Monday, May 31, 2010

So Don't

The phrase "necessary evil" really bugs me. Um... who thinks any evil is necessary? Such a notion offends both my ethics and my semantics.

In some ways that expression seems like just another one of those platitudes that fall into the category of Everyone has to do things they don't want to sometimes. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if everyone stopped doing the things they really didn't want to do. I'm not being frivolous; I want to know what those things are, especially considering that almost any task can be no worse than innocuous if you know and appreciate the value of it.

So why don't we stop glorifying (as some sort of life lesson) the need to do unpleasant things, and rather let's re-frame the conversation to re-evaluate our priorities and objectives to figure out exactly what it is we "have" to do that we don't "want" to, and why we're doing that stuff anyway.

And then, for a good measure,  let's stop listening to people who wave away truly troublesome issues with insipid cliches like "necessary evil".

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Once We Were Hunters

My brother caught the first firefly of the year tonight. For some reason, he brought it in the house, imprisoning it gently in a loose fist, as you must. It wasn't long before the wily insect snuck out the gap formed by his curled thumb and pointer and fluttered around a bit, entertaining us between dinner and dessert. Oh, we set it free before the strawberry shortcake was served, but what memories it stirred.

When I was a kid we used to spend most of our summer evenings from dusk until dark chasing fireflies. My mom punched holes in the top of a Skippy jar, and my brother and sister and I worked to capture as many lightning bugs as we could. Unlike a lot of the other kids, we never tore their lights off or smeared their luminescence on the sidewalk or wall. To us, that dull yellowish glow was nothing but an ugly shadow of the bright flash of a living insect. To make it interesting, we set  nightly quotas for ourselves, upping the target to an impossible number of bugs as the days warmed and both our hunting proficiency and the population of our quarry reached their peaks.

What does 500 lightning bugs in a peanut butter jar look like?

We never found out, and although others might have kept their captives overnight in an effort to make it to that magic number in a day or two, we never did. The rule was to let all of them go at the end of the evening: a glass jar lies sideways in tall grass, lid tossed carelessly nearby; scores of fireflies crawl out into the cooling air, scale the nearest green blade to its very top, and then with wings beating in a silent blur, blink once and are gone. At least that's how I imagine it, because we were already fast asleep in bed by then.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Whose Room This Is I Think I Know

We're moving back to our original classrooms this weekend, and so I've been liberated from the yellow dungeon, and although I will miss its immensity, if not the maddening drone of that invisible fan, I have other things to worry about.

As hard as it was to pack my room up five weeks ago, confronting the jumble of furniture and boxes that awaited me there this morning was more than a little disheartening. It was hard to know where to begin. Complicating things was the fact that the data and telephone drop were demolished when they enlarged the window. My desk has been in the same place for sixteen years, and now I was going to have to raise a ruckus to get the necessary hook-ups for my phone and computer to keep it there. I left school yesterday in despair over the news; it was simply too much at the end of a long day.

I can't think of a time in my entire life when "sleeping" on something made any difference. Perhaps it's my stubbornness, but things generally look pretty much the same to me the next morning. Not this morning, though. Sometime in the middle of the night it occurred to me that I have colonized the window in that room way too long. Put aside the rubbish about distraction, everyone who enters that room should have equal access to the view. It's really not my room, it belongs to all of us who work there.

With that in mind, I moved my desk to the other corner and set up the library and reading area of the room over by the window so that the kids can grab a book and throw a pillow down to read in the sunshine.

That's if all the boxes with all the books ever got unpacked. Sigh.

Friday, May 28, 2010

I'm So Money

Was I flattered to be included in so many of my students' slam poems today? Given my post a couple of a weeks ago about being a character in other people's blogs, you might think so. And, if you find the urge to wrap me in duct tape, throw me in the hideous yellow cupboards, and steal my lollipops and iPhone complimentary, then you might also say yes.

Chalk it up to concrete details, but I think my name was a good luck charm: every kid who mentioned me was in the top three.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Lune at Last

Today Slam Poet did a competition with my students featuring lunes, eleven word poems. Kind of the American version of haiku, they are arranged in lines of three-five-three words. "If you can write a good lune, you can write anything," he told the kids. "A lune should be a tiny three act play or an entire story in eleven words." Of course they rose to the challenge.

