sand in a blink. Enchanted, I showed my nephew, and we watched them together for a while. I picked a couple up and put them in some sand in his hand, and they buried themselves there. "Isn't that cool?" I asked him.

He nodded. "I love an ocean," he sighed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Seaside 2: What We Take With Us

I had a beach cruiser when I lived at the beach. What a ride! It was a cool black and pink one-speed Schwinn with high, padded handle bars, a wide, soft seat, nobby tires for some traction in the sand, and flat pedals so you could ride barefoot down the boardwalk. Gosh, I loved that bike.

I thought of my old bike today as I pedaled my new bike down a flat seaside road toward the one little market for miles. (The last thing I did before leaving home yesterday was to fasten it to the back of the station wagon-- no way I was going to the beach without my bike.) I'm still the type that prefers to be riding "somewhere," preferably for a purpose, and my goal this morning was to bring the Sunday papers back to my family. A stiff northwesterly breeze made me glad for the 21 gears, but I was sorry that shoes weren't just an option; it's impossible to ride barefoot on the bike I have now.

When we moved north, I brought my beach cruiser with me, but it was totally unsuited for the roads in my new town; they were way too hilly. I had been warned that I wouldn't get a lot of use out of it in the place that I was moving, but I couldn't let it go. Eventually, I bought another bike, and the cruiser decayed away in a leaky outdoor shed. The chain rusted; the tires went flat; the cushy handlebars cracked, and squirrels chewed through the seat cover and made off with the padding for their nests. I'm embarrassed to admit that eventually it ended up in the trash on another moving day, but I was glad when someone took it before the garbage truck came.

It turned out to be another tragic lesson on the difference between what we need and what we want-- my beach cruiser totally deserved better.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Twenty years ago I moved from a sleepy beach town in the south of my state to the busy metropolitan area where I now reside. Not by deliberate choice, so much-- it was all about relationships: who I knew, who I lived with, who I loved. That's how I got to the beach, too. In fact, that's how and why I have ever lived anywhere.

Yesterday I finished packing and cleaning my classroom; I met with my principal, said good-bye to my colleagues, and sat in on an interview for a new teacher on my team. At 5 PM I closed the door on my locked desk, papered bookshelves, and clearly-labeled boxes. This morning we packed the car in a thunderstorm and headed south, bound for that same beach town and a week-long vacation in a big house right on the ocean with my whole family.

This evening our dog chased a ball through the surf, leaving crescents of ragged claw-shaped prints across a field of tiny air bubbles in the flat, wet sand. Tonight the stars fill the sky in a way that is impossible in the light-washed nights of the city where I live. What will tomorrow be like?

Friday, June 19, 2009


Last week, before school ended, I chose this poem as the common text for my classes:

by Julie Cadwallader-Staub

The air vibrated
with the sound of cicadas
on those hot Missouri nights after sundown
when the grown-ups gathered on the wide back lawn,
sank into their slung-back canvas chairs
tall glasses of iced tea beading in the heat

and we sisters chased fireflies
reaching for them in the dark
admiring their compact black bodies
their orange stripes and seeking antennas
as they crawled to our fingertips
and clicked open into the night air.

In all the days and years that have followed,
I don't know that I've ever experienced
that same utter certainty of the goodness of life
that was as palpable
as the sound of the cicadas on those nights:

my sisters running around with me in the dark,
the murmur of the grown-ups' voices,
the way reverence mixes with amazement
to see such a small body
emit so much light.

The summer imagery really resonated with me, and I thought it might for my students, too. On a whim, I decided that the homework assignment for that evening was to Catch fireflies, but don't hurt them. I wanted them to have that experience and compare it to the poem and write about it themselves. The kids were pretty enthused about the homework that day, but that night, there were huge thunderstorms. They were breaking even before I left school, so I knew that many students wouldn't be able to complete their assignment. I scrambled a little to adjust my lesson plan, and as luck would have it, I found this poem:

Virginia Evening
by Michael Pettit

Just past dusk I passed Christiansburg,
cluster of lights sharpening
as the violet backdrop of the Blue Ridge
darkened. Not stars
but blue-black mountains rose
before me, rose like sleep
after hours of driving, hundreds of miles
blurred behind me. My eyelids
were so heavy but I could see
far ahead a summer thunderstorm flashing,
lightning sparking from cloud
to mountaintop. I drove toward it,
into the pass at Ironto, the dark
now deeper in the long steep grades,
heavy in the shadow of mountains weighted
with evergreens, with spruce, pine,
and cedar. How I wished to sleep
in that sweet air, which filled--
suddenly over a rise--with the small
lights of countless fireflies. Everywhere
they drifted, sweeping from the trees
down to the highway my headlights lit.
Fireflies blinked in the distance
and before my eyes, just before
the windshield struck them and they died.
Cold phosphorescent green, on the glass
their bodies clung like buds bursting
the clean line of a branch in spring.
How long it lasted, how many struck
and bloomed as I drove on, hypnotic
stare fixed on the road ahead, I can't say.
Beyond them, beyond their swarming
bright deaths came the rain, a shower
which fell like some dark blessing.
Imagine when I flicked the windshield wipers on
what an eerie glowing beauty faced me.
In that smeared, streaked light
diminished sweep by sweep you could have seen
my face. It was weary, shocked, awakened,
alive with wonder far after the blades and rain
swept clean the light of those lives
passed, like stars rolling over
the earth, now into other lives.

