Friday, December 31, 2010

For Auld Lang Syne

It's become a tradition for us to end the year by snuffing a couple of crustaceans, throwing some potatoes in the oven, tossing a salad, popping the cork on some decent champagne, and then eating dinner in our pajamas.

Why should this year be any different?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thanks to Mr. Time Magazine Man of the Year

Almost 20 years ago I did my student teaching in two parts, six weeks in a first grade class and another six in a fourth grade class. I started the school year with that first grade teacher and her students: I helped set the room up, I was there on the first day, back to school night, and conferences. My sense of ownership was strong, and I was sad to leave for the second half of my assignment.

As luck would have it, my real teaching job was in the middle school that many of those students would eventually attend, and my toe was tapping for the five years it took for them to reach me. Their parents were super impressed that I remembered their children, but I could never have forgotten them, never mind that to this day, I have their school pictures from that year in the top drawer of my desk at school.

And here the story takes a facebook turn: a couple of those kids are friends of friends and so occasionally I am smacked in the face by evidence of how much time has actually passed. Today it was a photo of one of their children opening Christmas gifts. To me, he's still a six-year-old missing his front teeth, but to somebody else, he's Dad.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dinner and a Movie

Back in Buffalo, we went out with Heidi's mom for a movie and then dinner. The movie was terrible-- we all agreed it was one of the worst in recent memory, despite a likable cast and a familiar setting. Dinner, too, was disappointing, but the evening itself was way greater than the sum of its parts, and we all had a really good time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Bill and Emily and the boys headed for home this morning; Mom flew out this afternoon; Heidi and I leave tomorrow, and the head melted off the snow dog a few minutes ago. Farewell Christmas 2010! You were gone all too soon.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Through the Eyes of a Child

A chunk of our holiday time together as a family has been devoted to getting Richard to watch the Star Wars saga; at the age of five, we figure he's ready to be initiated into this family favorite. Trouble is, he's a sensible kid, and he doesn't like scary stuff, so he's very resistant to the movies, refusing to watch them. His cousins, Victor and Treat, have loved all things Star Wars since The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, when they were seven and four. They in particular were eager to share a beloved part of their childhoods with their young cousin.

Truth be told, he never really had a chance with such a persistent campaign waged by so many, and finally, this morning, they lured him in with the cantina scene, after which he was hooked. That jazzy music, those crazy aliens, they'll do it every time. We watched the rest of Episode IV, and then watched it again from the beginning so that he could see what he had missed. After that, how could we not watch The Empire Strikes Back?

It's safe to say that the Star Wars boycott is over. Richard thought the movies were pretty cool, and he paid close attention, asking questions whenever he needed to; though perhaps his admiration is not quite so naked as ours, yet. At one point, he turned to his mom with curiosity. "Why is this called The Emperor's New Revenge?" he asked.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Whitish Christmas

It snowed enough in Atlanta to coat the grass thoroughly and treat everyone to the first white Christmas here since 1882. This morning, Richard said he wanted to build a snowman, and at first we thought it was our duty as rational adults to inform him that there simply wasn't enough snow for success. But then frostier minds prevailed, and we realized that if we scaled the project down, anything was possible.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Ending

I write from 20,000 feet or there abouts, taking advantage of free holiday WiFi. The cloud cover is dense and cottony, offering no visibility. What could have been a disaster has taken a comfortable turn. We heard at about 6:30 last night that due to impending snow, Delta had canceled 500 flights in and out of Atlanta for today. Sure enough, ours was one of them, and they were offering no travel alternatives for at least two days.

We were on our way out for Christmas Eve dinner with Heidi's family, but I called my family with the bad news, because I knew my brother and brother-in-law were the guys who could fix this, if anyone could. By the time we finished our meal, they had investigated thoroughly, putting off their own dinner, and the word was that Delta was having equipment trouble with so many planes stranded in Europe, and that they were using an iffy weather forecast as an excuse to shuffle things around on a relatively slow travel day. Happy holidays to the corporate scrooge who dreamed up that spiritless plan.

As we had counted on, though, Bill and Jordan had found a few alternatives. One was a 99 dollar ticket on AirTran leaving just an hour later than our original flight. When I logged on to book the flight, it turned out that the only seats left were 20 dollars more for premium leg room. Okay, I shrugged. We had two bags. Another twenty dollars each, but free with a business class ticket which was only 49 dollars more than the base fare. So for an additional 9 bucks each, we ended up in business class and we should land in Atlanta, where there is no snow yet (I'm verrry disappointed in you, Delta), in about half an hour.

Friday, December 24, 2010

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

On Thanksgiving I wrote about last minute grocery shopping I was able to do that morning; here it is Christmas Eve and by 6 PM, everything in Buffalo was shut up tighter than ten drummers' drums. In fact, we went to a 3:55 movie at the mall, and when we came out, the place was deserted and all the shops were shuttered and locked. Our car was on the other side of the complex, though, and so our footsteps echoed as eerily as a Dickens' shade as we crossed the vast emptiness. The bare parking lot proclaimed louder than anything else could that it was past time for all shoppers to rush home with their treasures, which is just what we did.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Can Flying Cars Be Far Behind?

Among the promises for the future when I was young was that real time video communication would take the place of the telephone. Every futuristic TV show and movie had just such a device, and some even had it in a handheld version. Back then I remember adults wondering if it was such a good idea. "What if I don't want people to see me when I'm talking to them on the phone?" they asked.

Flash forward 40 years and courtesy of Apple FaceTime is a reality. I remembered being underwhelmed when I first heard about this new functionality on the latest iPhone, in fact, I didn't even use it for the first few months I had my phone, but then my brother got one, too, and I am hooked. It's better than the plain old phone for sure, but it's also better than being tethered to your computer as you are for other forms of video chat. Somehow, they have managed to make it feel like you are really there.

Tonight my family called from Atlanta, and I got to see and talk to everyone. My brother and nephew took turns directing the phone call, walking around the room, showing me the Christmas Tree, some wrapped packages, various family members as they went about their business. It was really cool-- definitely the next best thing to being there. And I didn't care at all how I looked.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Present, Christmas Past

Every Christmas for as long as I've known Heidi I've heard about these disgusting cookies her mother used to make at the holidays. Masquerading as a traditional cut-out, these were flavored heavily with anise, and neither Heidi nor her two brothers could stand them. To hear them tell it, they all had their own strategy to scope out the cookie plate to be sure that the one they selected was not of the dreaded licorice variety.

Last night at dinner the subject came up again, but this time her mother, Louise, told us how those were the only cookies they had when she was a little girl. The recipe was her mother's and it was based on a traditional Polish cookie similar to those her grandmother baked. "To me," she said, "they're the only cookies that really taste like Christmas." Then she shrugged and added, " I haven't made them in years because nobody else likes 'em, and they're too much work for just me."

"Oh, you should have them!" I said, ignoring Heidi and her brother shaking their heads and slashing their hands across their throats. "I'll make them for you tomorrow." Which is exactly what I did, with help from both of Louise's children, to their credit. It was an old-fashioned recipe-- all shortening and sour milk, and the dough was super-soft and a bit hard to roll, but it was totally worth it, and the whole experience only got better for me the minute they pulled out the old cookie cutters.

They were the exact same pressed aluminum and copper shapes that we had when I was a child. That hump-backed Santa and camel were unmistakable, as was the reindeer caught mid-flight, and the star with the fluted edges. "Is there a heart, diamond, spade, and club with this set?" I asked, recalling the bridge shapes that were present but rarely used in our collection. And they were there, along with the snowman and the bell and the Christmas Tree.

The cookies? Not terrible, even Heidi and Mark said so, but it wouldn't have mattered at all even if they were.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

You'd Be Home By Now

We took the less traveled road on our trip to Buffalo today. Our route took us through the heart of Pennsylvania, right along the Susquehanna River for much of the way and then through the Endless Mountains and into Upstate New York. Unlike driving on the interstate, we passed a lot of houses, and as is my habit, I wondered what it would be like to live there: there in that Civil War era clapboard rowhouse, or there in that 19th century farm house, or there in that stately stone home with the wide porch festooned with two criss-crossing clotheslines of drying underwear and overlooking both the road and the river, or up there in that chalet with floor-to-ceiling windows. There were plenty of holiday decorations and as this shortest day of the year drained to darkness and the full moon rose over stubbled fields frozen with snow, the light displays, whether impressive or comical, were all earnest and bright.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thank You, Laura

Today at lunch I was helping several kids put the finishing touches on their gifts of writing, and truth be told, I was completing my fifth one as well. In the midst of this mad effort to meet the deadline, my friend who teaches next door knocked on my window. "Are you eating lunch today?" she asked through the glass.

It is our practice to eat together in the team room almost every day. We enjoy each others' company, but there's more to it than that, because while it's true that no one else on the team always eats with us, it is also so that everyone else on the team eats with us sometimes, and we have an unspoken pact to keep that little welcome light of camaraderie burning. Today, however, was one of those rare times when I was not going to make it in for lunch.

I waved my hands desperately, gesturing at the computer and the kids. "I can't!" I replied. My friend nodded and turned toward the team room. A few minutes later she returned with my lunch all warmed up and ready to eat at my desk.

