Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Exercise, Discipline, Affection

It may come as no surprise that over here at Walking the Dog, we're big fans of the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan. Every segment of his show is a ballet in three acts, and most of his precepts have application beyond the troubled dogs he rehabilitates and the owners he trains. My favorite is his advice about personal energy-- he encourages a calm assertive attitude in any who hope to be the pack leader. As hesitant as I am to compare children to dogs, in my experience, this notion translates directly to the classroom where a balanced teacher creates a balanced class.

Any who are familiar with his show know that Cesar's primary mantra for producing a good dog is exercise, discipline, affection. I've found the same to be true when it comes to taming my writing skills: daily exercise strengthens fluency, words on the page provide an opportunity to apply the craft of our discipline, and the affection? Well, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, when I'm all done for the day, I may hate writing, but I love having written.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Good for You, Richard

Disney movies have been a hot topic of conversation for us over the last couple of days. My niece is fond of Cinderella and the rest of the princesses, my nephew, on the other hand, is not a fan of any of the animated features: at four and a half, he knows enough about plot conventions to be sure something bad is going to happen, and worrying about it makes him too anxious to enjoy the movie. He's afraid to be afraid.

You have to admit he's got a point. Those old Disney movies scared the crap out of me, especially Maleficent, the witch who turns into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty and Cruella DeVille in 101 Dalmations. The relatively more recent ones have some pretty tough scenes as well, think Mufasa's death in The Lion King or Ursula's final attack in The Little Mermaid, and continuing in that tradition, the newest Disney film, The Princess and the Frog, has scary voodoo and includes the death of a lovable character.

Strong stuff for a little kid, and how cool that my nephew knows he's not ready for it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Man Hath Wrought

I'm not a big fan of the zoo. I know the arguments both for and against keeping animals in captivity, and I come down on the side of the individual animals who are being kept, usually to their detriment, always against their will. They just don't seem happy to me.

Even so, there is something undeniable about a child's pure delight at encountering animals at close range, which is actually the most convincing argument in favor of zoos for me. And so it is generally only in a child's company that I ever find myself at a zoo or any other captive animal exhibit. Such was the case today, when we spent the overcast afternoon at the Chattahoochee Nature Center with my two-year-old niece and my four-year-old nephew. There we we were able to see all sorts of animals, mostly in large enclosures or behind glass.

The facility itself is state of the art, as green as green can be, and it was with a clear conscience that we made our way through their exhibits, viewing possums, owls, hawks, turtles, snakes, beavers, vultures, and even bald eagles. My niece and nephew were thrilled at the "wild animals" but it wasn't long before we wondered where all these critters had come from.

Home again, I checked out their website and the detailed biographies of all the residents of the nature center. It turned out to be an ugly litany of man v. wild: cars, guns, poison, power lines, and pets-- these were the events that led up to their captivity, which was also their rescue.

My head is spinning.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What Do You Say to That?

My niece is a couple months shy of two-and-a-half, and she is working hard on those social skills. Today we were out in the front yard playing a silly game. Pretending to be squirrels, we were busy digging little holes when she interrupted our industry. "Look," she pointed, "a dog!"

"This dog's bigger than you are!" the owner told her, and it was true. Her eyes widened a bit, and she stood silently, clearly at a loss for what to say.

He was halfway down the block when it came to her. "We have acorns!" she called waving a fistful of nuts at his back.

Yes we did.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Out the Window

It's a long drive from Washington DC to Atlanta, and this time of year the trip will take you from one end of spring to the other. There's a lot to look at along the way; today my favorite was the peach orchards that we passed at sunset-- all twisted trunks and bare branches, hundreds of black stitches in the pink and orange sky.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Collateral Damage

The entire sixth grade went ice skating today. This is the fourth year in a row that we have taken this trip. Usually it's planned for the day before Winter Break, and it was this year, too, but we got snowed out. What better day to make it up than the one before Spring Break? we thought. It'll be all the fun minus the cold walk up to the rink.

We were half right. A frigid rain fell as we marched our students the three-quarter miles from school to the skating complex, but soggy though they were when we arrived, their enthusiasm was undampened. Over half of them were first time skaters, and 180 kids spent a happy two hours sliding, gliding, and inevitably colliding on the ice. Even our blind student got out there and learned some basics.