Here's one of mine:

How come my
dad was nothing like Kurt's
dad on Glee?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Slam Poet will be back tomorrow and Friday to prepare the kids for the big slam next Wednesday. It's been challenging to get them to  finish and polish their writing for his return... in some ways I feel like the bad guy who's all about drudgery and deadlines, and then he gets to come in and sweep them off their feet with all that drama and charm. It's not about me, though, so I let it go.

Like any lesson or unit, once I've actually taught it, it's easy to see ways to improve the experience for next time. For example, today I showed the students some short clips of slam performances, and frankly, it seems a little late in the process to be doing that, even though they do have time to incorporate what we talked about into their writing. The video probably should have come before most of their revision, so that they could rework their poems with performance in mind. Some kids were a little scared off by the prospect of slamming, too. What if we don't have our poems that day? they asked me a little too hopefully.

It was also a bit of a challenge to find slam performances that were appropriate for middle school, but I have to say, I'm really happy with the ones I chose. Anyone who's interested in including this form of poetry in your class might like to check them out. I showed them in the following order and asked the students what they could deduce about slam poetry after each one. It turned out to be a well-rounded introduction to the art form.

What is Poetry Slam? This one minute animation introduces the basic rules of competition.

Timothy Medel slams about video games in the 2007 Knick's Poetry Slam. The topic and performance were super accessible to my sixth graders.

What I Will by Suheir Hammad. This is a defiant look by an Arab-American woman at violence in the Middle East. My students applauded at the end, and it gave me goosebumps every time I showed it.

I Want to Hear a Poem by Steve Coleman. This is a poem about poems and a slam about slamming; the kids appreciated the complexity of the concept.

Finally, this last clip showed several examples of student performances to give them a yardstick for what their peers have done.

In the end it was an engaging lesson, and I didn't feel quite so much like the mean one in my poetry partnership.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Count Your Blessings, Pardner

On the heels of my gripy post from yesterday, I spent another session invigilating standardized state tests for my students this morning. The teacher I was working with is new to our school district, and in stark contrast to my opinion that we over-emphasize these tests, she couldn't get over how lax we are. To her, there was too much noise (our computer lab is off the cafeteria), unclear directions for the proctor (she wanted to know exactly what words to say when a student asked any question), and non-existent test security (no one monitored the two of us to be sure we weren't improperly assisting the students).

Her last job was in Texas, and she told me the story that they tell all teachers down there before they administer their first state assessments: Seems there was this teacher who was telling her husband about her day. They were in their backyard, and she mentioned something about the TAKS test. Her neighbor overheard the conversation and reported her, and she lost her teaching license. 

Urban legend? Texas tall tale? Whatever it is, I'm thankful we haven't gone that kind of cowboy cuckoo around these here parts.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Allow Me to Gripe a Moment

There are many things that bug me about high stakes standardized tests, but I guess the main thing is how reductive they are. Every thing we do and every student we teach is reduced to a number, and then people actually use that number to judge schools, teachers, and kids. If that doesn't seemed screwed up, then I don't know what does.

Let me give you an example. Today we administered the state reading test to our students. Among the small percentage of children who failed (yes, through the miracle of modern technology, we received their official scores less than hour after they finished the test) was a girl who was found eligible for special education this year on the basis of emotional disturbance. We know she can read, but the test pissed her off, and she refused to take her time and do her best.

What does her score prove to anyone?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Wise Up

I stumbled across the fact that today is the 100th birthday of Margaret Wise Brown, author of Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon. Who knew that she attended boarding school in Switzerland, advocated progressive education ideals, and was romantically involved with women? Not I.

I always did love her books.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Just Friends

Yesterday on the walk over for Reading Buddies, I had a funny conversation with one of the kids. "I don't believe in stereotypes," she told me.

"Okay," I nodded in agreement.

"Like, I don't think all teachers were nerds when they were kids," she offered as an example.

"Well, I kind of was," I confessed.

"You were?" she replied, and I admit it, I was flattered by her surprise. "How many friends did you have?"

It was my turn to be surprised. That's not the definition of nerd that I was thinking of. Hmmm... How many friends did I have? I wondered. (Let's not forget my self-professed introversion.)

"In middle school?" I asked. "Do you mean people I knew, people I talked to, or people who were close friends?" I wanted clarification. "Because the answer could be a hundred, twenty-five, or six."

"You only had six friends?" she said. "Wow, you were a nerd!" I shrugged. "Well, how many facebook friends do you have?" she asked with a laugh.

