Friday, July 31, 2009


How did this happen? Thirty years ago I left high school behind forever. I went to a boarding school in Switzerland, so the chances of the 70 students in my class having regular reunions was nil.

Enter facebook. At first I was thrilled to reconnect with classmates I hadn't heard from since graduation. To be honest, there were people I hadn't even thought of since then, but our shared experience was our bond, and it was interesting to discover the narrative arc that their lives had taken over that time and to find out what they were doing now.

A couple of weeks ago, though, someone in our class got the bright idea to set up a conference call reunion. He circulated a phone number and PIN that we could all call at an appointed time. He asked us all to forward the information to other classmates and then to send in a brief bio in advance so that people would have talking points.

All of a sudden I was back on that small, exquisite campus where everyone knew everyone else, but we didn't all socialize. Sure, I had a core group of friends, but we had stayed in touch before fb, and I really didn't spend much time with too many of the other kids. Now they expected me to call in and make small talk for two hours. It'll be just like hanging out at Angelo's or Montag someone wrote, and I realized just how far I hadn't come.

The virtual peer pressure to participate was intense. E-mail bios were arriving every half-hour along with the count of all those who would be dialing in. Everyone was doing it, and I didn't want to disappoint, but I didn't want to do it, either. Just like that, thirty years of accomplishment and confidence-building crumbled beneath me, and I knew that I would be uncomfortable if I did and uncomfortable if I didn't. I was transported right back to the worst part of high school, not fitting in with the cool crowd.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Wisdom of Experience

All summer long I've been griping about this curriculum project that I voluntarily agreed to work on. It is an electronic course on adolescent development for middle school teachers. The concept is that those who enroll will spend about thirty hours working their way through the materials and assignments that the four of us who are creating the course put together. At the end, the objective is that the participants will have a better understanding of adolescent development and the best instructional practices that are rooted in that theory; in addition, teachers who complete the course will have had the opportunity to connect the theories that they are exposed to with what is happening with real students in their own classrooms.

Now that I've typed it out like that, it sounds pretty good, but my objection to it has been that the people they have tapped to put this course together are not experts on adolescent development. Take me for example: sure, I've been teaching middle school for sixteen years, and it's true that I have my National Board Certification in Early Adolescence/English Language Arts, but I don't really think I'm qualified to teach other professionals about Adolescent Identity Development. (Why did I say yes to this?)

Anyhow, I committed to doing it, and I've struggled all summer trying to get a handle on the task of designing seven contact hours of reading and responding on my segment of the curriculum. I've spent plenty of time reading up myself on adolescent development and the formation of identity, to be sure, but my lack of confidence has impacted my focus, and I'm a bit behind deadline.

In tandem with this dilemma, I have also been reading Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Thomas Newkirk. One of his major premises is that teachers, like doctors and nurses and other skilled professionals develop "the wisdom of experience." Every minute of every teaching day, we make innumerable decisions, many of them unconscious, based on specific situations, our experience, and our knowledge; we adjust and readjust our instruction and directions student by student and moment by moment. In recent years, the value of this experience has been undermined by the search for objectives standards to measure student learning.

Today, as I labored to organize all my research on adolescent identity development, I realized that none of it was news to me. All of the theories of Erikson, Piaget, and the subsequent researchers who designed their studies based on the work of those two, made intutitive sense to me after spending the better part of the last couple of decades working with children of that age. I have seen those " temporarily disorganized egos" in action, witnessed the usually messy transition away from the "internalized parent", as well as the often painful struggle to "integrate physical changes into a new sense of self." And the "affiliation-abandonment dynamic" as it relates to peers? Check.

Perhaps more importantly, I have some pretty good ideas about how to address such issues when they impact my students and their learning. Hm. Maybe I am an expert, after all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I'll be Back

Home from Tucson, we returned to 80-80 at 8 PM, heat and humidity, and the contrast couldn't have been starker. The very air was hydrating, and that nice, straight Arizona hair I'd been admiring on myself in all those mirrors in our hotel returned to its usual lame wave-- I really do need a trim.

My forehead was pressed against the window of the plane as we took off this morning, scanning hard for one last glimpse of Saguaro National Park and Mt. Lemmon, or even that javelina we saw trotting alongside the road yesterday morning. High above the city, I could see the dark green veins of the vegetation growing along the arroyos running across the desert just outside of town, and I thought how Tucson was a lot greener than I expected it to be; the amount of life flourishing in the brown desert, even in the middle of summer, really surprised me. As we flew east, leaving it all behind, I made a list of the things I want to do on my next visit.

See more cowboys
Watch the sun rise and set over the desert
Go back to Mount Lemmon
Hike the desert
Learn more plants and animals
Eat nopales
Star gaze
Enjoy temperatures below 90

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mount Lemmon

The thermometer reads 115 here in Tucson, and I'm kind of glad that the hottest day will be the last day of our visit, because





Our plan for today was to drive up to the top of the highest peak in the Santa Catalina mountains, the northern-most of the ranges that form a jagged ring around Tucson. At an elevation of 9137 feet, Mt. Lemmon stands about 6800 feet above the city. It has the southern-most ski resort in the United States on its slopes, and the vegetation as you travel from the base to the top changes quickly from desert to pine forests more commonly found in Canada.

We had read that it could be as much as thirty degrees cooler at the top, and so, as we turned onto the 26 mile Catalina Highway, we all took turns guessing what the temperature would be when we got up there. Louise, ever the skeptic, guessed 90, and Gary was not much more optimistic with his prediction of 88. I thought 85 would be pleasant, so that was my conjecture, and Heidi went for what she hoped for, 79.

The outside temperature gauge in the rental car read 107 at 11 AM and saguaro, agave and ocotillo dominated the landscape that dropped dramatically to our right as we we headed up and around the first hair-pin turn. At the fifth or sixth scenic turn-out, we stopped the car to admire the seven cataracts that loomed above us, and with a slight breeze blowing, it was amazing how refreshing 95 degrees felt. The mountainsides here were dotted with scrubby mesquite and green-wooded palo verde, there were a few prickley pears, but not a saguaro in sight. We were just over 5000 feet.

The temperature continued to drop as promised, although the sky remained cloudless blue, and the sun was bright and warm. After only three days in the desert, we nearly skipped out of the car at each stop, giddy at the ever-cooler air that tossed our hair when we opened the door. Louise and Gary were out of the running by 6000 feet, and as we continued to climb past aspens and into pine forests, the vistas below growing more expansive, we shut off the a/c and rolled down the windows. It was 86, and the rock formations all around us resembled giant cairns, precisely stacked and pointing us higher and higher.