The day tumbled on headlong from there-- teaching, meetings, sub-plans and Tolerance Club after school. I ran several errands on my way home and have spent the evening packing and preparing for our road trip to Buffalo in the morning, but through it all the warm glow of my friend's small kindness has sustained me.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Time

After the couple of inches of snow we had on Thursday, many citizens of our little county awoke on Friday anxiously wondering about the day's schedule. Would we go? Would there be a delay? Other surrounding jurisdictions had already made the determination the night before, but here it turned out that any who were hoping for a couple of extra hours of sleep were disappointed, and some folks were confused as to why. The roads were treacherous in places (there had been several school buses involved in fender benders the day before), and a two hour delay does not count against the system as a make up day.

Some people wondered if this was all part of our new focus on accountability: don't all kids and teachers-- especially those without irreproachable test scores-- belong in school? About mid-day another explanation emerged. President Obama had made a surprise visit to one of our elementary schools to read to a group of second graders. The video of it is charming; both the kids and the commander in chief clearly had a wonderful time. And it wouldn't have happened if there was a delay.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sure, Go Ahead and Ask

For the first time in a long time, I'm impressed by what the Senate's accomplished in the last little while. To be fair, I know how they feel-- it takes a deadline to get me to move my ass, too.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Choose Your Poison

With the bustle of the holiday season, I'm a little behind on my commitments, and particularly my own gifts of writing. Every year I participate in this activity with my students, and since I have five sections of English that means I get five writing pieces dedicated to and/or inspired by moi, but I also have to write five of my own. The students' were due today, so that we may exchange them on Monday, but mine are not quite finished.

Perhaps mirroring the inevitable escalation that seems to accompany gift-giving at this time of year, or simply because the standards set by the examples I showed them are higher, this time more is more, and my students expect not the pretty poems of the past, but rather some solid stories, preferably choose your own adventure or five minute mysteries, featuring themselves and their interests. Oy vey. I've spent the last few hours at my computer spinning such tales and creating wordles to accompany them just so I won't disappoint anybody on Monday.

If you have sympathy for me, click here, if not, click here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Look! It's Snowing!

A colleague described the scene at sixth grade lunch this way: They were holding each other and screaming! All because of a little snow. Screaming! Yes, the students were very excited about the weather today, and thanks to all of the new windows we got during the renovation, there was plenty of opportunity to watch the flakes fall to the frozen earth. It was sometime after lunch (and that conversation) that I realized how accustomed I am to children of this age-- who would expect them to do anything else? I kept the blinds wide open and enjoyed their enthusiasm before redirecting their attention to the work at hand.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lost Analogy

I have a student who is a super-resistant writer. He's also a very proficient passive-aggressive excelling at blaming everyone else for his shortcomings. I also know from reading the little writing he does and talking to him that he loves playing football. Today, as the students were working on their gifts of writing which is usually a very high-interest assignment, I could see he was struggling, so I asked him to sit near me.

It seemed to me that he had everything he needed to produce a workable first draft-- plenty of models and information about the person he was writing for-- and yet he professed to be stuck. I gave him some advice on how to start and he composed a few lines and then turned to me, stymied again. "Alfonso," I said, "what would you do if you were on the line in football and some guy was blocking you? Would you give up?"

"No," he answered.

I shrugged. "Would you keep on pushing forward?"

"No," he said.

I looked expectantly at him. "Then what?" I asked.

"I'd find a way around him," he told me.

"Exactly," I said. "That's how it is with almost everything. If you can't do it one way, you have to look for another way, no matter how hard it is. You've got to get it done, man."

He nodded seriously. "Do you know what I mean?" I asked.

"Not really," he said.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Northern Lights

I've been following with interest the reactions to the release of the 2009 PISA scores last week. Secretary Duncan called them a wake-up call, a challenge to the US to improve. Others have pointed out that those 15-year-old students who were tested are really our first group of kids who have been exposed to the high-stakes testing curriculum for their entire academic experience, and suggest that such an approach may very well be flawed.

Two of the most successful groups were students from Shanghai, China and students from Finland. According to many sources, these two countries have diametrically opposite methods of educating their students. Chinese students have 10-12 hours of formal education, 6 days a week, in addition to homework. Their curriculum is focused on test preparation, and most schools have removed the arts and physical education from their schedules in order to devote more time to tested disciplines.

In Finland, teachers are recruited from the top 10% of college graduates and paid commensurately. One Finnish official is quoted as saying that in their language their is no word for accountability. "We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible" He added: "We don't believe in competition among students, teachers, or schools. We believe in collaboration, trust, responsibility, and autonomy."

I want to move to Finland.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Good Question

"The day before winter break is early release, right?" one of my students asked me today.

I told her it was.

"Are we going to do anything that day?" she asked.

I looked at her a moment before answering, trying to gauge where she was coming from. She's a good student who seems to enjoy school, so I asked her a question in response. "Do you mean anything important or do you mean anything special?"

She told me that her family was thinking of taking a day trip to Princeton, NJ, but her parents asked her and her seventh grade sister to check at school before they finalized their plans.

How to answer? The truth is that I'll be out on a personal day myself and the other teachers on the team are considering showing a movie which will have some curriculum connection, but more of the enriching kind. Still, it's not good PR to tell anyone that it's fine to miss a day of school.

When I was a kid there was never any instruction the day before winter break; it was filled with a party and other fun stuff. That's far from the case today when it seems like every bit of focus is supposed to be on accountability to standards and preparing our students for the inevitable tests at the end of the term. Of course, there are valid arguments to be made on both sides of this issue, which is one of the reasons that education is such a complex enterprise.

As for my student? I told her that she wouldn't miss anything she couldn't make up, one way or another.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Winter Night

There's a poem by Georgia Heard that I've always loved, and it's on my mind tonight.

What We Hoped For

Sometimes I hear the wind in the trees
and I think it’s him come back
ready to ask the earth for forgiveness.

The smoke rises from the chimney.
It is late fall. All life has stopped
waiting for him to arrive.

I see him walking down the snowy driveway
to a house he never saw,

so much like the man I feared
when I was a girl.

Somewhere up there among the stars
is the way life could have been.

My father circles with Ursa Major.
He has become part of the great spectacle.

We had a chance here on earth, and what we hoped for
rises and sets with the sun.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Not So Small Talk

I don't usually like to make small talk with the cashier at a store (or anyone else for that matter), but today the young man ringing up my groceries seemed determined to chat me up. "Did you have a good Thanksgiving?" he asked, which was weird because that holiday was two weeks ago, and everyone is pretty much focused on the next one.

Still, I like to please people, and so I smiled and told him that I had. Then I used that trick I learned from a four year old a few years ago. "How about you?" I looked at his name tag and added, "Mohamed?"

He told me that it was very nice. His family is not in the area, but he has a group of friends that are like family, and they all celebrated together.

"Did someone cook a turkey?" I asked.

Yes, they had, but he doesn't like turkey so he only ate the sides. Silence fell then, made a little uncomfortable for me by my perception that he wanted to talk. "Where is your family?" I asked him.

"Morocco," he told me, and I nodded with interest. "You know, this country is not like any other country in the world," he said.

"This country? America?" I asked him to clarify.

"Yes," he affirmed. "There are people from everywhere here. Africa, Asia, South America, Europe-- they all live in America, together. It's very good."

"That's true," I agreed. "But this area of the country is different than some other places."

"I've heard that," he said, but his admiration did not seem diminished. I thought about his limited experience of America and compared it to that of my students, who have grown up and are living and learning in such a multinational environment. I had to agree with him; it was pretty extraordinary.

He put the last of my items into the bag and thanked me. "Nice talking to you," I said and I meant it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ghost Post

Today I posted the answer to the five-minute mystery from last Friday. I did so in the form of a confession from the culprit in which she described her motives and the consequences she faced when she was caught. I also wrote it in what the kids four years ago called "ghost posting". You change the font color to white so that the reader has to highlight the text to see what it says. Discovering how to read the solution was the last part of solving the mystery. Fun day!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Call it What it Is

Part of a school's job is making sure that all children are receiving an appropriate education. In our district this conversation usually begins at the school level at one of the daily team meetings where all the teachers on a team discuss student concerns, usually with the counselor present. From there we have a series of standard interventions-- a parent conference, after school study hall, meeting with the counselor, or daily point sheet are a few examples of these.

If a student continues to be unsuccessful, we may formalize our concerns at either an Intervention Assistance Team meeting or even a Special Education Student Study to see if educational, psychological, and/or medical testing might be in order. If it is, an Eligibility meeting is held to consider all the results and to determine if the student is eligible for special education services and an individualized education plan. The committee who makes that recommendation consists of the student's parents, a special education coordinator, the director of guidance, the student's guidance counselor, the school psychologist, the school social worker, a general education teacher, and a special education teacher. A majority of the committee must agree that the student qualifies for special ed, and the parents must agree to opt in for services.

Students are found eligible for different reasons-- a learning disability, "OHI" or Other Health Impaired (which usually means Attention Deficit Disorder, but could be another physical issue as well), a cognitive disability, or an emotional disability. It is this last one, an ED label, which sometimes presents a challenge to some committee members. Rightly or wrongly, they perceive a stigma attached to such a designation, even though it has well-defined criteria, one of which is that the student's lack of control over his or her emotions is negatively impacting his or her academic progress. Still some people hesitate to apply that category of disability to a student on the grounds that it's a negative label.

