Saturday, October 31, 2009

Twenty-Five Hours a Day

An extra hour in a day is like the cool side of your pillow in the middle of the night.

Take that DST...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Last to Know

Today, when the kids in my last period class met me in the computer lab, they were very excited. "Is it true that someone stole a car from the parking lot?" one student asked, breathlessly. I hadn't heard a word about it, and I said as much, adding that I hoped it wasn't my car.

I gave the directions for the assignment, and they had just settled in when one of the administrators made a rare mid-day announcement that all teachers should check their e-mail immediately. The kids watched with raised eyebrows as I sauntered over to my workstation like it was no big deal. They're sixth graders; they don't know that such interruptions are very uncommon. I played it off, too, and not a single student asked what the message said, which was that we were in a lockdown due to police activity on and around our campus. Hmm.

The class ended and my meeting and planning time began with no further word about either the lockdown or the situation that brought it on. When a substitute teacher stopped by our team meeting to say that he was on his way out, we had to inform him that it might not be possible to leave the building. A little while later, it was he who told us that the lockdown was over; there was no additional information or explanation via e-mail or P.A.

Later at basketball practice, the girls were eager to fill me in on what had happened. Some guy had stolen a car in the next county over and abandoned it in our parking lot. During 7th grade lunch recess, five police units squealed up to the building and officers swarmed over the grounds, their weapons drawn. Only then were the kids hustled into the building, and the lockdown put in place.

According to the students the suspect was still at large. I took their word for it-- they seemed to know what they were talking about, and they certainly had more knowledge of the incident than I did.

Why is that?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm a Cool Teacher

Because I can yo-yo and find my way out of a corn maze, not to mention make pumpkin pie out of a pumpkin. Sometimes it takes so little to impress sixth graders, but it's always nice to be appreciated.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where They're From

My students are wrapping up an activity in which they use George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From as a model for a free verse poem of their own. This is an activity that Nancie Atwell outlines in her book Naming the World. Her students developed a questionnaire which they used to interview their parents and grandparents to gather material for their poems, and we use a version of that, too.

Ours is a chart that has space for the answers to 12 questions in four columns. One for mother, one for father, one for grandparent, and one for other. One of our students has two dads, so before I gave the sheet out this year, I changed the first two columns to "parent." The questions are about nicknames and birthplaces, toys, games and hobbies, favorite books, candy, TV shows, and singers, hip expressions, heroes and hoped for careers.

We have several adopted and foster kids on the team this year, and many of our students and/or their parents were born in countries other than the United States. It was difficult for some kids to gather much information about the lives of the people in their family. It was also challenging for them to fit some of the non-traditional details of their lives into the template based on Lyon's poem. We talked our way through it, though, and everyone wrote a poem of which they were very proud.

We have one student, who was born in India and adopted into a family with a brother from Vietnam and a sister from Guatemala. Her mom e-mailed this morning to say how touched their family was by the poem. Her daughter wrote, in part:

I am from black shoes,
from Razzles and Legos.
I am from the crowded streets of India,
hot and noisy...

I am from watching American Idol
and arguing about the results.
I am from jocks and book worms,
from "Stop talking!" and "Do your homework!"

... from the love of my parents
when they tuck me in at night,
the funniness of my brother,
and the grumpiness of my sister.
I am from the wooden box in my parents' room
filled with pictures,
and all the things in my family
that make us who we are.

What can I say? It's a great assignment. They were all that sweet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Post-Game Analysis

No, she didn't make the team. We went with a younger, less experienced, but definitely more positive squad. We were afraid that the strength of her antagonism might poison the attitude of the team. I'm still not sure that we made the right decision, though, especially because we were responsible for some of that negativity.

Who knows? Had we been able to intervene more effectively when she was bullied in sixth grade, the outcome might have been different, but now it was a case of trying to balance the good of the group with the good of the individual. We were afraid that she would take the opportunity to treat younger players as she had been treated, and in order to break the cycle, we kept her off the team.

