Sunday, February 28, 2010


March brings the Slice of Life Story Challenge sponsored by the Two Writing Teachers blog and website. It was in response to this challenge last year that I began posting to my blog every day, and tomorrow begins my second year of doing so.

This time around I asked my writing group members to try the March challenge, too, and I can't wait to read what they write and see what they think of the experience. Anyone else out there who is interested in participating, the premise is simple: write about an event in your day and post it to your blog. (No blog? Start one! It's easy.) Then link your post to the TWT website every day in March.

They have drawings for nice prizes at the end, but the coolest thing about the challenge is that you get a built-in audience. Slicers try to read and reply to a few of the other writers every day. Last year, I was surprised at how powerful the experience of receiving responses to my writing from people I didn't know was, and it was amazing how quickly a community of writers grew.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Now it's a Party

Yeah, something got broken.

Filed under the category of man-what-a-bummer:

Purchased new car on Tuesday, knocked passenger side mirror to pieces on Saturday. Blame it on the parking garage, but don't I feel like an idiot?  I've been thinking all week that new cars are nice, but a certain sense of ownership and familiarity is definitely missing. Unfortunately, this little mishap hasn't helped with that; now I just feel like I'm driving somebody else's broken car. Maybe I'll go wipe muddy foot prints on the floor mats or something.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What's in a Name?

The recent snow days out of school gave my students some fresh memoir material. There are many tales of igloos, snow forts, and shoveling misadventures. As they've been working toward a final draft, we've done some mini-lessons on the qualities of an effective memoir. First, they worked in small groups to brainstorm improvements for a rough draft that was in obvious need of expansion. Then we turned that list around. So, if the title of the first piece was boring, then we agreed that a memoir needs a great title. Since the lead didn't grab them, they understood that for a successful piece, the lead should be strong, and so on. I'll use this same checklist for both their self-evaluation and my own assessment of their final drafts.

We're getting close to finishing, and a student who wants the best grade for the minimum effort approached me today waving her two page memoir. She's a talented writer who always takes pains to let me know she hates the assignment, whatever it might be. "Is this good enough for an A?" she asked me.

"Do you think it's good?" I replied.

"I don't know. I can never tell about my own writing," she told me.

"That's a shame," I said, "since you're the only one you can always count on to read what you've written. Let's work on that. How about this title? The Igloo? Does it grab you?"

"Not really," she said, "but why does it have to? JK Rowling's books have boring titles. They're always Harry Potter and the something." She thought a moment. 'Like Deathly Hallows. That's boring. But the books are the best."

"Deathly Hallows is not boring," I argued. "Far from it. Both death and hallow are very engaging ideas." She shrugged. "Go brainstorm three more titles for your piece," I directed her. "Then come back."

A few minutes later, she returned with these titles: The Great Igloo, The Snowy Night, and The First Night of Snow. I rolled my eyes and told her to keep working. Meanwhile, the author of another igloo story had been listening intently to our exchange. He handed me his piece with some concern and asked for ideas. I mentioned that the verb "dug" and his comparison to a foxhole stood out for me. A few minutes later he had these: Frozen Foxhole and I Know What You Dug Last Winter.

Now that's the spirit!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Not Just a Job

It's always a flag when you're happy if a student happens to be absent, but what a relief to be able to teach your class without the distractions that certain kids regularly create. Such a situation illustrates the struggle that teachers face to balance the good of the group against the good of the individual.

As contrary as it might sound, I generally appreciate the disruptive student because she will not allow me to ignore her, and by so doing to fail her. She is usually not the only student who is unengaged by my class or lesson, and she does me the courtesy of letting me know. Even so, in the midst of working through all the issues involved, it's hard not to get frustrated and a be little resentful at times-- after all, not many of us became teachers in order to deal with contrary children. But many of us did become teachers to make a difference by reaching kids, and it's silly to think it should be easy.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Law and Order

I teach in a state where each morning we have a minute of silence mandated by law following the equally mandatory Pledge of Allegiance. Over the years, I've found most students to be pretty compliant to both requirements. Ours is a very international community, but even kids who are foreign citizens stand respectfully, and some of them even recite the pledge. If ever there's a problem, it's with that minute of silence-- sixty seconds of stillness can be quite a challenge for certain eleven-year-olds.