I would argue that their attitude is contributing to the misconception that there is something wrong with kids who might be ED. They are perpetuating the stigma by their hesitancy to consider that label as nothing more than an objective condition that a student is struggling with and should be supported through. If you need help, you should get it, and no one should try to protect you from that.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thieves and Liars

It's not really good teaching practice to call the students negative names, even when you catch them red-handed with something they don't own or in a bald-faced fib. In the heat of the moment it may be hard to be tactful, but later on such indelicacy can be trouble. No matter how accurate they might be, many parents and administrators object to such harsh words.

I've found the best strategy is to have the kids say it themselves, like so:

Teacher: "Does that belong to you?"

Student: "No."

Teacher: "What do we call that when people take something that isn't theirs?"

Student (usually reluctantly): "Stealing."

Teacher: "And what do we call people who steal?"

Student: "Thieves?"


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Acting Out

Yesterday in Tolerance Club we had the kids write skits that showed examples of bullying incidents that they had witnessed at our school. To help get them started two other adults and I performed a quick sketch of something that had really happened in my classroom. In our dramatic presentation, I played the clueless teacher-- the one too busy taking attendance and giving directions to notice one student harassing and threatening the kid sitting next to her.

I'm afraid the role came quite easily to me, and afterward I was in demand by all the other groups to play the adult who does what an adult might do when coming upon a questionable interaction in the hallway or cafeteria: I asked kids to rat on other kids who were present, sent the wrong student to the office, and dismissed a situation as a waste of time. (Character note-- despite the unhelpfulness of my interventions, my heart was always in the right place.)

On a certain level it was discouraging, but in truth, this is why we started the Tolerance Club. Adults policing the school is not a solution; to lessen bullying, the climate has to change and the change has to come from the kids.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Kernal

My students took a look at figurative language in their independent reading books today (although they really still wanted to talk about who stole the school mascot in that five minute mystery we worked on last Friday). Simile, metaphor, and personification should be a review for them-- they're on the state standards for earlier grades-- so my assignment was for them to pull an example from their books and then come up with a theory about why the author chose to use that particular comparison, taking into account the context and their knowledge of the plot and characters.

Yeah. That was a stretch. Despite the examples I gave them in my introduction to this task, their critical thinking skills were put to the test. Many wrote that the author chose that particular image "to describe what was going on better." A broth that tasted like springtime itself had no greater meaning to them, despite the recent reawakening of the character's desire to fight for life.

It's okay. I know this is higher level stuff, and we'll talk about how authors deliberately choose images again. For now I'm content to plant the seed.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Days of Our Lives

We saw The Social Network today. I would recommend it: it's a good movie, and how can the story of a 26-year-old billionaire not be automatically compelling?  For people of my age, not quite 50, it's also kind of a glimpse into our future-- a reminder that the most successful segments of our weak economy and popular culture are being driven by people twenty years our juniors. Hey, even the president is our age.

Oh, I know, there are still plenty of old dudes "in charge," and not only is forty the new thirty, but fifty is also the new forty, and so on, but the sands are running, friends.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fire and Ice

Over the summer my woodpile became infested with box elder beetles and stink bugs. I was not aware of this situation until last week when I built a fire and set a couple of extra logs on the hearth. Within moments there was a mass migration of insects across the carpet. The air temperature outside was very cold, but as soon as those guys warmed up they had twenty-five different directions to crawl in.

Even though I have no fear of bugs, I confess that it was a little disturbing: there were a lot of beetles in the living room. I ran around sweeping them onto folded-up sections of newspaper, but then I hesitated. I don't like to kill bugs unless it's unavoidable; I have a strict capture and release program, but releasing these unfortunates would probably mean their deaths. The mercury was due to drop below freezing that night, and I had already unknowingly burned scores of them, and the wood pile was undoubtedly full of hundreds more. It would be so easy for me to flick my squirming collection into the fire where their demise would be sure but swift, but I could also let them loose to try their luck in the frigid night.

Either way, those bugs were goners, and I would be the instrument of their demise.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Examining the Clues

The week after vacation can often seem kind of long, but this one wasn't too bad. My students are finishing up their Letters about Literature, revising science fair intros, and preparing entries for the four writing contests that are going on this month in our school, district, and local area. My class has seemed very workshop-like as students work through the writing process at various paces on different pieces, and I've enjoyed it.

Twice this week they have shown me again how, collectively, they are very different than the classes of the last couple of years by the way they have responded to lessons I've used in the past. For one, there seem fewer children in this group who are able to cognitively make the connections necessary to write any really successful letters to authors explaining how their books changed these kids' perspectives in some way. Then today, I gave them a quick activity where they read a mini-mystery and try to work out who the culprit might be, and oh my golly, they loved it! There was 100% completion. "You should make all of our assignments like this," one student told me.

I can't really blame them-- I like a good mystery, too. I've been teaching long enough to realize that the same activities don't always go the same way from year to year, or even class to class, but these swings this year seem wider than usual, and I've also been teaching long enough to know that understanding why will help me better meet the learning needs of my students, and so I'm on the case.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


As one of their choices of writing pieces in our workshop, some students are working on their science fair project introductions. As usual, my role is to confer with them and make editorial suggestions. The style required for this type of writing is new to them, and some of them are finding it a challenge to compose in third person, passive voice, without contractions.

Tougher still for some is synthesizing the information that they have gathered in their research. For one thing, as eleven-year-olds, they don't have the level of general knowledge they need for an accurate internal fact checker, and so in the past few days I have read some outrageous scientific claims, for example that chewing gum is made of rubber and petroleum and pills are made from the crushed leaves and bark of trees.

I understand the kids will make mistakes like this on their first attempts at such a complex task, but here's what I don't get: when I tell them that they are wrong, they are incredulous and even belligerent. "How do you know?" one student asked me indignantly. "You're an English teacher."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

High Point

A friend shared a real estate listing for a house in Stonington, Maine today. It was a bargain, and I was sorely tempted to become someone with a second home. Stonington is a small lobster and fishing town on the Penobscot Bay. It's also where you catch the ferry to get out to Isle au Haut, which is part of Acadia National Park.

I count the day I spent on that island as one of the best of my life. We drove from Bar Harbor in time to catch the 10 AM ferry. I had made reservations at a motel in town, so we left the car there and walked over to the waterfront. Isabel had never been on a boat before, but once she got over the metal grate that was the gangway, she was fine. Our transportation was really no more than a mail boat, and it was pretty crowded until we made our first stop at the tiny town at the north end. There might have been ten of us who ventured on to the primitive camp ground and trail heads six miles away at the southern tip of the island.

Heidi and Isabel and I disembarked on a beautiful July day-- blue skies, 80 degrees, no humidity. I had a map of the trails that criss-crossed the park. "When is the boat back?" Heidi asked me as we watched our ride chug out to sea.

I thought she had understood the plan for this day. "Mmm... six?" I shrugged.

She was a little perturbed. "What are we supposed to do for the next seven hours?! Hike?"

I had a picnic lunch and plenty of snacks and water in my pack. "Well... yeah," I told her, "We'll just explore the island. We practically have it to ourselves."

Isabel was on board from the start-- she had a grand time on the cobble beaches, granite ledges, and balsam trails, in fact the picture on this blog was taken there, and honestly, it didn't take long for Heidi to come around, either. The time passed at a perfect pace and at 5:45 we were rounding the last curve in the trail that led to the dock. Harbor porpoises and seals accompanied our boat back to Stonington, where we had a delicious dinner of fried seafood in our charming efficiency motel room. I was sorry to leave the next day.

I gave my friend an abbreviated version of this tale when she told me about the property for sale. "It was one of the best days of my life!" I said.

"What does Heidi say about it?" she asked me.

"Well," I answered, "she says that it was one of the best days of my life, not hers, but she's glad she was there."

Me, too.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Yeah! What She Said-- Part II

In the the November 28, 2010 issue of Newsweek, Bill Gates posed some questions for Diane Ravitch, NYU Professor and education historian who, despite her initial support of No Child Left Behind has examined the evidence and reconsidered her position on high stakes testing and emerged as an opponent to the Obama administration's education reform policies, as well as many of those supported by Gates and his foundation. In today's Washington Post Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss got Ravitch to answer Gates, point by point.

Both articles are must-reads for any of us interested in the current political debate surrounding public education, but I'll tip my hand as to which side of the fence I'm on and quote Ravitch in response to Gates's question, "Is she sticking up for decline?"

"Of course not! If we follow Bill Gates' demand to judge teachers by test scores, we will see stagnation, and he will blame it on teachers. We will see stagnation because a relentless focus on test scores in reading and math will inevitably narrow the curriculum only to what is tested. This is not good education. 
"Last week, he said in a speech that teachers should not be paid more for experience and graduate degrees. I wonder why a man of his vast wealth spends so much time trying to figure out how to cut teachers' pay. Does he truly believe that our nation's schools will get better if we have teachers with less education and less experience? Who does he listen to? He needs to get himself a smarter set of advisers. 