After reading the poem, I gave them the choice to describe either the storm or the fireflies in their choice of poetry or prose, and the results were lovely. I thought it was one of the more successful writing exercises of the year. In the hallway between classes, though, I overheard two students talking. "What are we doing in English today?" one guy asked another.

"Dude! We're reading a poem about squished fireflies!"

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Today in the midst of wrapping up all those loose ends before our summer vacation starts for real, we got an e-mail with the following subject line:

Please Hand in Keys Before You Leave for vacation - no exceptions

The message goes on to explain that if we'd like access to our classrooms over the summer, we can call ahead to be sure that someone will let us in.

Why, if we're willing to spend our personal time on professional tasks, can't teachers have access to their work spaces on the weekends and over the summer? Where's the regard for us as professionals in any such policy?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Happy Summer Vacation

"Why is it important to read over the summer?" I asked my students yesterday, as I was handing out recommended reading lists and information about the public library's teen reading program.

My favorite answer was from Anthony. "So we don't go stupid."

Yeah, that's pretty much it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

All in Due Time

Are you glad that school's almost over?

I dread that question, because the answer is, quite honestly, no. Am I looking forward to a break? Sure. This is an especially long summer, too, because Labor day was early last year, and it's late this year. But I hate the transition and work that comes with the end of the year. I hate saying good-bye to my students and the colleagues that are moving on, hate taking all the things off my walls, hate packing up my room, hate the sudden change of pace from GO GO GO to the unstructured days of summer vacation.

I don't hate getting to sleep past 5:30, though, and I won't miss being tired anytime I stay up after 10. And I like being able to travel and do errands in the middle of the day in the middle of the week when there are fewer people on the road. I like going to the movies on Wednesday when there is free popcorn and matinee pricing. That's fun, especially if the weather is too hot or too rainy to do much else.

I like having the time to read books for pleasure and books about teaching, too, but it's hard for me to make the abstract concrete when I don't have any real students to apply it to. (Is that just me?) I'm really looking forward to more time to write, and I hope to continue with my writing group's novel challenge again this summer. I have a couple of professional development projects that I've been asked to work on, too, so I'll be a little busy thinking about and researching those.

I understand that it's not very sympathetic to whine about a 10 week vacation, but all I'm saying is, that if you asked me today if I'm looking forward to the school year ending tomorrow (for the kids, Friday for us) I'd have to say, "No," but if you ask me next week, when I'm at the beach with my whole family, if I'm enjoying my summer, you'll get a different answer.

Monday, June 15, 2009

No Binder Left Behind

Today my students took their English binders home. Every class period was super-chaotic: I was handing back some assignments I'd graded at the last minute and some that I'd held on to because they were so good. In the meantime, kids were adding up how many pages and books they'd read this year (a new individual record was set: 40,241 pages-- that's over 1000 pages per week, higher than any student I've ever taught) and organizing for that final binder check. Those who finished early willingly helped their classmates put their notebooks in order. There was a lot of chatter in the room as kids revisited a school year's worth of work. One girl brought me her two-inch binder stuffed with poems, reading logs, ideas and writing pieces, "Look how full this is," she told me. "I can't believe it was totally empty in September-- wait 'til I show my parents!

I was proud of my students and proud of my class, too. We start from nil and build knowledge, understanding and skills day by day and page by page, and at the end of the year, each binder represents a significant achievement. In so many ways, it is hard to let them all go, but I felt a strong sense of satisfaction today when the last student left (late, with a pass, because he just couldn't get it all put together without a little extra time) and I pulled each storage drawer open, one by one, and found them empty of the jumbled stacks of binders and loose papers that they usually contain. All set for next year, I thought.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The One-Eyed Man is King

Last night at the Hendrix show, I was interrupted from my writing instruction reverie by an anomaly in the performance. There's a late-thirties-early-forties guy who's in charge of all the teen musicians. With John Lennon glasses and a haircut somewhere in between Peter Frampton and Robert Plant, his gushy emcee-ing officiously moves the show along. The kids seem to like him, though, and that's a good sign. Anyway, toward the end of the show, they were setting up to play Red House, and this guy jumps on stage with his guitar. He played lead on the whole song, solos and all, and of course he showed the kids up. I found myself kind of annoyed.