It was 82 when we reached the Palisades visitor center at milepost 19.9, elevation 7850. The temperature held steady at our next stop, the Summerhaven General Store where they make ten kinds of fudge right there on the premises almost every day. Then began our last few miles to the top, and when we pulled into the parking lot, the thermometer read exactly 79; a more perfect summer day could not have been found anywhere. Surrounded by douglas fir, indian paintbrush, and yellow coneflowers, we congratulated Heidi on the amazing accuracy of her prediction, and then far below, the sprawling grid of Tucson caught our eye, and we wondered what the temperature was down there.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Consider the Saguaro

Ask someone to draw a cactus, and chances are they'll come up with an image of a saguaro, probably with two arms. In many ways, they seem the most archetypal of cacti, but my visit to Tucson has made me aware that I don't know a thing about them. Too green to be sage, too olive to be mint, a bit too fern to be celery, maybe asparagus? On the first day I got here, I realized I couldn't even find the right color to describe these giant plants that poke up through the hills like pegs on a cribbage board.

The next day, we took a drive over to the Sonoran Desert Museum. An hour and a half walk through the desert later, I had a little more information. Saguaros grow very slowly and live an impressive 150 + years. Also, they are native only to a very small area of Arizona, California and Mexico-- not Texas, not New Mexico, not Utah, Nevada or Colorado, pretty much just around here. Plus, no one knows why some of them have arms and some of them just look like giant prickly cucumbers (except not quite that shade of green) burying their head in the sand.

Today, as I rode my wild west show horse, Jill, (she's a movie star, too) through the desert on a trail that snaked up and down and around many saguaros, I observed a few other qualities. First, they are actually more like trees than fruit. In fact, birds make holes in them and build their nests inside, and it's nothing like James and the Giant Peach, as far as I could tell. A twenty foot saguaro can weigh a ton, and they have wood-like ribs inside. (I don't know what I thought was in there, but I'm pretty sure I figured it was all soft and pulpy like squash or melon.) Sometimes, when one dies, the ribs remain standing in place, an eerie skeleton of the departed cactus. As Jill ambled resolutely along the trail, I looked as closely as I could at a couple of these wrecked saguaro, tight circles of sun-bleached poles rising from the desert, empty frames of their former selves, before I believed that they had once been one of the very same green giants that grew tall around them now.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Away We Go

I'm still a bit groggy from the three hour time change and the 107-degree heat this afternoon, but a fat yellow crescent moon has just set on our second night in Tucson, and after two full days of sprawling city, trendy resort, and gorgeous desert landscapes, I'm still processing. Right before we left, we saw the movie Away We Go. When Burt and Verona pulled up to their destination on the second leg of their journey, I gasped and then leaned over and whispered, "Oh my gosh-- That's where we're staying in Tucson!" Since we got here, I've spent a good portion of my time trying to figure out just where in the lobby they were sitting. I will also tell you that our waitress tonight was nick-named L'il Britches, there was a tarantula in the parking garage, and down at the lazy river a fellow guest at the hotel, a balding, forty-something, complete stranger, shouted at me to "man up" when I chose to come down the water slide in a sitting rather than incline position. So far, it's been quite an adventure.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

There's More to the Picture than Meets the Eye

It's the kids. They're why I haven't lost my mind teaching the same lesson five times every day for sixteen years. I take full advantage of our skill-based language arts curriculum and allow students to build and exercise their skills in ways of their own choosing. Their reading is independently chosen and they have a lot of latitude in terms of topic and genre for their required writing. That way, not only is every year different, but within any given year, each class is different, too.

There's something else. Even when I do recycle an exercise or an assignment, unless I change it a little with my current class in mind, it never works as well. Often I'm disappointed when I re-use an activity that students loved the year before only to have it fall a little flat with a different bunch of kids.

There's that element of zeitgeist that definitely influences group dynamics, and if you can ride that wave, you probably won't burn out. In fact, you might love your job for many years. Hey hey, my my.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Rust Never Sleeps

Yesterday, my friend and I went out to lunch after her presentation. She had her writing group in the afternoon, so we shot over to the strip mall right across from the university. Whether the pun was intentional or not, we couldn't resist the place called Tong Thai, and contrary to the name of the restaurant, we chattered away as we waited for our green curry chicken and pad prik goong. We caught up personally and with what was going on in our schools and the county, and the conversation inevitably turned to the writing project and finally to our thoughts on the future of our careers. "How long have you been teaching, again?" she asked.

"This year coming will be number seventeen," I replied.

"All in the same place and at the same grade?" She knew the answer, but she needed to hear it. "Don't you ever want a change?"

"Not really," I responded, and our conversation touched lightly on how different we were in that respect, but then it was time for her to go.

When I thought about it later, though, I conjectured that it was not so much a matter of temperament as it was approach to teaching. Sometimes it seems that the Holy Grail of teaching is to find something that works and to stick with it. We plan and teach and assess and reflect and tweak all in pursuit of ... what? That magic year that everything will go exactly as we planned, so that we'll never have to plan again?

That attitude, in my opinion, is the recipe for either burn out, or worse, fading away. Even if you find the perfect formula, who wants to do the exact same things over and over, year after year, whether or not they "work?" This thinking reduces us to assembly line workers, and in such a situation, who wouldn't want a change?

Fortunately, in my experience, no year has ever been the same as the one that preceded it. Maybe it's by hook or by crook, by chance or design, but I'll post my explanation of this lucky happenstance tomorrow.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Better than Cats

I attended the morning session of the Writing Project Summer Institute today. One of the many cool things about the program is that once you go through, you're considered a "Teacher Consultant" and are forever after invited to any presentation that appeals to you. This morning was the first time that I'd been back in the three years since I'd done the SI. A friend of mine was presenting, and she invited me in.

I was a few minutes late and the first open seat at the familiar horseshoe-shaped set of tables was right next to the director, so I tried to slide quietly into it. I was a bit embarrassed, then, when my friend interrupted her talk to introduce me, but it wasn't long before I slipped back under the spell of the summer institute, and three hours of listening and writing and sharing vanished like silk hankies at a magic show. When it was all over, I had written a journal entry in the voice of a new immigrant, a list of everything in my refrigerator, and helped the director set up a blog and post to it. I also had a bunch of new resources and several ideas for using them with my students. Multiply that by twenty, throw in a ready-made writing group that meets twice a week, an all-day presentation by Barry Lane, a writing marathon, and a Progoff journal workshop, and you may get a glimpse of the Summer Institute.