Then, for the fourth straight year, there was an injury serious enough for a student to be taken back to school. "Maybe we shouldn't do this trip anymore," I said to the other team leader.

But despite a gash on her hand that would eventually need five stitches, the student who was hurt tried to convince us to let her stay. "We still have thirty minutes of skating and lunch in the food court-- I'm fine!" she assured us, and huge tears of disappointment rolled down her cheeks as we bundled her into the car for the trip back to school.

At the end of the day, the kids had a great time, but I'm still wondering if it was worth it. All the students had turned in signed permission slips with waivers acknowledging that skating can be dangerous, but what level of risk is acceptable? Shouldn't you call it quits if you're pretty sure somebody's going to get hurt?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Going Once... Going Twice... Sold!

Once a month, the counselor comes into all of my classes for the day. The arrangement allows her to meet with her entire caseload somewhat regularly. About half the time she conducts class meetings using Glasser's model, but she also uses the time for other mandated topics as well, such as career exploration, internet safety, academic planning and scheduling. Occasionally she plans activities that help the kids explore their values, and that was what we did today.

The premise was an auction. Each student had 50,000 dollars to spend on one or more items on a list of twenty-five. Once we explained how an auction worked, we left the strategy up to them. Here's what they could bid on in increments of $100.00:

A new home, fully furnished
Good looks
A happier family
Excellent grades
A complete wardrobe of beautiful clothes
Lots of friends
The trust and respect of their peers
The trust and respect of adults
A clean earth
A room of their own
Good health for their family
The chance to travel the world
Success in sports
Twenty four hours to do exactly what you want
World peace
Guaranteed success in marriage or partnership
A successful career
A chance to help people
A trip to the moon
A TV of their own
A cure for cancer
The chance to meet any celebrity of their choice
Freedom and dignity for all people
An education at the college of their choice

To begin with, they had to write down the items that were of interest to them, and figure out a ballpark amount that they were willing to spend, but none of that planning was binding. Sixth graders must be the perfect age for this activity: they immediately shed their disbelief and behaved as if they were really competing to buy these things.

As the day went on students entered already excited about what they had heard of the lesson. One of our rules was that no one could express judgment at what other people bought, but once the auction got going, it was fascinating to see which kids valued what, and how much they were willing to spend of their imaginary money.

As Virginia Woolf might have predicted, the room of their own went for over 20,000 bucks every time; that college education and a cure for cancer never sold for less than the full fifty grand. In each class there was a poignant bidding war for a happier family, and there were some altruistic kids who bid only on a clean or peaceful earth, or freedom and dignity. I was surprised at a couple who fell into that category and glad to be reminded of that sweet side to them. Of course success in sports and the chance to meet a celebrity were very popular items, but my heart went out to those who way overspent for good looks or popularity, and especially to the diligent kid who bid thousands for the excellent grades he already works so hard for.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why Should I?

We had an unscheduled evacuation of the building this morning. It was during homeroom, so everyone knew something was amiss, a drill at that time is unheard of. Our suspicions were only confirmed as the students streamed past our principal who was only just then heading inside, late for school. Fortunately, it was a lovely morning, a bit chilly, but the sun was rising over our school, and it shone on us as we waited shivering in our little lines.

I listened for the sound of sirens; in the event of an unplanned alarm the fire department must clear the building before we can re-enter. The trucks were a long time coming, and they hadn't arrived yet when the students began to get restless. We are supposed to remain silent throughout any emergency procedure, but there was quite a bit of chatter. Some teachers ignored it, some allowed it, others tried to maintain quiet.

I was one of the shushers. My students knew what I expected of them, but they tried to convince me otherwise, pantomiming their requests to sit down, pointing out other kids and even adults who were talking. I  shrugged unsympathetically at the scofflaws, regarding my own little group with a critical eye.

I have ten pretty squirrely kids in my homeroom, but I know they can stand quietly for ten minutes, and I wanted to prove it to them. "I'll give a lollipop to anyone who can stay silent until we get back to the room," I told them, and all of a sudden it wasn't hard at all to wait wordlessly in the warming air.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I'm So Adjective I Verb Nouns

We're coming down to the wire on the fiction pieces my students are writing. Almost all of them have submitted a typed second draft, and I'm making my way through them, working as editor. Most kids will hand in final drafts tomorrow.