Now that's another story.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Reading Buddies

One of the cool things about our school being an IB Middle Years Programme school is the emphasis we place on community and service. Besides encouraging outside service, we offer the students many opportunities to fulfill the requirement we set for each grade level-- 10 hours for sixth grade, 15 hours for seventh, and 20 hours for eighth.

An activity that I help out with is Reading Buddies; every month one of the counselors and I take a group of 20-30 kids to a nearby elementary school to read to second graders. It's a hectic way to spend a Friday afternoon; sometimes it seems like a rather rambunctious and ragtag assembly that loiters in the lobby waiting for their chance to serve. There are always desperate dashes to the library for books, last minute phone calls for permission, a quick snack for the readers, and then we're off on foot in whatever the weather might be.

There are many rewards as well. It's fun to chat on the way over and back; I get to meet students I don't teach and spend time with students I don't teach anymore. The second grade teachers are very appreciative, and the kids, both middle school and elementary, really love this experience, so it's fun to watch them interact. Of course there is always a student or two who will give the older kids a run for their money, and that's interesting, too, to see how they react when their authority is challenged, but even better? This is the third year we've been doing it-- all those former second graders are going to be sixth graders before we know it, and I've got my eye on a few already. (Yeah, I'm talking to you, Kiki and Eduardo.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I had my writing group tonight. Sometimes the piece I bring to share is inspired by work I'm doing with my students-- no surprise, then, that it was poetry this time. (I also brought cake.)

The Nature Exchange

Mistletoe for sea star,
sea star for tortoise shell,
tortoise shell for antlers and a bit of bone—
we curate our collections
at the nature exchange,
swapping wasps nests
for fox tails.

I want to trade this devils paintbrush
for that pheasant feather,
or maybe mimosa blossoms
for a pink pair of slippers.
Elderberry and lavender can become fidelity,
parsley and rosewater, loyalty,
zinnias in a tin can, time.

I’ll take these mourning doves and daisies,
this vanilla bean and catnip,
and call it home.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Poet-in-Residence: Part III

When we met to plan our sessions early last week, the slam poet pointed to May 18 on the calendar. "I can definitely come that day," he told me. "It's my birthday."

"Really?" I asked. "Are you sure you want to?" I was surprised, because it was hard to get a firm commitment from him for any days. I like to think I'm pretty flexible, but that was a challenging meeting.

Later, when he was on his way out, and his confirmed teaching days were as solid as a rope of sand, he asked me to guess how old he would be. "It's a big one," he said.

"Forty?" I shrugged. He looked a little crestfallen, and I knew I was right. Impulsively I offered to make him a birthday cake.

He had a few questions before he accepted. "Are you a good cook? Do you bake from a box or scratch? What's your specialty?" My answers must have been acceptable, because he allowed that a red velvet cake would be his wish. "But I really like coconut," he added. "Will that work?" It would.

The next day his examples to the kids were filled with cupcakes. "Do you want cupcakes next week instead?" I asked him later.

"How many would there be?" he inquired in return.

"The usual 24," I replied. Then we talked about trendy cakes, versus retro cakes (I bake bundts for the students in my homeroom), versus classic cakes. Like many conversations with him, this issue, too, was left unresolved. Later it occurred to me that perhaps he wanted to share his birthday with all the students, and in my mind that meant one thing: mini-cupcakes. Fortunately I've acquired the tins I need for such an undertaking, and so on Monday Night, I baked seven dozen little red velvet cupcakes, piped some cream cheese frosting on each, and topped them with toasted coconut. It took me back to my catering days, and I was pretty pleased with the way they turned out.

Next morning, I checked my facebook account on a whim before school. (I had accepted slam poet's friend request a few days earlier... even though there was something unappealing to me about being friend number 1771.) There I read the following which had been posted four hours before: intoxicated with saki lychee martinis sushi and savory pies thanks to ..., and he still has to teach 6th grade slam poetry in a few hours.

Despite the lovely assonance and alliteration, I rolled my eyes and sighed. Artists!

P.S. He rolled in 20 minutes late for first period, which was really no later than usual. Artists...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Today was the inaugural meeting of the "Tolerance Club" at our school. Founded to empower students to confront intolerance both at large and within their peer groups, it is our latest attempt to curtail the inevitable bullying that is part of middle school. The five adults who came together to sponsor this group have realized that the solution can not come from us; kids have to work to change the prevailing culture from within. We want to support them as they try. At the meeting this afternoon we encouraged the group to follow the advice of Gandhi and "be the change you want to see in the world."