A couple of weeks ago, I was shushing one of the usual culprits, when he piped up to ask why we even have such a thing. (Mind you, he's been exposed to this routine since kindergarten. Did the question really only occur to him now?) "It's a state law," I told him when the minute had ended. "So, technically? Every time I ask you to be quiet during it, you're in violation of the law."

"What? Are they going to arrest me?" he asked. A couple of the other kids snickered.

I shrugged. "You could probably get a fine or something. I'm not really sure. Should we ask the resource officer?" I looked around the room at eleven suddenly wide-eyed children, and laughed. "I'm just telling you that the minute of silence wasn't my idea. By law, we're supposed to be quiet."

We moved on to whatever we were doing next, and I forgot about the whole thing until today. A student in another class came to my desk looking like his business was very urgent. "Is it true that you threatened to call the police on your homeroom if they wouldn't be quiet?"

Now that's how rumors get started.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Professional Courtesy

A couple of kids poked their heads in my door right after school. "Can we make some copies?" one of them asked. Kids don't ordinarily need to copy things at our school, so I asked them what was up. It turned out that another teacher, not on my team, had given out packets of information about a big field trip. One of the students had hers, but the other did not; they wanted to know if I would make a copy for her. I wondered if they had asked their teacher for another packet, and they told me that any student who lost the information would be penalized with a lunch detention before receiving the replacement. The single copy that they had in their possession had already been paid for in precious lunch time, and that student was hoping to spare her friend a similar fate.

I understand that the teacher who imposes it is trying to instill a sense of responsibility and consequences in the students, but I think that such a penalty for losing paperwork is dumb and overly-punitive. Even so, I hesitated when asked to make the copies. The students wheedled and begged and swore that they would never tell the other teacher. (Had they visions of me, stealthily entering the office, checking to see that the coast is clear, and surreptitiously feeding the papers into the machine, all the while looking over my shoulder for fear of my draconian co-worker?) In the end, I held my ground, though, unwilling to unilaterally undermine the professional judgment of a colleague.

I think they understood, but I'm still not sure I did the right thing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Desks in Rows

A colleague stopped by my room to ask a question today. "Whoa!" she said, "What's going on in here?" She was reacting to the way the furniture in my classroom was arranged. Our school was built in the early 70's, and I know I have some of the original furniture in my room: heavy chairs made out of chromed steel with some sort of ceramic seats and backs (all in the harvest palette of the time, too-- gold, brown, rust, and red) and trapezoid-shaped tables that I push into hexagons most of the time.

My room is big but not huge, and I want a central space where the kids can sit on the floor in a circle, but I also want a place where they can meet in small groups, so we push the furniture around to accommodate those things. When we have class meetings, I arrange the tables in a big parallelogram with an open space in the center, and thirty of us sit around the perimeter. If I have a meeting, I move them into a conference table shape. It hardly takes a minute, and rearranging the room is stimulating and engaging for the students.

Tomorrow, the counselor is coming in to do academic planning and 7th grade scheduling. She wants to use the projector and needs the kids to be able to see the screen and copy what's there. When we were planning the activity last week, it occurred to me that this would be an opportunity for me to arrange my room in a configuration it's seldom seen: rows facing forward.

When the kids left today for PE and electives, I moved the furniture to prepare for tomorrow. Later I sat at my desk, off to the side, and visualized all the tables turned 90 degrees to face me, students silently working, heads down, as I presided over the class ensconced behind the big desk. It was a scene from my childhood, and there was something comforting and nostalgic about the vision, but it made me giggle, too, because it was sooooo not us.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Best. Amish. Friendship. Bread. Ever.

The week before last, during all the snow, a neighbor came by to borrow a cup of oil, and in exchange she gave us some Amish Friendship Bread starter. We thanked her politely, but inwardly I groaned. I've been on the AFB train before, and it's a lot of pressure and responsibility to properly care for such a gift.