I wish that sometime in the last two years, one of us had been able to forge a constructive relationship with her, so that the positivity of this team, along with our support, might have turned the experience around for her, but her behavior and choices during tryouts showed that we hadn't done that. It was definitely a loss.

Monday, October 26, 2009

At the Buzzer

In the words of Yogi Berra, "It was deja vu all over again," with a few key differences. Sixth grade girl was now eighth grade girl: she was taller, stronger, and fitter. She had mostly kept out of trouble for the first six weeks of school, and this time, we needed a point guard.

The taint on our team of the mean girl who had bullied her two years before had faded considerably and was almost gone. There was only one other girl left who had ever played with her. The eighth graders the year before had had a few spiteful moments, but their unkindness had been nothing compared to hers. Even so, the younger girls who were back now for a second season had come to me after tryouts to say that they really hoped that this year would be more positive. "No offense," one said, "but some of the eighth graders last year were scary." How impressed was I when they decided on their own to be supportive of the new players? What a change.

Our prospective point guard couldn't make the seventh and eighth grade trials, so we let her try out when she showed up with the sixth graders the next day. Once again, her skills were solid, and her game was good. When it came time to scrimmage with the other girls, though, it was as if no time had passed. She didn't listen to directions; she was shoving other girls on the sidelines; in the game she didn't pass; and she called her teammates out for their lack of talent.

At the end of the tryout, when everyone gathered at center court to wrap it up, she brought a ball and stood with her back to the group, dribbling it. "Hold the ball," the other coach said, and she lifted it to her shoulder as if to shoot. "Do not shoot that ball," he said, and turned to the other girls. As he did, she shrugged and stepped hard into that half-court shot. I watched as the basketball hit the rim, bounced straight up and fell back through the net. It was an amazing shot, and she could not contain her glee, but it was game over.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Play through the Pain

We wondered if our erstwhile potential point guard would come out for the team the next year, and we debated what we would do if she did. After leaving the team, she had continued to find trouble, even getting arrested for stealing a wallet off the counter at a near-by convenience store. My colleague wanted to tell her not to bother, but I didn't agree. I felt like kids should be able to make mistakes, and I hoped that a year later she might be more mature. I also believed that on some level we had mishandled the episode the year before, placing most of the blame on the player who was least valuable to the team.

She showed up for tryouts, and she was good enough to make the team. Her attitude was subdued and cooperative. On the afternoon we cut the roster, the other coach and I sat in his office a long time discussing the pros and the cons. "We're the adults," I told him. "Let's not set an example of holding a grudge. Everyone deserves a second chance." We compromised by putting her on the team provisionally. We agreed that we would talk to her first and let her know what we expected.

It didn't matter though. The asterisk next to her name was enough to make her mad, and she never showed up for practice. That was seventh grade... what about eighth?

Looks like we're headed into overtime.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

After the Pep Talk

Exactly what happened between the girls will never be clear; it was a classic case of she said she said. What I do know is this: A couple of days later, the sixth grader pulled me aside during a water break at practice. Her usually lackluster performance had dipped to an even lower point that day, and I asked her if everything was all right. To my surprise, the tough little girl teared up and told me that she "couldn't take it anymore." She reported that the eighth grade girl was constantly harassing her, criticizing everything she did and said.

I asked her when this was going on, and she told me that it happened in the locker room and whenever the coaches weren't looking. I promised her that we would talk to the other girl, but she didn't believe it would help.

"I don't care what anyone says," she told me. "I know I'm a good player," and she walked off the court, quitting the team.

We talked to the other girl, but she denied everything, and no one else would verify the story, either. The guy I coach with thought that sixth grade girl had turned out to be more trouble than she was worth, with all her trash talking and lack of effort, and he was glad to see her go. And that seemed to be that, until seventh grade try-outs the next year.