Part of our class always involves looking at their independent reading to see what they can learn as writers. Last week we looked at setting, this week the focus is on verbs. Most of the kids have written tales of action, all have used dialog. Yesterday they copied a passage from their book and highlighted the verbs, discussing in small groups how the authors chose these verbs to help develop not only the plot, but also character and mood.

Today they used the word processor's highlighting tool to focus on their own verbs, then took a quick gallery walk around the room to see what action-packed vocabulary their classmates had chosen. When they returned to their seats, we made a list of the most notable verbs they had collected in their walk-about, and I showed them how to use the thesaurus tool to expand their choices. "Can we change our verbs now?" someone in every class asked eagerly.

I'm so nice, I let them.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Honk If You Like the Health Care Bill

Honk twice if you're worried about reconciliation.

I live inside the Beltway. 'nuff said?

Oh, and I picked Kansas to win in my NCAA bracket.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What I Learned Today

For the past year or so, part of my Sunday morning routine is to read the NY Times Book Review and then log onto my public library account and put anything I've found to be of interest on hold. As soon as it's available, I receive an email, and I can pick it up at the branch closest to my house. This is a convenient arrangement for me; the library is within walking distance, it is also next door to the grocery store and right on my way home from work. I can pick up and return my books and never go out of my way, thus significantly decreasing my book budget.

This morning, however, I found an even more convenient way to preview the books that I found interesting, and I owe it all to Ruth at Two Writing Teachers. I read one of her SOL stories this week that mentioned the free Kindle app for i-Phone. When the hold list at the library was longer than I hoped for the book Secret Son by Laila Lalami, I downloaded the app, and within seconds was reading the first chapter of the book, without having spent a cent. I liked it, but I decided to get the audio version for our road trip to Atlanta next weekend (after a free preview of that, too, of course).

I confess to being very skeptical about the Kindle. A few weeks ago, one of the teachers on my team told us how much she loved hers, but I still had my doubts. Don't get me wrong, like most English teachers, I struggle with book clutter, and I also abhor the waste which is an inevitable side-effect of our culture's current rampant consumerism, but I just didn't believe an electronic device could replicate the experience of reading a book.

Today I am a convert-- even on my i-Phone, reading the electronic version of a book feels a lot like reading the traditional version. It's weird, but it's true. This is my testimony.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Vocabulary Lesson

I have the Urban Dictionary word of the day gadget on my Google home page. I think of it as kind of a daily anecdotal look at the evolution of our language, and despite the occasional crassness, the words are often clever and entertaining, and usually informative. (Confession: I'm not very hip.) Who knew, for example, that the child of a baby boomer is an echo boomer, or that "That's crazy" is the perfect response when you haven't really been listening?  (Try it-- it works.) Oh, and I've been working on my undercover six-pack, too.

Anyway, a few days ago, the word was singletasker, and evidently, this term is mostly used ironically. Like if I say, I'm going to try and focus on getting these papers graded, instead of answering my colleagues' questions, checking my e-mail, supervising study hall, planning tomorrow's lesson, and posting my status on facebook.

Then the proper response to me would be, You're such a singletasker!

To which I might reply, I'd answer you, but that would require multitasking.

I laughed when I read the explanation; like many in our profession, I pride myself on my ability to multitask, and I'm familiar with current research that suggests that kids today are not only able to multitask but may function better in such an environment. Even so, there's a lot to be said about quiet time to focus on a single thing, and I'm aware it's an ability I don't often exercise.

Hmm... that's crazy.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I Love the 00's-- Quidditch Edition

As an advocate of self-selected literature for my students, I've ridden the Harry Potter wave for years. Sure, I knew it was losing momentum, but even so, I'm surprised to find myself up here in the dunes, totally high and dry. Seeing all those volumes of The Series of Unfortunate Events  languishing on my shelf where once I could barely keep them should have tipped me off, but I must have been distracted by Percy Jackson and Maximum Ride, and so I never saw this coming.

I realized recently that most sixth graders have not read the whole Harry Potter series. Upon reflection, it's not really that surprising; the majority of them were not even born when the first book was published. With few exceptions, even the most avid and accomplished readers among my students are tepid about the series. "It just doesn't interest me that much," a student told me today.