"Of course, we need to make teaching a profession that attracts and retains wonderful teachers, but the current anti-teacher rhetoric emanating from him and his confreres demonizes and demoralizes even the best teachers. I have gotten letters from many teachers who tell me that they have had it, they have never felt such disrespect; and I have also met young people who tell me that the current poisonous atmosphere has persuaded them not to become teachers. Why doesn't he make speeches thanking the people who work so hard day after day, educating our nation's children, often in difficult working conditions, most of whom earn less than he pays his secretaries at Microsoft?"

Monday, November 29, 2010

What She Said

I received a fund-raising letter over the weekend from Nancie Atwell in support of her demonstration school, The Center for Teaching and Learning. One particular paragraph stood out to me:

While today's neo-reformers tout accountability as the goal of education and seek to measure and judge teachers based on student scores on context-stripped standardized tests, CTL teachers hold ourselves accountable-- to students, their parents, and our own standards as professional educators. Our methods for assessing and reporting student growth across the disciplines are time-consuming, individualized, and specific. Grown-ups-- and students-- understand what a child has accomplished, along with the goals he or she needs to tackle next. All parents want teachers who know their sons and daughters as learners, not percentiles.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Looks Can Be Deceiving

I spent an hour on the phone catching up with a friend from high school yesterday. We've known each other nearly 35 years, and even though we have never lived closer than 200 miles after we graduated, we've managed to get up to our share of hijinks together. She reminded me of one such time yesterday.

I was living at the beach after college and she came down to visit with an English guy she had met over the summer. Karen and Peter and I went out to hear a band play and at the end of the evening after plenty of fun we decided that it would be a good idea to go down to the beach. It was warm and the moon was out and after a while just sitting on the sand listening to the surf didn't seem good enough. We decided to go swimming, or rather skinny dipping, since we didn't have our suits with us.

We were at the residential end of the beach, but there was one hotel on that stretch, too, and once in the water we kind of bobbed in that direction, probably because there was a flood light. Once we entered the illuminated portion of ocean, though, we heard shouts and a whistle. Squinting toward shore, we saw a security guard waving furiously at us. My friend and I ducked back into the dark, but Peter strode confidently out of the water to see what the guard wanted.

He tried to tell us that it was illegal to swim after dark, which may have been true, I still don't know. Pete apologized in his very English accent, explaining, as he stood stark naked in front of the guy, that he was from out of town. "Yeah," the guard nodded, "I thought you looked different."

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Earlier it was board games with the grown ups and playing with the kids over at my brother's house, and now it's turkey leftovers, a fire in the fireplace, and plans to take in a movie a little later. This has become the tradition for Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend.

I'll take it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

It's Time to Play the Music

On the last day of my first year of teaching another newbie and I decided to show Jaws to our students. I remembered the kick I got out of it at the age of thirteen, and I wanted to send my students off on summer vacation with the same thrill. Yeah... 20 years of water under the fishing boat had taken its toll on that particular movie, and even Bruce the mechanical shark couldn't rescue the experience-- it was yawnsville for the kids and a disappointment for us.

Even so, that impulse to share what we enjoyed as children with the children in our lives runs strong. Today it was the Grinch. When it came up in conversation that neither my nephew or niece had seen or read that classic tale, a quick trip to the bookstore was in order, and soon we were all settled around the TV watching that slimy green villain slither around Christmas trees like nobody's business. Unlike Jaws, Dr. Seuss was a hit. But it was the second purchase I made, simply on impulse, that was more telling.

The first season of The Muppet Show shone in the display as if there was a ray of light on it, and I could not resist. For many people of my age and perhaps a dozen years younger, the muppets were a weekly ritual of entertainment. Stetler and Waldorf, Pigs in Space, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, they are all woven into the fabric of our memories. But do they hold up? That was the question of the afternoon.

The answer? Sort of. Times have changed to the extent that the show doesn't really merit 30 minutes of anyone's undivided attention, but I think we have all enjoyed the muppet marathon as background today. The kids like the muppets and the adults like the nostalgia... Rita Moreno, Florence Henderson, Jim Nabors, Paul Williams? They were all staple guests of those classic variety shows of our youth, and to see them as they were 33 years ago has been like a time machine. Of course, the muppets haven't aged a day, either.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Last Minute

"Excuse me! Where's the celery?" A young man just about the age of my students pummeled me with that question as I scanned the produce section this morning. I don't think I've ever been shopping on Thanksgiving day before, but lack of a crucial ingredient and the knowledge that this particular store was open sent me out around 10:30.

"I think it's over there," I told him, but I was too slow; he was already interrogating someone else. My encounter with this manic kid on his Thanksgiving mission made me curious about my fellow shoppers as I made a quick loop through the grocery, and I speculated about their traditions as I roamed the aisles in search of the things on my last minute list. Were they, like I, here for something forgotten, or were they, like that kid, just doing their holiday shopping now?

I reckoned it was about half and half with a small percentage of people buying nothing feast-related at all. At the check out I saw Mr. Excitable and his parents one more time. "This is going to be great!" he told them as they unloaded their cart full of fixins onto the belt.

I'm sure he was right.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Units of Measurement

We went out to lunch while we were at the beach a couple of weeks ago. The mid-November weather was spectacular, and we sat outside on a deck overlooking the wide Patuxent river. We ordered seafood, of course: crab cakes, chowder, oysters, and my brother got a dozen clams. When they arrived, he counted them up and there were 21 in the bowl. We speculated about the number-- too many for a baker's dozen, too few for two dozen. At last we decided that it was a Broomes Island dozen. "What a deal," my brother said, and we set about calculating the cost per clam. It turned out to be three for 87 cents or there abouts. "You know what that is, right?" my brother asked. "A Solomon Island dollar!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pros and Cons

The Where in the World activity was pretty great today, but this year heralded the passing of a long-standing tradition at our school: the sixth grade feast. My recollection is that this pot-luck event had its beginning my first year of teaching, but I could be mistaken; there was a lot of stuff that was new to me going on that year. In any case, for at least seventeen years in a row, our team invited students and their families to contribute favorite dishes to a communal luncheon that we organized for the day before Thanksgiving Break.

In some ways it was a glorious occasion-- imagine folding tables swathed in child-decorated coverings and laden with the favorite foods of students from every continent and corner of our globe. Nice, right? But in other ways it was super stressful-- Will there be enough food? Will it be pathogen-free? What will we do with the left-overs? Despite those annual qualms, though, the event went off beautifully every year.

I can't put my finger on what it was last year that made me decide to propose the elimination of this annual tradition. The activity was perfectly successful-- we cooked and shared and ate and cleaned; the kids had a good time; the parents who were able to attend enjoyed themselves; the staff loved the leftovers-- but something told me that the outcome was not worth the trouble we went to. Maybe it was trying to figure out for the seventeenth time a fair, but compassionate, way to address the students who did not contribute. Maybe it was all the food that went into the trash at the end. Maybe it was the fifteen understandably excited 11 year olds that I spent most of the day with. Or maybe it was simply that completely drained feeling I went home with at the end of the day.

Whatever it was, a couple of months ago I asked my team if they were willing to plan something else in place of our lunch and they jumped at the chance. The fatigue, misgivings, whatever, were not mine alone.

To be honest, I think the students had just as good a time today as any have had in the past. A couple of teachers expressed their relief as well, but none quite so colorfully as one who is no longer on our team. "Thanks a lot!" she said to me when I ran into her in the hall. I must have looked bemused. "You cancel the luncheon after I leave?! I'm still scarred by that Ethiopian chicken!"

It took me a minute to recall what she meant. Over the years, we had a lot of undeniably exotic foods, most of them delicious. At this particular luncheon, a family from Ethiopia brought a spicy chicken dish with its traditional garnish-- an embryonic chicken cooked in the shell. It was with great pride that they cracked that egg and eased the curried fetal chick onto the platter. I thought it was cool, but I can't say I put any on my plate.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Are We?

Every year on our team we do an activity called Where in the World...? Students are asked to bring in a picture of themselves at some distant location. These photos are put into a slide show along with three clues for each locale, and then the kids on the team try to place their classmates and teachers on a map of the world. It's all good fun, and because we traditionally hold this event on the day before Thanksgiving Break, the prize is a ginormous chocolate turkey.

Here's where we are this year:

Costa Rica
New Jersey
St. Thomas
Washington, DC

Quite the well traveled bunch, aren't we?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The local station that plays Christmas music 24 hours a day during the season has already begun their holiday programming. I discovered this today while waiting in traffic and fiddling with the scan feature on my radio. It was hard to be shocked: everyone knows that retailers and their accomplices do whatever it takes to stretch the limits of the Christmas shopping season as far as possible. Our neighbor, who is in management at Target, revealed to us that this year November 6 was the deadline for Christmas displays to be set up in all of their stores.

When the music came on, we were out running Thanksgiving errands and enjoying one of the most spectacular falls we have had around here in years. Almost every day for the past few weeks has been flawless blue skies, crisp air, and gorgeous leaves. It has been breathtaking. My mom is coming in tomorrow, and my sister and her family will be here the next day, and as over-played as they might be, those words hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near resonated with me, and I let the music play for a little bit before I hit scan again.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Restless on my Laurels

 It's that time of the year when each school is asked to name their teacher of the year. Such a designation is the first step along the path that ends at being the national teacher of the year for someone. In our district, I have the impression that every school has a different process, although since I have spent my entire career at one school, that's only hearsay.