You won't be surprised that it made me think about teaching writing. There is a school of thought that holds that a teacher of writing must also be a writer. The theory is that only someone who is committed to the discipline of writing can effectively teach others, since it is personal experience and practice that gives us the insight necessary to help other writers.

In the spirit of this philosophy, I try to work alongside my students, and occasionally, I do bring my writing to read with them. I have learned to be careful with what I share. If my piece seems way beyond what they can do, it can be de-motivating to them. As an adult, sometimes it's hard to write authentic pieces that are also not too far out of the reach of a sixth grader, but I have to do my best.

So it was from this perspective that I examined my irritation at the guy on the stage. I respected his identity as fellow-musician to his students, but I wondered what his objective was in making the choice to play. How did his performance help his students? Where do we draw the line between modeling and self-indulgence? Towards the end of the number, I looked out at the audience from my table on the side of the stage, and I noticed that all the kids who had been dancing and cheering each other on had wandered off. It was clear to me then, that as always, there's one way that any teacher can tell if you're on the right track: the kids are there with you.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Kiss the Sky

One of my nephews plays guitar through the School of Rock. I really like the teaching philosophy of this place: it's as authentic as it gets. Of course, they have the enviable advantage that all the kids who learn there do so by choice, which is the definition of intrinsic motivation. But their approach is to organize real shows in real venues around town, and then as soon as the students are ready to perform at a basic level, they are sorted into one or more "bands," and assigned certain numbers in the show. This model puts these inexperienced musicians into a totally authentic, but rather high-stakes, position. When they practice, they do so to learn, but also to spare themselves and the other kids in their band any embarrassment. The pressure, especially the peer pressure, to perform well is intense, and the results are impressive.

Every time I see one of their shows, like the Hendrix tribute tonight, I realize that as jargony as the word authentic has become, its real power is undiminished. Sometimes, instead of paying attention to the music, I find myself thinking about the applications of such an approach to teaching and learning writing. Oh, I know that the parallels are far from exact: starting with the element of choice, moving on to the popularity of performances, and ending up with how commonplace collaboration is, these are three attractive elements of rock music that not a lot of writing shares. Even so, I believe that it is possible to help students appreciate (and even love!) writing and engage in it willingly, to find real places for them to share and publish their writing, and to create a supportive community of writers who encourage and collaborate with each other. That's where my mind went tonight when it wandered away from All Along the Watch Tower and didn't return until Purple Haze-- to the strategies and lessons I could use to make those things happen. Who knows? The results could be impressive.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Who Needs Sleep?

So, as the days with this particular group of kids trickle to an end, my teacher friend and I decided that it would be helpful to survey our students about writing. We put together a twenty item online survey that was based in part on some of the interview questions that are included in the National Conversation on Writing. The other part queried students on some of the specific genres and writing tools and strategies that we've worked on this year.

To be honest, this was a pilot, so that next year we could use it both at the beginning and the end of the year to see if there is any change in our students' knowledge about, practice of, and attitude toward writing after nine months in our classes. We wanted to work out the bugs as much as gather info, and we had a solid draft yesterday, ready to roll out, when my friend e-mailed to say that during a bout of insomnia, it occurred to her that we should add a question about how students felt their writing had changed over the year.

How right she was! Those were definitely the best answers of the whole thing-- what insight into the minds of these twelve-year-olds. But don't take my word for it... Here are the unedited (but for names) answers to the question How has your writing changed this year? How has it improved?