Get some water. The fourth quarter is coming up.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Second Six Minutes

So, our sixth grade protege and our eighth grade mean girl were headed for a show down. There was a twist, though. The sixth grader was the kind of kid who gets in a lot of trouble. Angry, confrontational, and downright defiant, she was hard to like. The eighth grader on the other hand was good at staying out of trouble. Intelligent and shrewd enough to be generally compliant and polite, she was widely considered to be a good kid. Not everyone was fooled by her nice girl act, but enough adults were that she was able to get away with certain things.

On our team, we value effort, and physically, we push the girls hard. This didn't go over too well with the sixth grader, who was more inclined to jog than to sprint through the drills. She had no patience for practice, she just wanted to play her game, and she got a fair amount of redirection from both of us coaches because of it. She had a bit of an inflated opinion about her skills, too; despite her lack of experience and conditioning, she honestly believed that she should be our starting point guard, and she said so to whoever would listen.

At the first home game of the season, sixth grade girl sat on the bench and watched the team lose. Afterward, her well-meaning friends all assured her that the outcome would have been different had she been on the court, a point she eagerly raised at the next practice. Did eighth grade girl feel threatened? I doubt it, but the audacity of the challenge was something she couldn't let go, and after all, she was a mean girl.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

First Quarter

Two years ago there was a sixth grade student on our basketball team who showed promise. Even though she was short and a little overweight, her ball-handling skills and game instincts were strong. We put her on the team in the hope that with time and experience, she would become a starting point guard.

It's hard for sixth graders to get much playing time on a middle school team. They are competing against seventh and eighth grade students who are generally older, bigger, and stronger. We usually practice with a squad of 15, but only about half will get significant game time, most of them eighth graders. For the younger girls, we view their first, and sometimes even their second, year as developmental.

A couple of things happen as a result of this dynamic. One is that the older girls feel entitled to the playing time: they've paid their dues, practicing hard and then sitting on the bench for two years, and now they feel that they have a right to the spotlight. They are also the leaders of the team, and so their attitude sets the tone. As closely as we supervise middle school kids and as much guidance as we provide them in the classroom, in the cafeteria, or on the court, they always find an opportunity to reinforce their hierarchy. That's how it is on the team.

That year, our strongest eighth grade player happened to be a point guard, and so it was never very likely that this sixth grade girl would play many minutes in a game. This particular eighth grade girl had played her first couple of seasons with her older sister, who was incredibly cruel to her. It didn't help that the younger sister was a better player; in fact that made it worse, and when it came time for her to lead the team, she was almost as mean to the younger girls as her sister had been to her.

There's the whistle-- let's pick it up in the second quarter.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Game On

I co-coach the girls basketball team at my school, and I have for several years. It's a short season, 8 games, but it requires a substantial after-school commitment-- 2:30-4, five days a week for about eight weeks; game days run longer.

At the beginning of each season, like now, when I'm trying to figure out where those 90 minutes are going to come from in my daily schedule, I always wonder exactly why I am doing it. I get a stipend for my time, and it's nice to get some extra cash in my check when the season is over, but it's not really enough to compensate me for the time I spend. What is it then?


I like seeing the students in another setting-- first hand knowledge of their strengths is always helpful, and we all know students who shine on the court, but not in the classroom.

I like having the chance to get to know students I don't teach. In my opinion, teaching sixth grade at a middle school is ideal, because once you've been there for three years, you know about half the kids. This way, I know even more than that.

I like the opportunity to work with a colleague with whom I probably never would, otherwise. The guy I coach with is a PE teacher at my school, and we don't have very much in common, other than the 14 seasons we've worked together, but I consider him a friend.

I like the positive image that coaching gives me with the kids. When they hear that I'm the basketball coach, they're impressed, and it's an easy way to connect with kids whose main interests are outside of English class.

So far, that's been worth it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What next?

The school system sent home a letter over the weekend for parents to give permission to have their children get a free H1N1 immunization. I don't know what I was expecting, but the response has been underwhelming. Of the eleven students in my homeroom, only 2 have returned their permission slips. Families have until the end of the week to respond, but I'm not getting the sense that everyone's on board with this effort to vaccinate 100% of our citizens under the age of 24. There seems to be some uncertainty.