At our school, the process is flawed at best.  We are all invited to nominate a colleague in a hundred words or less, and then we vote. There is absolutely no criteria provided other than three years of experience. Considering that most teachers are too busy planning and delivering their own instruction to really know what's happening in any other classroom, it's hard to view the voting as anything other than uninformed at best.

I admit though, that, despite my misgivings about the process, I was flattered by the honor when a few years ago I was named teacher of the year at my school. The next step was to submit my credentials for consideration as a candidate for our county-wide teacher of the year. At the time, I had thirteen years of classroom experience, as well as involvement in a host of other activities, including coaching, team leader, and curriculum development, and yet, as I looked over my application, I felt that it was lacking.

Whether or not my opinion was based on insecurity or fact, as a result of those perceived deficits I took two steps: First, I decided to become a candidate for National Board Certification, and secondly I applied for and was accepted to the local chapter of the National Writing Project's Summer Institute.

I was not named teacher of the year for the district, but ultimately the experiences of the Writing Project and the National Board process both reshaped my teaching and undoubtedly, I'm a much better educator because of them.

So there.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Developmentally Speaking

In sixth grade, it's usually pretty easy to separate the "get-it"s from the clueless. Some kids are really capable of higher order thinking, and they definitely stand out from those who aren't quite there, yet. The thing is that people's brain's develop a lot like we grow-- the tallest kid in the class this year may not tower over the crowd in seventh grade. We expect such diversity of development in kids when it's physical, but it's much harder to accept differences in cognitive and emotional growth, perhaps because they are so intangible. Even so, the kid who doesn't grasp a tough concept today in a few years may be able to completely out-think the one who does.

It's important to keep this in mind, because so often the early cognitive bloomers get labeled as smarter than their peers and thus are treated differently, as are the seemingly less intelligent students in the group. There are obvious benefits of being treated like you're smart-- in general, you are asked to attempt more complex tasks and are supported by the confidence of those around you that you are capable of them. More importantly, though, at this age, kids are beginning to form self-concepts, and how the adults in their lives see them is crucial to their opinions of themselves.

As an example, think about how hard it is for people in a family to shed the identities that they acquired as they were growing up-- the responsible, hard-working sibling can rarely do wrong, while the screw-up can rarely earn redemption. Such roles are usually self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.

For most eleven-year-old kids anything can happen, and it's up to us to make sure that stays true.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lesson Learned

Our four year old neighbor has developed a fondness for doodling in library books-- Gasp! According to her mom she is not remorseful in the least, either. I suggested having her confess to the librarians herself in hopes that they would give her a little scolding that might stick.

Based on personal experience, I thought for sure that would work. When I was five and my brother was three we found a strawberry patch and picked and ate up all the fruit. The only problem was that the "patch" was actually our neighbor's garden. When my mother discovered our larceny, she told us we had to go next door and knock on the door to apologize.

We lived in a Levitt community, and our cookie cutter houses were not that far apart, but on that day it seemed like a journey of a thousand miles from our pink colonial to their neat gray rancher. There was a little hill between our yards and I remember sitting on that dip in the soft green grass weeping and trying to summon the courage to go over there and make things right, but I just couldn't do it. The guilt and the fear were too overwhelming.

Finally my mom came out and took us by the hands and led us to our neighbor's front porch. There she knocked on the door and stepped back. When Mrs. Huddleston opened the door, I burst into tears again. "Tracey and Billy have something to tell you," my mother started sternly. We confessed through sobs and were summarily forgiven. In retrospect, I think she was a little horrified at the tearful drama unfolding on her stoop. You can bet that those strawberries were safe from us after that.

I can't say the same for the library books... Savannah blithely apologized and was warmly absolved by a friendly librarian. She got off easy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Junk Mail

I received an unsolicited message to my school email account today. Educator Panel Forming! exclaimed the subject line. Inside it started like this: You play an important role in molding the minds of today's youth, now's your chance to mold the shape of education!

Molding? I don't really consider what I do every day to be molding young minds. I like to think of it more as developing, or maybe nurturing; molding sounds kind of brain-washy if you ask me, like we manipulate the students' minds into what we want them to be.

No wonder people are so afraid of teachers lately.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I'll Write Home Every Day

I awoke this morning to the news on the radio that Apple was going to make an announcement like none other today. It was helpful of the anchorman to let us in on the unofficial reports that they had finally struck a deal for the Beatles' catalog, and I silently thanked him as I yawned and rolled over.

This evening I happened to be on the iTunes store site and predictably, The Beatles were everywhere. I expected to maintain my resolute apathy, but my eye was immediately drawn to their first American release. On iTunes, it was called With the Beatles, but I remember it clearly as Meet the Beatles. In 1964, when Beatlemania swept the US and the band came to the states for the first time, I was only two, but my cousins were 16 and 19, the perfect ages to be caught in that popular tide. It is family lore that they were part of the screaming mob that met the lads from Liverpool when they landed here in Washington. Not wanting to leave me out of the fun, they bought me an album, undoubtedly the first I ever owned.

Oh, and I owned it all right. It was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. One of the few albums we were allowed to put on the console stereo record player ourselves, my brother and sister and I rocked out to the earliest Beatles for years. Oh, and I own it again, too. I clicked that Buy button without even thinking about it, and when All I've Got to Do came on, I sighed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Amazing Grace

I just can't get that shark tooth off my mind. When I hold it my hand, I'm practically overwhelmed by the fact that sometime between 5 and 23 million years ago this small thing was in some sand shark's mouth and then two days ago I found it on the beach. Is that not amazing?

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the story of the Titanic, which was then still lost on the floor of the ocean. The enormity of such a loss weighed heavily on my young mind, and it was nothing short of a miracle to me when the wreck was discovered in 1985. And just last week I read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo, and I experienced a similar emotion, particularly when Edward falls to the bottom of the sea where he remains for almost two years before a storm resurrects him.

Discovery, redemption, salvation-- who could resist the power of those?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Temps Perdu

Arriving home after our weekend at the beach I sorted through my treasures. We had spent a great deal of time speculating about the things that we had found on the beach and carefully comparing them to the fossil guide that was at the house. There is something indescribably powerful about finding part of an animal that lived millions of years ago and physically holding it in your hand; it's almost as if somehow the spatial connection transcends time.

One of the things in my collection is a fossilized chard of what I'm sure is bone. There's a texture to the surface and broken edges that I recognize. This knowledge may come from cooking, but my thoughts are drawn back to a day when I was no more than nine. I was on a weekend camping trip with my girl scout troop in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. We were on a hike and we entered a clearing that was nearly perfectly circular. I have no idea why we stopped, but as the adults talked, we girls started to poke at the oddly curved sticks that littered the ground. When they turned their attention to us, the leaders were horrified to find us playing with pig bones. It turned out that we had stopped to rest on the site of some colonial slaughter house.

Last night, my brother and I sat side by side on a sofa at our rental house. Behind us the Chesapeake Bay darkened as the sun set. In the next room we could hear Treat and Josh trading witticisms and wry observations over the sound of a Harry Potter movie. My lap top was on my knees, and as we talked the screen saver started spinning out pictures from my photo library. Many were of the boys, snapped on past adventures much like the one we were on now. We marveled at how quickly the time has passed and how much they have grown.

I know from questioning them that the boys remember only a fraction of all we've done, but when we dropped Josh off tonight, I asked him if he had a good time. "Yup," he answered, and I believed him, and that was enough.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Relieved in Two Acts

 Act I

Just when I was nearly convinced that I would never ever find a shark's tooth on the beach today, I paused at a heap of small shells right above the water line and raked pessimistically through it with my fingers. Finding nothing I sighed. Then ready to rise and comb my way dejectedly down the shore I turned to my left and spotted a perfect tooth lying prettily on top of the midden. Pocketing the treasure, I was able to relax a little and enjoy the walk.

Act II

Just when I was sure that this would be the night that I had nothing to post about to my blog, I considered the heap of treasures I had collected earlier today. Fingering the fossilized shark's tooth, I still couldn't believe that I had found it. Then, ready to close my lap top and face the evening with an uncompleted task hanging over my head, I spotted a bit of a message and began to type.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Seeing in the Dark

We're staying at a funky beach house on the western shore of the Chesapeake this weekend. When we arrived this evening with Bill and Emily and Treat and Josh, we found a sort of nautical villa if you will: it has granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances, stone fireplaces, archways in the place of doors, crown molding, and geese, fisherman and sea gull decorations. It's nice, but it definitely suffers from a confusion of styles. We pulled up in the deepest of dusks, practically night, and the combination of stars in the crushed violet sky and the lights reflecting off the black water was wonderful. "What a cool view!" Josh could not help exclaiming, and it was hard to disagree even in the dark.

Imagine what the light of day might bring.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sweet Inspiration

 The citrusy smell of a peeled clementine always makes me think of the winter holidays. It doesn't seem that long ago that the season for these tiny tangerines was limited to the months right before and after Christmas, but these days you can get the mini-mandarins almost year-round, now that they are grown in California, as well as imported from not only Spain, but also Morocco and Chile.