Potter is widely believed to be a classic-- frequently mentioned in the same breath as Tolkein's trilogy of the ring and Narnia. Are my current students anomalies, then? Are they experiencing a backlash from the Potter overload of the last ten years? Or could it be that Harry Potter was really nothing more than a flash in the pan destined to fade away until it's resurrected in some remember when retrospective of the early years of this century?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Immeasurable Objectives

Today at the swim meet, one of my former students anxiously approached me between events."Did you see where I returned your copy of Catching Fire to the shelf by your desk?" she wanted to know. I assured her that I knew right where it was, and I did, because I could visualize it there once she mentioned it. Truth be told, I do have a check-out system for the books in my classroom library, but I'm not very vigilant about enforcing it. It would take a chunk of class time and some dedicated punitive energy (two things in short supply) to regularly chase everyone down for my unreturned books. In the end, I would rather have books in the kids' hands than not, and so my collection takes a bit of a hit each year. Even so, I add to it regularly, the cost out of my own pocket-- I just think that if my students are excited about a book, they should be able to read it.

"Do you know what books your class might like?" she continued. "I just finished Airhead by Meg Cabot--" She stopped and looked at me suspiciously. "Have you read it? Do you have it already?" I laughed and told her no, so she gave a brief overview of the premise of the series. One of my current students stood at our elbows listening with interest. She and I made eye contact, and she nodded, as if to say, Oh yeah, we would totally love that, so I whipped out my phone and texted a quick memo to myself. (Both girls were duly impressed.)

Every year my main objective is to take the 80-odd sixth graders I will teach and to build a community of literacy. I want to be sure that they leave my class not only with the minimum requirements mandated by state and country, but also with the desire to continue practicing and improving the skills they need to be critical readers and effective writers.  My role is to be a resource and a support as they pursue this important goal, and in light of that , as willing as I am to do whatever I can to make books available to my students, it's a hundred times more gratifying to have them come back and show that they still feel a connection to our community.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Things Are Tough on Saturn, Too

Kids have such imaginations... today I read a story by one of my students which took place on the rings of Saturn. The main character's father lost his job, and even though her mother was still working, her income wasn't enough to pay all the bills, and the family was afraid they would lose their home. So the parents sat the kids down and told them that they were going to have to move. How about Earth? the kids asked. They had been there on vacation and thought it was nice. No, that planet's too expensive, their folks said. They were going to have to move to the planet Juvy, way out of the solar system. That was the only place they could afford. The kids were understandably upset about losing their home, their school, and their friends. The main character went for a walk on the beach to think things through, and only then did she realize how beautiful this place was and how much she would miss it. As she was walking, she found a bottle that happened to contain a genie, but since she damaged the bottle trying to get it open, she only got a single wish. She thought long and hard about all she wanted, but in the end, she wished for both her parents to have jobs they liked where ever they moved, and she knew that they would be happy as long as they were together.

It was a pretty heart-wrenching tale, and considering the author is eleven, you have to wonder where she gets her material.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


My students are taking a closer look at setting in their independent reading in order to apply some of what they notice to the fiction pieces they are writing and revising. The task they had today was deceptively simple... find a rich description of a setting in your book and copy it. Then they had to answer two questions in their small group discussion: Why is that setting important to the book? and Why did the author choose to describe it in those words?

To help them, we did a fishbowl in each class. Volunteers read and discussed the passages that they had selected, and I participated in their conversations, too. I did not expect how this activity would give my English major skills their chance to shine. One student read a description of a house whose hue was "eggish" when the sun shone on it. "Hmm," I wondered out loud. "Why eggish?"

"Um... It's probably white or yellow?" The kid looked at me with some concern. Had I lost my sense of the obvious?

"Yeah, but what happens inside an egg?"

His eyes widened. "Ooohhh-- something grows," he answered, "something hatches!"

"Does that fit in with the book at all?" I asked, and away he went with a really good analysis of that egg symbol.

This went on all day. Me: "Why does he describe the river like a snake?"

Kid: "Because it's twisty?"

Me: "What happens next in the book?"

Kid: "She's betrayed by her friends."

Me: "What do you think of when you think of a snake?"

Astonished Kid: "OOOhhh!"