I could be mistaken. This morning, some kids were reporting that they hadn't received the notice, yet; some said it was still on the table for their parents to read again more carefully and sign. Some seemed awfully anxious about the prospect of getting a shot, and I wouldn't be surprised if their opt-in form turned up in some future locker clean out, unless it's already on its way to the landfill.

Regardless, it seems like disorganization has been the only constant throughout this flu epidemic. Take the last four days at our school as an example: no one knew the letters were going home, so the whole staff was called to a "stand-up meeting" five minutes before the kids got there yesterday, a Monday morning. At that time, our principal told us what to do with the forms when they came in. She also said that the vaccinations were going to start next week, except that we found out today that the vaccine hasn't actually arrived, yet. Currently, the plan is to immunize all the children in the county, starting with the youngest, who need two doses, and moving up, so middle schools won't have it for at least 12 weeks. On the other hand, "some people" think we should provide the vaccinations school by school, and if they prevail, then everything will change.

At that five-minute meeting we had yesterday morning, one of my colleagues asked when immunizations would be available for teachers. His point is well-taken, if an identified vulnerability is children, then educators are on the front line; even so, we're not eligible to be vaccinated.

I understand that complexities exist and unexpected situations arise (I'm a teacher, after all), but still, I'm disappointed by this failure of the infrastructure.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

This year, I'm trying to express a focus of the week (or weeks) in a question. So the weekly schedule sort of goes like this: on Monday, the students explore the question by interacting with their independent reading, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, they work to answer this guiding question through our common texts and apply the principles we've uncovered to their writing.

I think it's a sound idea, and I'm trying to make the questions broad enough that we can circle back to them throughout the year in different contexts with different genres in order to build understanding of concepts.

So far the focus questions have been:

What draws you into a book?
How do writers use sensory details to create an experience for the reader?
Where does poetry hide?
How do writers use figurative language to create meaning?
How do writers use models to improve their craft?

The last one is our focus this week, so today I asked them to choose sentences from their books, break them down, and then write similar sentences. What an interesting day we had. We started with a conversation about how artists or craftsmen use models. Students offered ideas about painters, musicians, carpenters, and chefs. Then we used a model that I had chosen because it had figurative language, sensory details, and a dash, to review what we'd already focused on and to introduce the notion of deliberate punctuation. Finally, they did their own thing, and by their work, I was able to assess how much they got of the lesson.

Using sentence-level models from real literature offers an effective way to talk about and teach grammar and punctuation in a meaningful context, especially if students have chosen both the passage and the book. Tomorrow we're going to read George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From, and the students will have a chance to use it as a model for their own poems.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Art and Discipline

My sister-in-law is an artist who chose to become a public school art teacher. We were talking at dinner tonight about her homework expectations for her students. "I just want them to do some art outside of school," she said. "I think it's really important." I completely understand; I want my students to read and write outside of our classroom, too.

Recently, there was a piece on The Washington Post website by David C. Levy, former director of the Corcoran Gallery, called The Problem with School Art Programs: Teachers Who Can Barely Draw. His premise is that "the majority of K-12 art teachers graduate without rigorous training in the fundamental skills that underpin competence in their discipline." He compares art teachers to music teachers, positing that no school system would ever hire a music teacher who could not read and play music. He also compares art teachers to English teachers, writing, "For example, while English teachers may not be able to write The Great American Novel, the chances are pretty good that they can compose a competent essay."

Art, music, literature-- I agree that to be an effective teacher in these disciplines one must be a proficient practitioner as well, but I also believe that proficiency is too low a standard. What we hope for our students is that our instruction and their discipline will yield genuine artistry, and voluntary practice beyond the classroom is evidence that they are moving in that direction.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Circle the Wagons

Sometimes, before I compose my post, I click through the new entries on my blog roll. It helps me get down to business... or does it help me avoid business? Either way, it's a habit, and I did it tonight. It was a pleasant surprise to see that my 14-year-old nephew had posted to his blog in the last 45 minutes, especially since I'd just seen him a couple of hours ago, when we had taken him to see his older brother perform in a School of Rock show.