For those who are not familiar, the starter is yeast-based and the cycle from receiving the starter to finished product is 10 days. Each day you are responsible to take some action to maintain the brew on your counter. On days five and ten, you have to feed the starter with milk, sugar and flour, but on the other days you only need to stir and burp the gassy goo. It sounds relatively simple, but even so, you run the risk of the whole project taking over your kitchen if not a good portion of your free time. It bubbles and expands, and depending on the container, it pops the lid and spills over onto the counter.

Once you've fed it on day five, you have an even larger fermenting presence to deal with, and frequent clean-ups are not uncommon. When you arrive at day ten, you are charged to feed it once again and then split the resulting batter into four parts-- one to bake with, one to keep, and two for a couple of your friends. And then it all starts again...

After a few cycles, you run out of friends to bestow the starter upon, and frankly? I'm not so sure the ones you've given it to already are so happy with you. The bread itself, a product that, to its credit has almost endless variations, isn't really all that yummy, plus, the recipe inexplicably calls for pudding mix, which cancels out any homemade, non-processed benefits this high-sugar, high-fat dish might otherwise claim.

Even though I have a couple of bags of previous starters in the freezer from other friends (and none of us are even Amish! --but it seems somehow disloyal to throw them away), I took this batch to the end. Over the years I have made many, many variations on the recipe-- butterscotch, chocolate chip, peanut butter, blueberry, chocolate cherry, apricot almond, and more, but I wanted this to be really, really good in order to counteract that nagging resentment I was feeling toward my neighbor.

So here's what I did: I made a ton of cinnamon pecan streusel, and I layered it in with the batter and packed it on top of the loaf pans, and then I baked those suckers off. And you know what? It was delicious! But I still put the extra starter into the freezer.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dry Spell

I have a couple of go-to strategies when it comes to coming up with an idea for my daily post:  I either write about the most memorable thing that happened to me recently or I try to connect some disparate events in my present and past to make a greater point. Days like today, when it's already 10:30 and I don't have an idea, I wish there were a couple of other tools in my inspiration box.

Oh golly, what to write about? My optimism and doubts about the facebook group I started for our school literary magazine?  Our visit to the mushy snow and muddy dog park? My nephew's School of Rock show? (His guitar playing was awesome and he sang lead on Just Like Heaven!) The inevitable frustration of the ubiquitous traffic congestion in our oh-so-populated-and-getting-more-crowded-all-the-time area? The death of Cesar Millan's beloved pitbull Daddy? The absurdity of cake challenges on the food network?

Hmmm. All promising, but none are quite ripe today.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Gifted Minds

Years ago I attended my first G/T Night for the parents of those students who had been designated gifted and/or talented. The objective was to provide an overview of the services such students would receive and what accommodations their teachers would provide in the classroom. My role was to represent my sixth grade team and answer any specific questions our students' parents might have.

The person in charge of the meeting had planned an ice breaker activity. It was some divergent thinking problem about a bank; you know the type:  

On November 11, such and such employees were there, this and that customer arrived, some money disappeared, and the police were called. What happened?

Each group was supposed to come up with some questions and a theory, and we all set to work trying to figure out who was responsible for the stolen money. A reward was offered for the first to come up with the solution.

Well... evidently the gifted apple does not fall far from the talented tree; let's just say it got a little competitive in there. People were calling out with questions and hypotheses, each group sure that they had the right answer. It was a real hubbub, and the coordinator struggled to regain control of the meeting. Finally things quieted somewhat, and she was able to point to one group who had been a bit quieter than the others. "What did you think?" she asked.

Their spokesman scratched his head. "Honestly?" he asked. "We're still trying to figure out why that bank was open on Veteran's Day."

Now that's divergent thinking.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Don't I Think of these Things?

Fed UP: School Lunch Project

Great concept, important issue.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do

We ran into our three-and-a-half year old neighbor, Savannah, her mom, and one-year-old brother as they were on their way back from some junior sledding on one of the small hills around here. Savannah's mittens were wet and crusted with snow, and you could see that there was some snow packed down into the tops of her boots, too. (Remember how much that stings?) Her cheeks were red, and her nose was running.

Seeing her reminded me of how uncomfortable the snow can be when you're little. You don't really have the body awareness to stay warm and dry, and the cold, wet yuckiness inevitably sneaks up on you when you're playing. That and having to pee when you're wearing a coat over a one-piece snowsuit are real drawbacks to fully enjoying the snow when you're a kid.