I could do it again and again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

JuNo Project Redux

Beano and LB sat across the breakfast table from Aunt Marcy. The Maine blueberries in their waffles had left thin purple smudges beneath the shallow amber pools of maple syrup still on their plates. Marcy thought that the smears looked like dark contrails reflected in miniature ponds. She reached for her writing notebook. LB drained the last of his milk, watching her with mild curiosity. “Have you written anything for the novel, lately?” he asked.

Marcy put down the pen and, resting her elbows on the table, sighed. “Noooo,” she answered.

“When are you going to finish telling our story?” asked Beano. “What’s the problem anyway?”

Marcy sighed again and shrugged. “It’s not like I don’t want to…” she started, “and it’s not like I haven’t been writing at all. I write my blog every single day.”

“But didn’t you say you were going to work on the novel this summer, too?” questioned LB.

“Yeah, yeah, I did,” she admitted. “I guess I don’t have a clear idea of where it’s going, and so I’m not sure what I want to write, and so I haven’t done anything on it.”

“Do you know what you’re going to write for your blog every day?” Beano asked. “Because, some days, I really just don’t have anything to say on mine.”

“No,” said Marcy, “I don’t know what I’m going to write on most days. It’s kind of stressful, but usually something occurs to me when I sit down to do it, and then it’s kind of cool. Plus, I’m liking the discipline of daily writing, and for some reason, I feel committed to the routine of posting every day, so I’m going to stick with it for now, even though I’m really not sure where it’s going, either.”

“Couldn’t you try the same thing for the novel, like writing for that every day?” asked LB.

“Well, I was doing that for a while at the end of February before I started my blog, but I couldn’t keep up with both. Then I thought that once summer came, I’d write a little every day on both projects.”

“What happened, then?” Beano wanted to know.

“Like I said, I’m kind of stuck on where your story’s going,” Marcy answered.

“But you also said that you can write your blog even when you don’t know where that’s going,” Beano persisted.

Marcy shrugged again.

“What are you stuck on?” LB asked. “Maybe we can help.”

“A bunch of things...” she trailed off for a minute, resting her head on her left hand. “Okay, here’s one for example. What about that guy in the antique shop? What’s his deal? Who is he? What does he want?”

“Who do you think he might be?” asked Beano. “What do you know about him?”

“Is he good or bad?” asked LB.

“He’s an antagonist; I’m pretty sure. He’s definitely suspicious of you two.”

“Why? What did we do?” LB asked.

“Well, he saw you looking in the window at that coin, and then you dragged Beano in a little while later. He knows he doesn’t know you.”

“Why did we go in there, again?” Beano wanted to know.

“Because LB saw a coin like the one you found in the pouch. You guys want to know if it’s valuable and what it’s called so you can figure out where it came from.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right,” remembered Beano. “What else was in that pouch?”

“There was the coin, a key, and a letter, signed AB and partially encrypted,” Marcy replied. “The letter was supposed to have been written by Aaron Burr, and it referred to some failed expedition, and the cipher was like the Beale Treasure ciphers.”

“What’s the key for?” asked LB.

“I was thinking that it would be to a safety deposit box. I read somewhere that there was a library in the town of Bedford that had once been a bank. You guys are going to go to the library to do some research and in the lobby they have a display about the history of the place. You’ll realize that your key goes to one of the boxes from the former bank.”

“What did they do with the boxes that weren’t claimed?” Beano asked.

Marcy laughed. “You’re going to ask that question at the library,” she told him.

“Well? What are they going to say?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I haven’t written it yet. I guess I can work on that part— I have an idea where to go with it.”

“Good!” cheered LB. “What other parts are you having trouble with?”

“The last thing I wrote was about the farm stand,” she told him. “We take Mrs. Buford there and meet Anna. She mentions that her husband, David, is at the lawyers. Then a storm comes up, and we all go inside to wait. Actually, I could probably work on that part, too; I want Mrs. Buford to ask you guys to do some chores around her house.”

“Will she pay us handsomely for our time?” asked Beano.

“There will be compensation,” Marcy agreed, “both monetary and informational.”

That pleased Beano. “Good,” he said, rubbing his hands together in mock greed. “Good.” His expression changed. “Seriously, though,” he continued, “How does Aaron Burr fit in with everything? Is he going to be an important part of the plot?”

Marcy frowned. “I’m not sure about that,” she confessed. “I did some research last summer that I need to go back to. I don’t know what Burr’s role is. I don’t know what’s going to be down in that cavern, either.”

“The cave where I get knocked out, but then I’m fine?” asked LB.

“The very one,” she replied. “I have this notion that it was used during the Civil War for something—Underground Railroad? Confederate Gold? –and you boys are going to find something important, but I don’t know what, nor do I know how that will relate to Aaron Burr, the antique store guy, the lawyers, or the safety deposit box.”

“Hmm…” said Beano. “You better start writing if you want to find out.”

“You’re right,” conceded Marcy. “It’s never going to come together otherwise.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thicker than Blood

We had a big family birthday party tonight. Both of my brother's sons were born within a few days of each other in July, and my sister-in-law's brother's son was born that week, too. The boys are teenagers now, and there were thirteen of us in attendance at a casual midweek pizza party to celebrate all three. At one point during the evening, I overheard Judy, my sister-in-law's mother, recounting a conversation she had had earlier in the day: she had been describing who would be at the party, and she ended by saying, "It might seem crazy and confusing, but it's just our family."

I looked around at the assembled guests, and for a moment I glimpsed what her friend might have been perplexed about. There was my brother, my sister-in-law, their two sons, my sister-in-law's parents, one of her four brothers, his wife and son, their son's girlfriend, me, my partner, and our godson, who is not related by blood or marriage to any of us.

Any sense of discrepancy evaporated a little while later during our traditional singing of Happy Birthday as a round. I went second this time, and when my part was finished, I was able to sit back and listen to the last eight people belt out their parts in this most dissonant, yet wonderful, rendition of that simple song, happy and dear, and I knew then what family is, and that these people are mine.