When he was finished with his part in the show, my older nephew, who is 17 and has his own car, decided to stay until the end, but we were ready to split, so we got on the road an hour or so ahead of him. It's been raining all day here, and the roads are terrible. In the dark, the glare off the wet pavement makes it impossible to see the lane lines, and the tires of any car ahead of you spray a fine mist onto your windshield that even the best wipers can't keep clear. After my own safe arrival home, though, I wasn't thinking of any of that when I clicked on the link to Nemo's latest post. I gasped when I read what he had written:

Um, I just found out my brother was in a car crash. I think he's okay, but it's really scary to think about. We just lost someone in our family. What if he wasn't okay? It seems wrong that bad things can happen to people I care about. HEY UNIVERSE DO YOU KNOW THAT YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG? Well, I guess we're lucky that he's okay.

Amen to that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Guilty as Charged

Our counselor routinely meets with small groups of kids at lunch, just to check in with them. Today she and the minority achievement coordinator had four or five boys eating together, so they asked them how things were going. "Fine," one guy answered, "except my English teacher is trying to turn me into a poet."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Virtue

I'm feeling impatient.

It seems like I'm still not doing a good job giving my students time to write, mostly because the poem and mini-lesson are taking too much time at the front end of class. It's not as though they could sustain more than 15-20 minutes of solid writing anyway, but the transitions continue to be a little rough, and it seems that the bell rings too soon after they've finally settled.

Today was no exception, we were very rushed at the end of each class, although at last I'm beginning to see the groundwork of the last several weeks come together. We finally have the foundation of a common language for talking about free verse poetry that the students can apply both to what we are reading and to their own drafts. They are conversant in line breaks, sensory details, figurative language (simile, metaphor, and personification), the quality of the verbs and nouns, and basic punctuation choices. In addition, they are getting pretty good at discussing what meaning a poem has for them.

OK... I guess we are making some progress.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back to Work

The weather has turned cool and a little raw here, more so than usual for this time of year. I was weary when I rose this morning, but the soft brush of my fleece jacket on my bare arms when I walked the dog soothed me, just as the chill in the damp morning air woke me up and helped me to think clearly as I considered the day ahead.

When I got to school my classroom was bright and warm, and crossing the room to my desk by the window, I was comforted by the space that I have worked in for so many years. Everything was ready for the students who would arrive shortly, and I was, too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

In Which Regularly Reading Poetry to My Students Comes in Handy

None of Judy's children felt that they could get through the passages she chose for her funeral without breaking down, so last evening, during the visiting hours, one of her sons pulled me aside and asked me if I would do a reading at the service. I said I guessed so, but then my social skills kicked in, and I added that I would be pleased to do it and was very honored that they asked. Which I was, truly. A little while later, he approached me with Judy's own dog-eared Bible in hand. I recognized it from her bedside. She had bookmarked the three pages with tiny post-it notes and had penciled brackets and asterisks next to the verses.

Holding the book and running my finger over the lines she had drawn just days before, I swallowed hard and wondered if I would be able to do it either, but when I got home, I looked up my passage again. It was a short excerpt from Paul's second letter to Timothy, and I read it over to be sure I knew it.

At noon today, the October sun through the clouds gave just enough light to make the stained glass windows of the chapel glow. When my turn came, I rose and walked to the lectern. The microphone was adjusted a bit high, so I stood on tip-toe and read the words I'd practiced:

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

I think I did it well.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Hey, Normal, Where Are You?