We stood chatting with her mom when Savannah interrupted the conversation. "Excuse me," she said, so politely that we all turned to listen. "Do you want to know why my nose is stuffy?"

Of course we did. "Because I was crying before," she informed us. "My mommy closed me in my room, because I wouldn't follow the directions to get dressed, and I cried." If she was looking for shock or condemnation of her mother, she didn't get it from us. But we did nod sympathetically, I more so than the others.

"My gosh, Savannah, the same thing happened to me when I was little!" I told her. "My mom wouldn't let me come out of my room until I got dressed, and I cried and cried because I really, really didn't want to put my clothes on all by myself." To this day, I can still see the other kids in the neighborhood playing in our court, as I tearfully watched them out the window. The sunshine seemed so warm and bright, and their shouts and laughter so merry.

"What did you do?" she asked.

"I got dressed," I shrugged. She obviously doesn't know my mother. "How about you?"

"Yeah," she sighed, "Me, too." She paused and looked pointedly at her mother. "But I didn't like it."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Like My Cabin

We were back to school today after our unexpected snow vacation. Many roads and sidewalks are still treacherous-- every other student had a story about falling on the way to school this morning. Of course my favorite has to be the one about the girl who just gave up trying to walk at all on the icy path and crawled the last few yards to her bus stop.

Her narrative illustrates not only the perilous conditions our students braved to get here this morning, but also their motivation to make it. Most of the kids I talked to today enjoyed their time off, but even the most reluctant of students was happy to be back. Why? The most common explanation was that they were bored.

My experience was the opposite. The term "cabin fever" has no meaning for me. I found the quiet days off at home restful and recharging. Not that I wasn't happy to return, too, but it wasn't because I was bored at home.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What Makes a Good Movie?

We saw The Messenger the other night. As unrelenting as Precious, but with even less redemption, the movie ruined my evening. It wasn't that I disagreed with its premise or message; it was just so bleak and angry that it was two very difficult hours spent and impossible to shake for hours afterward.  Does that make it a good movie or bad movie? It's hard to say, but I'll tell you this. Since then I've seen two other movies, The Lightning Thief and Valentines Day. Both were flawed, some would say deeply so, but when the lights came up, I turned without disappointment to my friend. "Well," I said, "it wasn't The Messenger."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

S'no More, Please

Two annoying things about our historic snowfall this winter:

1) Why the need to name the storms (at all, much less with terrible Book of Revelation puns)? Snowpocalypse? Snowmeggedon? Even Snowverkill, while much funnier in my opinion, because it actually rhymes with the word it's playing on, is overkill. We're not Eskimos, people, let's just call it snow.

2) What is up with the chairs and reserving parking spaces?  Look, I dug out my car, and I feel some ownership of my space, but shouldn't people recognize that without a physical barrier? They know they didn't dig out that spot.

Maybe not though. Here's a funny story: We have two cars and one of them was in the shop last week, but before we went to pick it up, we dug out a space for it. (It was great exercise! Exhilarating! Hundreds of pounds of ice and snow, and that bright yellow vein of frozen dog urine was simply fascinating.) Anyhoo, we brought the car home, put it in the spot, and everything was great.

Not long after that, the plow came through to clear a few extra spots-- of course the driver had to get out and move some chairs out of the way first-- seriously. Later that afternoon, I went to run some errands, and when I came back, I put my car in one of the newly plowed spaces because it was a little closer to home. The next morning I go out and there's a chair in the spot that we had cleared the day before! Now who thinks they should be able to reserve that? I'm just sayin.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Puzzle

We've been working on a jigsaw puzzle this week. I can't remember the last time I felt like I had enough spare time and spare brain power to take one on, but I know it's been over six and half years. That's how long we've had our dog, and she and the cat have teamed up to make a really hard puzzle much more challenging: the cat knocks the pieces on the floor and then the dog eats them. I have no idea how many pieces are gone forever, but I have the mangled remains of at least three on the table that I've personally pried from the dog's jaws.