• Yes I got better at writing I wrote many good action pieces
• my handrighting has gotten alot better and i have learned alot of righting tools
• I think that over the course of the year my writing has improved in many ways including the use of Ms. S's writing tools. Mainly concrete details, paragraphs, and correct punctuation of dialog.
• I definitely have improved. I use many more writing tools than I did at the beginning of the year.
• i have improoved slightly over 5th grade to 6th grade and i think itll get better and better i have improoved cause i know when to put my paragraphs and also my periods.
• i got used to writing and it was fun i will write better and neater.
• I wrote more details and stronger leads.
• I use more writing tools, and I proofread better than I used too.
• my writing has defintily changed for the better and writing every week instead of just every now and then and i have gotten better about using goood details
• I have learned to write more than just fiction.
• My writing has improved this year, because I have learned some of the different types writings, and added them to my work
• I add more detail, and get to the point. Yes, i have improved.
• I think I have learned more writting tools and it has helped me understand more writting skills that will come in handy as I grow up more.
• I am useing better words and hooks. I've inproved but not a whole lot my writing is still as it has been for all my life
• i think i have gotton better at writing in general.
• I think i have improved alot this year more than any year before. I started to make my writting more interesting by putting simelies metaphors alot of details and a hook in the lead.
• ive learned what is good to do in my writing
• No not that much.
• I guess. I used more of the writing tools.
• I have written a lot more poems, free verse and patterned. I think I have gotten better at them.
• This year I feel I have trememdously changed in that I use stronger words, my vocabulary has grown, I use setting, and many other things.
• no i havent improved it still the same to me.
• It has improved.
• I have added more detail to my writhing and used better leads
• well my vocabulary choice has changed and i think i have improved.
• It has only changed a bit. I dont think i've improved
• i write better
• i have changed with my understanding of the writing
• Yes, my writing has changed this year. I hane improved my choice of words and my leads.
• I have been able to make my writing peice become much deeper and there is now much more feeling in my peice. All of my writing tools have also improved such as verbs and sensory detail.
• yes it has now i know much more about writing like this year i learn how to cut to the bone and use simils and metaphors.,
• I've gotten better at details, so it makes my writing better.
• It has changed because now I know how to get a better stragety! It has improved because now I can write faster and without many mistakee
• I don't know the answer to that question.
• Writing has made me think of others more than myself in situations.
• It has changed by becoming more creative. I have definitely improved in writing interesting pieces.
• i think i use a lot more writing tools then i ever did in grades past.
• Now i learned how to write similes, concreat detail, medefore and how to write outlines. It improved because this year i think i tryed as hard as i can and are techer had good learning technecs
• alot thing but i think decribetion
• i changed how my writing sounds like
• My writings changed because i add more details to what i'm writing and i've improved because i'm writing more.
• I've learned more about character development and how to express a character's emotions and thoughts through their actions. I've also learned to do setting a lot better.
• I have improved. I believe that I've included a lot more details and the occasional metaphor or simile.
• it changed because i used alot of verbs i improved because i used alot of sensory details now
• I don't know.
• It definitely expanded, and it improved, because I knew more things.
• I have become way more descriptive in my writing
• writing changed this year because i have written more than i use to. i use to write a paragraph but now i write more than a page.
• I have learned to write better sentences with some more detail.
• yes i can write better
• I think I have improved on all of my writing skills. but there is much room for iumprovment.
• I think i have improved by using the writing tools.
• Oh i've gotten better at expressing my self more in my writing. Putting more feeling into every word.
• Well i guees i use more of things i checked off for question 5
• By having a great english teacher.
• umm i really don't think i improved i still write kind of sloppy but i guess i know how to use writing tools better
• writing has changed because when we had writer's workshop I was alway's looking forward to english class with ms.Shepardson
• I think that my writing has changed mecause i use more detail now.
• I think it had but I am not quite sure how. Youc an ask Mrs. M. she reads my writing
• yes it has verbally
• I write longer stories and Yes my writing has improved this year.
• I've learned figureative language
• I've become more descriptive, and I can write better leads.
• This year my writing has really inproved. Last year I hated writing unless it was a fictional piece, now I like to write many more types of litrature like peotry, memoirs, non fictional stories, and Slice of Life stories. I have improved because I have injoyed writing more and my pieces just seem better.
• It has now I use sensery details.
• I think I use better tag lines and concrete verbs.
• yes! my writing had definently improved! Ive imporved by writing more neatly, writing with imagey and concrete details!
• Yes. WHWN has definately helped my writing and I'm starting to use a lot more capitalization, I get suggestions from people and compliments, I hope it keeps going on every year.
• yes, because in the begging of the year i was a bad writer now i'm better
• I added more detail to my writing and I liked it alot more.
• I have gotten better at spelling
• It changed by editing it, looking over it, and putting a lot of detail to make it more interesting.
• I can really describe my subjects and topics alot better now.
• It has become really fluent and my grammer in my writing has improved. The best pieces of writing I have ever written were produced this year.
• I think my writing has changed because in fifth grade, I wasnt into writing that much but now I like to write sometimes.
• It has gotten more descriptive.
• It changed from a i dont know what to write to a I plan what to write before i write it.
• It has changed by being better than it was before
• I use paragrahgs, details, simles, metaphors and much more.
• My writing has improved a lot that is also how it has changed
• I create more concrete details and try to use strong verbs. This year for some reason i have been more interested in writing and creating stories.
• i think my writting has chnaged this year because i have learned alot of things that i had never learned before.
• i think i have improved by writing with more details and every time i use my writers read words i think thats how i improved
• better grammar
• I am more creative and use better punctuation.
• I have learned a lot from the mini lessons, particularly tyhe make a movie behind your eyelids one.
• I added some detail and proper dialogue grammer. I also wrote a lot more than I ever have before
• Not relly i write more.
• I think Im a better writer this year and I improved alot because I took the mini-lessons we did in class into my writing piece.
• I think I have improved greatly in my writing this year. I have improved a lot in my word choice, I now have a much greater vocabulary and can replace boring words with more exciting words that I can express myself better with. And I can also make interesting comparisons and creative discriptions with bigger words.
• yes becuase my aunt always say knowlede is power
• my writing changed alot now that i think about it. I have probably improved the most by using better lead sentences.
• I think I have improved by working more on keeping my topic, and in dialog.
• My writimg has changed just slightly, but not drasticly. My ideas have change and my format, but nothing else.
• i changed from little story's to long adventures story's
• Its improved because i learned more and added more to my writing.
• yes my spelling has improved and i use many writing tools now. I also write in many diffrent genres instead of just fiction
• I think I've improved by becoming a more descriptive and strondg writer.
• it has better discription
• Not very much but I want to improve over the summer.
• I've put more details into my and I've learned what words sound better and how to organize my writing. Om to the last question I wish that you had put a sorta button/choice.
• I think I have tried to make it more interesting then ever before.
• it has more details and better conclusion. i just said how i improved and changed in a nutshell.
• I have improved in sensory detail and charector develepment.
• I write more stories with feelings and people can see how much work that i put into it
• it changed because because I only knew one word about writing and that is similes, but now I no more words like sensory details,and tone.
• i have used a lot of details and similies to make my writing better.
• I think this year Mrs. M helped me improve a lot.
• i have improved on my introduction and my tag lines.
• Yes i have improved. I learned a lot of things that i didn't really pay attention to when i wrote before.
• well of course my writings improved isnt that the point of writing class so your writing can improve!?
• Yes its changed. Before I didn't put much dialoge,strongs verbs, nor similes but now Iput them everywhere in my writing.
• My writing is alot more detailed and it ha sconcrete imagary
• This year I've used all my senses in my writing not just my sight and I"Ve noticed alot of different things in writting like meaning, i've noticed things like the power of I and movie behind your eyes.
• i guess i learned alot of writing tools. that made my writing diffrent.
• i honestly dont know
• yes, my format and detail improved
• before the year my writing was clumsy and full of couincidences but now everything makes sence.
• yes because i have really worked on my problems and have improved on my strengthes
• I think my vocabulary was enhanced.
• I think I have improved on writing fiction(which I now like to write aobut)
• I have improved greatly on things like concrete details, figurative language, super sentences, and the like.
• Ive gotten better at writing
• i think its gotten better.... I know more about details and STUFFFFF
• I really dont know
• Yes it changed because in the begging of the year I hated writing but I feel I can write anytime i want to now. I improved this year because I can write much better.
• I've changed and I've improved my writing because I've learned a lot more about how to become a better writer and I've praticed a lot, both at school and at home.
• i dont know if I have improved this year i think i have.