The school year so far has seemed like a series of obstacles to get around, over, through, and past. Perhaps it was the later-than-usual start, September 8, and then trying to fit all the September/early October activities into a compacted time: testing, assemblies, orientations and introductions to this and that activity, back-to-school-night, progress reports, conferences, etc. The flu has knocked us a little off our stride as well; we've enjoyed our first extended holiday-weekend, and I'll be out tomorrow for the funeral.

Maybe next week?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stuff and Gravy

How sad we were on Saturday morning to hear the news that we lost Judy at a little before 6 a.m. We've spent the weekend helping her family in any way we can, and yesterday afternoon we stopped over at the house to see if there was anything we could lend a hand with there. Judy had fine taste and was a tireless collector and shopper. She always gave wonderful gifts, and her home is filled with more cool things than many museum exhibits or antique stores. Tiny sculptures, books, jewelry, buttons, vintage toys, hand-carved wood, dollhouse furniture, paintings, shadow boxes, ceramics, and other exquisite items decorate every surface and most of the walls, and fill all the closets and drawers to overflowing, not to mention the attic and the cellar. Her home is a wonderful expression of her life, but the unifying energy that made it more than just a collection of things has gone, leaving all the stuff behind for her children to handle. It's going to be a huge job, and I confess that I came home resolved to get rid of some of my own possessions.

Of course for me, helping means cooking. I'm always happy to have the chance to cook for people, and since Friday night, I've been over at my brother's each evening to cook dinner for him and the boys and my sister-in-law when she returns late from her parents'. I've tried to vary the menu, but we've had gravy every night: along with the company, it warms us.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

This is too Much Pressure

This is a last minute emergency guest blog post, guys. This is Nemo from notably awesome neighbor-blog A Road That Disappeared, and I am running out of time to write this guest post, so I am calling on you, the reader, to imagine something really excellent being written in this space! It can be pretty much anything. I don't mind, just as long as it lives up to my high standards of quality. Meanwhile, I'm going to fill this space with some random noise. Ok, so when I'm an adult I'm going to raise any children, nephews, or nieces or whatever by misleading them even more then my parents did to me. I'm going to construct elaborate fantasies and insist that they are entirely true, like claiming that marshmallows grow on marshmallow sheep and that when they get a little older I'll take them to the ranch and they can help harvest the marshmallows. They'll grow up skeptical and with completely developed imaginations, so if they're ever presented with a situation that requires them to think quickly, such as, for example, having to come up with a guest post for someone else's blog at the last minute, they'll be totally prepared and not have to pull off something lousy like this.

Well, that's that then. Thanks for joining us and be sure to tune in tomorrow, when we'll be returning to your regularly scheduled Walking the Dog post.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Starve a Fever

Over ten percent of the kids on our sixth grade team have been out sick this week. Many families are heeding the flu precautions to keep home any child sick with a fever, but some are not. I've sent several students complaining of headache and chills to the clinic. A couple have mentioned that they were not feeling well the night before or even that morning, but their parents told them they had to go to school.

The health department recommends keeping a child away from school for twenty-four hours after he or she has been free of a fever, without medication. Still, we've had kids show up in the morning, go home by nine, and come back a day later, only to be out the next. No wonder the flu is spreading. Probably the worst case I've heard so far is the dad who called on conference day to say that his son had thrown up that morning and had a slight fever. Our conferences are student-led, so the teacher asked if he would like to reschedule. "No," he said, "Next week is busy for me. He can suck it up for half an hour."

Suck it up? Maybe. But can he hold it in so the rest of us don't get it, too?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Choux de Bruxelles

So the kids are working on drafts of free verse poetry, and I stop to confer briefly with one student. She's composing a poem about how yucky brussel sprouts are. "Yes," I whisper, "I can tell that you don't like them, but what I'm missing is convincing details and a reason why you're taking the time to put these thoughts on paper. What do you want your audience to get from this?"

"That I hate brussel sprouts," she answered. "They're really gross."

"Yeah," I said, "but I like brussel sprouts. What's your message for me?"

She raised her eye brows in disbelief. "Ewww," she replied.