About 18 kids showed up. They munched on chips and did a little survey asking whether they had ever been victim or bully in certain situations, and then we discussed the difference between merely tolerating and true tolerance. On their own they identified the key distinction between just putting up with someone and actually supporting somebody in being the person they are. We agreed that our mission would be to encourage tolerance in ourselves first and then in others.

The most powerful activity was also the most fun for the kids. We gave them maps of the school and colored sticker-dots and asked them to label the bullying hot spots. Then, on a master map projected on a screen, they volunteered to come up and place a dot and share an anecdote with the group. Where were the adults when this happened? we asked. They reported that we were there but we couldn't hear; we were there, but we weren't paying attention; we were there, but we didn't care. What do you wish we had done? we asked. Oh they had lots of suggestions, ranging from corporal punishment to a stern-talking to, but then they realized that we can't solve the problem for them. One sixth grader wanted to give up; he didn't believe it could be fixed, but the others in the group held out hope.

Who thinks you'd like to come to another meeting? we asked. It's totally cool if this isn't your thing.

18 hands shot up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Binder 101

It's not news to say that kids are hard on their stuff, but the school binder falls into a special category all its own. They may have the shortest lifespan of anything that doesn't come out of a gumball machine.

Over the years that I've been teaching, our school has struggled with finding the perfect binder to recommend. When I first started, the trapper was popular with the kids because it was light weight and came in all sorts of colors and designs. Unfortunately the whole thing was made of plastic, including the rings, and I don't think I ever saw one that lasted over a month of average sixth grade use.

Since then, there has been the rise and modest decline of the canvas zipper model. These have metal rings, one or two compartments, and several pockets. They zip all the way open and closed and have a handle and often a strap for carrying the massive load of paper they contain. Paradoxically, their capacity is their biggest flaw: a disorganized kid can store a mountain of trash in one of those things without any adult ever being any the wiser.

The binder that we favor now is actually the basic three inch three ring design. Made of vinyl-covered cardboard with stainless steel rings, this binder must be relatively organized to function, and that's why we like it. It's biggest shortcoming has been the ease with which the front and back covers tear away from the spine, leaving behind perfectly good rings. Because these binders are relatively inexpensive, our solution is usually to replace the whole thing, but it's hard to shake the nagging guilt stirred by the sight of a bunch of busted binders sitting dump-bound in the trash.

A few months ago, I noticed some brightly colored duct tape when I was out shopping. For four bucks a roll, I bought purple, neon pink and green, along with some basic black. I brought them to school and started using them for minor binder repair. The kids really loved the colors, and the more binders I patched up, the more obvious it became that there was really no need to stop with small fixes, because if vinyl and cardboard are good, then duct tape, vinyl and cardboard are supreme.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Point Taken

I confess that I spend my fair share of time in front of a computer screen. In addition to the usual legitimate business of corresponding, grading, research, and writing, I have a habit of following digital breadcrumbs, hopping merrily from one link to another, and with a click and a click and a click, getting lost in finding out. It's pretty bad when your dog notices, though.

Yesterday as we were on our way out the door to enjoy the gorgeous weather, (weather that I will go on record as saying that if I had to pick a single day to be THE weather forever, it would be pretty close to what was out there yesterday), I stopped by the computer to quickly check one other possible destination for our walk. I was scanning a trail map when I was distracted by a throaty little sound at my elbow. It was the dog, whining-- evidently, she's onto the fact that once I sit down here, it can be hours before my butt leaves the chair, and she was ready to go, NOW.

To my credit, I deferred to her instincts.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Adjusting the Pace

Back in 1994 I tore my plantar fascia while out for a run on New Years Day. I thought I had kicked a rock into the curb; that's what it sounded like when it popped. Then I was unable to put any weight on my left foot. In the days before mobile phones, I found myself immobilized and blocks from home, but I made it eventually, hopping and cussing. My sister knew just what it was, and the next day I went to the podiatrist and he confirmed her diagnosis. I was in a cast for six weeks and have worn orthotics in my shoes ever since.

The doctor told me that I had the classic symptom of plantar fasciitis-- heel pain so bad that it was difficult to walk in the morning but that got better throughout the day. At the time, I chalked it up to my advanced age of 31. So this is what it's like to grow old, I winced as I rose from my bed each day, and then I literally gritted my teeth until it stopped hurting a half-hour or so later. Six weeks after my injury when the cast came off, I realized how dumb I was, and I've been pain-free for the last 16 years.