And so on... Why is she walking through a gathering storm? Why is that golden? Why is that dirty? You get the picture.

Fun for me? Oh yeah. But more importantly, my students are right on the cognitive verge of getting symbolism, and they thought this stuff was pure magic. Which, of course, as any true English major knows, it is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hey Daylight Savings Time I Still Hate You

Listen, I did my best to give the curtailing of my weekend and the need to rise an hour earlier in the pitch black a fair shake. I approached it with hardly a whimper. I prudently went to bed early not just last night, but Saturday night, too. I adjusted my clocks and my schedule to accommodate the loss of an hour, stayed positive all day, maybe this won't be so bad, I told myself, maybe I'm finally learning to cope successfully with the inevitable, maybe I won't need to resent everyone who makes this happen, maybe, maybe, blah, blah, blah, today still sucked!  And I doubt tomorrow is going to be any better.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Walk in the Rain

Rather than allow the soggy weather to keep us prisoners, we decided to embrace the dampness and take the dog for a walk on the river. When we arrived at the park, it was closed due to flooding, and so we headed upstream to the falls-- with the river so high, we were guaranteed some dramatic scenery. To our disappointment, the national park was also closed because of dangerous water levels.

There was one more place to walk on the way home, and we pulled into the parking lot looking apprehensively around for any Trail Closed signs, but the coast was clear. The air was damp, but there was not a drop of rain as we followed the run toward the small falls at its confluence with the river. There was plenty of mud, but we were prepared for that, and the stream was swollen but not impassable, even in the two places where you have to hop across on round pavers set as stepping stones.

The trail we took led us down to the river and then back up to the ridge and through the woods. No one else was around this late in the wet afternoon, but it was that time of day when animals actively prepare for the night, and the forest was full of bright blue flashes in the gloom. We must have seen twenty bluebirds or more darting from branch to branch, high to low, and then back to the bare canopy so far above our heads, leaving that proverbial happiness behind.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What Time May Teach

When I was a boy of fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one I was astounded at how much the old man learned in seven years. –Mark Twain

I confess that when I was 21, and even 24, I still thought my father was hard to have around. Twenty-three years ago tonight I stood by his bedside as he drew his last breath, and these days I wonder how much the old man might have learned had he been able to stick around.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Getting the 4-1-1

Today my students took a diagnostic test that is designed to show their strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing. Our state standardized test is only a couple of months away, and I was feeling some heat. Not about the real test, mind you, but about administering this practice exam. The reading specialist in the building really wanted me to do it, and so finally I just caved.

The test itself is on online thing, and I already had the lap tops reserved for some other activities, so I figured I could snag an extra day with the computers and then just casually slide this 40 question diagnostic onto our to-do list...

Oh the disbelief and outrage my students expressed at me, a workshop-committed reading and writing teacher, requiring such an inside-the-box task of them. "How will this make us better writers?" one asked, echoing my guiding question for the year.

Touché, I thought, but then answered him. "It won't," I said. "It will just show us what kind of readers and writers you are. It's what we do with that information that might help you."

He was mollified, but I really wasn't. In any event, they took the test, and most of them did fine. I was amused at some of their questions, though. One kid raised his hand about halfway through. "How am I supposed to answer this?" he wanted to know. "It's an opinion question! It says What do you think would be the best way to end this passage?" He scoffed. "You could end it lots of ways!"

Before he got any further worked up about his right as an author to finish his piece any way he saw fit, I tried to quiet him. "But which of those answers would be the best ending?" I asked him.

"Oh," he tsked. "What a dumb question. Like anyone's going to give you that choice."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Some Things Never Change

It's always interesting to be present when former students meet current members of my class. It most often happens for me at swim meets. In between their events, sixth, seventh and eighth graders have the chance to compare notes about what it was like to have me as their teacher. I don't mean to be egotistical, these conversations are fleeting, and typically go something like, "Oh my god! She made you do that, too?" But they are often affectionate and even a little nostalgic, too. (I think they appreciate that I cheer for their swimming.) It's warm fuzzies all around.

This year they have a high school senior, who was also in my class in sixth grade, helping to coach the team, and so when I arrived at the first meet of the season this afternoon, I was pleased to have a chance to catch up with her. As we stood next to the pool chatting, a group of middle school kids gathered around us, eager to join our conversation. "You were on the Dolphins, too?" one asked her.