Monday, July 20, 2009

It's Not the Destination

I like to think of myself as an "enjoy the journey" type of person, but lately I realize I have a few conditions on that attitude. For example, if the journey includes hiking, then I much prefer to go up first and down later. There are some hikes that start at a high point and go down, only to return to the top. These are not enjoyable to me. The most memorable journey of this kind that I have taken would have to be from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The North Kaibab Trail descends thirteen miles to the floor of the canyon, but our group was short on time, so we agreed that our destination would be Roaring Springs, a mere five miles below the rim. The trip down should have been idyllic; it was early June, the sky was a perfect blue, the air was cool, the sun was warm, the birds were active, and lots of wild flowers were in bloom, but my boots were weighted with dread, because I knew that every step down was one I would have to take back up-- and five miles straight up is a really long way. I can't say that I enjoyed that journey at all.

I understand that it's all in my mind, and so I try to work around it. When I think "Grand Canyon" these days, I think, "book a room at Phantom Ranch for a couple nights" or even "mules." Either would help improve the journey for me. When I ride my bike, before I choose my route, I check the wind and consider the elevation. I want to start out going up, or at least down on a veeerrrrry gradual incline, and then up in the middle, but if the wind will be against me on the way back, that's a deal breaker. (And then there are the days when the wind shifts while I'm on my bike ride, and that's almost enough to make me cry.)

Somewhere, I got it into my head that if I work diligently and in good faith, then there should come a point in any experience where I can coast and still expect to finish well. Now, that's the type of journey that I enjoy. Hmm... something makes me think that I may be missing the point.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


No more than twenty miles, as the crow flies, from the home of the most powerful man on the planet is a modest ranch house on two acres. The country road that leads there dips straight up and down like a roller coaster without curves, and the driveway is at the top of the second hill, right before the next plunge. It's a perilous left to turn onto the property; the few cars that travel it rumble quickly along the narrow track, nearly invisible until they crest the hill. This is where my aunt has lived for almost fifty years.

In my mind, there is still a gravel driveway that runs past the house to parking in the back, and dogs that chase the cars coming and going, barking in the dust. There is also a blackberry patch out by the road behind the mailbox. In July, when the fruit was ripe, our mothers would send the five of us cousins out to pick the tart berries. Despite the summer heat, we had to wear jeans and long sleeves to protect us from the thorny brambles that made little ripping noises as they rasped across the denim and pulled at our shirts. The oldest of us pushed boldly in, reaching for the big berries contained in those cages of stickers that even the birds could not breach. We winced or gasped or even cussed when the tiny thorns at the base of the fruit impaled themselves in our fingertips, and by sheer force of will kept hold of our quarry despite the stinging, then carefully backed out of the patch, like freeing ourselves from the jaws of a trap, to drop the berries in a bucket.

When the container was full, five sweaty children trotted down the driveway and shucked our unseasonable clothes for a tick-check before changing into our summer shorts, and not long after that, the smell of blackberry cobbler would fill the unairconditioned kitchen.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Remote Access

I set my blog up a few weeks ago so that I could post remotely, but so
far I haven't had the occasion to try it. Today is the day. We took
the dogs to a dog beach about an hour from our place. Well, the trip
should have taken an hour, but the park is located on a little
peninsula that juts into the Chesapeake Bay, and the last five miles
of the route are an in-and-out road. Some kind of accident had
closed the all the lanes, and we were stuck for over an hour. Once we got
there, the weather was perfect (this is one CRAZY July), and the dogs
had a great time. Unfortunately, the traffic was still backed up a
couple of hours later when we were ready to go.

It's hard not to stress about stuff like that, but after a while I
just reminded myself that I'm on vacation, so no worries. And now here we
are sitting outside dockside at a little seafood place that we found our way to at a small
marina near the confluence of the Severn River
and the bay. The dogs are chewing on sticks, and we enjoyed our dinners. (Of course, no fish for Josh, but he said the chicken fingers and fries were good). The sun is setting,
there's a light breeze blowing, and I'm phoning the blog in in case we
don't make it home in time.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Shoulda Coulda

"I like it when the weather's like this, because then you can just relax," Josh told us this evening as he looked out at the overcast sky through the sliding glass doors. "You don't have to feel guilty about staying inside and just reading or whatever." I knew exactly what he meant. Our friend, Jen, and I call days like that "Guilt-free Movie Days." There's something about a nice day that demands you be out in it.

Of course, the rules change from season to season, and so today didn't actually qualify as an inside day. Mid-July and we expect it to be really hot and really humid around here, but the weather today was overcast, and although it was a bit humid, it really wasn't hot, so the three boys and I loaded up the bikes and took a fantastic 12-mile ride up and down the canal. We saw a deer, great blue heron, and tons of fogs and turtles, and we didn't even care when we got rained on. It was awesome, and when we got home, the boys were tired and starving, but pretty happy, I think.

I wonder about this notion of acceptable or appropriate recreation. Where does it come from? Why do we feel like there are rules governing the use of our time? Are we so over-scheduled that it has come to this? It's hardly surprising that we would prefer to be outside on a lovely day, but it's kind of a shame that someone might feel guilty about time spent reading on even the nicest of days. Maybe we should all just take our books outside.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It'll Change You

I just got off the phone with my friend who is taking our local Writing Project's Summer Institute. Like everyone I know, myself included, she was hesitant to give up five weeks of her summer, but we just spent thirty minutes talking about how awesome it is. "I can honestly say that there hasn't been one minute that I felt was a waste of my time," she told me. That's pretty amazing when you're talking about two weeks of four 6-7 hour days of professional development with three more weeks to go, but I was right there with her. "Are you jealous?" she teased me.

"Yep," I answered. We talked a little bit about the WP Continuation PLC that I'm supposed to facilitate next year and what it might look like. "Where does personal writing for the teachers fit in?" I wondered.

"I think it's crucial," she said. "They have to write outside and bring it in. You don't understand it until you've done it, but the writing is key to building community." Then she told me the most surprising thing of all... this teacher is pretty well-known and admired for her creative projects and unit plans. "I'm done with projects," she said. "From now on, there's going to be a lot more writing in my class, and it's going to be authentic writing. I don't care what it looks like; I just want to see what my kids have to say."