Until a couple of months ago, that is. One day I woke up and realized that that morning ache had sneaked up on me like weeds in the garden, and lately I've been hopping a lot more than I should. I haven't been back to the podiatrist, yet, but it's starting to slow me down. This afternoon we went for an easy walk along the canal, and it took me a while to stretch my foot enough so that I could stride without pain. Even so, it was slow-going, and the pace was frustrating to me, until...

We saw the snake swim right across the water, pull up the bank, and cross the tow path in front of us, before taking its time to disappear into the woods. Then there was the indigo bunting-- I've never seen one in person before, but this little fellow hopped along the path not ten feet from us, then paused on a raspberry cane to give us an excellent view, before flying off in the same direction the snake had gone. There were plenty of turtles, other birds, and a deer to see as well, and it made me realize that slowing down (temporarily) doesn't have to be all bad.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poet-in-Residence: Part II

To be honest, my second day of intensive poetry workshop was kind of exhausting-- I've done a lot of writing over the last two days. The good news is that my students have, too. In fact, so has the principal and so has the counselor who each spent an entire class period with us today, and who both fully participated in all the activities.

What a powerful message it sent to my students to sit around a huge table elbow to elbow with their teacher and principal, all of us scribbling furiously away, playing with words and experimenting with ideas, reading what we'd written loud and proud, and applauding the efforts of our fellow writers.

when i got here the world smelled 
like blond bombers and cuban missiles,
but two years later, when my brother 
was born, blue beatlemania 
and baby aspirin were in the air.
From five my sister was surrounded by the scent 
of a dusty gray tabby cat.
back then, my father smelled like cold pennies and neckties 
and my mother like birthday cake and bridge,
and our street had the distinct aroma of pink cookie cutters.

these days my house smells like river rocks
and bicycle tires on smooth pavement,
a suggestion of  wood smoke floating beneath it all.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Poet-in-Residence: Part I

I'm still not exactly sure how this happened, but I have a poet-in-residence for the next few weeks. Somebody in the county humanities office wrote a grant and back in September they approached me with a yet-to-be-defined idea about a couple of poets, a couple of middle school English classes, and some kind of slam event in May or June. Of course I accepted, and along the way the other poet and school dropped out, leaving me and my students the beneficiaries of the entire grant.

It's supposed to be a pilot program, so the poet, the grant writer, and I are defining it as we go along. He's a performance poet and therefore composing poems to present is his focus. He wants the students to have 5-7 original pieces to choose from and then to prepare their favorites for competition. Too ambitious? Maybe, but not if today was any indication.

I think we all appreciated a new energy in our class: Today we did list poems and the kids loved the activities; every class left chattering happily. For me it was like being in a poetry workshop all day. I wrote with the students and shared my writing in turn. It was awesome. Turns out that Slam Man is unable to do the same lesson twice, so it really was a full day of new lesson ideas and personal writing for me, and...

He'll be back tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It's testing season and tempers are short. High stakes mean high stress, and this year is no exception. At our school everyone has something to be cranky about. There's the testing coordinator who didn't mention when she was hired last fall that she would be on maternity leave right now, and all the people who are stepping in to help do her job in addition to their own. Only they don't know what they're doing, which is not a problem unless you get mad when someone points out an error or oversight. There are the teachers who are feeling the pinch from losing all those instructional days to snow way back in February and wondering if it could have made the difference for their borderline students. There is the new superintendent who got wind of the public perception that once the tests are through it's all movies and parties, baby, and who has informed all the administrators that he will personally be touring the schools in June to make sure that is not the case. He's on a collision course with the kids who are sure that once the testing is over they no longer need to take school seriously (and the staff members who kind of agree with them). Personally, I just want the computer labs back... they're out of commission for the next three weeks. I'm also with the people who think that all of this nonsense is yet more evidence of the unintended consequences of over-emphasizing standardized testing. I mean, really.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


I met someone today who knows Kevin Bacon... what degree of separation is that?

Like everyone else, I read The Tipping Point a few years ago. I'd have to say that the part that has stayed with me most was near the beginning of the book; it's when Gladwell introduces his trinity of trendsetters, the mavens, salesmen, and connectors, those three types of people who are responsible for making anything go viral. Once I got beyond the fact that I was not in any of those categories (ahem, maven-wannabe), and was therefore really no more than just another lemming at the cliff's edge, it was those darn connectors that got under my skin. My Meyers-Briggs is probably showing when I posit that this is more than just another I/E thing:  come on... connectors are amazing! They are the evangelicals of extroverts.