She rolled her eyes and made a sour face. "Don't remind me," she said, "sixth grade was horrible!" Their eyes widened, and I'm sure mine did too, although I knew exactly what she was talking about. She turned to me. "Do you even remember how many times you had to meet with my parents?"

I nodded.

"What did you do?" one of the younger kids asked.

"Nothing," I said, "she was bullied."

"A lot of kids were mean to me," she confirmed.

"What did they say to you?" a seventh grade girl wanted to know, but just then a cheer went up, and the events of the swim meet redirected our attention.

We never returned to the conversation, and in a way, I was relieved. The older girl had been a smart and serious child, both an engaged and engaging student, but also somewhat of a tomboy, and she had been harassed mercilessly throughout middle school about her sexuality. "How would you like to be surrounded by a group of girls in the locker room singing Ring Around the Lesbian?" she had asked me once.

Four years later, the pain of middle school is still fresh for her. I have to think that part of the problem is the way we approach sexuality for kids that age. "Gay" is one of the most common middle school epithets, and while we don't tolerate its use, we allow it to be a slur. By comparison, we condone and even guide students as they experiment socially with non-sexual heterosexual activity. It's not considered unusual at all for boys and girls  to "like" each other, even in sixth grade, but any conversation of supporting kids who may be gay or bisexual usually meets opposition from adults who believe that they are too young to be "that." Unfortunately, the end result is that we send the message that there's something wrong with those kids, both to them and to their peers.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Story Time

I'm not sure what it is with kids and fiction, but my students are writing short stories right now, and they couldn't be happier.  Composing fiction is not mentioned specifically in either my state writing standards or in the draft of the new National Standards that was released today, although both include objectives addressing kids writing narratives, and of course that includes fiction.

I've found that many middle school teachers hesitate to include fiction assignments in their writing programs; I used to be one of them. I guess it didn't seem quite rigorous enough to me, either that or it could be that such assignments usually produced such sprawling tales teeming with ill-defined characters who wandered about without ever resolving anything that I had no idea what to do with them.

In her foreword to Ted DeMille's book, Making Believe on Paper, Nancie Atwell recounts a conversation she had with the educational researcher Nancy Martin on this very topic. Like many of us, Atwell was explaining why she didn't teach fiction, despite the fact that it is what most kids love to read best. She considered her students' fiction "daydreams on paper."

But Atwell tells how Nancy Martin convinced her otherwise. In Martin's opinion, fiction gives young writers the chance to compose fluently and at length. Martin also makes the point that fiction "gives children access to the hypothetical" so that "they can begin to see how to improvise on their own experiences." She understood children's stories to be fables where they reimagine their lives and mix them with the stories they've read or heard.

That is an accurate description of what my students do with their fiction, although they are influenced also by the stories they see on TV and, more and more, in games. Humans have always used storytelling to make meaning of our lives, and I think it's important to give kids the opportunity and the tools to do that. More importantly, though, writing fiction is motivating to my students: with few exceptions, they write cheerfully and at length. For that I'm glad, because I can't teach writing craft, conventions, or skills to someone who won't write.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Can You Smell That?

I was greeted this morning by the sharp odor of mothballs or something close to it wafting out of our team's teacher-workroom. The refrigerator is in there, and as I put my lunch away, I scanned the windowless room for the source of that pungent aroma. Nothing seemed amiss, and there was nobody nearby to ask, so with a shrug I returned to my classroom one door down, but the scent was strong enough that I could smell it there, too.

It wasn't long before I heard the tale of all I had missed the day before.  Evidently, that antiseptic smell had only recently replaced the stench of death. When, on Monday morning, they were confronted with the unmistakable odor of decay, the other teachers on my team did the sensible thing: They closed the door and called maintenance.

It turned out that four mice had perished under the refrigerator over the weekend. The custodians  removed them, but unfortunately, the odor lingered longer than their remnants remained. The solution? Pink urinal cakes hidden strategically throughout the team room, and it was that smell that welcomed me back to work this morning. Seriously. Urinal cakes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I Shoulda Known

I took advantage of a day off today to run some errands. My first stop was the DMV. I had already tried twice without success to take care of this paperwork snafu, first online and then in person on Saturday. 