Wow. That's what I have to say.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Making a Difference

A few days ago, I friended a former student on facebook. I had been her mentor from grades 6-8, but she had moved the summer before starting high school, so I was glad to reconnect with her after four years. I knew she had graduated from high school in June, and I sent a message asking how she'd been and what she was doing. She replied right away. hey i been gud nd thanx i miss u being my mentor nd erything we should chill one day

So I invited her lunch, and we're going tomorrow. Yesterday, when I logged into fb, I noticed her status on my newsfeed: CANT WAIT 4 THURSDAY

Awwww, I thought and clicked over to her page, where I read the following exchange with her friend, N:

N: Y?
R: cuz im goin sumwere
N: Oh
N: ? Mentor?
N: I know what it means. Didn't know you had one

I particularly like the part where she assumes that her friend doesn't know what a mentor is. It is soooo in character and reminds me of a time when she was working out with the girls basketball team in middle school. The guy I coach with was running them through a drill. "Dribble with your left hand!" he directed, but she continued down the court with her right. "Left!" he shouted. "Use your LEFT hand!" Still she dribbled on with the wrong hand. As she past him, he caught her eye and said sarcastically, "Your OTHER left!"

"Oh!" she replied with equal exasperation. "Well make up your mind!"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Don't Jump

In my family, we love words, and we love playing, and so it follows that we love playing with words. Word games? Oh, yeah, bring it! Crosswords, Scrabble, Boggle, Up Words, Bananagrams, we never met one we didn't like. From puns to punctuation, this play often crosses over into our conversations-- a nice word for it might be "banter," but "bicker" wouldn't be inaccurate, either, and "argue" fits sometimes, too.

When my mother was visiting in June, she mentioned that she had read my blog entry for the day. "What'd you think?" I asked.

"I thought you should have used a semi-colon instead of a colon in one place," she answered. Rest assured that a lively debate ensued, and feel free to weigh in with your opinion (note the red text); it's how we entertain ourselves.

Today, when I picked up Treat and Josh from their photography class, Viva la Vida was on the radio. We batted around a few translations of the title, idly speculating about their meaning. "One thing's for sure," Treat said, "the members of Coldplay have no idea what it means."

"I understand if you don't like them," I said "but--"

"That doesn't give me the right to insult them?" interrupted Treat.

"Well, it might not give you reason to question their intelligence," I countered.

Treat elaborated on his opinion, adding that they were arrogant and self-important, and we let it drop. We were at his house by then, and he went inside to pack a lunch for hiking. On the way to our place, we teased him about whether his two boiled eggs and an apple would be enough for all of us.

"I can feed everyone with a single loaf of bread and a fish!" he assured us.

I looked at him in the rear-view mirror with raised eyebrow. "And you think Coldplay is self-important?" I asked.

"I don't know what you're talking about; I wasn't alluding to anything," he grinned innocently. "I was just envisioning a really, really big loaf of bread and a huge fish.

"Oh, I see," I replied. "Well, pardon me for jumping to allusions."

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hello Hudson Valley!

I had one of those random summer teacher meetings today. Scheduled at the odd hour of 1:30, it cleaved the day into lopsided portions for the twelve out of fourteen people attending who were actually on summer vacation. Even so, I dusted off my calendar, dug up a legal pad and my trusty pen, and headed out to one of the annexes of the Ed Center. I knew I was out of practice when I realized that I had forgotten my water bottle, but I forged ahead anyhow.

I grouse... but this was actually kind of an interesting meeting. For the next school year, our English Language Arts department has decided to allocate our required meeting time to Professional Learning Communities. Secondary teachers can choose from six different offerings: Differentiated Instruction, Reaching Reluctant Readers, The 90 Minute Block, Teaching Literature, Teaching Grammar through Writing, Vocabulary Their Way, and Writing Project Continuation. I was at the meeting because I was asked to co-facilitate the WP group.

As usual, our ELA department's heart is in the right place, but when they say "facilitate" they mean "create from scratch." That's just how we roll, and it's good and bad. Teachers have the autonomy to design their own program, but... teachers have the autonomy to design their own program. See what I mean?

So, this afternoon my co-facilitator, Phil, and I sat down together and brainstormed what a "writing project continuation" might look like for teachers in our district. (Whatever it is, it's already wildly popular: pre-registration has it close to filled.) We have one two-hour session in September, and then five one-hour sessions over the course of the year, and we started with the question, "What did you wish there was for you when you finished the summer institute?"

Of course, my answer to that question is that, personally, I wished the SI never had to end. Imagine my delight this afternoon, then, when I noticed that Bonnie Kaplan was kind enough to link my blog to the HVWPSI '09 site; I nearly jumped for joy. Thank you, Bonnie-- it's awesome to have such a connection to your community!

As for the continuity project... I have a positive feeling about it; I think we have a chance to put together something good. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Plain and Powerful

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. ~EB White

Yesterday was EB White's birthday, so I got to thinkin' about one of his most famous books.

My students have a weekly assignment where they analyze their self-selected independent reading to find examples of writers tools, craft and convention. On a day when we were working on figurative language, a student came over to me, book in hand. "I can't find any examples in here," she complained. I hear that pretty often, and I asked for the book so I could look myself. I was pleased to see that it was Charlotte's Web, and certain I could find at least a simile or a metaphor, I skimmed through quickly at first, but then slowed down. She was right-- there were no ready examples of what we sought. Intrigued, I thought about it later, and realized that the prose is purposefully straight-forward and exact-- the vernacular of a farm in Maine.

The writing is far from sterile, however, as generations of readers know well. When I was in second grade, my teacher read Charlotte's Web aloud to us, and I clearly remember the tears rolling down my cheeks and those of my classmates on the afternoon that she read that penultimate chapter, Last Day. Recently, I heard a radio piece about E.B. White's recording of the audio version of the book. According to his producer, they did 17 takes of the final part of that chapter, because White broke down every time he read it. If you haven't revisited Charlotte's Web in a while, at least take a look at that chapter when you have the chance-- there is amazing power in the simple prose and concrete details.

As I was writing this, a tiny spider crawled up and over my arm. She was quick, but I was able to catch her in my hand and carry her outside to set her free. It was the least I could do.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Remembrance of Students Past

Three boys were being raised in a motel room by their mom who was a junkie and who turned tricks to support her habit. The boys were often right there when she conducted her business. Eventually, they were removed from her custody and put in the care of a second or third cousin by marriage.