We have a neighbor who is a perfect example of what I mean. She and her kids stop by regularly for a casual Hey how are ya? visit, but often when we step onto the stoop for a few seconds of socializing, they are accompanied by someone else.  In the time we've known her, we've met her mom, some friends, other neighbors, and another teacher she knows, all without ever leaving our home. I really admire how single-handedly she connects us all, and in much more than some Kevin Bacon sort of way.

Monday, May 10, 2010

28 Ounces of Inspiration

My school bag is a backpack. After nearly 17 years of teaching, my third pack is nearing the end of its life. As a right-handed person, I carry my bag on my left shoulder, so all the padding is gone from that strap. In addition, it has handy double zippers for both the main compartment and front pocket, or at least they were handy until one zipper on each stopped working-- now I have to remember to zip the main all the way to the left and the pocket over to the right. (Or is it the other way?)

Even so, I don't really want a new pack... they don't make them like this anymore, and I feel like it's my fault that it's not lasting longer. I carry way too much around with me all the time.

For example, I have two professional texts in my backpack right now. They're so good and inviting that I try to steal 20 minutes every afternoon to read a little bit of each. One is Pyrotechnics on the Page by Ralph Fletcher. The premise of his newest book is captured in the subtitle: Playful Craft That Sparks Writing. Fletcher is all about finding the fun in writing through wordplay and other rhetorical flourishes, mostly by using the writer's notebook to collect and experiment. The book is complete with craft lessons and helpful appendices, and it's even dedicated to one of my students' favorite poets this year-- Naomi Shihab Nye.

The other book I carry with me is called Hidden Gems. Katherine Bomer challenges us to find what we admire about unconventional writing, both in modern texts and by our students, and to use that to stay student-centered in our increasingly standardized world. She also offers very practical suggestions for teaching, assessing, and grading. (Coincidentally, Nye makes an appearance in her book, too.)

Both Fletcher and Bomer remind me that writing need not be forced drudgery. I for one am not interested in spending 5+ hours a day convincing my students that what we are doing is "good for them." Some keys to keeping it from becoming just another chore are to keep it fun and to celebrate each original voice, and these two books have loads of good ideas for anyone like me.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


We spent part of this Mothers Day with my brother and sister-in-law and their boys over at her parents' deserted place. I hadn't been over there since her mom died and her dad moved to the assisted care facility. Since then, Emily and her brothers have been dividing and moving and sorting through their parents' possessions, but there's still a lot of stuff left. "It seems like a junk shop in here," I blurted out when we walked in. "In a good way," I tried to recover, "you know the fun kind of shop where they have lots of cool stuff?" There were sighs of agreement, but we all knew what I meant.

Vic and Judy were avid gardeners, and it wasn't too long ago that theirs was a stop on the annual garden tour that our county historic association organizes each spring. Judy graciously served ice cold milk and fresh cookies to all who visited that day.

One of the hand-me-downs we got from them is a poaching spade. My brother was practically rhapsodic about its utility when he delivered it to us a few weeks ago. Novices that we are, it seemed like a stretch to muster the appropriate gratitude for such an item. As most of the work in our garden has been weeding so far, the small shovel has gotten limited use, but it seems pretty good for digging. Today I found out how it got its name.

We were over there to take plants that we wanted from their garden.  My nephews used the spade to neatly dig them up and place them in empty pots that we collected from the bench at the back of the yard. When we got to our own garden, we used the same shovel to make an equivalent hole and dropped the plants we had poached right in, just as if they had always been there.

I'm really glad to have them, and as it turns out, that shovel really is pretty slick.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Gene Pool

We took our three-year-old friend Savannah to the farmer's market this morning so that she could pick out some flowers to plant in our garden. Waiting in line to pay for some marigolds and okra, I spotted my brother a few vendors down waiting in line for strawberries. "Savannah," I said, "my little brother is over there."

She was immediately intrigued. She has a little brother of her own, and as we waited we talked about how when they were grown up, they might run into each other around town, too. We paid up and headed over to catch my brother. He was charmed to meet Savannah, and immediately engaged her in conversation. "Do you have a little brother?" he asked.

She told him she did. "But he's just a baby," she said.

"Well, when you're grown up," my brother told her, "you might see him places like this and he'll be big like me-- I'm Tracey's little brother. Can you believe it?"