When I had arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles on Saturday, a line stretched out the door, down the sidewalk, and around the building. I had a hard time believing that this was my line, but after a little scouting and a few questions, I found that indeed it was. The service center was due to close in 45 minutes, but I was willing to wait in the weak sunshine. I felt it was my penance for misplacing the title to my car. I pulled my fleece jacket closer to guard against the chill air and stood silently listening to the gripes of my fellow linees, the very model of patience.

At 11:57, three minutes before closing, a uniformed guard came out to distribute directions to other offices that were open past noon. "No thank you," I told him when he held one out to me. He frowned at me then, but I swear I was not making any undue assumptions, I just knew how to get to the other DMVs. Two minutes later, he gleefully locked the door in my face after allowing everyone in front of me in.  They had all accepted the flyers.

Stunned to be excluded from the chosen few who would get to complete their errands that blustery day, I walked slowly back to my car, the shouldas circling my head like birds and stars: should have never lost the title, should have gotten there earlier, should have taken what the guard was offering... oy what a mess I was, until I remembered that I was off today. And you know what? There was no line at all this morning. I should have known.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Everybody into the Pool

My family has an Oscar Night tradition. Every year, we gather at my brother's house to watch the whole thing, Barbara Walters and all. We have a nice dinner, usually tapas, so that we can eat without missing a single reaction shot. It's always a lot of fun talking about the movies we've seen and gossiping about the celebrities, and we even take the next day off, if possible, so that we can enjoy the broadcast until the bitter end, usually sometime around midnight here on the east coast. This year my mom flew in from Minnesota to join the party. Woo hoo!

Of course, there's a friendly wager: ten bucks each, winner take all. Wish me luck!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Crime and Punishment

My students recently wrapped up a memoir-writing unit, and as I try to do as often as I can, I wrote along with them. My piece this year was called The Creek, and it was about a time when I was 7 or 8, and my younger brother and I walked home along a tiny stream that ran from the school to the end of our street, something that we were forbidden from doing.

On the way we found a little plastic bucket and filled it up with tadpoles and then cooked up a ridiculous lie about finding the pail full of tiny amphibians on the sidewalk. Not wanting to leave them to die (and not allowed to return them to the creek), we just had to bring them home-- that was our story anyway. It's hardly surprising that my mother didn't believe us, although she was tipped off by the neighborhood tattle-tale. (Michelle Hall, if you're out there, I haven't forgotten your treachery.) We got in a lot of trouble, but the tadpoles got it worse: my mother dumped them out into the garden.

It is this final, fatal detail that seemed most memorable to the kids in my class, and when I happened to mention that my mother would be in town this weekend, they suggested I bring her in on Monday. "Really?" I asked. "You want to meet my mother?"

"No," one student answered, "we want to put on her on trial for killing those tadpoles."

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

I heard an interview with Diane Ravitch on NPR the other morning. A former Assistant Secretary of Education in the second Bush administration, she has come 180 degrees on the No Child Left Behind act since 2005 and has published a new book outlining her concerns.

It was her remarks at the end of the piece that have stuck with me most. Speaking against the inherent competition that is present in both NCLB and the Obama administration's Race to the Top, she said, Schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what's been successful for them. 

As it happens, I've been thinking about collaboration and competition all week. Back in December, I collaborated with a colleague in my building to prepare our students for a national writing competition. On Tuesday, we got some preliminary results. Ten students from our school were among the top 67 out of nearly 1,200 participants in our state.

In my colleague's opinion, we should stop the presses. She's a competitive person who sees no reason not to be recognized for such an accomplishment, and it doesn't hurt that six of the ten were her students as compared to my four. I can't tell you how many people at school, including the principal, congratulated me on this achievement before I had seen the e-mail myself. In addition to that, letters are going home to parents, and our district newsletter is receiving an item to publish.