Well done, Leah. Get some rest!

Question 19 answers

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Safely Rest

When I was in the girl scouts, we learned the words to Taps:

Day is done
Gone the sun
From the lake
From the hill
From the sky
All is well
Safely rest
God is nigh.

The field trip today was great. The kids had a teriffic time, and despite the threat of poor weather, it turned out fine. We had a lovely morning on the beach and saw countless dolphins from the boat as it idled just off Cape Henlopen. Minor glitches were resolved without hitches and everyone was on their way home by 7 PM.

And so, on the last Thursday of the year, I thought I'd follow up on the kids I've mentioned over the last 3 months. Our student who had been exposed to lead was found eligible for special education and will receive a lot more support next year. He had a great time today, and at one point was buried to his neck in the sand, unable to move, but we assured him that no child would be left behind.

The student who sent the paper airplanes down to the street boy in Bangladesh was also the child whose dad e-mailed me about the trip insisting that his wife be allowed to come. His mother was lovely, and as far as I could tell, both mom and son had a wonderful time today, in fact, the mom asked someone to take our picture together on the boat, and I was happy to oblige. As an aside, no student lost a seat because she came on the trip. Everyone who wanted to go was able to come along.

The girl who forged her mom's signature has been out of school for over a week while her dad receives an experimental treatment at a hospital in NY, but her aunt drove her down so that she could go on the trip with her classmates. Everyone, student and teacher alike, was happy to see her and sorry to know that she may be out for the rest of the year. Before she left this evening, I made sure she got a copy of our literary magazine. The poem she wrote honoring her father's courage and strength is published there.

The boy who didn't need friends at school but only wished that people would be nice to him, didn't go today. He didn't want to. In the last couple of weeks, his teachers have noticed that he's been acting giddy, even manic. When the counselor called home, his mom told her that he's acting that way because he's so happy he won't be returning to our school next year. The family decided to enroll him in a correspondence middle school where he can work from home.