At our school, we knew the cousin and his family, because all four of their children had come through by the time the two oldest of these boys were enrolled when they were in sixth and eighth grade. That's right, they were 11 and 14, and their little brother was 9 already.

It wasn’t too long before we started to wonder just how things might be going in that home. Even though the family was collecting social security and receiving payment for fostering the boys, they told the school that there would be no holiday gifts for them unless somebody donated something. Not so for their own kids-- they were always well-dressed and in style, even though their cousins often wore the same pair of jeans and dirty t-shirt to school. In addition to other academic issues, the boy who was in my class that year was always sleepy. “My uncle doesn’t care when we go to bed,” he told me. "I can stay up as late as I want."

Things never really turned around for these kids. The next year, one was removed from the home for sexually assaulting another, and eventually all three were taken from the custody of the family, because of physical mistreatment, and placed with separate foster families in another county.

As teachers, we sometimes learn things like this when we're teaching the students involved, or sometimes we find out later, and although such information may give us pieces to a larger puzzle, if we are able to approach each of our students with empathy, facts like these are secondary. I taught two of these boys-- the middle and the youngest-- and yes, it was tough sometimes. Distractable, insubordinate, and therefore disruptive, they presented challenges daily.

Sometimes the greatest gift we can give to kids like this is to like them in spite of all the crap. As annoying as their antics can be, we must try to have the patience to not allow the behaviors to define the person. That's exactly how it was with these guys: I tried to let them know I genuinely liked them no matter what (and trust me, there was a lot of what), and I believe that as a result, they learned in my class.

Walking out of a crowded movie theater this afternoon I was thinking ahead to a busy evening when I realized that someone was calling my name. I turned around and squinted in the direction. After a minute, I recognized my former student, the middle brother. It had been four years since I had seen him, and he was older and heavier, but who isn't? I went back and sat on the bench with him for a few minutes. I had kept up with him as best I could, and I knew of many mistakes that he had made in the time since sixth grade. Even so, he told me he and his brothers were doing "a'ight."

Kids can surprise you with their resilience, but I didn't feel very hopeful as I sat there next to him. Something about his demeanor worried me, but I did feel the warmth of that old affection, and I told him so. Thinking about it later, I wondered if it could possibly still matter, and I really hoped it might, because it was all I had to offer.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Excuse Me, Would You Like to Click for Me?

Today was the obligatory National Mall trip for out-of-town visitors. I never tire of this activity, folks. The day was a touch hotter and a hair more humid than the four glorious days that preceded it, but it didn't matter: we had an eight-year-old who had never been to Washington D.C. before. Starting with the metro, going on to the Air and Space Museum, walking down past the Washington Monument, enjoying good views of both the White House and Jefferson Memorial, and ending up at the Lincoln Memorial, ours was a very pleasant visit. And we would have kept on going across the Memorial Bridge on to Arlington Cemetery and the Metro stop there, except that Grandma had sore feet, so we hailed a cab to take us back to Pentagon City, where we'd parked. It was all good, and I want to let you know that there are 52 steps up to the Lincoln Memorial, the same as cards in a deck. President Lincoln had a big crowd of people up there with him, but I noticed how courteous they all were, waiting their turn to be photographed with the big guy. As I stood to the side admiring the organic cooperation of this very international crowd, a man approached me, camera extended. "Excuse me, would you like to click for me?" he asked. I certainly did-- in fact I clicked twice, just to be sure.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Me Thinks the Chicken Never had a Chance, M'Lady

With yet another nephew visiting, we have planned some fun things to do this week. The weather here has been unusually glorious for July-- low 80's and very little humidity, courtesy of a big southern dip in the jet stream. Unfortunately, our gain has been others' loss: friends who live or have traveled to the north this summer have reported that their weather has been downright chilly up there. We took advantage of our blue skies yesterday, taking a picnic out to Great Falls National Park. This place is a stand-by for us-- water falls, good climbing boulders, and some pretty easy hiking make it a favorite of all the kids in our lives, and the boys had an excellent time.

Today we set out for Baltimore to spend the afternoon at the National Aquarium and to have dinner at Medieval Times. The boys had a good enough time in both places-- there was a dolphin show, a jelly fish exhibit, sharks and rays, horses, knights, jousting, sword-fighting and a meal eaten entirely with your fingers.

By the time they served us our dinner tonight, I was starving, so as the Green Knight galloped past our cheering section and through the spot-lit arena, I quickly skinned, boned, and devoured the roast chicken quarter that our server had plopped onto my pewter plate in the dark. He was a little taken aback when he came a few minutes later with my potato and spare rib. "Me thinks the chicken never had a chance, M'lady!"

Before the boys leave, we always ask what their favorite part of the trip was. I wonder what their answers will be this time. I don't think they had any more fun today than they did yesterday, or the day before that we spent splashing around at the pool. I know I didn't. There was something a little crass or maybe too commercial about our crowded day that made it unsatisfying to me, and I can't decide if I want the boys to agree with me or not.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

That's Mister Potter to You

Recently, I asked two of my nephews, separately, which was their favorite Harry Potter novel. They both answered Prisoner of Azkaban, and that surprised me a little bit. My favorite is Half-Blood Prince; I think it's because we finally start to get some answers and significant back-story, and also because I have a big soft spot in my heart for Snape-- but they said that they like the character of Sirius Black, and that the story told in this novel was a good one.

Tonight we watched Azkaban, and I looked carefully for more clues as to why it might be the boys' favorite. I love the Marauders Map, and it was even better in the movie than I imagined it myself. I thought they did a great job with the time turner and that section of the narrative where Harry and Hermione go back to the recent past; the scenes were believably created with a minimum of special effects.

Azkaban also has what I consider to be one of the most poignant plot points in the series. When Harry and Sirius are on the lake shore besieged by swarms of dementors, Harry sees someone across the water casting an amazing patronus that saves them both. When he wakes in the hospital wing, he is glad to have survived, but he is elated when he comes to believe that it was his father who rescued him. Later, when he returns to that moment in time from a different perspective, he finds that it wasn't his dad at all, but rather he himself who saves them.