When my oldest nephew was five, he was at my house when he enjoyed the first clementine of the new season. After eight months of deprivation, the intense flavor of it rocked him to the core. He devoured three more and then asked for paper and pencil. "How do you spell cwementine?" he asked, and once I told him, he wrote this ode:

clementine oh clementine 
all the world of clementines
clementine oh clementine
all the sea of clementines
clementine oh clementine
all the universe of clementines

Twelve years had passed when he borrowed my iPhone one evening last December at the holiday table, and launching the same app that artist Jorge Columbo has used to create several covers for The New Yorker, he painted this:

All the world of clementines...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In the Name of Accountability

A big word in education these days is accountability. I heard outgoing chancellor of NYC schools Joel Klein use it at least 10 times in a five and a half minute interview tonight. To me, the problem with accountability-- like the statistics that are its handmaidens-- is that more often than not, it is in the eye of the beholder, even while pretending to be otherwise. Ironically, Klein spent the largest part of the interview re-interpreting this summer's negative test numbers in an effort to convince us that he has earned an A during his tenure. Maybe he's right; his boss likes the job he did, even if many parents and teachers do not. Is that accountability?

In my district, our superintendent, now in his sophomore year, has also placed accountability at the forefront, unfortunately without specifically defining it. Along with Excellence, Integrity, Diversity, and Collaboration, Accountability is one of our proposed "Core Values," as in we take responsibility for our progress and are transparent in evaluating student success and our use of the community’s resources. Okay. I can be accountable by that definition. I think.

Not surprisingly, this vague notion of accountability is filtering down and being bandied about in all sorts of settings. For example, today I was in a meeting where another teacher insisted that she wanted the units she was required to submit to come back with comments, even after acknowledging that she wouldn't necessarily find the comments valuable, all in the name of accountability. Where's the accountability? she asked, over and over. She wanted evidence that somebody was doing something even if it wasn't necessarily of value. Hmmm. Accountability for accountability's sake is not a very responsible use of our community's resources.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Of Two Minds

Just last Wednesday I posted about the relatively minor importance of most spelling and grammar errors when it comes to communication. My question was simple: If the message is clear, then why do conventions matter? I do enjoy tipping the sacred cows.

Today at school we were doing some standardized testing. During such times, each teacher receives a bin of materials that we we are required to sign for. It contains test booklets, answer documents, pencils, and forms. It also usually has a sign to tape to the door so that nobody interrupts the class in the middle of the test, but those were missing today. When the testing coordinator came around to check on the session, I asked her if she had one, especially since my group had already been bothered once for an errant lunch box. No problem, she assured me, and a little while later she slipped a green sheet under the door. Testing in Progress, it read, Due Not Disturb.  As an English teacher, I could not, in good conscience, hang that sign on my door, despite the clarity of meaning.

I know our language is evolving, and maybe, as I wrote last week, such an error will be irrelevant in a hundred years. On the flip side of this issue, I heard a piece on the radio on my way home tonight about a website dedicated to words that have been dropped from the dictionary because of their lack of usage. gives people the chance to adopt one or more of these words and pledge to use them in speech and writing in an attempt to revive them so that they will not be lost forever.

I want to do that! Despite my volgivagrant inclinations, it would misqueme me greatly were our language to languish. That would be an erratum teterrimous. Consider this paragraph my attempt to resarciate. Forgive me, English.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Then Again...

This morning I had just settled at my desk and turned on the computer when there was a sound at the door to my classroom. "Will you come to my room for a minute?" one of the teachers on my team asked. There was a note of anxiety in her voice that made me uneasy as I headed next door. "Do you smell anything?" she asked as I stepped into the hall.

I sure did. It was the unmistakable stench of death. We exchanged knowing grimaces-- there was a dead mouse somewhere in there. We walked around the room sniffing, and it wasn't long before we realized that the odor was strongest by the entry. She dropped to her knees and peered under a large rolling cabinet. "Oh God," she whined and stood up, unable to move. For whatever reason, my usually level-headed, no-nonsense, very competent colleague was totally undone by that rotten rodent this Monday morning. No matter-- I was not.

I asked someone to call maintenance while I opened the windows and borrowed a fan. We added her homeroom kids to mine for the morning, and I lent her the Zen air freshener that I keep at my desk for those random stinky moments that occur all too often in middle school. By first period the room was back in commission, no big deal.

"Wow," said the director of counseling who just so happened to witnessed the event. "What a great team leader!"

If only that was all it took.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Climb Every Mountain

The first real mountains I ever spent time in were the Alps, and I'm afraid no other mountains can compare to them for me: not the Blue Ridge, as pleasant as they are, not the Black Hills, also lovely, and certainly not the Rockies. Every time I visit another range I am slightly disappointed; they are not high enough, or not green enough, or not blue enough, or not jagged enough, or not white enough-- they just aren't the Alps.

Today we saw The Hereafter and I don't have much to say about the movie other than they did a remarkable job depicting the terror of a Tsunami and there was a gorgeous scene in the Alps. I want to go back to the Alps. (AND I'd like every day to have 25 hours.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Following Directions

I've followed Top Chef since its inaugural season way back in ought six. As reality shows go, it's very entertaining, probably because it is within an area of interest for me. Not only do I enjoy cooking and eating, but I've also worked as a cook, so a hectic professional kitchen takes me back to those days. One thing that is remarkable about the show is that the contestants are never allowed to use recipes. Sometimes that aspect is lost in the competition, but it's key to the show's concept.

When you work as a cook for someone else, you're supposed to follow the recipes they give you. It's weird to cook stuff you don't even like, and it can be tedious, too, but if it's not good, it's not your fault, because it's not your job to be creative. That's the chef's responsibility.

I used to say one should always follow the recipe as written once before making changes, but I've been disappointed too many times for that to be my mantra any longer. These days, I myself rarely use recipes, except when baking. When I want to add new dishes to our favorites, I generally either make something up using whatever we have on hand, re-create something we liked eating out, or read a recipe for the basic concept and ingredients and then go off on my own.

That approach works out for me, perhaps a little too well. Lately I think I may have damaged my ability to follow a recipe. Twice in the last week, I have tried to cook from a recipe and each time I have left out a key ingredient. First it was the leavening in some pumpkin bread and tonight it was the lentils in a mushroom and lentil pot pie. Oops. Both times I lost my way in the recipe when I started to ad lib in the middle: a little rosemary here, a few raisins there, you know. I think the problem was commitment: maybe I should either go with the recipe or not. (Or maybe I'm just getting old.)

I'm happy to report that crisis was averted in both cases. The results were not only edible, but tasty, too. Even so, had I submitted them for the consideration of the judges on Top Chef, I just might have been told to pack my knives and go.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

Sometimes I think I'm a good team leader and sometimes I don't. The job is an example of one of those kind of important things they often ask teachers to do without really providing any training or support. In addition to my already demanding full time job, twelve years ago I volunteered to manage a team of adults for a stipend. Oh, at first I really wanted the leadership role in our school, but for the last few years I've kept it mostly because nobody else will take it from me.

It's hard work to coordinate a team of eight adults, and the learning curve on this for me has been a downward arc-- I've gone from thinking I was doing a great job to questioning my effectiveness. This year, the teachers on my team seem over-worked, over-whelmed, and under-appreciated, and I'm wondering what my role is in both the problem and the solution. I always tell the kids that it's a good thing when you start to know what you don't know, and lately, I'm right there with them.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Seeds of Change

 The convergence of the beginning of my winter CSA and putting our garden to bed for the winter (the final clean-up day is Saturday) has got me in a bit of a reflective mood. Tonight for dinner I cooked the very last of the veggies that will come from our plot this season, some eggplant of all things. Who knew that this most Mediterranean of vegetables would survive into November? Probably the pepper plants that were still producing until last week.

My CSA, too, had some peppers and eggplants along with the first of the winter greens. I had all my fingers and toes crossed that they would include a few peachy mama peppers in the delivery box, but I was disappointed. They are the same shape and size of habaneros, with all of the flavor but none of the heat. I am enthralled by them, mostly because they are so good, but also because there is nothing else like them, and  I have never found them anywhere else.

Last summer we got bags and bags of them, and as happy as I was, I know that some of my fellow shareholders complained, and so our farmer adjusted the crop. This year we received exactly two small peppers in early September, which is why I was hoping that they might find their way into the early boxes of our winter share. No such luck tonight.

I'm not the same passive consumer I once was, though. Now I am a woman with a garden, and so I set aside the immediate gratification of cooking with those two little peppers, and instead I dried them for seeds. If all goes well? Next year I won't be dependent on anyone for my peachy mamas, except of course the sun and the rain.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Grammar for the 22nd Century

Yes, I had my professional learning community meeting today. Before I went, I thought that this post might be serving up a little crow to its author, because I actually found the assigned reading to be relevant and of use to my teaching. When I got there, I found that I was in the minority again, though, because nobody else liked what the chapter had to offer. Sigh.

We did have a lively conversation on teaching homophones. Once again, I played the devil's advocate (it was hard not to when one of the other teachers cited page 666 in the language text book) and asked how we can make the differences in those words relevant to the students, especially when mistaking them so rarely impacts meaning. If someone uses the wrong there, their, or they're, it's not hard to figure out what they were trying to say, it just happens to be incorrect.

At one point, I proposed my own grammar: let's standardize spellings for words that sound alike (and get rid of apostrophes while we're at it-- at least for contractions). Can't we agree to make it "thair" in every case?