I have to say that I think a little perspective is in order. I'm proud of my students, but this is a nice, but minor, recognition for those kids. They may or may not move on to be state finalists, and if they do, they have the national judges to face. Not only that, but the pieces that were chosen were not the ones that I would have predicted. To me that just illustrates the subjectivity involved in judging any writing, much less any writing competition. Don't get me wrong, I encouraged my students to enter, and those who did were excited about it. We worked hard together to make sure every piece was the best it could be, but on some level, I want that to be enough.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Undercover Boss

Reality TV is one of my guilty pleasures. Oh, I don't watch just anything; I'm actually pretty discriminating in my own way. One newish show that I kind of like is Undercover Boss. The premise is that the CEO or some other high-ranking executive of a big corporation goes undercover as an entry-level new hire in some of the stores in order to get a more complete perspective on the company. How do they explain the cameras, you wonder? They tell everyone that they are filming a documentary on the newly employed and let that tape roll. Oh my.

I saw the Hooters and White Castle episodes. Who knew that both were family-owned businesses? And, consequently, since neither of the principals wanted to let their forefathers down, there were tears. I guess it shouldn't come as any shock that wealthy, white collar guys aren't very good at manual labor, but what does that say about our economy and what we value?

Fundamentally, though, I think I like the show because it reinforces one of my fondest beliefs, which is that all educators should teach. I just don't believe that there is a completely separate skill set that qualifies a person to be school administrator. Frankly, I have a hard time following the advice and guidance of anyone who hasn't done it themselves and who isn't still doing it today. In my experience, even the most rational and grounded of teachers lose perspective once they are out of the classroom. Facing a roomful of kids every single day keeps you humble and on your toes.

Hm. Those sound like the qualities of a good leader.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sense and Sensibility

This morning I entered the building with some students who were headed either to breakfast or to get some work done in the library before school started. The entrance I used has one flight of stairs going up and another leading down. As we climbed the steps, a student was asking me about our current writing contest when we were interrupted by a gasp and the clatter of a book bag hitting the stairs below us. We both stepped to the banister and peered over. Another student sat awkwardly on the edge of a step, tottering back with her legs outstretched in front of her and a panicked look on her face. She had obviously slipped, but how far she had fallen and whether or not she was hurt, I couldn't tell.

"Are you all right?" I called. Her eyes met mine, but she didn't answer. "Are you hurt?" I tried again and started down to her, but I was moving against traffic, so I didn't get too far.

"Esta bien?" a voice to my left inquired. The girl nodded, then climbed to her feet, and continued on her way to breakfast. I turned to the student I had been talking to on the way in. Although she speaks English like a native, her first language is Amharic. She had diagnosed our communication gap immediately and used the Spanish she is learning now to help. I was both impressed and proud of her reaction; as minor an incident as it was, it illustrates what we hope for in our students.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

So, I'm running this Professional Learning Committee for the English Language Arts department in our district. I've posted about it here before. The idea is sound: it's supposed to be a continuation for teachers who have participated in our local Writing Project, and so the focus is on using our own writing to support our teaching of writing.

Up until now, my main complaint has been that we weren't allotted enough time to meet and share our writing and teaching experiences. That situation was aggravated last month when we were canceled because of snow, but what can you do?  Back in December I arranged to have a guest speaker for our March meeting. It's tomorrow. Yesterday and today, four out of the ten people in the group have e-mailed to say that they won't make it. Given that there are typically a couple of people who are absent without notice, I'm probably going to cancel the speaker. It seems like a waste of someone's time to ask them to speak to a group of four or five, especially a group over half of whose members couldn't be bothered to show up.

I feel angry and discouraged.  Facilitating this PLC is a voluntary position, and right now it seems like it's been a pretty big waste of time.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Walking the Dog

We took a walk with the dog around the tidal basin yesterday. It was a blustery afternoon; the wind pushed the clouds across the sky like so many ducks in a carnival game. The sun was in and out, and when it was out it seemed a tiny bit warmer and more golden than one has the right to expect on a day in late February. Even so, geese and gulls huddled against a stiff northerly breeze, bobbing on the choppy gray water. As we made our way around, we encountered piles and piles of cherry branches trimmed and stacked neatly below the trees they had come from. Broken during all that winter weather we had a few weeks ago, they were ready to be hauled away. Passing by, I saw that the tips were loaded with buds. They were still as hard as pebbles and many weeks from blooming, but I mourned the thousands and thousands of cherry blossoms that would never be. We rounded the other side of the basin, the wind quieting at our backs, and it occurred to me to snap some twigs off to bring home. In a vase they should bloom in a few days. Tonight as I left school the air was mild, and I knew that spring is not far away.