Both of the kids whose conferences I wrote about are still struggling. We send them to seventh grade with documentation of all the strategies we've tried and the hope that maturity will kick in over the summer to help them be more successful next year. They both had a grand time on the trip today, too. And so did I, but the last Friday of the year is looming, so I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Stop Me if You've Heard This One Before

One early morning in mid-June about five years ago, my sixth grade class was going on our end-of-the-year field trip, an all day excursion that included a dolphin-watching cruise and a picnic at the beach. The students had already boarded the charter bus and were busy stowing their bags and towels, happily chattering and settling in for the three hour trip. They were excited—some of them had never even seen the ocean before. I stood on the bottom step of the bus, scanning the parking lot for late arrivals before doing the final head count. The sun was just rising above the school—it was going to be a hot day. Turning to climb on board, I felt a hand on my elbow. One of the mothers was standing on the sidewalk, looking up at me. I stepped down, and she took my hand, clasping it in both of her own. “Today, my son is your son,” she said. “Please take good care of him.”

“I will,” I’d assured her with my teacher’s confidence, but my step faltered as I climbed onto the bus, and the day seemed a little less promising than it had earlier. What if something goes wrong and a student is injured? How would I feel, then? Life is perilous and uncertain, so we can’t indulge our fears, but where is the line between prudent risk-taking and recklessness? All of these thoughts were clouds in the clear June sky, threatening to rain on our field trip.

Of course nothing happened, and all the students made it back safely, but thinking back on it later, I wondered if that was really the first time I had ever felt the full weight of responsibility for another person’s child, and if field trips would ever be the same for me again.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let it Go

Every once in a while, and more frequently the older I get, I realize that certain ships have definitely sailed for me, never to return to port. I say it today because, since the weather was horrible, and I'm so busy doing a kazillion things at school, I didn't vote in the primary that was held in our state. I feel a sense of failure, as this was not a deliberate choice, but much more of the lame "my life got in the way of my democracy" kind of thinking, but there you have it; the polls are closed and my vote was not cast. So, as I was cooking dinner after getting home from school at 6:30, I was feeling a little guilty and beating myself up about it, and this thought actually entered my mind: They can use this against me if I ever run for office.

I'll never forget the day I realized that I would never be Miss America. I was 26 years old, and although I had never entered a pageant in my life, mostly because I had no interest in them, I felt a sense of loss when I understood that particular certainty of my future. Watching Miss America was a family thing for us; we liked the pageantry, and we liked the prediction-- we sat there with paper, pencil and popcorn, poised as those 51 girls walked across the stage to pick our top ten based solely on their appearance and self-introductions. We kept score until the end, too, of what, I'm not sure now.

And so it was on one such evening in September, when I sat in my living room washed in the violet light of the television and upholding the family tradition, that it became clear to me that, No, Tracey, anything cannot happen. You will never go to Atlantic City and compete in a swim suit for this sash and crown, much less win it.

Since then, I've given up on a medical career and one in law as well. And now, today, based on my voting record, I probably won't hold public office, either. Dang. Another door closes.

Monday, June 8, 2009

SOLSC Day 100

Yep. It's true. A hundred days. In a row.

I started this challenge sitting by the fire on a freezing day when we were preparing for a snow storm. Today it's high 80's with a chance of thunderstorms, but there's a fire going in the kettle grill, and I'm on my way out to flip some local, free-range, grass-fed burgers. I just finished listening to Barbara Kingsolver read her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. (Tell me you weren't moved just a little when the second generation of turkeys hatched.) With a bit over a week left of school, I'm doing my best to cope with the hectic pace of the end-of-the-year AND the transition to summer, but it's not my strength. I did get to spend a little planning time today with my favorite collaborating teacher, and that was awesome; we're a good team. As for this evening, though, I'm just going to call it a hundred and log out until tomorrow.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Dream of a Common Language

A few years ago I was at a family gathering. My nephews were 6 and 9 at the time, and they were off in the corner playing some color version of Pokemon on their Gameboys. There was a younger, distant cousin who had never met the boys before, but he was drawn to them and stood close by listening intently to the patter of their conversation as each not only played his own game, but also gave a running overview of the action to his brother, in addition to receiving and offering strategic advice in turn.

Impressed, the little boy ran off to find his mother. "Mommy," he asked, "what language do those kids speak?"

"They speak English, Honey," she told him, but he did not look convinced.

"What language do we speak?" he asked her.

"We speak English, too," she told him.

"It doesn't seem like English to me," he said.

Last week, one of my students turned in a writing piece called, War of Epic Rune and I. It had a pretty gripping lead: The first time we fought, he was a cheap shooter. As I read on, though, I discovered that I was not the intended audience of this piece. I couldn't have been, because I had no idea what was going on.