I'm not sure if the uncertainty of knowing whether or not a specific piece even exists anymore has dampened the experience, but working on this is not as fun as I remember puzzles once being. It kind of seems like a waste of time. Even so, I'm glad that I got it out, because once it's done (and it will be done, missing pieces be damned!), I don't think I'll regret not having the time to do more jigsaws in the future.

Friday, February 12, 2010

I Don't Like the Olympics

This will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me well, but I feel like I should put it out there anyway. I don't understand why we encourage such nationalistic competition. Why should I root for someone I don't even know in a sport I don't even care about just because we happen to be born in the same country? 

I wish all the athletes well. Go humanity!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Need to Know

One of the scenes I remember most from the movie Dances With Wolves was when Dunbar is on his way west and he and his guide stumble across the bones of a pioneer woman with an arrow tangled among them. "Someone at home is saying, 'Now why don't she write?'" the guide laughs irreverently. Of course, later he meets the same fate.

When I was a kid, we would go back to visit my father's home town every year or so. A small hamlet in upstate New York, not many people left there, and he was greeted as a prodigal son every time he returned. I have clear memories of sitting around kitchen tables or in front rooms on sofas that felt too hard and springy from lack of use, drinking soda and listening to a litany of marriages, births, and deaths, as his kin folk and neighbors welcomed him back by catching him up. It seemed like everyone knew everything about everyone else, and that knowledge was essential to their community.

I've spent more time than usual on facebook the last few days, mostly because of the storm-- I had time on my hands and an interest in how my local friends were faring in the snow. In the last few months, I've gotten back in touch with people who only a few years ago were lost to me forever. As over-documented as these fb reunions are, the experience still amazes me.

I wonder, though,  how these reconnections should fit into one's life. Does it lessen their value that in most cases the so glad to hear from you after all these years is about the extent of our contact? One of my long-lost friends posed a question on her wall: "What is the relative attraction of Facebook when compared to Twitter, e-mail, or phone calls?"

And a friend of hers replied: "I consider it my daily newspaper about people I know."

I agree with him. It helps us to maintain the knowledge that is essential to our community and it keeps us from asking, Now why don't she write?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Psychic Sister Network

My sister and I have some sort of connection that doesn't seem lessened by time or distance. Here's a minor example:

When I got up this morning, I read the paper, checked my email, played on the internet, and at one point landed on the NYTimes food section. I'm not a regular reader, but Mark Bittman had a recipe for whole wheat muffins; well, it was more of a technique (watch the video-- it's worth it): a basic method with lots of options, and intrigued, I decided to take advantage of my snow day and throw together a half dozen muffins. A little while later, my sister called from Atlanta to see how we were holding up through the blizzard. I told her about the muffins. "How were they?" she asked. "I printed out that recipe this morning."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wild Kingdom

Walking the dog this afternoon through still treacherously icy-slushy streets, my attention was drawn up. A huge blue jay was squawking and jumping from limb to limb at the top of a tall tree. I paused to see what the fuss was about, and watched as the jay tried again and again to break into a squirrel's nest up there. No sign of the squirrel, and eventually the bird flew off, cranky and still screeching. Jays are in the corvidae family, related to crows, and the incident reminded me of something that happened a few years ago.

I rose before dawn, as usual, to get ready for school, but stopped by the window at the top of the stairs, my attention drawn by a huge racket on the lawn below. In the gray morning light, a crow and a squirrel were in a stand off, both screaming. The crow's voice was a deep and resonate aaw aaw aaw and the squirrel was a lot more buzzy and nasal, anh anh anh. They circled each other on the ground beneath a tall oak tree, and as I stared, absorbed in the drama, I noticed something dark about the size of a pine cone between them.

When the thing squirmed feebly, the crow leapt forward slashing its beak at it, but the squirrel, too, dashed toward the tiny creature and picked it up by the nape of its neck-- it was her baby, fallen from the knot of dry leaves that was her nest 40 feet above. The crow stretched its wings and flew in fury at the squirrel, but she anticipated, and dodging its talons, raced to the tree trunk.