"That's it?" I asked. I thought for a moment. "Do you like bacon?"

"Everyone likes bacon," she said.

Now we had the attention of the girls sitting near her, too. They, too, nodded in support of bacon.

"Well," I told her, "I roast my brussel sprouts with bacon and potatoes. They're delicious that way."

She had the grace to admit that the dish didn't sound too bad. The other two girls asked for the recipe.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What Really Counts

I'm of two minds tonight, thinking about all that's going on at school-- preparing the students for conferences, writing free verse poetry, the text book ultimatum handed down from central office, IB planning, and the first of our regular ELA professional learning community meetings-- all of this happened today, and all of it was overshadowed by the news that our dear Judy has taken a turn for the worst.

Judy is my sister-in-law's mother; I've written of her here twice before-- in Thicker than Blood and Preservation. The sorrow of knowing that these are her last days makes everything else seem like a stupid chore. Driving home tonight after we stopped by to see her, it seemed wrong that everyone was going about their business as usual, waiting for the bus, playing at the park, walking the dog. How could any of that matter?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


There is a HUGE spider spinning her web on our front porch at this very moment. In the interest of housekeeping, I know I should take my broom and either shoo her away or smush her guts out and then clean up her cobwebs, but I'm much too impressed by her size and skills, not to mention her smarts, to do her any harm. She's building in wide-open air right in front of the light. To be accurate, it looks like she's actually re-building; a location like that must get a lot of heavy action, and that can do some serious damage to filament, so she eats, and then she repairs, so that she can eat again.

Oh, and that meeting this morning? Both conferences and study hall were indeed on the agenda. In the name of consistency and equity we all agreed to what we've agreed to before. I'm sure it will last until we agree to it again.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Rumor Has It

I happen to know, from an inside source, that tomorrow at our weekly team leaders' meeting, someone will bring up the issue of after school study hall. As long as I've been at my school, the sixth grade has offered what we call "Homework Club" every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday for an hour after school. Historically, it started out a little on the punitive side; we offered it as a place to get some help and a head start on your homework, but it was run as an after school detention, too. It took a few years to separate those two very different activities, but once we did, the study hall became a much more productive place.

It's always one of the first interventions we suggest to students who are struggling, and mid-year, especially after progress reports go home, we really get a full house. 15-20 kids come voluntarily (or with a bit of parental prodding). In addition to being staffed by a team teacher, we have supplies and text books; we give them a snack and a frequent attendance punch card that they can trade for a few points of extra credit, too. For some of our kids, all that turns out to be very helpful.

So helpful, in fact, that a few years ago, our school adopted it as a blanket policy. Our principal removed all of our before and after school hall duty time in exchange for the teachers on each team agreeing to provide study hall three days a week. On our team, this year, that worked out to thirteen days each where we committed to staying 30 minutes past our contract time. Intructional assistants are responsible for all the hall duty that we used to sign up for, and, minute for minute, it works out to be a pretty even swap.

The principal cannot require us to work beyond our contract day, though, and over the years, there has been a breakdown in this shared responsibility. Rumor has it that a few teachers refuse to supervise study hall at all, and that 3 of the 6 teams are only offering it two days a week. That's the issue that I hear will be on the agenda tomorrow. I'll let you know how it all goes down.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Consistency Counts

My sister-in-law and I teach at the same school; she is the art teacher, and I teach sixth grade language arts. We're about the same age, but this is only her second year of full-time teaching. An artist herself, she was a stay-at-home mom for my nephews until just a few years ago. When both the boys were in school, she decided to substitute teach for the extra income, and she found a second calling in art education. It took some time to get her credits and credentials, but last year she got her first "real" teaching job, and now we're colleagues, too.