We have plenty of words in our language that are spelled the same but have different meanings, for example fluke, lead, and bank. Sure, thair confusing in thair own way, but such a change might mean that thair would be fewer mistakes. And think of all the instructional time that we could reclaim, tew.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Petty Tyrants

I voted this evening on my way home from school. All the races and initiatives on my ballot were pretty much foregone, but it's the principle, right? It was close to 6 PM by the time I got to the poll and the line was kind of long. As I waited I wondered about this voter turnout-- are a lot of people like me, or are we going to wake up to a shocker in the morning? In the end, I figured that since politics is our hometown industry, most folks were just supporting the company. We'll see.

Waiting in line rarely brings out the best in people, even those of us with pure hearts and an idealistic agenda. In such a situation smart phones make the time go faster for me, and I was e-mailing my sister when I heard the ring of someone else's iPhone back in the line. "NO PHONES!" declared one of the election officials. "Silence your phone immediately, sir!" The phone kept ringing, and I resisted the temptation to turn around and stare at the drama unfolding behind me. I did, however, put my phone in my pocket.

Another election official walked past me to provide back up. "Sir! If you can't silence your phone, then please turn it off," he demanded.

There was a smirk of sarcasm in the voice of the violator. "Sorry... I didn't know if I was allowed to touch my phone or not," he said.

"Sir, please--" the official warned, but he stopped there, and I assumed that the guy had put his phone away.

Ten minutes later, I made it to the front of the line and voted. Yay, democracy!

Monday, November 1, 2010

A for Anything

Today was the last day of the first quarter, and I had one of those classic student-teacher moments. This particular student has a 71 in my class, and she approached me to find out what she could do to bring it up to an A. I advised her to enjoy her day off tomorrow and come back on Wednesday ready to work hard and turn everything in; after all, there are three more quarters.

Oh, how we are wed to those letters, though. Everyone wants an A; everyone is thrilled to get one. But what do they really represent? When I look back at all the reading and writing my students and I have done together over the last eight weeks there is simply no way to capture their progress accurately in a single letter. And yet we still do. It's as if nothing matters but the numbers game at the end, and even at sixth grade, the kids know it, too.

When I was in graduate school one of my professors was a well-known Shakespeare scholar. I took both his course on the tragedies and histories and the one on the comedies. At mid-term he told the same joke both times:

An attractive young woman is failing one of her college classes. She comes to the professor during office hours and purposefully shuts the door. "I'll do anything to pass," she tells him provocatively.

"Anything?" he asks her with some doubt.

"Anything," she assures him with a wink.

"Then study, damn it!"

At the time? I thought the joke was sort of funny. Now? I totally get it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kitchen Mishaps

Our kitchen is not very big at all, but it is well-equipped, to say the least. Earlier this summer a neighbor openly mocked me for the number of whisks we own, but I shrugged it off. There's nothing that makes cooking faster, easier, and more satisfying than having the right tool for the job. That is not to say that every gadget is a must-have item; that is not true at all. I don't own an apple peeler, a french fry cutter, or a tomato mill, because they don't really make the job faster for me. Besides my affection for whisks, I also love microplane graters, ceramic knives, and those citrus juicers that you open, put half the fruit in, and squeeze closed. Those tools are so amazing that I actually get a little thrill when I know I need to use them, perhaps because I still remember a time before they were part of my arsenal.

Probably the most underrated tool I own is the humble bench knife. That small rectangle of metal with a handle has gotten me out of some pretty big jams-- it both scrapes and scrapes clean. Take tonight for example. I was preheating a skillet on the stove when I decided it was too small for the job (I have a good selection of cookware, too), so I switched it for a larger pan. The original skillet slipped from the potholder and landed on the scatter rug where it melted the synthetic fibers into a dark ring before I could retrieve it. Never mind the rug-- the skillet had a layer of melted nylon on the bottom. Without a second thought, I ran it under hot water, pulled out my bench knife, and scraped the stuff completely away- crisis averted.

Oh yeah, and the whisks came in handy today, too. I totally forgot to add the leavening to the pumpkin bread I was baking and only realized it about 10 minutes after it was in the oven. What's the worst that can happen? I thought, and using the smallest of my whisk collection, I took the dense loaf out and stirred the baking powder in, careful not to disturb the sides which had already set. That thing rose like a rocket and turned out just fine, thanks to that tiny little whisk. I only wish my neighbor had been here to see it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The L-Shaped Lake

I once told someone that I thought Gary Paulsen was the Hemingway of children's fiction, and I stand by that. His writing is at once spare and very rich. One of the most personally influential books I've ever read is his novel Hatchet. It was the first novel I ever taught; I've probably read it at least 20 times, most of those aloud, and I can honestly say that not only did I never tire of the tale, but I found something new each time.

In Paulsen's elegant prose, the book tells the story of 13-year-old Brian Robeson who, through a series of events, is stranded alone for the summer on the shores of a lake in northern Canada. Ultimately, Brian learns to survive by drawing on his prior knowledge and his ingenuity. His experience is not without its challenges and ordeals, but in the end he grows from a dependent, reactive child to an independent and resourceful young man.

Before I read Hatchet, I don't think I ever thought about what would happen were I to be in a situation where I needed to survive in the wild. As much as I enjoyed hiking and camping, it was all pretty much a pleasant green blur to me; nothing really stuck out, because nothing had to. Hatchet put the individual components of nature into context for me, and in the seventeen years since, my knowledge of the outdoors has increased exponentially, and I love every minute I spend there.

Could I could survive on my own with nothing but a hatchet? Who knows? Probably not, but I'd definitely last a lot longer having read that book.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Boiled Peanuts

This summer when we were in South Carolina, we saw lots of signs for boiled peanuts.We are curious Yankees to be sure, but what with all the other great food--the shrimp and grits, the grouper, the benne wafers, the corn on the cob, the peaches, and the tomato pie-- we never got around to sampling that regional snack. Too soon, the vacation was over and it was back to work.

Before I got my full time teaching position I spent several months as a substitute, and I can tell you from experience that it's not an easy job. I don't think that's news to anyone-- remember how in elementary school even the mildest mannered classmates turn into their worst Dr. Jekyll selves whenever the teacher was out? That hasn't changed.

As a teacher, I appreciate a reliable sub, someone who can manage the students reasonably well and who will follow the plans I have taken the time to prepare. That happens less frequently than you might think, but over the years there have been a few regulars in the school and on the team who have become almost like colleagues. Most of them are retirees who do it for both the experience of working with kids and the small supplement to their pensions.

Such is the case of Mr. F, a retired soldier and foreign service officer who has been working in our school for at least 15 years. A father and grandfather who has lived all over the world, he believes he is well-suited for our diverse population of adolescents, but his notions about education are old-fashioned, and his approach to discipline is out-dated. I think both are a little too paternalistic to be effective. The kids usually say he's too old and too strict.

Still, you can't be too choosy when it comes to substitute teachers, and in my mind, his familiarity with the school and with my class make him a good choice for the job. Others may disagree, but if there's anyone better and more reliable, we haven't found him or her, yet. Plus today? He brought me some boiled peanuts that he made himself. That's my kind of guy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

NaNoWriMo? Just Say No

For the past few weeks, I've been receiving emails from the NaNoWriMo people reminding me that with November comes their annual novel writing challenge. My first reaction was to rule the notion of once again trying to write a novel in a month completely out. Last year I ended up with just shy of 17,000 words at the end of the month and slogged through to mid-December, stopping on the 17th with a cheery promise to be back soon. That didn't happen.

Even so, as the days of October wane, that challenge seems kind of tempting. In fact, I've dusted off my novel, and I plan to bring a bit of it to my writing group tonight. Re-reading it, I found that it's not too bad, and who knows? Maybe this is my year to finish it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the Bright Side

The other morning I heard a poem called accidents on The Writers' Almanac that I wanted to share with my students. When I pulled up the text on the website however, I found that the poet, Marcia Popp, uses no capitalization, punctuation, or line breaks in her work. In my mind, that made it an even better choice for my class.

After their initial confusion with the poem, the students decided that they really liked its narrative and could relate to its message, and they also professed a new-found appreciation for punctuation, which, of course, is priceless in a sixth grade class. Since then, I've purchased Popp's collection comfort in small rooms and each and every poem in the book is an absolute gem.

Yesterday my students turned in their final drafts of three free verse poems they have been writing. One boy who is new to our class submitted the following:

today is a beautiful morning its breezing the football is going to be hard to throw because the wind is going to blow it away my brother throws it hits me in the face i get the football and i feel like i am flying my brother said where is your sweater i say oh snap i am in trouble it is stuck on a branch i climb to get it and we keep playing i throw the ball so high my brother is amazed beat that i say ok he throws the ball i have never seen anyone throw it like that only football players

When I spoke to him about it,  I found that his imitation of Popp's style was unintentional. Oh well, we have some work to do, but at least he's got a bit of a natural poet in him.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

More Little Things

A few years ago I fell flat on my face, and there was nothing metaphorical about it. I was playing roller hockey on a basketball court with my nephews and brother. The surface of the court was painted, and the skating was smooth and fast. We were having a lot of fun, but I was playing recklessly hard against my brother. He's less than two years younger than I, so we've been competing a long time. To be honest, I don't think I've ever completely recovered from when he outgrew me in strength and size. Wits are another matter though, and I like to think we're still pretty evenly matched there.