With what must have been super-species strength, she climbed steadily, but without that customary squirrel speed, carrying her young one. The crow was not to be deprived so easily; it dove again and again at her, still calling loudly, and two other crows flew to see what the ruckus was all about. One landed in the branch that she had to use to enter the nest, but she did not pause. She barreled into the black bird, knocking it back, and darted to safety, leaving the crows circling and shrieking in rage and frustration.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow Report

We took a walk around the neighborhood today. There is a lot of snow out there, so much so that plows are not enough: bulldozers and diggers are on the job moving mini-mountains from place to place. That's part of the problem with digging out around here, it's so rare that we get this amount of snow that there's nowhere to put it. A neighbor of ours patiently moved the 4x6x2 foot pile of snow from the front of her car to the back with a dustpan. She turned down offers of help with a cheery, "No thanks! I'm planning on being here for a while."

Blue skies and sunshine made it feel more like Vail or St. Moritz than our home town. We walked about in our parkas and sunglasses on trails of packed powder. Despite the sun, it stayed cold today, so there was very little melting, and the snow is still awfully pretty-- it was doing that glittery, glistening thing, not at all slushy and dirty in any but the most well-traveled of places.

It seems like the major victims of this storm were pine trees. Fast growing, they are a favorite of landscapers to provide a quick screen and some evergreen shade, but their soft wood makes them vulnerable to heavy snow, and we saw many of them bowed and broken.

Such weather only comes our way every 7 years or so, and since school is already canceled for tomorrow and another storm is on the way, I plan to enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Another Snow Day

The storm yesterday reminded me of another snowstorm a couple of years ago. In January of 2008, I traveled with a friend and colleague to Maine to spend a week observing at Nancie Atwell's school, The Center for Teaching and Learning. We arrived in Edgecomb on Sunday night, just ahead of a major Nor'easter, but we weren't concerned. My friend had had the foresight to rent a four wheel drive vehicle, and plus, this was Maine, we shrugged, surely they knew how to handle whatever snow there would be.

The next morning my cell phone rang. "This is Nancie Atwell," the voice on the line said. "Is this Tracey?" After getting over the initial shock of actually having Nancie Atwell herself call me, I realized that she was telling me that school was canceled that day because of the weather. She arranged to meet us for a couple of hours that morning anyway to go over the rest of the week. I couldn't decide if I was disappointed, relieved, or exultant... the joy of a Snow Day is a powerful thing.

At 10 AM when we left CTL, after having met Nancie and seen her school, the snow was falling fast. Faced with an unexpected free day, we set off in the storm in search of a late breakfast. The roads were terrible, but my friend navigated them admirably, and before too long we found ourselves on a nearly deserted Main Street in Damariscotta. A restaurant called The Breakfast Place seemed just right, and we parked in front and made our way inside. A cheerful group of rather grizzly Mainers was leaving as we came in, and those gentleman gave us a thumbs up as they passed.

Inside, we were the only customers, and the waitress led us to a table in the back that looked out over the water. Lobster boats bobbed on anchor buoys in the snow. I ordered a poached egg and crab cake on a homemade English muffin with coffee. There were Trivial Pursuit cards on the table, and we took turns quizzing each other until our breakfast arrived. The food was good, and our conversation wandered to books; my friend recounted the entire plot of Walk Two Moons right up until the end. There she paused. "Do you want to know what happens?" she asked, and I nodded, completely charmed by the story, by the setting, by the food, and by the company.

Back at our hotel, we spent the rest of our day talking about Atwell and her school and about teaching and teaching writing as the snow piled up and up. I didn't feel trapped at all-- the promise of the week ahead seemed as boundless as the expanse of drifts outside the sliding glass door and as long as the icicles that formed drip by drip on the overhang that sheltered it. And it was a good week, a great week, really, but in the end, my favorite part of it was the snow day.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Lotta Lotta Snow, Man!