Despite the occasional mail mix-up (our boxes are right next to each other), I couldn't be happier to have her teaching in the same school. Her perspective as new teacher, elective teacher, and former middle-school parent gives me a lot of interesting insight on things, too. Take, for example, conferences, which we have coming up next week. At our school, the conferences are student-led, and conducted through teacher advisory, or homeroom. Our TAs are heterogeneous, and all full-time teachers have one, so that means that I have students in my homeroom whom I do not teach, as do all of us, but the numbers are a bit higher for the the PE teachers, the elective teachers, the foreign language teachers, etc.

Before student-led conferences, this was a source of tension at this time of the year. Often, parents did not want to confer with someone who didn't actually teach their child, and preferably teach him or her a "core" subject-- science, social studies, language arts, or math. That meant that core teachers shouldered much more of a burden on conference day. Perhaps more subtly, this attitude also undermines the value of an advisory period, which is one of the cornerstones of the middle school model. It is our responsibility as teacher advisors to know how each student is progressing, so that we can offer the appropriate support. TA should be more than taking attendance and reading the paper while the kids chat and desperately try to finish last night's homework.

Back to conferences, then: When our school committed to student-led conferences, we agreed that they would be through advisory without exception. I admit that I was skeptical, but we were given tools to allow the students to do a frank self-assessment; we had teacher feedback on both that same instrument and in the form of current grades, and using those, we guided the students to set some goals for themselves. On conference day, the students presented all that same information to their parents, and we were there as support, resource, and witness. The response was overwhelmingly positive from parents, students, and teachers. We had found an incredibly successful model for the middle school conference.

Flash forward a couple of years: we're slipping. Some TAs are being formed on the basis of whether or not the teacher has those students in class. Some second language and special education teachers are pulling their caseloads from other TAs for conferences and then parceling out those students that they don't teach in return. As a result, my sister-in-law must meet with four students who are not in her homeroom, and whom she neither teaches nor worked with to prepare for conferences, and their parents.

That's lame, and it only serves to justify the actions of that teacher everyone heard about who sits at his desk, "working" on the computer while his students and their parents confer. Really? Why didn't they all just stay home?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Party by Aphid H

We celebrated my sister-in-law's birthday tonight. It's kind of our thing that we all get together and enjoy a special meal. I planned the menu for this one, and we had halibut poached with leeks, wild mushrooms, and little neck clams served over risotto milanese fritters. We started with stuffed squash blossoms, cheese, and pate, and there was also an arugula salad with roasted butternut squash and chevre.

Right before we put dinner on the table, Heidi slipped an apple and pear tarte tatin into the oven, and while the plates were being cleared, Riley and Treat played with the 13 "happy birthday" letter candles to find the most interesting anagram. Not long after that, we sang a rousing version of "H-hay bad trippy" to you and enjoyed the warm tart and ice cream.

One of the gifts didn't arrive in time, and so, to tide her over until the clogs got here, I took the catalog description and made a wordle and then rolled it into a scroll tied with a nice ribbon. Passing it around the table, we all agreed that if we wanted a clear idea of the value of our gifts, then the wordle should be de rigeur from now on.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Lots of people bust out of work as early as possible on Friday afternoon to get an early start on the weekend. I totally get that, but when they leave, it's so nice and quiet that I find I get a lot of work done if I just stay a little later than usual. Friday is a time to clear my desk and get my gradebook up to date. I also try to have everything ready to go, so that I needn't worry about it on Sunday night, or worse, Monday morning. I've found that if I spend a little extra time on Friday afternoon, my weekend is a lot more relaxed.

Oh, those school wheels still spin, for sure, but they do so with a lot less anxiety and a bit more balance.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My Fair Rat

So, today the students took those freewrites that they did on Tuesday and cut 'em down to the first draft of a free verse poem. How lovely some of their images were, and how poignant some of those poems. One of my favorites was an elegy to a pet ferret. Although very rough, this draft showed much sophistication, too. In it, the poet explained how he thought of his pet "pherret" as more of a "fair rat." He proceeded to write three great similes comparing his pet to a fair and then ending each stanza with, and she looks like a rat. A collective sigh of sympathy rose from the class when that fair rat met her maker, because the grief in the poem was genuine.