It didn't seem to bother Savannah at all to have the exact same conversation twice in a row. To her credit, she even acted surprised.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Look Forward

Every school year is full of surprises, and this one has been no exception: there are definitely a few things that didn't turn out quite the way I expected. For example, in September, I would have bet money that our school renovation would have been behind schedule and I never would have had to move, but here I am in a cavernous yellow room in the basement shouting poetry and directions over the constant whine of power tools as the workmen cut through brick and cinder block right above us.

Back then, I wouldn't have dared hope that the two new teachers on my team would turn out to be so great, or that for the most part, the kids would stay so nice-- this year has been super that way. I also wouldn't have predicted that the professional collaboration that I've enjoyed for the last four school years would succumb to the inevitable demands of busy schedules and evolving priorities, but it looks like it has.

Every day this week, one of the kids has asked me how much more time we have in the year. Seven weeks is the answer. Is that all? they gleefully reply, to which I sternly remind them that seven weeks is a really long time. Look what we were doing seven weeks ago, I tell them, but they are unconvinced. Children look forward, not back. Maybe it's for this reason that I've started thinking ahead to next year already.

I can't say that it is without a little sadness that I've been re-organizing and re-structuring to compensate for the changes, but it's kind of exciting, too. I have a couple of ideas to further unify all the disparate parts of my program that I'm anxious to put in place, and since seven weeks is kind of a long time, I might even try out a few of them before the end of the year. You never know what will happen.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pssst... Have I Got a Character for You

A friend and fellow-blogger mentioned me in her blog yesterday. It was really just a fleeting reference; I was but a minor character in her daily anecdote, but I admit to a bit of a thrill when I read it. I write about people all the time, but as far as I know, no one writes about me. Pity-- there's a part of me that wants to be a character in someone else's narrative, if only so I can read about it later. Perhaps I should just make an effort to commit more memorable acts when around my writer friends.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I Can't Do it Alone

As the clock ticked toward the appointed hour for our meeting this afternoon, no one arrived. Allowing my facilitator's anxiety to take over for a moment, I entertained the notion that no one would come, not an uncommon  fantasy of mine. I relish those quiet times before and after the students are here. What kind of teacher never wants the people she's teaching to show up? I wondered. Oh, once they arrive I'm fine, better than fine, really. I love my job, but it requires a lot of interaction with a lot of people, and by nature, I am an introvert. Hence the daydream of spending my time all alone in an empty classroom-- books arranged in proper rows, chairs pushed neatly in, no one talking, or writing, or reading.

But honestly, what fun would that be?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The First of the Lasts

Despite the amount of time we have left in this seemingly endless school year, some things are winding down.

Tomorrow is the last meeting of the language arts professional learning group that I facilitated this year: planned as a continuation of our local chapter of the National Writing Project, it's been one of the biggest disappointments of my career.

One key thing that my participation in the Writing Project reminded me of was that engaging kids is crucial to the success of any class. As a fellow in the summer institute four years ago, I was completely immersed in the culture of reading, reflecting, and sharing practice, not to mention the focus on my own writing. It was awesome, and I finished the summer with the focus and desire to create that level of engagement for my students. That's a gold standard that I still hold high.

Part of the required agenda for tomorrow will be to gather and combine everyone's opinions about the experience for a brief presentation in June. I'll be interested to see what other people think, but in my mind, it's been a failure, and worse-- a waste of time. I think the biggest problem with this professional learning group was that it needed the participants to be engaged to make it work; for a variety of reasons that didn't happen, and so it never get off the ground.

Can we write it off as being passably valuable to those who attended when they were able? Maybe, but such a casual engagement was not worth the time I spent planning the course. Is it unreasonable to think that such a community is possible to create during the school year? I don't think so, but a firm commitment to the concept would have to be a requirement, and any who were unable or unwilling should excuse themselves and join another group.

In any case, I won't be around to find out; I'm done.

Monday, May 3, 2010

What's Going on in those Furry Little Heads

We had the pet psychic visit today. Believe what you will, but she has always been amazingly accurate for us, and so it's worth every penny to feel like we have 60 minutes of direct communication with our pets. Even though we're pretty sure we have a general idea of what our dog and two cats are probably thinking and feeling, it's nice to have confirmation, and in some cases, correction.