Too bad my wits deserted me that day: setting the worst example possible, I was wearing neither helmet nor any other kind of protective gear. Ironically, I was standing still when it happened-- my skates slid backwards so fast on that slick court that I didn't even put my hands out to break my fall, and I landed on my face from a full standing height. Miraculously, nothing was broken, not even a tooth. I had an ugly abrasion that lasted a couple of weeks and a fat lip, but that was all.

I was lucky, but this past week has brought news of family of friends and friends of family who did not survive the choices they made, both impulsive and otherwise. Right now, my students are doing an assignment which asks them to look at the people and events, the accidents and incidents that have made them who they are. Every year, I write along with them, but I confess that I usually adapt what I've done in the past and share that. Maybe it's time to take a fresh look.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's the Little Things

I usually find myself stoic in the face of life's tragedies; I wish I could say the same about the nuisances that complicate every day life. Right now it's the short in the light fixture, the stripped gear on the mixer, the leak in the ceiling, the fruit fly infestation, the closet door off its track, and the broken handle on the microwave that seem almost impossible to manage. Of course, larger misfortunes can put all of these things into perspective, and they do, they really do, but they don't fix them. I still have to find somebody to do that.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


When I was in high school the whole darn place picked up and moved to St. Moritz for two weeks every January. It was one of the many perks of going to a Swiss boarding school. Ski lessons were included, but unfortunately for me, I arrived a day late the first year. When I went to pick up my equipment, the ski shop was out of boots my size, and so it was another day until I made it up to the slopes.

By that time there were no more beginners... everyone was at least two days ahead of me, and none of those efficient Swiss instructors in their mirrored shades and handsome red jackets seemed willing to catch me up. After careening unsupervised and uninstructed around the bunny slopes for a while, I resolved that skiing was not for me, and with fat tears rolling down my cold cheeks I removed those despicable skis and clunked over to the Signal Bahn where I caught the gondola back down to the hotel.

Despite the impression I had gotten on the mountain, I found out that skiing was not optional, and thus began my longest streak of scholastic disobedience to date. There was no way I was ever going to suffer the humiliation of that first day again, and so every morning when the rest of my classmates tromped cheerfully off for the slopes, I skulked away in the opposite direction and wandered the icy streets of St. Moritz for hours. It was lonely and cold, and even though I brought a book and a little money, there was only so much time I could spend in any cafe or restaurant before I felt my welcome was worn out, plus I lived in terror that a teacher would catch me and I would get in trouble for skipping.

The bright side of those days was literally the finest hot chocolate in the world and a delicious local soup with speck and barley called Engadiner Gestensuppe. Years later I found a recipe for it on the internet, and I continue to tweak it, trying to recreate what I remember so clearly, but so far each attempt falls a bit short. Even so, I often turn to this soup when I want something warm after a tough day, and it still hits the spot.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

By Committee

Our district has assembled a committee on grading practices. It seems to be operating like most such groups in our school system-- they asked for volunteers from each school, appointed some administrators, invited some other stakeholders, sent out a book over the summer, and then started meeting this fall. The other day the committee members from our school reported to our staff. They gave an overview of the discussion so far and told us that in the next couple of months they will be making a recommendation to the school board. One of them told us that there probably won't be a single teacher in the county who won't have to change his or her grading practices in some way as a result of the work this committee is doing.

Not surprisingly, we had some questions-- about the process, but also about the resources they were using to guide their decisions. For example, most of us are pretty familiar with the concept of formative and summative assessment. Many of us use pre-assessments as well. But what the heck constitutes performance assessment? In response to that inquiry, the three of them agreed-- they didn't really know. "We are by no means the experts on this," they declared.

It's kind of an important issue... if the people who are making the recommendations aren't the experts, then who are?

Friday, October 22, 2010

To the Wolves

Several years ago a friend of mine was reading My Antonia for a class and asked me if I knew the story. "Not really," I shrugged. "I've never read anything by Willa Cather."

"It's pretty intense," she told me. I looked at her skeptically, perhaps even rolled my eyes. "There are these wolves..." she said and then recounted how in order to save themselves, the brothers, Peter and Pavel, throw the bride and groom off the wedding sleigh they are driving. "What else could they do?" she finished. "They wanted to survive."

"Remind me never to go sledding in Russia with you," I joked, but I've never forgotten that conversation. Later on, when I'd read the novel for myself, I found that the determination to survive and the plight of the outsider are two of its essential themes, and I might say that those same ideas preoccupy my friend.

A strong mistrust of both the structure and infrastructure of our society have motivated her and her family to be as self-sufficient as they can. They don't live off the grid, but they probably could. They have a lot of time and resources invested in being prepared in the event of disaster. We kid them about it, but when we do, it's clear that if anything catastrophic were to happen, the rest of us would be on our own.

Sometimes I worry about my friend and her pervasive pessimism. Whether or not Peter and Pavel were justified in what they did, they lived the remainder of their lives as outcasts-- no one could blame them, but no one could forgive them either. They survived, but was it worth it?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Bargain

One of the best road trips I've ever taken was with my mom. She lives in Minneapolis and had business in Rapid City, South Dakota, so one late summer morning we set off, beginning our nine hour journey in the green green farm land of southern Minnesota, and continuing over the Red and Missouri Rivers, enjoying lovely vistas and delicious homemade pie. We made a stop in Mitchell, SD, to visit the Corn Palace, and I bought a paperback copy of O! Pioneers in the gift shop. We traveled across the great plains then, my mother driving and I reading aloud Willa Cather's story of hope and despair and struggle and loss, which was set in the very land, so harsh and so opportune, that we were crossing. A more intense and wonderful travel experience I have not had, and I will remember it always. Because the novel is in the public domain it was only a dollar--definitely one of the best purchases I have ever made.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Something New

If you missed the piece on Pecha-Kucha on All Things Considered tonight, consider taking a listen. Sort of the haiku of powerpoint presentations, this new form of communication is defined by 20 slides of 20 seconds each, no more and no less. That's right-- six minutes and 40 seconds is what you get to make your point.

It seems that beyond the pragmatic applications, this format is catching on as the salon of the 21st century. In cities all over the world people are gathering to socialize and enjoy a variety of these presentations, both in selected and open-mic formats. Such events are even being used as fund raisers, most recently to benefit earth quake victims in Haiti.

Oh the possibilities! The focused integration of images, sounds and text makes me really appreciate this concept... both as a teacher of communication and as the victim of countless dreary slide shows.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I've had a couple of authors comment on this blog after I mentioned them and their books by name. In both cases I was completely thrilled that these posts I send out into the Universe with perhaps equal parts faith and vanity found not only a reader beyond my immediate family and friends, but also another writer with whose work I had connected.

I suspect that the fine hand of Google Alerts or a similar tool is behind their readership, but that does not lessen the experience for me. I have a couple of alerts of my own out there. One is for Nancie Atwell; I believe she's a bellwether for the state of language arts instruction, and I want to know what people are saying about her theories and practice. Over the last couple of years this alert has led me to some very interesting teacher-written blogs.

The other is for the Barbara Jordan school in Detroit. Early last summer I read that this school was being taken over by a committee of teachers and I've tried to follow their progress, because another of my beliefs is that for schools to be most effective, everyone in charge should teach at least one class (including central office).

After my last close encounter with an author I decided to double my Google Alerts. In addition to those two, my new settings include my own name, first and last, which I never expect to be mentioned, and the name of this blog, Walking the Dog, from which I expect to get several unrelated hits every day. I think it will be amusing, at least for a while, and especially if today is any indication-- I've already found a theme song: Walking the Dog by Fun.

Or not.

Monday, October 18, 2010

She Sighs With Relief

Today was one of those Mondays that I expected I would have to grit my teeth and tough it through. The lesson that I planned before leaving on Friday had just seemed a little off, and as I've noted before, the kids this year are just a little high maintenance. So how surprised was I when every class proceeded quite smoothly with nary a blank stare? It seems like the students are finally settling into a routine, and our daily practice and expectations are finally becoming a common language. Fingers crossed for tomorrow...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Meet the McGees

Once, a long time ago, I opened the door to let my cat in for dinner and he deposited a live white mouse on the doormat before hurrying off to eat his Fancy Feast. We spent some time speculating about where our cat had been-- had he raided a science lab? stolen someone's pet? saved the little rodent from becoming snake food? --but neither the cat nor the mouse was talking.

The mouse was completely unharmed but clearly unfit for outdoor life, so we did what any other nutty animal lovers would do. We got a tank and some cedar shavings and kept him as our pet. We had another cat named Molly at the time, and she was fascinated by him, spent hours watching his tank (we called it MTV, mouse TV), and so we named him Fibber. Soon we began saying that all of our pets had the last name of McGee: they were Molly, Fibber, Oliver, Noah, and Silly McGee. When we rescued a betta fish from a floral arrangement at a party a few months later, we named him Bobby and he fit right in.

The McGees are all long gone now, gone the way of so many beloved pets, but they are not forgotten. Tonight I heard that the Philippines is bracing for Typhoon McGee; at least that's what it sounded like on the radio. McGee seemed like a strange name for a Pacific storm, so I looked it up and found that it was actually "Megi," which by some accounts means catfish. That works, but Typhoon could have been a great name for a canary or maybe even an iguana, too.