I always feel sorry for the orphan Harry and the loss and disappointment that I am sure he must feel when he realizes that his father didn't come to his rescue. Harry Potter, though, is a thirteen-year-old-boy in this novel, and his reaction is to exult in his own power (after all, the kid just cast one hell of a patronus). So, in that moment, Harry takes a step away from childhood and toward the independence that we expect from adults, and as I watched tonight, I wondered if it is that turn that resonates with young readers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Only Connect

Our school is an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme school. One of the things that distinguishes the MYP from the PYP (Primary Years Programme) or the Degree Programme is the organizing principal of the Areas of Interactions: five perspectives or "lenses" that help the students uncover the connections between the disciplines, so that they will learn to see knowledge as an interrelated, coherent whole. The IB MYP AoI are approaches to learning, health and social education, human ingenuity, environment, and community and service.

This afternoon when I picked up Treat and Josh from their photography class, I asked them what they had learned today.

"We learned you can't stare into the eyes of a giant python without blinking," answered Treat, by way of blowing off my genuine interest.

"Did you try looking through your camera lens, Colin Creevy?" I asked with a bit of irritation, at which point Treat, who is a regular reader of this blog, accused me of being obsessed with Harry Potter. "Well," I confessed, "the series is definitely on my mind at the moment, what with the movie marathon and all, and I am good at making connections."

We were stopped at a traffic light on the way to Treat's house and Josh glanced out the window. "How about street lights?" he challenged me. "Connect those to Harry Potter."

Treat and I laughed. "Easy," I said. "In the first book, Dumbledore uses that thing--"

"The deluminator," Treat supplied.

"Yeah, that," I continued, "to put out the street lights on Privet Drive, and then... doesn't Ron get it, or something?"

"Yes," Treat said. "Ron inherits it in the seventh book and it becomes pretty important."

"Yeah," I said. "So there!"

Josh was impressed, and I turned to Treat, who is a graduate of our school and quite well-versed in things IB MYP. "See? Harry Potter could totally be the sixth area of interaction!"

Monday, July 6, 2009

For My Own Good

So today we woke up to a power outage. The second thing I noticed, after the blank face of my clock-radio staring at me, was the silence. No ceiling fan, no a/c, no hum from the chorus of heat pumps outside. Fortunately, we woke up in time to get Josh off to his first day of photography class. Also, it was a beautiful morning, and with windows open for a cross-breeze, the house stayed airy and cool. There were lots of power trucks out in the parking lot all morning, and any of my neighbors who paused to inquire about progress, received the same answer: We don't know how it happened. It'll be fixed in about an hour. From my chair by the open window in the living room, I overheard the workman say this three times over the course of 2 1/2 hours. Once I'd read the newspaper and done all the puzzles, I spent the rest of the morning thinking of things I could do with all this quiet time, and then remembering that I couldn't do them because there was no power. I particularly missed my laptop and wifi connection.

When it still wasn't on at noon, we picked Josh and Treat up from class, went out to lunch at a new place, where we ran into 4 friends from school, and then went to the pool for the afternoon. It was a nice day.

One of the things we're doing while Josh is here this time is a Harry Potter film festival. We plan to re-watch the first five movies in order to prepare for the sixth, Half-Blood Prince, which will be released on July 15th. It's silly, but it's fun. I've noticed that my knowledge of magical things (not to mention important plot points of the series) has faded considerably over the last two years since Deathly Hallows was released. I remember things in broad strokes, and it's odd what has stayed with me. It's interesting, too, what resonates now that didn't really register before. When we watched Sorceror's Stone this time, it was the Mirror of Erised. The image of Harry spending hours gazing into the mirror, watching the false reflection of his heart's desire, reminded me a little bit of the time I sit in front of my computer screen on the internet, reading and writing, searching for important information, and checking my messages and comments: I expend a lot of mental and emotional energy maintaining these virtual bonds, and there are times when it's hard to shut down and go out in the real world to do real things.

Sometimes I think if Dumbledore lived here, he might have to take my laptop and move it to a new location. Hey! Maybe that's what happened this morning.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Food for Thought

Last Sunday, we saw the documentary Food, Inc. The movie examines America's industrialized food system and its impact on the environment, our health, the economy, workers' rights, and animal mistreatment. In our case, the producers were preaching to the choir; I can honestly say that there was nothing I didn't already know in the film, but I thought they did a great job providing an intro and overview to this important issue. We resolved to take our four nephews, aged 13-17 to see it also, not because we had any prescription for them to change their eating and food buying habits, but more because we wanted them to make informed choices as they become adults.

The boys were interested and a little bit horrified by what they saw (it's hard to come away from the movie without a little bit of shock and disgust: that's what they're shooting for), and each of them has brought it up again since seeing it, which is good-- it show's that they're thinking. Most notably, Treat posted to his blog about it, and Josh, who is staying with us, is full of questions about every meal we serve him. "Is this mayonnaise organic?" he asked yesterday. "Do you know where this chicken came from?"

Josh has spent 3-4 weeks with us every summer since he was 6. We don't have any children of our own, and his visit is our turn at parenting on a small scale. It's also his vacation, so we take him on a trip, sign him up for a camp or class, and plan a lot of fun stuff to do while he's here. One of our summer traditions is making every meal Josh-friendly. He can be kind of a picky eater, and that's not a battle we choose in the time we have with him, so this can involve a considerable change to our pantry and fridge-- chocolate milk, sugared cereals, frozen pizza, hot dogs, and instant mac and cheese all become staples for one month a year. (Don't worry-- he eats vegetables, too.)

This morning we went to the farmer's market, and Josh snacked on watermelon sorbet and browsed the stalls with great interest as we chose free-range pork chops, buffalo sausage, cherries, peaches, blueberries, cucumbers and summer squash. Looks like the summer menus might be changing a bit around here.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Been There

The other day I was talking with a friend about holiday plans, and she asked whether we were planning to attend the huge fireworks display downtown. "They're just not worth it to me," I complained. "It's so crowded and uncomfortable waiting, they last twenty minutes, and then when they're over you're stuck in traffic and it takes forever to get home. I don't think I'll ever go out of my way to see fireworks again."

Flash forward a few days. My best friend from high school flew in from Colorado today with her six-year-old daughter to visit her dad who lives here. When we were in boarding school in Switzerland, he was the commander of the US Air Force in Europe. He'd earned his fourth star shortly before I met him. These days he battles Alzheimer's. He looks good, but his short term memory is pretty shot. "I know what we should do," my friend told me on the phone a couple days before she arrived. "Let's take Dad to the fireworks!"