Our dog started as she always does: she feels gorgeous and everyone always tells her how pretty she is. She likes her toys, ice cubes in her water dish, and sleeping late on the weekends. She's going to the beach this summer, and she likes the garden-- she's very well-behaved there, and even helps a little. Unfortunately, that's where she got the ticks; one was fat and one wasn't. All this without a word from us.

Our younger cat said that she's fed up with the older one, because he's so cranky all the time, so now whenever he gets close to her she screams. She's also a little upset that she can't go out on the deck, and she blames him for that. She knows that if it wasn't for his inveterate deck-hopping, they would be allowed outside. She likes having her own litter box, but wishes she could eat by herself, too. In fact privacy was kind of a theme of hers: she spends only as much time as she wants to with people, and then she goes away alone for a while.

As for the old guy, it was as we feared. He has some sort of a slow-growing tumor. At the moment, he's not uncomfortable, and although this is definitely the last chapter of his life, it's a thick chapter. He'll let us know when it's time to say good-bye.

Oh, and he's NEVER going to sit quietly outside the kitchen and wait to be fed. We should just give up on that one.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cultivating Couture

Another unexpected complication of the whole gardening thing-- I don't know what to wear when I'm working there. Yesterday the weather was unseasonably warm, but shorts weren't really right for kneeling in the dirt digging up weeds and roots, and jeans were too hot. What to do? (Not usually one to fuss about my clothes, I went for capri-length cut-off jeans, a look as odd as it was practical.)

The fact that people we know keep stopping to chat doesn't help. "I thought that was you!" they call through the fence in delight, and my garden anonymity evaporates, making me self-conscious about not only my wardrobe, but all those awkward postures that seem to be part of the job, too-- I spent a good part of the day with my butt in the air.

It's humbling; that it is.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Thirty Ways of Looking at a Vagabond

What, exactly is there to look forward to?—
Long days of eggish sun and unrelenting heat,
where cool breezes are nothing more than vagabonds
waiting to hop the next jet stream north.

Vagabond sparks fly through the gathering dark,
brilliant yellow on deep violet.

As we listen, my vagabond brain
starts nicknaming all of her family members, too—

From the first page I was a vagabond
aboard an express train, dusty and sweet.
There was no stopping until we got to the end of the line.

There were tales of long car rides with unruly siblings,
games lost at the last minute,
vagabond pets,
cousins who wouldn't leave,
sightseeing in the pouring rain,
parents who forced their children
out of bed for all manner of sunrise services,
grandparents who insisted that reading at the table was rude,
and television shows that simply disappointed.

Unlike the vagabond
only concerned with the road ahead,
I worried.

It was a flexible deadline,
more along the lines
of a vagabond's ETA.

How surprised was I…
to feel a little vagabond smile
sneaking across my face?

Poor vagabonds, they spent the winter outside.

Vagabond weeds had set up camp
on the abandoned rectangle.

Loads of tiny acorns,
each with a pale green filament,
extended hopefully into the soil.
Sorry to disappoint them,
I gave them a vagabond's chance
to put down roots somewhere else.

After one unsuccessful lap of the lot
and a near collision
with a vagabond shopping cart
I went home

There stood a well-scrubbed young man
in a gaudy lime and white windbreaker
over shirt and tie. No vagabond he.

There are lots of worms vagabonding all through the soil,
which I hear is a good sign.

I lay awake as one vagabond worry
after another tightened its grip on my gut.
I hit the road, ride the rails,
or travel along the open trails.
I've set up camp at Walking the Dog,
but when May comes I'll leave this blog.

Haricots verts and tomato
garnished a salad of14
vagabond spring greens

I'll never be a comfort zone vagabond
roaming merrily into the untested.

Most of my passwords are vagabonds
on the express train to amnesia.

We took a vagabond's side trip into infamy
before we ever made it
to plain old heroes.

My suggestions hold no interest for her;
they're like vagabonds asking for a handout—
she pretends not to hear them.

In forty-eight hours,
my experience as a vagabond teacher
will commence.

I keep my own opinion
as elusive as a vagabond in a train yard.

Vagabond butterflies
fluttered in my stomach.

Phantom ticks crawl on you—
every vagabond itch or twinge
is probably another one
trying to bury its mandibles
in your flesh for a blood meal.

I know in my vagabond's bones
that the end of the year
will be a messy departure
from what's already been done.

Vagabonds aside for a minute…

True to the vagabond life
of a military man
they’ve been posted to another state.

I allow the conversation
to go vagabond—
taking us where it will.

We end
with a vagabond dispatch
from the front lines
of public education.