He used dds-ags glitch. He killed me. I stocked up on my pk stuff! I went into the wilderness, I attacked him! 26, 25, he ate healed 22. I hit two more 27's, and I took out my dds. I specialed him (it's a 2 time attack). Before I attacked I switched to ags (You can only attack 1 time with it because it's so high damaging!) Then my dds spec came. I had age on, so then I hit- bang bang! 60 23! He died! Then I was standing there healed myself. He came back with with pk-ing stuff and said, "Glitcher,"and attacked me. I said back, "You too...." Then we fought. I had two HP (heart points hit points). Until I died I was going to eat, but Epic had like 15 HP, so I didn't and attacked. I hit 18! I won again !

I felt a little dazed sitting there at my desk trying to fathom this incomprehensible narrative. It was disorienting to know most of the vocabulary but have no clue about the rest. I tried to use context, but I didn't have nearly enough background information to be successful. I laughed because it was ridiculously hard. I also understood then that many of my students probably have this experience regularly. I couldn't have asked for a better simulation of what a struggling reader goes through when confronted with a text that is too difficult.

It doesn't seem like English to me,
I thought, and I photocopied War of Epic Rune and I and tucked it into my writers notebook so that I can remember what that feels like.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

NO Whining

I felt bad after I posted yesterday. I like to think that it's not really "me" to get upset about little things like that. (Except when it is, eh?) Honestly? I'm sure the field trip will work out fine: everyone will have a good time, and in retrospect it will all have been worth it. I guess that sometimes it's hard to find that balance between planning for the future, living in the moment, and reflecting on the past. What can you do, though?

Just keep practicing.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Travel Agency 101

Or: Things They Don't Teach You in Grad School

Every year in June our sixth grade team takes a trip to go dolphin watching. It's about three hours away, so we charter buses, spend a couple of hours at the beach, and then board a really big boat for a 2-hour cruise skirting the capes of Delaware in search of marine mammals. Next it's back on the bus, and a few hours later we're home. It's usually a nice day and a pleasant way to end the year. It also offers experiences that many of our students have never had: the beach, the boat, or both.

It's my job to organize this trip, and over the years it has gotten easier, but even so, every year there seems to be a new set of complications. Part of the challenge of planning it has to do with pricing. Your typical charter bus has 55 seats, and the boat charter is based on a minimum of 100 passengers. Depending on the year, we have had anywhere from 80-100 students, plus 8 teachers. Although it is always our goal, we have never had 100% of the students participate on the trip. The trick then becomes estimating the number of students and chaperones who will pay to come and pricing it accordingly. We have to break even... there's no reserve fund to cover it if we don't. BUT, we know that some kids won't be able to afford the trip, and so we solicit donations for scholarships, and we know that every passenger over that original estimate will also subsidize a student whose family can't afford the whole cost.

Some years I'm sweating it out because we haven't got that minimum number of people. Last year, I accepted a check and permission slip on the morning of the trip, because I knew it would get us out of the red. (Plus, the kid wanted to go... I have a hard time saying no to that after we went to all the trouble to plan such a great trip.) This year it's the opposite; we're short on seats, and I've been in the difficult position of telling some parents who have paid to go that, as much as we appreciate the support, we need their seat for a student. This new situation is just as stressful as it was to worry about staying out of debt in the past. Despite the refund, there have been some unhappy folks.

I received an e-mail this afternoon from just such a parent. It read in part:

I worked for (another school system) for 6 years and never seen a situation like a school system doesn't have a plan for their trip. It is not I don't believe what the excuse for (my son's) mom involvement but it's hard to believe. I expect to be treated fair, though this is a tough time. I hope your school and you understand my pain. My son was talking about the trip and now he can't go.

He continued:

Nothing personal, I feel like very much insulted and humiliated but what I can do? nothing. In my culture teacher is consider to be the highest respected person...teacher is the designer of child's life path. You are all same respected force of educator. But This is what I believe. Something totally wrong in this trip turmoil.

I regret the misunderstanding with this family, but I stand by our goal to have as many students participate as possible, and does anyone appreciate how above and beyond our job description this whole thing is? Chalk it up to end-of-the-year fatigue, but I am officially aggravated.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

School Spirit

Today was the retirement party for three teachers on our staff. Some schools have a traditional retirement event, but our school doesn't, and as far as I know, never has. Every year we do something different, and it seems like people's feelings get a little bruised sometimes. So this year, in response to a request from 2 of the 3 veteran teachers retiring, a small committee formed to plan... something. In addition to planning a nice reception, we hoped that whatever it turned out to be would also be the template for an annual thing-- we wanted to start a tradition for our school.