My friend and I are direct opposites in many ways. She is an extreme extrovert and I am... so not. Once when I was living at the beach, she came down to visit me for the weekend. She wanted to go out, but I was waiting tables and didn't get off until midnight. "I'll meet you at the club," I told her. This was way before cell phones, and it occurred to me later that it might not be so easy to find her. I shouldn't have worried. Starting with the bouncer and continuing until I found her, everyone I saw asked me if I were Tracey, because Karen was looking for me.

Tonight I packed a picnic supper, and we drove her dad to the Pentagon. Karen looked around for a police cruiser. She hopped out of the car and explained the situation, showing his ID, pointing out those four stars. It wasn't long before we had a prime parking spot and a space on the lawn right outside the river entrance. There were quite a few people there, but it wasn't crowded, and the light breeze and overcast sky combined to produce an unusually pleasant July evening. The Washington Monument stood tall in the East as children festooned with glow sticks chased each other around and about blankets and lawn chairs pausing only to ask their parents when the fireworks would ever start. We ate our dinner, and the general relaxed in his chair and waited for the show to begin, too.

At the first explosion, swallows darted over our heads, startled by the noise and light, and the concussion from each shell echoed back toward the river, bouncing off the wall of the Pentagon, even as the golden streamers and glittering colors were reflected in the windows there, too. Surrounded by light and dark and wind and roar, I was overcome by how wrong I had been.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Well-deserved Holiday

Happy Independence Day weekend! I read today that Sylvia Brown, the famous psychic, says that Thomas Jefferson never reincarnated after his death on July 4, 1826. According to her, that was his last life, although he continues to offer spiritual and political guidance to the leadership of America. That came as a surprise to me.

Back when I was in college, I had a job one summer selling chipwiches on the boardwalk. The zoning laws in this particular beach town were kind of picky at the time, and even though my cart was quite mobile, I had to stay put on the private property of the hotel that my boss had made a deal with. Even so, the chipwich cart and the blond girl in the straw pith helmet who sat beside it eight hours a day became a reliable boardwalk amenity, and I had both steady beach-goer business and some regular customers, too.

This particular seaside town is also well-known to a certain segment of the population as the home of Edgar Cayce, the "Sleeping Prophet." There has been an active new-age community there for well over 50 years. It is such a fixture, that most year-round residents of the oceanfront are surprisingly well-versed in such topics as reincarnation, dream interpretation and holistic health. Be careful, or they will startle you.

My chipwich gig was a one-woman operation, and as much as I liked the solitude and independence, I was also a captive audience for anyone who knew where to find me. There were a few people who stopped by regularly, not so much to buy some ice cream, as to spend a little time chatting. That's how I found out that Thomas Jefferson had indeed reincarnated-- one of my regulars told me. "See that bum down there?" he asked me one afternoon. "Everyone calls him TJ, because he used to be Thomas Jefferson."

I'm sure my eyebrows did a little dance, but I was right there with him. "Really?" I said, examining the lean, strawberry blond man with shaggy, chin-length hair and full goatee, as he picked carefully through a mesh litter basket. "It seems like kind of a big change of scene for him."

"Oh, that's exactly what he wanted," he answered. "After all that democracy stuff in his last life, he needed a break."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Look Forward

Today is the midpoint of the year, the fulcrum of 2009. So, is the year half over, or is there half a year to go?

I spent part of this day with the sixth grade counselor and the team leader of the other sixth grade team. We had 200 placement cards, one for each student we expect next year. They had been filled out by twenty or so fifth grade teachers from eleven elementary schools and on them there was information about math and language arts placement, study habits and social skills, native language and special education needs. In addition, there is room on each card for the teacher to write a comment. Every year, it is these we enjoy most.

It was our task to divide them fairly into two even, heterogeneous teams, and so we spent the afternoon sorting and resorting by elementary school, achievement level, gender and race, keeping count and keeping tallies. This is an annual event, and when we make the teams, the cards are just cards to us; we don't know the kids, yet, so at times the process takes on the feeling of a game or a backroom draft, with questions like, "Do you want the boy who uses his intelligence for the wrong reasons or the one who can be disrespectful at times?" or "I have a couple of smart girls here, why don't you take one each?"

Eventually, the cards ended up in two piles, and the teams were pretty well set for next year. I can't wait to see how we did.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Never the Same Place Twice

I spent the afternoon at Mt. Vernon yesterday. I was looking for something fun to do on my birthday, and it occurred to me that it's been several years since I've been there without having to supervise a group of students. One of the candidates that we interviewed on Monday asked about field trips. The other sixth grade teacher on the committee and I looked at each other and frowned. Neither team had taken many field trips last year. There were a couple of main reasons why: cross-teaming and cross-grading for math made the logistics of any trip challenging; it was also the first year that sixth graders took the state standardized test in social studies, and there was general hesitancy on the part of teachers to trade class time for field trips.

The teacher we were interviewing looked surprised. "But, this area has so much!" she exclaimed. We nodded, and then my colleague explained that because that's true, by the time they get to sixth grade, many kids have already taken a lot of the trips we might plan for them. I shrugged in agreement, because I've heard that excuse a lot over the years when we talk about taking field trips. The truth is that, as with any other learning opportunity, field trips are only as valuable as the meaning that students take from them, but they have much more potential than most classroom experiences.

My nephew went with me to Mt. Vernon yesterday. As it turned out, the last time that he had been there was when he was in sixth grade, and the adult in charge of his group was... me. "Did we see the sixteen-sided barn?" I asked him. He didn't think so. "Whaaat!?" I said. "Are you sure?" He was pretty sure. "Well," I said, "you can't miss it this time." And off we headed in a light drizzle to the lower fields of the estate. Past the cow pasture, and right before the trail entered the woods, we found a patch of wild raspberries. The fruit was dark red and fell from the vine with no more than a nudge. Birds had already gotten some of the warm, sweet berries, but we picked what we could reach and ate them out of hand.

He liked the barn well enough, but much more interesting to me this time were the tiny pear tomatoes and red-skinned new potatoes almost ready in the kitchen garden at the slave cabin, and the mother duck with her three hatchlings on the bank of the Potomac. Back up the hill, we saw a little boy petting a young goat through the split rail fence, and I remembered a visit a few years back when a small group of students and I saw a lamb born here. We were just passing by the barnyard on our way to the mansion when out it dropped, wet and sticky, from the sheep to the frozen February ground. Astonished we stood rapt as the mother turned calmly around and nudged her newborn to a stand.

Next year, I want to take more field trips.