Well, as promised, our area got a major winter storm. Unofficially, we have a couple of feet out there, and we've taken full advantage of it so far... we watched a so-bad-it-was-good movie on cable (in the middle of the day!), went snowshoeing through the neighborhood, let the dog play off-leash because there wasn't any traffic anyway, baked cookies (two kinds), had a fire all day long, and started a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We have not picked up the shovels yet, but there's always tomorrow for that.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Turns Out, It Was the Cable Guy

My internet service has been restored just in time-- a historic snow storm has been predicted to wallop this neck of the woods, a storm that promises to have all of us housebound for quite a while. Here at our place, we have all the provisions we need to be more than comfortable during the snow: books, food, and firewood, but I have to be honest: it would have really sucked not to have the internet. That's the lesson I learned this week.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Leaders of Tomorrow

It was an early release day today, one of two built into the calendar for professional development for teachers. That meant that the kids left at noon. For the second year in a row, our school showed a foreign film during this shortened academic day. We are an IB school and the objective of the activity is to expand the international sensibility of our students. Last year we showed the Tibetan movie The Cup, and this year it was Whale Rider.

Before the movie, I split the students into two groups, boys and girls, for a discussion on gender, traditional gender roles, and leadership, which are major themes of Whale Rider. Independently of one and other, both groups listed the following three qualities as important in a leader: committed to the people, trustworthy, and smart or wise. In addition, they also agreed that none of those things were gender specific, and they were truly puzzled as to why people in the past did not often consider women fit to be good leaders.

Golly. Do you think they might be on to something?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It's Complicated

I have a student whom I find very challenging this year. Impulsive and disruptive, she has a genius for turning the focus of the class away from what I've planned and onto her. She's difficult to manage, partly because the other students are so willing to engage with her. The other day, she refused to move into her small discussion group. "What are you doing?" I asked her. "You talk all the time when you're not supposed to, and now that it's time to talk, you won't. Help me understand this."

She threw herself to the floor and sighed. "Nobody likes me," she said. "I don't want to talk to them."

"What do you mean?" I replied. "The kids in here like you."

"No they don't. They think I'm annoying. Watch!" And just like that, she flipped the attention of the class as she stood and queried every student in turn in her booming voice. "Do you think I'm annoying?"

To be honest, I sort of ceded control of the class, because their reactions were pretty hilarious. Most were like, yeah, duh, of course you're annoying, although a few kids tried to be kind, and one pantomimed locking her lips and throwing away the key. It's a small class, and she got through her survey quickly and then turned to me in a so there stance.

"That doesn't mean anything," I told her. "Watch this: Hayley, do you think I'm annoying?" I asked.

She looked at me and shrugged. "Yeah, sometimes," she said.

"Kaelan, do you think I'm annoying?" I asked another student.

"Mm hmm," he nodded."Especially when you make us get organized."

"But, do you like me?" I asked them.

"Of course," they both said. "Everybody's annoying sometimes."

"What about this one?" I pointed to the kid standing next to me. "Do you like her?"

Their affection for her was unanimous, and so I told her to get over to her group and get to work.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Holy Crow

Every year around this time large groups of crows (I know, I know, they're called murders) gather in the evenings right outside our house. Flock by flock, they fly in and fill the bare branches at the tops of the tall trees in the woods across the way, creating a noisy spectacle. Some of the neighbors find them threatening-- they  dash for their cars, ducking and making inevitable Hitchcock allusions.

I like the crows, though. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to pick out individual crow voices in all that racket, and when I feel like I can almost tell some apart from their kin and companions, the noise changes and it sounds like they are speaking in some language and I could understand them if only I knew it, or if at least there were subtitles against the gray evening sky.

Monday, February 1, 2010

How Could You Miss That?

One time, several years ago, the counselor came to get a student from my class, and when she returned I went over to her with concern. "Is everything all right?" I asked.

She shook her head. "I'm being bullied," she confided.

"Oh no," I said. "Who's doing that to you?" She whispered the name of another student. "When is it happening?" I asked with concern.

"In your class," she told me.

You could have knocked me over, so stunned was I. The two of them sat in the front of the room, about three feet from where I stood most of the time while teaching.

Teachers like to think that we know what's going on in our classrooms, but over the years I've learned that as much as we catch, we miss a lot, too, probably more, and so the best we can do is create an environment where the students feel safe to tell us when something goes wrong.

And as for missing things? I've come to expect it, so much so that I was barely surprised at all this afternoon when I discovered a toy soldier in my classroom. Armed and guarding a paper rocket, he was stationed in the corner of the room right below the flag and next to a sign reading Don't Touch! Bryan's Top Secret Missile Base. How long it's been there I have no idea, but Bryan is in 8th grade now.