It was a really fun party. There was food and wine, beer and music, speeches and dancing. All three of the women retiring had taught a long time, so the guest list was full of ghosts of our school past in addition to our present colleagues, and it seemed like everyone who was there understood that something a little magical was happening. We are not a particularly cohesive staff, and most often we feel defined by our differences of philosophy and opinion. That was not true this evening. We gathered in warm camaraderie to honor and celebrate our colleagues who have served long and in good faith, and by so doing, we honored each other and our profession as well. And it may have been the wine, or the women who were retiring, or the songs that the DJ played as many hands made light work of the clean up, but there was a connection among us that could not be denied.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Step Right Up

Recently, I discovered carnivals... blog carnivals. These are traveling digests of blog posts on a certain topic. So, as a writer, you can submit an entry to the host, and they may publish your link, which could increase traffic to your blog, and, ideally, expand the conversation. To the reader carnivals offer exposure to many blogs on a topic of interest. Apparently, there are tons of them out there.

So, I submitted a post to the current Carnival of Education, and what do you know? The host included my link. That's cool-- who has never desired the life of a carny, even for just a minute? And, there I am in the company of other teachers who are working hard at leading the examined life. Awesome. Check it out if you have time.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

And the Award Goes to...

Another ubiquitous feature of this time of year is the school award ceremony. We give class awards, team awards, grade awards, school awards-- you name it, we honor it. I came up in a strong tradition of middle school team awards and recognitions. Oh, our team did the awards ceremony proud, back in the day. My contribution to the occasion was a power point presentation with an appropriate quotation for each award and a drum roll sound effect before the slide revealing the winners. We congratulated these elite students with certificates, their names engraved on a plaque that hung permanently in our hallway, and even savings bonds solicited from local businesses and organizations.

For years I sat in that annual team teacher meeting where we listed the awards and the kids we wanted to recognize and spent hours trying to match them up. Inevitably there would be that colleague who insisted on black-balling a kid because of some unforgiven slight from January. The veteran teacher versus the almost-twelve-year-old's character and reputation is never a pretty fight. I confess, I rolled up my sleeves and joined a few of those frays, and not always on the student's behalf, I'm ashamed to say, now. My own nephew received our student of the year award, too, after I made the case that he shouldn't be ruled out because of the appearance of favoritism.

I can't say exactly what soured it for me. It could have been an unkind remark or an ugly exchange in one of those contentious meetings that made me realize how arbitrary it all was. Or, it might have been one of the countless students who worked up the courage to ask me why they hadn't been recognized, too. Or was it one of the many disparaging remarks I overheard students make over the years about what was supposed to be such a motivating event? It also might have been all the certificates that ended up in the trash later on the day of the ceremony.

Whatever it was, three years ago, I decided to approach my team with a radical proposal. Let's not give awards this year. The fact that we had lost the plaques when we sent them out for engraving the year before raised my confidence slightly. I felt like it might have been a sign. In addition, I had done my homework on the issue; I'd carefully read Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards in which he makes the cogent anti-behavioralism argument that we are harming kids by the overuse of extrinsic motivation.

Indeed, Kohn addresses awards ceremonies specifically: "in the typical ceremony for "recognizing excellence," the people in charge have unilaterally selected, at their own discretion and based on their own criteria, some people to recognize over, and in front of, others. It is their power to do so that is ultimately being recognized." (page 111)

Ouch, I thought, and so-armed, I brought this idea to my team, and guess what? As much as I'd like to believe in my leadership and vision, realistically, I'm pretty sure that, at the end of a long year, they had neither the energy nor the desire to argue about it. Either way, our awards presentation is no more than a revenant that occasionally haunts me at this time of year.

Monday, June 1, 2009


I gasped this morning when I heard that an Air France flight was "missing." My sharp intake of breath startled me, because it's not often that one literally gasps. It was early, before seven, when I heard the news on the radio; it was still a breaking story; they didn't have many details, and, at first, I couldn't believe it. How do you lose a commercial jet in this day and age? I wondered, because I really thought that such calamities were all in the past, pure fiction today found only on TV and in the movies. My heart went out to those on the plane and their loved ones.

I probably have a bit more interest in airline news than the average citizen. Most people have heard of the military varieties of brats, but I'm of a lesser-known type, the airline brat. My parents met and were married while working for TWA in the early 60's. I took my first plane trip at 6 months and spent a great deal of my childhood and teen-aged years jet-setting around the world. We didn't have money, but we did have term passes-- little plastic cards that enabled us to fly in any vacant seat for a pittance, and thanks to my mother, travel we did. (Of course as we grew older, first class was always our choice.)

Many things have changed in my lifetime, but none so drastically as air travel. Flying is barely recognizable to me now. It's not only that TWA and Pan Am, the two major US airlines of the 20th century, have been gone since 2001 and 1991, respectively. And it's not the extra security, although I remember vividly the days when anyone could stroll down to the gate to meet an arriving passenger, or the 10-40 extra seats crammed onto every plane. It's not just the food (What food? There's nothing to even make fun of anymore.) or the baggage charge. I guess it's more that flying used to be kind of fun, but now it's just a necessary nuisance.

Come to think of it, I've heard some teachers describe school in close to those words. Hmm. Maybe they should drive.